In an earlier post, I talked about Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk at TAM 8.
This time, I want to look at the other side of that. To the question “does this mean we have to be boring lecturers all the time?”, I hope to answer “No”.
After all, we talk and write for all sorts of different reasons. Not all of us can, or want to be, teachers. Nor is that all that our readers want to read. FSM knows I enjoy reading Phil Plait and Ed Yong, but I’d go spare if those were the only voices on my side on the Internet. I also want there to be George Hrabs, Roy Zimmermans, Christopher Hitchenses, Hunters, and so on. And let’s face it: a good rant is fun to read.
For one thing, there’s a vast difference between being frank, direct, or blunt; and being a dick. Dawkins’s The God Delusion was frank and direct, but by no means would I say he was being a dick. Carl Sagan talked unapologetically about the size and age of the universe, and the relative insignificance of humanity in all that. But, again, not a dick.
Yes, you may say, a lot of people took offense at Dawkins, particularly for his “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” comment. Of course, since what he wrote is true in all its particulars, one can only assume that the people who take offense haven’t read the Bible (teachable moment!), or know that Dawkins is right, but think it’s rude of him to point it out.
So by all means, say what you think.
Yes, people may be offended, but that’s because a) no one likes being told that they’re wrong, and b) a lot of people identify themselves by their religion or form of woo. If you say that astrology is stupid, what a lot of people will hear is that people who believe in astrology are stupid. This shouldn’t necessarily stop you, but of course it’s something to keep in mind.
One rule that I try to apply is: imagine that you’re in the future, after the woo that you’re railing against has gone the way of phlogiston and leeching, and that you’re rereading what you once wrote. Were you standing up for reality, or were you being an asshole? Was your reaction warranted, or did you go over the top? It might be instructive to revisit old arguments you’ve had some years ago — particularly religious or political ones — to see how they’ve stood the test of time, and what you now think of your former self. Now that the election’s over, do you still think it was right to call your opponent a retarded fascist, or whatever you said?
Another important thing to keep in mind is that most of the people who believe in woo simply don’t know any better. When Richard Dawkins said that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)”, I’m pretty sure that in his mind, 90+% of creationists fell into the “ignorant” category, i.e., they’re not familiar with the mountains of evidence supporting evolution. At least, that’s been my experience. I suspect that the same is true of other forms of woo.
I’m always careful to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. If I’m ignorant, that just means there’s something I don’t know. We’re all ignorant. I’m ignorant of economics, Japanese history, watercolor painting techniques, nuclear physics, and much more. There are a lot of interesting things I’d like to learn, but haven’t, because I’ve been busy learning even more interesting things.
With that in mind, remember that the next believer in woo that you talk to is almost certainly not someone cynically peddling bullshit to make a buck. They just don’t know any better. They may have been “cured” by homeopathy or crystal healing or seen their luck improve after installing feng shui carpeting, or their aunt swears by her echinacea suppositories, or whatever.
So at least at first, try to be a nice guy. Explain that they’re mistaken, or misinterpreted what they saw, or may not be remembering correctly, or were missing some crucial facts, or whatever.
At that point, one of several things might happen. The person might learn something from your comments, in which case you’ve passed by the chance for a good rant, but you’ve made the world a better place. Or they might disagree in an nontrivial and non-stupid way, which gives you the chance to have an interesting discussion. Or they might just go away, in which case they never would have seen your fantastic ass-searing rant anyway.
Or they might disregard everything you’ve said and refuse to understand your explanations or follow your links, calling your sources corporate shills or tools of Satan or whatever the fashionable epithet is these days. This constitutes moving toward willful ignorance. Or they might insult you, and call you a corporate shill of Satan or thimerosal douchenozzle. In other words, they might be a dick to you first.
At this point, you can tell yourself that “moral high ground” is a relative position, pour a gallon of cobra venom into the metaphor generator, and let loose. Just try to be less of a dick than the other person. There’s nothing wrong with defending yourself. But the longer you can be the soul of kindness and put off your righteous ire, the more opportunities you give the other person to shoot themselves in the foot, and the better you’ll look in the eyes of the other people following the thread (and you are playing to the audience, aren’t you?). Think of Tim Minchin’s Storm.
Alternately, you can jump to the defense of someone who’s being attacked unjustly. But again, be less of a dick than the person you’re responding to.
And then there are the times when you just need to vent at the stupidity and fuckedupedness of it all. In these cases, go after the people who really deserve it: the 2% or less who are either cynical manipulators, shameless profiteers, unobtainium-headed willful ignoramuses. Sylvia Browne; John Edward; the pope; Kent Hovind; Ray Comfort. They’ve been pushing their bullshit for years and made a pretty penny from it. They’re public figures. They’ve had every opportunity to learn better, but haven’t. Fuck ’em. They can take it.
But spare the children of hippies whose only crime was believing their parents when they said auras were real. There’s no shame in being fooled by a slick salesman, or by people who honestly believe a mistake, especially when those people are in a position of authority.
In short, I think there’s a lot of room for frank discourse — which I think is the usual euphemism for yelling at the other guy, or going on a tirade against frauds and charlatans — without being a dick. But yes, there are limits.
And as I said in the other post, don’t take my word for it. 80% of what I just said is probably wrong, and if you ever figure out which 80%, please let me know. And also, ask yourself whether what you’re about to say will do any good, or at least fail to do harm. Keep the end goal, whatever you envision it to be, in mind, and ask yourself whether you’re helping to move toward that goal.