Rhetorical Honey v. Rhetorical Vinegar: Jerry Coyne in the Light of Thomas Paine and Martha Nussbaum

Rhetorical honey v. rhetorical vinegar?

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne thinks that atheists shouldn’t be shy about what they believe, guarding the feelings of religious believers. As an agnostic, do I think that he is he right?

I think that he is.

I love this Thomas Paine quote, which is from a letter that he wrote to Samuel Adams on January 1, 1803:

Between men in pursuit of truth, and whose object is the happiness of man both here and hereafter, there ought to be no reserve. Even error has a claim to indulgence, if not respect, when it is believed to be truth.

In other words, in human affairs Thomas Paine asserts the importance of:

  • honesty in dialogue
  • freedom of thought and speech
  • respect for conscience; and
  • mutual and equal human recognition (I hear you out; you hear me out)

Martha Nussbaum—in her excellent recent new book, From Disgust to Humanity  (Oxford 2010)—detects in 18th century Americans’ attitudes toward conscience, as represented by people like Thomas Paine, an important innovation in the politics of humanity (38):

We should not delude ourselves into thinking, then, that the policies of religious respect and fairness that gradually came to dominate in the colonies, shaping our Constitution, were inspired by respect for differing religious beliefs and practices. Rather, they were inspired by a more basic underlying idea of respect for persons, for our fellow citizens as bearers of human dignity and conscience. Even when we believe others are going astray, the faculty of conscience in them deserves respect from our laws and institutions. Because human beings are of equal worth, conscience is deserving of equal respect. 

Not respect for ideas, but for persons. That is the shift that makes democratic plurality of opinion, accompanied by vigorous, honest—and sometimes acerbic—debate, possible. To engage in dialogue we have to treat one another as equal adults, not as children who can’t hear things. And the desire to hear from the human conscience—and not to shut it up in a closet—is the glue that binds a rational and democratic people together, regardless of contending beliefs. The moment that a person cannot speak his or her conscience in full honesty is the moment that human equality, dialogue, and democracy break down.

This is something that atheists can teach the squeamish (like me), for it is quite obvious that atheism is not a popular point of view and, as such, people often council atheists to tone down their rhetoric. As the atheist Greta Christina laments:

It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

To reiterate: shutting up is not in accord with honesty in dialogue, freedom of thought and speech, respect for conscience, or mutual and equal human recognition (I hear you out, you hear me out).

But does that mean that it is always good rhetorical strategy to come at people with vinegar, not honey?

Not necessarily.

That’s a judgment call with regard to rhetoric: every speaker or writer must make choices about how to address the audiences that he or she is trying to persuade. But the very right to make that call—the call of honey or vinegar in rhetoric—must, in a democracy, be sacrosanct. To want  to hear from dissenters against our views—whether they are in rhetorical honey or vinegar modes—is a characteristic of a free and rational people.

Love your nay bears.

And who is thy nay bear?

I’m coining the term for anybody who puts up a big bear yawn toward things of first-rank importance to you (such as your belief or disbelief in God, UFOs, evolution, Buddhism, Obama—or whatever). The nay bear is rough with the things you hold dear, and steals your metaphorical loaves and fishes from the back seats of your pampered and polished ideological cars. It’s very important to listen to your nay bears, and not push them away all the time, and defame them. We all have our nay bears, and we might be in the role of somebody else’s nay bear, and all of our nay bears are telling us something.

So love your nay bears, even if they take your shirt. Or your fish. Or give you a vinegar scowl. This is my sermon for the soul (especially my usually narrow shrew of a soul).


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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