Utilitarian Etiquette, or a Beginner’s Guide to Basic Common Decency.

Posted on February 8, 2012

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Penn Jillette is having a row with Jenn McCreight over the word ‘cunt’. Jillette made a facebook comment on an article he didn’t like, calling the author a ‘talentless cunt’. McCreight did a pretty good job calling him out on it, which ignited a massive flamewar in her article’s comment thread, prompting her to write a second post which features a ‘Justifications for saying cunt’ bingo card.

I should probably state definitively that it isn’t acceptable to direct the ‘c’ word at women. Ever. ‘Bitch’, ‘Harpy’, ‘Whore’, and any other gendered insult you can think of are right out as well. In the rare cases where a person who happens to be a woman says or does something sufficiently stupid, mean-spirited, or unethical as to warrant a strong response, it is much better to use a handy thing known as the English Language to respond in a precise and nuanced way to her exact words or actions, rather than just using a blanket term that offends her entire sex. Don’t say cunt.

I have to agree with McCreight about Penn, too. He was cool for a while, but it’s become increasingly clear that his brand of scepticism is that frustrating variety that is directed at everybody else’s and never at oneself. He can have my respect back when he uses a bit of the scepticism he prides himself so much on to investigate his own privilege. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that there is a frustratingly large subset of the sceptic community that believes it should apply its scepticism to the emotions of others. This is stupid, because, as Pervocracy points out, emotions are subjective things that can’t simply be turned off because they appear irrational. Sceptics, of all people, should realise that the brain that generates our emotions is a complex chemical machine that does not operate according to anything we would consider logic or reason. We can use our reason to curb our less rational behaviours if they would hurt us or the people around us, but we can’t simply think away emotional suffering. If we could, then the world would be a much more liveable place.

Unfortunately, the knee-jerk defense of Penn Jillette’s god-given right to offend women is only one example of this crap in the sceptical community. The Amazing Atheist, already no friend to women, has recently taken to cruelly mocking trigger warnings. And then, of course, there’s Richard Dawkins’ ridiculously smug and privileged comments about elevatorgate, which was in itself a fantastic example of this kind of attitude. There is an identifiable branch of the sceptical movement that honestly believes that it has the right to determine whether or not other peoples’ feelings are legitimate. When called out for using offensive language, they’ll come up with an elaborate self-defence involving history, etymology, and an earnest statement of their own intentions to say why other peoples’ feelings are wrong.

I fear that many of these people will never really understand the inherent subjectivity and irrationality of emotions, so I’ve decided to devise a simple utilitarian test that should show why this behaviour is not acceptable. If you do something and get called out on it by somebody who was offended in some way by your words or actions and wants them to stop, there is just one simple question to ask:

What would it cost me to stop doing or saying this?

In the more abstract form of the argument I’d ask our hypothetical sceptical jerk to weigh that cost against their own personal experience of being badly upset by somebody else, but I honestly don’t think that step is even necessary in most cases. There is nobody on earth who will experience a significant decline in their quality of life if they stop using the word ‘cunt’. Similarly, placing a trigger warning before potentially triggering internet content costs about three seconds of typing (I timed it). And if you are made aware that your chosen location for propositioning a member of the opposite sex makes them feel uncomfortable, then the obvious response is to simply avoid that location and others like it next time you ask somebody out*. In almost all cases where there is offensive behaviour that needs to stop, the effort required to stop it is miniscule compared with the harm caused by not stopping it. You don’t even need basic human decency to know that you should listen when people complain about your words or actions. Simple logic suffices.

If this kind of crap keeps going on, it is going to tear apart the sceptical movement. Part of me thinks it already has. Make no mistake: the battle over feminism will decide whether scepticism, atheism, humanism, secularism, or whatever you want to call it is a vibrant, accepting community that engages with the world in a positive manner, or a group of arrogant jerks congratulating themselves and calling the rest of the world stupid on internet forums that nobody else frequents. This is important.

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