It’s time for an Ultimate Showdown.
In July 2010, Phil Plait gave a speech espousing a hippie philosophy of universal love and harmony, in which he called for an end to any expressions of anger and aggression, and declared that the one true path allows only peace and tolerance for all our fellow men, no matter what they believe.
Since then, the skeptical community has been riven between two factions: Phil’s followers of the Light, and the dark and menacing hordes of PZ Myers, whose shrill screams of abuse and condemnation against the wacky and deluded echo around the blogosphere.
Allegiances have been made and broken, and now these two armies prepare to determine once and for all which single immutable philosophy shall dominate all skeptics’ interactions with believers and the public in the future.
LET BATTLE COMMENCE!!
There is a debate going on here, but it’s nothing like as silly and dramatic as it’s often made out to be. It’s not even especially divisive. Most infuriatingly, it’s not an argument with two clearly divided opposing sides. It’s not about Phil vs. PZ, arguing over some contentious philosophical point on which they utterly and irreconcilably disagree.
From what I’ve managed to untangle of the often garbled debate, almost everyone agrees on almost everything. And everyone’s been banging on about it far more than necessary.
I am now going to bang on about it far more than necessary.
Setting the scene
The title of Phil’s talk, and the theme which has carried the ongoing discussion since then, was “Don’t Be A Dick”. Phil has observed that “vitriol and venom are on the rise”, and this has prompted him to ask a certain question of his fellow skeptics. This question generally either resonates profoundly with people, or makes them grit their teeth with frustration at the implicit over-simplification.
A show of hands in the room reveals that many of the audience used to believe in something which they don’t any more – “flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that”. Then he asks this:
How many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?
A few hands are raised again, but not many.
It was somewhat rhetorical, so let’s spell out the points that I think Phil wanted people to take away from that particular question:
- Most people aren’t persuaded to change their minds by being screamed at and called idiots.
- Therefore, if skeptics want to change anyone’s minds, they should not scream at people and call them idiots.
To the nearest approximation, I completely agree with both of these points, and I think most people would.
But these are not the only things being argued.
Let’s put the skeptical outreach issue aside for a moment here. Is screaming insults directly into somebody’s face ever actually acceptable? Is it ever recommended, a good idea, a productive and worthwhile means of achieving your goals, or even permitted by the rules of basic human decency?
I think there’s a strong case to be made for “No”. The kind of hostility Phil’s talking about is a clear sign of irrational, out-of-control anger. Insofar as he’s simply advising us not to be this unrestrainedly furious, he’s not said anything remotely controversial.
This doesn’t relate to skepticism as much as it does to the kinds of acceptable human interaction that most people should have learned by the age of five.
By extension, this kind of dickishness is not a problem with skepticism, it’s a problem with people. It’s characteristic of our entire species, so anyone who feels compelled to abandon the skeptical movement because some people in it haven’t got the hang of not being an obnoxious ass might as well recuse themselves from the entire human race while they’re at it.
But most humans, and most skeptics, are better than this. We don’t need to be reminded that yelling so much abuse that people are getting hosed down in spittle is bad form. So let’s look at the more subtle points that people have taken from Phil’s talk.
Who listens to dicks anyway
The point about screaming in people’s faces seems trivial. But there are other, less comically extreme ways to violate Wheaton’s Law.
The question becomes: When have you ever changed your mind because someone was rude and unkind to you?
The implied follow-up is: By comparison, when have you ever changed your mind because someone was polite and gentle to you?
And the implicit assertion behind it all is: People will be more likely to change their minds if you are polite and gentle than if you are rude and unkind. Therefore, we should be polite and gentle, and we should not be rude or unkind.
The first sentence may well be true. I know that I find myself far less inclined to listen and take on board somebody else’s points in a one-on-one debate if they’re being deliberately obnoxious and cruel. And I’m not alone in this; people do tend to be reinforced in their opinions, rather than receptive to counter-arguments, when coming up against someone who disagrees with them in a combative and hostile way.
Civil discourse seems like a much better way to bypass prejudices and biases and exchange some information, which is surely a necessary thing for any rational person to change their mind. There’s a great deal to be said, when talking about their beliefs to someone who you think is wrong, for not being outright abusive and unkind to them.
But there’s actually a much better reason than this to moderate your dickish abusiveness.
The bigger picture
Whoever you’re arguing with, whatever the circumstances, and however reasonable and approachable you’re being, they’re almost certainly not going to have a sudden complete turn-around right in the middle of this one conversation, as a direct and instantaneous result of what you’ve said.
This is actually quite sensible. If they’ve spent a long time believing what they do, and it’s seemed like a viable worldview all this time, then anything new they learn which might shift their position deserves some thinking time. You might have made a lot of sense, and maybe they had to admit to themselves that their arguments didn’t hold up. But at the very least, they should probably sleep on it before entirely reversing a long-held position, and see whether you still seem right in the morning.
It’s futile to engage in personal discussion if you’re going to count any result other than instant capitulation as a complete failure. The effect you have on your opponent might take a long time to materialise.
But, crucially, they’re not the only ones being affected.
If your debate is happening in a public auditorium, or in a series of blog posts and comment threads, or anywhere else that other people can observe it, then other people will observe it. And this is a vital part of the discourse. In many cases, the effect on the spectators will be greater than that on your opponent.
Look at Sylvia Browne. (Not for too long, or your will to live may start to dissolve, possibly along with your eyes.) Robert Lancaster’s site about her is brilliant, thorough, extremely critical, ruthlessly polite, and is in no way a form of direct argument with Sylvia Browne herself. I don’t know of anyone in the skeptical community who would consider such an argument remotely worthwhile. Nobody is trying to change Sylvia Browne’s mind about anything.
Instead, the site exists for the benefit of the people who might needlessly throw away huge sums of money or be severely traumatised as a direct result of what Sylvia Browne does. Trying to persuade her to abandon the industry that’s made her millions and formed the basis of her life’s work for decades is futile – but people who aren’t entrenched in any real delusions, and have just been a bit impressed by what they’ve seen her do, will often be open to reasonable explanations. And there are a lot more of them than there are of her.
Everyone who’s arguing with Sylvia Browne is (or should be) doing so for the benefit of the mass of onlookers.
And something that might benefit said mass is for you not to be a total dick.
Now, there are always going to be people who leap to accusations that you’re being rude and unfair, no matter how carefully you tread. Sylvia certainly has her zealous supporters who seem to take any kind of skepticism as a direct and unprovoked attack, however delicately and reasonably it’s phrased.
My advice on that score is: try to have a better sense of what constitutes needlessly dickish behaviour than Sylvia Browne’s most rabid fans. If you find this difficult, you may be beyond my help.
Some of her followers will be open to changing their minds, but it probably won’t happen overnight. Someone’s opinion of any particular fake psychic tomorrow will be largely dependent on what their opinion was today. But over time, with enough exposure, the message will get through to the world as a whole: this point of view also exists, and isn’t going away, and might just have something to it that’s worth listening to.
So we can agree that not coming across as vindictive, petty, abusive, and prone to temper tantrums when anyone disagrees with you is a good way to influence people outside the argument, as well as to make sure you seem more rational and approachable to your debate opponent zemself.
But civility isn’t the only thing that spectators appreciate. They’re a complex and diverse lot, that “third party” you keep hearing about. They’re often put off when you scream in other people’s faces, true, but sometimes they like things that push the boundaries of impeccable politeness. Sometimes they like satire, or mockery, or a good blunt smackdown of some bullshit.
Phil Plait might also have asked: When have you ever changed your mind because somebody screamed abuse at somebody else?
And if you extend this beyond the trivial bounds of cartoonish douchebaggery – replace “screamed abuse at” with “said something curt or abrasive to”, and “changed your mind” with “learned something about some issue which has clarified your position” – then I suspect this becomes a common occurrence.
Certain well-placed sniping, bitchery, sarcasm, and other forms of dialogue with a bit more substance to them than abject obsequiousness can be fun. Both to indulge in personally and to watch from the sidelines. And things that can be enjoyed and laughed at are an important part of any debate which you expect to hold anyone’s interest.
And sometimes, as well as being entertainingly engaging and provocative, potentially dick-like behaviour is simply necessary to make a point. Sometimes it’s not only possible but necessary to call people’s ideas ludicrous, and their decisions ignorant and ill-informed, if you want to retain your intellectual integrity.
The people being criticised in this way might claim that it makes you a dick. But if your criticism is honest and justified, then being this much of a dick is worth it for the ability to make an important point forcefully.
Here’s what really bugs me about this debate so far, though: I don’t think I’ve actually said anything here which either Phil or PZ would seriously disagree with. Despite the way that some absolute dichotomy between two opposing worldviews is often depicted, I think their positions are virtually identical.
Phil’s message was primarily about being nicer and less aggressive, but with a clarification about the usefulness of well placed scorn and severity. In essence, his proposition amounts to:
Sure, we shouldn’t be totally spineless, but that doesn’t mean we should act like douchebags.
PZ, on the other hand, has defended taking a more assertive and unapologetic approach, but is careful not to be needlessly cruel to undeserving targets. His point, then, is basically:
Sure, we shouldn’t act like douchebags, but that doesn’t mean we should be totally spineless.
There’s more common ground there than the debate often seems to admit. Really, they’re just expressing concerns about different pitfalls to be avoided.
Phil’s “side” of the debate is often being painted as the caring and thoughtful side, which would never stoop to ridicule of anyone, at any time. It’s as if this particular bloc of skeptics are the only ones who understand that mockery will only ever turn outsiders away from your cause, and would never stoop to anything so self-evidently counter-productive.
But let’s be clear: Phil Plait has never claimed to be the goddamn Buddha.
The image of a man whose brain seems to have caught fire, with a caption reading “The Stupid, It Burns”, is a regular feature on Phil’s blog, often appearing when some kooky opinion is expressed by some person or organisation of note. He’s more than once declared the entire state of Texas (it’s usually Texas) to be “doomed” because of some backwards political decision being made somewhere.
He’s also not held back from loudly expressing his outrage over the dishonesty, credulity, and carelessness that some supposed medical authorities have exhibited over the issue of vaccines, and the number of children who die of preventable illnesses as a direct result of irrational non-medicine.
Does any of this really qualify as being unwaveringly delicate and sensitive toward those who disagree with him?
In fact, it seems perfectly in keeping with the advice given by P-Zed in the presentation he gave at 2010′s TAM London. One of the soundbite suggestions he offered as a counterpoint to “Don’t Be A Dick” was: “Be The Best Dick You Can Be”. The line that summed it up best was: “We shouldn’t be gratuitously obnoxious; we should be purposefully obnoxious.”
PZ and Phil are both, to my mind, pretty good at this.
Further reading which I couldn’t integrate into the above blather itself: