“Don’t be a dick”? Sometimes we need to…

Posted by on July 10, 2010 in Thoughts | 16 comments

I have no idea what Bad Astronomer Phil Plait said at TAM 8 today, I was not there, in fact I am on the other side of the world right now. But the news I got is that Phil was trying to put forward the position that being overtly aggressive when addressing any kind of wrongly held belief is not the way to go, that you don’t catch flies with vinegar, you catch them with honey. Some people apparently took this as a criticism of Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, and the twittersphere was filled with tweets about his talk. I can’t comment on the talk itself, but I know that PZ likes to be overtly assertive in his standpoint and is not one to avoid a topic for the sake of being polite. I’m sure also that there was more to Phil’s talk than just puppies and hugs.

But it does bring forward an interesting problem. What voice should we use?

As overtly critical thinkers, is it better to be aggressive toward people who hold ignorant or skewed views about the world, society and the universe, or is it better to adopt a “soft touch” approach?

Personally I tend to go for the latter, and for this reason. I think it is very important to see where the other side is coming from in debates about religion, society or science. In my experience in dealing with people if you go at someone hammer and tongs from the beginning they stop hearing what you are saying, they get defensive. It’s ineffective, and they tend to resent you for attacking them. If you approach them by listening and understanding, people will tend to listen to you in return. A civilised conversation does not involve a knife-fight.

Having said this, there is a time and a place for ridicule. Some people only respond when they have their faith in irrationality shattered. And some people need to be publicly humiliated before their peers before they can see just how ridiculous their viewpoints may actually be. But keep in mind, this will not change the mind of the individual being ridiculed. What it can do is change the minds of those who listen to the irrational person, people seeing both sides of the debate can evaluate both sides of an argument and come to a conclusion for themselves.

For me the biggest problem is that people who hold certain irrational beliefs will go into a state of denial about their situation or beliefs. As I said in an earlier blog “Pitfalls in debate – the difficulties we face” in relation to dealing with loved-ones’ irrationalities:

  • People’s core beliefs are very precious to them, because this is what they base their assessments of their universe upon. If you stomp on these, you stomp on all they hold dear.
  • When discussing topics of belief, people with strong views which you are addressing or opposing can tend to “clam-up” and stop listening to you. The more insistent you become, the less they hear.
  • Aggressive attacks only cause the other person to feel threatened. If you get too emotional about a topic or during debate, you lose, the other person will claim victory based on your lack of self-control.

This applies to all people, not just your grandmother. Because so many base their understanding of the universe on what they were brought up to believe, by smashing these beliefs you are threatening to destabilise the very foundations of what they consider to be themselves, their core being. As ridiculous as this may sound, it’s true, and to try to smash someone else’s beliefs with heavy-handed insults will only make people feel belittled or “not heard”. People hate to feel their views are not heard or are dismissed.

There is a place for both the heavy-handed approach and the softer approach, and I think it comes down to the situation, who you’re talking to, what it is that they are saying, how much influence this may have on others, whether it’s a public forum or a private conversation. Likewise there is room for both Phil Plait’s approach to debating, and that of PZ Myers.

There are two key factors in debate that DO matter; the facts that we bring and the language that we use. If our facts are sound, and the language we use is persuasive, we may not win over the nay-sayers we are debating, but we may just win ourselves some converts in the audience at large. But again even if we have the facts and the persuasive language for our arguments, the noise coming from opponents may be so loud as to require aggression and ridicule.

One thing that is important to note is the reason why Phil, PZ, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, myself and many, many others are debating irrationality, religion, bad science, bad medicine, dogma and ignorance. We all come forward with a certain understanding that these irrationalities cause more harm in this world than people give credit for. As I’ve said before, we are on a teetering point on this planet, where if we continue to make one bad decision after another about the way we evaluate what is important, the way we treat one-another, and the things we hold as true, then we are surely doomed to much further hardships. We have the information to make a real difference. We have to be effective and we have to be unwavering in our resolve. And we need to use all the tools at our disposal to do this.

I don’t think it matters whether we as individuals employ the same style or fervor in our debates. I think it comes down the the commitment we feel, the information we have and the way we phrase our facts. I don’t think we need to pander to the ridiculous claims of the delusional, but at the same time, with just the right measure of respect and the right amount of ridicule when needed, I do think progress can be made. The right tool for the right job. You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to butter your toast would you?

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16 Comments

  1. Personally I think there is no real “wrong” approach (though violence I could never get behind) as the ways which will be found effective can only be identified as such in hindsight. Each approach will be molded by the person and who their audience is and for what purpose they’re communicating (not everyone intends to convert or cares to). This is always the way, like with civil rights, and the variety can only help catch more and more into the net of sensibility. Some need a gloved hand and some need brass knuckles (figuratively). IMHO of course…

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  2. I guess the best position is to be soft with people who honestly don’t know and are ignorant but they want to learn or know or are will to change their minds… but with people like Dinesh D’souza and Wendy Wright you cannot be that soft you have to be harsh, especially with ID people…

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  3. Just an opening disclaimer: I’m not at TAM and didn’t see Phil Plait’s talk. All I saw was the Twitter fallout, which was frankly pretty ridiculous.

    I guess my biggest issue is it feels like a false premise right from the start. The question is implied to be “Which of these methods is the most successful conversion tactic?” Did I miss the meeting where we decided we were out to convert people? Look, I’m not a preacher, and I’m not looking to convert anybody. All I want to do is promote reason and logic. At the end of the day if people decide to believe the same things I do, that’s great. And if they don’t, that’s fine, too.

    And then there’s this whole idea that anybody’s methodology is actually factoring into real conversions. PZ and Phil are heavyweights in the skeptical atheist community, yes, but how many people have they *actually* converted to atheism? Let’s be honest: things like Pharyngula and Bad Astronomy mostly exist as echo chambers. The overwhelming majority of their traffic comes from people who already have the same kinds of beliefs as their authors (I expect this is true with most blogs). Are there really any on-the-fence agnostics testing the waters of atheism with these blogs that are going to fall back into fundamentalism if the author doesn’t frame an argument correctly?

    Martin, you hit another point that it felt like everyone else was ignoring: the indirect influence arguments have. This stuff is happening on the Internet, the world’s most accessible public venue. When PZ calls out a Ken Ham or a Ray Comfort for being a liar and really just brutalizes them, the intent obviously isn’t to convert the target but to make a spirited enough discussion around them that it might influence the audience. The mean-spirited tactic might seem like it would turn people off, and I suppose that’s true for the person on the receiving end, but for most everyone else it’s great fun. There’s not much more unifying in human nature than collective ridicule.

    And ultimately, Martin, you said it perfectly: “the right tool for the right job.” Why was this being painted as an all-or-nothing approach on Twitter? We aren’t idiots. I think we can all figure out how to play to our audience. Even the most acerbic atheist isn’t obtuse enough to open a debate by calling the opposition a stupid asshole (without justification).

    *whew* Sorry, just had to get that off my chest. There’s not much more frustrating to me than watching a community of self-professed “freethinkers” devolve into tribalistic sides at the drop of a hat. (And no, I don’t mean to imply everyone was acting that way. Just enough to irritate me.)

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  4. Once again, you show a grasp of the situation that others fail to understand or appreciate. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with anyones approach. It is their timing that needs to be fine tuned. There are those that need a velvet glove, those that need a rubber mallet, those that need a sledgehammer and those that just plain need ignoring altogether. Good work my friend.

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  5. I agree. We are dealing with the God Virus here: something that protects itself and blocks out anything threatening. To penetrate the God Virus, you must meet it where it is and plant seeds of doubt. I think the best place is in arguing the scriptures and pointing out how Jesus lied to us when he said he was coming back before this generation passes. He lied to us when he said iff you have the faith of a mustard seed you can make the mulberry bush fly away. Once the seed of doubt is planted, you can work from there, but it has to be coming from where the Christian is. Calling him a moron will not help, even though it seems to be the case.

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  6. I think the best way to argue is calmly. Be assertive if you like, but also calm. Don’t be totally emotionaless – but stay calm and don’t let them get to you. And be polite too – let them finish their sentence, don’t interrupt, don’t insult, don’t drag off-topic and irrelevant things in. However, also ask for politeness from them – ask them not to interrupt, and ask them not to personally insult you because that’s not what you’re here to talk about. If they start getting angry or violent, suggest that they go elsewhere and calm down for a minute, because you’re not here to start a fight.
    That way they have nothing but your argument to face. And if you’ve done it well, they don’t have a leg to stand on.

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  7. Totally agree. The other thing is simply about what is the decent way to behave towards other humans – and that’s part of what we ought to be about, surely

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  8. I think maybe the best approach is one that is your own. If you believe in what you are saying then you will naturally be yourself. I don’t think anyone should try to be like anyone else. It takes all kinds of people to use all kinds of approaches. It is most important that we are united in saying “just the facts please”.

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  9. Good one, Kat. This addresses some of the situations I find myself in with friends and my immediate family, where I usually have to tread lightly, and the arguments I used to have with a New Ager who at one point said outright that no argument or evidence would ever change his mind of the Proven Fact™ that Atlantis is real. He also espoused a number of other interesting views, and afterwards I just quit talking to him. What was the point?..his mind was closed, an no effort I could muster would change that, so I just walked away, and that was the end of it.

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  10. I have been thinking about this and trying to keep up with the tweets & blogs. Funnily enough, my son has been going through a similar discussion in his forums regarding use of closed versus open source and how education & discussions should take place and how people should conduct themselves etc. etc. So it is a pretty universal discussion in many movements.

    I just wanted to make a couple of points:

    Firstly, I probably lean towards a softer approach because it suits my personality. But I want to defend the rights of all people to use a pedagogy and/or debate method that suits them. If they feel a confrontational method works, then try it – it has been used in politics for years.
    Secondly, I agree with PZ Myers that a “one size fits all” approach is not always the way to go in any movement. Whether it is feminism, atheism, gay rights, racial equality and so on, we need to be glad for the consciousness raising, and the consequent support for the cause that develops from that.
    I personally count myself as belonging to all of these communities, but I am not “of” them. I don’t suit a prescriptive lifestyle, and the more rules you place upon me, the more likely I am to walk away from your group.

    Lastly, I am a little surprised that some of the people who advocate a softer approach towards challenging someone’s beliefs have used rather questionable methods (at times) to support their argument. I personally find the continued use of the word “dick” rather offensive and it amounts to ridicule, as it is aimed at attacking the person and not the argument. Which is ironic given the behaviour it was meant to challenge.

    Feel free to disagree with me – I will defend your right to do so.

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  11. I attended Phil’s speech, and found it moving and impressive. I think that it has been very poorly summarized all over the net, because it jumped to the conclusion of the talk, rather than explaining the beginning. This is unfortunate, because the beginning was the most important part.
    Basically, Phil started out with a simple question. What do we, as skeptics, want to happen? If all of our activism, getting out of the closet, and public debate is to have a goal, what do we want that goal to be? Do we want science to be part of the public discourse? Do we want all religion to disappear? (Good luck with that.)
    If our goal, as skeptics, is to increase the importance of scientific thinking in public debate, then we should find the most effective way of advancing that goal, and DO THAT. Phil took a brief survey and pointed out that nearly everyone (with the exception of Paul Provenza, who was bitten by a radioactive Penn Jillette) had not come to skepticism because someone had ridiculed them. Perhaps ridicule is not the most effective way of getting what you want.
    So often, in these debates, we’re running on instinct. Someone says something, and we jump in and reply. We don’t think about what we’re trying to achieve. We don’t work out a strategy. Someone says something nuts. We get angry. We jump in. We say whatever seems appropriate and clever.
    As Phil said, skepticism is hard. Working this way isn’t intuitive. We have to use our heads, not our guts. But we’re supposed to be rational people. If we can’t do it, who can?
    Phil wound up advocating a less combative approach, but not for squishy reasons. (I don’t remember him mentioning flies or honey.) As far as he (and I) know(s), taking a less slash-and-burn approach is more effective. People get convinced for emotional reasons. Screaming at someone is likely to just entrench them. You might as well argue the opposite of what you’re trying to say. That point may be debatable. If so, it’s a debate we can have as skeptics, with evidence and logic.
    Phil did not tell us not to yell because it’s not nice. He said: decide what you want, then do what it takes to achieve that. I’m with Phil.

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    • Thank you for taking the time to reply, I have been waiting to hear from someone who had actually attended the talk. Do you know if this will be online anywhere?

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    • Yes, thanks for that summary. Makes sense to me. Thus the debate around the net seems to be running on people’s own agenda, maybe?

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    • atheistclimber: I’ve heard various rumors and mumbles that the speech will be posted “soon” or “in the future” (as opposed to in the past, I guess). Aside from that, can’t tell you.

      Kat: Maybe. The problem is that “don’t be a dick” is short, pithy, catchy, twitter-friendly, and misleading. There’s room for debate here (and plenty of nuance). I just want the debate to reflect Phil’s actual point.

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  12. I, too, was at Phil’s talk, and I’m not sure what people who thought it was about PZ were smoking. Because it really, really wasn’t. I’m wondering if there’s some projecting going on there. I’ve got my own ideas about what might have prompted the subject, but it’s entirely speculation on my part and I’m not going to attempt to put words in Phil’s mouth.

    Stephen from SV has summarized it really well. About all I would add is that Phil pointed a couple of times at Wheaton’s law – Don’t be a dick. But I’m not sure why everyone equates this to being “soft.” It may be splitting hairs, but it’s an important one. I think Phil pointed out quite well that it’s possible to present a strong, firm opinion without crossing the line into personal attacks. To a certain extent, it matches up with attacking the idea, not the person. You can rationally explain your argument without having to resort to calling the person that disagrees with you childish names. And I think that you could argue that one you’ve fallen to that childish level, you’ve already lost the discussion.

    The sad note about the bizarre Twitter blow up is that Phil also noted at the beginning of his talk that for once he was not going to speak off the cuff because he thought this was important and didn’t want to be misinterpreted. So he apparently put a lot of work into preparing a speech that he hoped would express his point fully… and obviously, he still did get hit with a wall of misinterpretation.

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    • Well said.

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