Can We Dial Down the Violent Language a Little, Please? May 22, 2018

Can We Dial Down the Violent Language a Little, Please?

How would you react if Christians or Muslims posted the following comments about a prominent atheist?

His face should be subject to enforced bludgeoning.

Euthanize that guy. … Problem solved. Got bigger issues to tackle than those non-humans.

Oh, how I would love to ram him repeatedly against a brick wall.

Some people just need to be assassinated.

Would you feel anger? Indignation? Incredulity?

But in fact, though plenty of faithists do like to shit-post violent thoughts about atheists, the Facebook comments I quoted above come more or less from within. I noticed them yesterday on the Patheos Non-Religious Facebook page, in response to a problematic critical piece about the Canadian clinical psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peterson that appeared on Patheos’ Progressive Secular Humanist blog. After I asked the Patheos channel manager for his opinion, he promptly deleted the violent Facebook rhetoric. But I keep wondering how (or whether) these four commenters think that they’re advancing their cause.

If you root around in their Facebook profiles a little, you find that they’re liberals, and secularists, and that at least two of them seem to be engaged in social-justice activities. Do they think that by publicly fantasizing about killing a presumed ideological opponent, or daring others to do so, they will recruit fence-sitters to any of those three movements? Do they believe that other people will be attracted to angry sentiments steeped in the language of broken bones and blood? Has that ever worked? Isn’t that something that these same individuals would correctly accuse neo-Nazis and white supremacists of doing?

Peterson, a former Harvard professor, writes and lectures about things that are upsetting to some (all successful polemicists do). He rejects identity politics, calls “white privilege” an unhelpful racialist construct, declines to address transgender people with neologist pronouns like xe and eir, and deems charges of cultural appropriation a form of attempted censorship that he cannot abide. That Peterson, with all his new-found popularity, readily violates these shibboleths of the progressive left makes him a hero to some and a legitimate target of pushback by those wedded to that ideology — just as pundits who agitate from the left should expect verbal spankings from commenters on the right.

But of course, verbal — as in not-real, not-physical — is the operative word here.

I consider the comments I quoted above to be hyperbole, so I don’t think we have to notify the FBI, or that Peterson is in imminent danger of being murdered (as his critics so blithely say they desire). Still, that doesn’t mean this kind of invective is peachy. The proposed violence is ridiculous and unsettling — a breakdown of both morality and intellect.

Though blowing off steam with strident tribal declarations can feel good, the practice serves no tactical or strategic purpose that I can see. When we engage in it — let alone when we engage in actual violence — we push people away and make them think less of our camp. Regrettably, as atheists and agnostics, we’ve been there before. Now would be as good a time as any to again caution fellow heathens to please quit flirting with bloodshed.


P.S.: Last month, Missouri radio and TV host Jamie Allman lost his job because of this violent tweet about wishing to shove a poker up the rear end of a Parkland shooting survivor, David Hogg. I explained in two posts that I didn’t care about Allman getting pink-slipped (“actions have consequences,” I wrote); I also condemned the tweet as “unpleasant,” “macho,” “vile,” and “indefensible,” and called the twittering host “a cross between a swine and an ass.” All the same, I maintained then, and I still do, that swaths of the left transparently tried to spin political hay from the situation by pretending to understand the offending tweet not merely as unacceptable hyperbole, but as an actionable threat to commit sexual assault.

I bring this up again because hundreds of Friendly Atheist commenters took great offense at those two posts, with many insisting that Allman had credibly threatened to anally rape Hogg with a poker. Does it follow that those same people feel that other atheists’ comments about bludgeoning Jordan Peterson to death are literal, actionable threats? Will they condemn the murder fantasies of our godless brethren with approximately the same level of outrage that they (justly and understandably) heaped on Allman? If not, why not?

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