[I had this post in my drafts, half completed, when I read and wrote about the Conan O’Brien tweet. I have left the original material intact. Everything that’s new appears in the Other Thoughts section.]
The story at the heart of the back-and-forth between Myers and Firma is recent news that Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria beheaded an ally by mistake. Myers takes Firma to task for “celebrating a decapitation”. Myers suggests that Firma “dehumanize[s] people by calling them diseases” (emphasis in original). Lastly, he faults Firma for “using the Bible to justify violence.”
Though he may be my rival, I feel the need to come to the defense of Firma on this account. It seems to me Myers greatly misrepresents Firma’s original post. Though it may be fair to say the post delights in the irony of the situation, it seems an exaggeration to suggest Firma is “celebrating a decapitation”. Moreover, Firma does anything but “[use] the Bible to justify violence.” Firma quotes “live by the sword, die by the sword” to note that there is little shock in the fact that a violent extremist would meet a violent end, but this is hardly a justification.
Myers’s critique is perhaps on firmer ground regarding his suggestion that Firma “dehumanizes people by calling them diseases.” In the final paragraph of his original post, Firma says the following:
“Mohammed Fares [the man beheaded] was another Islamist boil on the ass of humanity. It’s an unpleasant procedure, but boils need to be lanced. Or beheaded — same thing.”
Myers is correct to point out that Firma equates Islamists (i.e., people) with boils. Being strict to form, Firma’s wording suggests we need to behead Islamists. But this is a rather ungenerous reading of the line. I don’t think it is a stretch to understand this to mean that humans need to rid themselves of violent religious extremism. I may want to make a stylistic critique, but I agree with the substance.
Firma wrote a response to PZ Myers. It contains an update in which he quotes Myers using a similar tone. Firma is on strong grounds to call Myers out on this. I don’t comment on Myers because I very rarely read his blog. But, back in the “accommodation wars” of 2010, Myers was often critiqued for the exact same approach Firma took in this post.
At its most basic level, my issue with Firma’s (and Myers’s, for that matter) writing is stylistic. I’d never read him until he was appearing on the Friendly Atheist blog. As I noted in the ‘Other Thoughts’ of my previous post, I think a large part of my issue with Firma is that his style and tone are very different from that taken by Hemant Mehta, and Mehta’s tone and approach are a large part of why I read the Friendly Atheist blog. My “rivalry” with him, at heart, is a self-mocking acknowledgment of this.
In most cases, I am neutral or in agreement with most of the points Firma makes, but I often dislike his style in expressing these points. I only comment on his posts when I have a substantive disagreement with him because there’s no point in simply railing against someone’s writing style.
Interestingly, in his response to PZ Myers, Firma also notes that he does not consider himself a Humanist (as he defines- “stressing the potential value and goodness of all human beings”). This, for sure, puts some perspective on his stylistic choices. In rejecting the “stressing” part of a humanist ethos, light is shed on why I often find his tone uncaring. I don’t mean to suggest he is uncaring, but he is not going to make an effort to stress care.
In my post on out-group shaming, I discussed that I understood a place for websites that aggregate negative stories. Firma’s Moral Compass site is an example of this. As a reader, because the content is focused on pointing out and criticizing negatives, one can become prone to read a certain delight or enjoyment into the authors motivations. It is easy to see their focus on negative stories as them actually taking pleasure in pointing them out. It is important to remember, as a reader, to not add motivations where they are not expressed. I say this as a personal reminder as much as a general reminder.
Finally, in his response to Myers, Firma notes that commentors on Myers’s post call Firma an Islamophobe. I have, likewise, noted that I find some of Firma’s posts borderline Islamophobic. Now, some of this comes down to style. It is easy to read more into Firma’s tone due to his style of writing. As noted above, PZ Myers has received plenty of criticism as having outright disdain for the religious because of his style of writing (see Firma’s update for a good example).
However, even if the author is not and never intends to write something bigoted or disdainful of a people, the combative style risks getting there anyway. Firma’s post on the Conan O’Brien tweet is, to my mind, a good example. To be completely honest, in the first draft of my post on the joke, I called Firma a bigot, outright. I reined in the language, obviously. However, I still clearly draw the connection. And, to my mind, for good reason.
The paragraph starting with “Muslims and their humorless advocates,” in context, is vile. If he removed or reworked that paragraph, I’d still disagree with his take on the backlash to the tweet, but his post would feel a lot less disdainful. When you skirt that line with your language and tone, you will cross it. It may not be intentional, but the effect is there, all the same.