Alternative title: DON’T MAKE ME COME BACK THERE.
I made some enigmatic comments on Twitter earlier, and said that I wasn’t going to get involved or name names, but I have stuff I need to get out of my head. Yes, I am once again roused from my comfortable sloth by other people driving me crazy, and names will be named.
Except this is different from the last couple of blog entries here, where I’ve been part of a more-or-less united skeptical front against the horrible wackjobs. This time, the crazy is coming from inside the house.
PZ Myers is someone I like and admire a great deal. He’s a professor of biology, and writes one of the most popular science blogs around, Pharyngula. He’s also an active skeptic and atheist, and his summing-up piece on the Crackergate fiasco is, to my mind, one of the highlights of the internet.
Brian Thompson is someone I like and admire a great deal. His podcast, The Amateur Scientist, is a surreal weekly jaunt of bewilderingly wide scope, centred around a generally scientific and skeptical bent, and provides as uplifting an accompaniment to a tedious evening of washing dishes as anything my iPod is capable of.
But, fine and virile specimens of men though they may be, there has been fail after repeated fail emanating from my Twitter feed tonight, and these two are at the centre of it.
I’m not so hot with the whole in-depth sweeping social analysis thing, but maybe we’re all still working out how to use Twitter. It’s a fantastic tool for any number of reasons – yesterday’s Gillian McKeith hilarity couldn’t have happened without it, for one thing – but it’s not always the most helpful option. We already have plenty of ways to communicate, and while micro-blogging is a valuable addition, it’s too much to expect it to replace the others wholesale.
Trying to make your point within 140-character chunks can prompt you to think creatively about what it is you’re trying to say, and how to encapsulate your essential point without needless waffle. But it can also force you into being curt, abrupt, and snappy with people. It can encourage you to employ debating tactics that work well in brief snippets, like sarcasm.
It is extremely easy, in other words, to break Wheaton’s Law on Twitter.
The thing that’s worth remembering is that you don’t have to actually be a dick, in order to be a dick. Wait… that sentence doesn’t parse how I’d meant it to. What I mean is, obnoxious twitterings are not an absolute indicator of a dickish personality. It’s easy even for decent, non-terrible human beings to get sucked into pointlessly callous behaviour.
So, without in any way implying that this is the only such occurrence on Twitter lately, or even the most interesting, let’s look at the example that got me so wound up.
PZ Myers is one of the more forthright, outspoken, and unforgiving members of the online atheist community. He is merciless in going after proponents of nonsense, and brutal in his verbal attacks on those who believe in bullshit.
Some people don’t feel that this is helpful or appropriate. Certain other skeptics are put off by his abrasive style, and imagine that those “true believers” will be similarly alienated. They argue that an approach based around informing and educating people, instead of ridicule and mockery, will be more effective in bringing people around to scientific literacy and good sense.
The point PZ has tried to make in response to this is that it’s not a simple dichotomy. The blogosphere isn’t divided into the “nice” and “nasty” skeptics, each with an attitude entirely and monolithically in keeping with their particular label, and so any effort to determine which is better is misguided. And I think he had a good point to make. It’s just a shame it devolved into such inane and worthless snarking.
He started off on point:
Not one person on the ferocious side of the argument uses only ridicule. It’s a component of the approach, not the be-all & end-all.
Lecturing people who use rational args+satire that satire doesn’t pull the whole load is annoyingly pointless. We know.
I’ll turn it around. Why are you sober-serious people so goddamned boring? How are you going to wake people up to listen to you?
I’ll tell you: passion. Humor. Drama. Ridicule. Ferocity. Fun. Emotion. It’s the hook, not the message. It’s the combination that works.
So he’s making an argument for not simply being dry and humourless in our approach to enlighten, but to allow for things to get fiery. This will include things that will offend others, but as a supplement to rational debate, not a replacement. He’s never suggested only being offensive and provocative and vitriolic, and it’s precisely that black-or-white thinking that he’s been trying to argue against.
Here’s where Brian chips in:
@pzmyers Satire and ridicule aren’t the same thing. Literally calling people morons is the opposite of satire.
@pzmyers You call yourself a satirist, but all you do is ridicule. Where’s the satire?
Still topical and relevant. The way PZ goes from discussing “ridicule” in his first tweet, to “rational args+satire” in the next, could give the impression that he’s using the two terms interchangeably. PZ’s response:
Missed the part where someone said they were. RT @AmSci: Satire and ridicule aren’t the same thing.
To anyone not familiar with Twitter convention, this means he’s quoting back part of @AmSci’s (Brian’s) tweet as part of his own response.
Now, this is where I start to have a problem with this as a debate, because it’s just not a helpful answer. Aside from being a touch passive-aggressive in tone, clearly Brian thinks that PZ has equated satire and ridicule to some extent. If this wasn’t PZ’s intent, then the most helpful thing would be to try clearing up this confusion, and to clarify his feelings on the matter. What PZ goes for instead seems like snideness with no purpose.
Curtailing the Twitter-grammar of the conversation a little, it continues like this:
@AmSci: Keep in mind @pzmyers compares himself to Swift and Jon Stewart.
@pzmyers: I do? Wow. Miss the point, don’t you…
@AmSci: Yes, you do: http://bit.ly/agMXcW Also, Shakespeare. They’re all “ferocious”. Just like you!
@pzmyers: Also human. Just like me!
@AmSci: Are you just pretending the things you write have no context? Is a pathological lack of self-awareness part of your schtick?
@pzmyers: Do you have a pathological need to insert false context?
And on, and on. Before long they’re arguing about Twitter etiquette, and PZ is being either stupid or disingenuous and Brian kinda gives up and decides that straightforward insults are more fun and ARGH YOU’RE ALL SUCH FUCKING IDIOTS.
Sorry. I don’t mean that at all, but you see how this kind of thing can get to someone. It’s easy to get carried away in one frustrating moment.
Look, PZ was making a fair point about satire being a useful tool of engagement, and I don’t think he was implicitly placing himself among the likes of Swift or Shakespeare in terms of importance, by highlighting them as examples of effective satirists. Brian should be smart enough to get that, but if he’s gotten the wrong impression somehow from what he’s read, PZ seems entirely unwilling to help correct it. Accusing someone of missing the point isn’t very constructive if you won’t even hint at what the point might be.
Fundamentally, there’s really not that much distance between these two, and there’s room for a real conversation about the role of mockery in skeptical and scientific outreach and communication. I listen to Brian’s podcast, so I know he’s not above some cutting irony. And I’ve seen PZ show plenty of capacity for compassion, as well as being a great educator. There’s no good reason for the conversation to turn out bitchy, eye-rolly, and passive-aggressive, rather than a chance to share ideas and learn stuff.
In this video, Neil deGrasse Tyson takes Richard Dawkins to task somewhat for his (Dawkins’s) approach to improving the public understanding of science. Tyson expresses concern that Dawkins’s style of scientific outreach may not be as effective as it could be, if he were to take a more sensitive and carefully worded approach. It’s a similar issue to the one for which Brian Thompson has criticised PZ – and yet Dawkins accepts the rebuke gratefully, and the conversation remains entirely amicable.
This may say something about the nature of the specific people involved – but it’s also noticeable that Tyson took rather more than 140 characters to make his point.
Sometimes a point simply cannot be made well within a single tweet. This has been demonstrated amply. But there’s no reason you should have to try, when less restrictive options are available. There’s Twitlonger. There’s Posterous. There’s also that thing you both do all the time called blogging. Or there’s simply “can’t explain myself fully in 140 chars, email me with queries and i’ll write about this later in more depth”. Or something.
If you’re getting into a debate, on Twitter or anywhere else, it’s inevitable that some people are going to disagree with you and sound like dicks. While it’s possible that they’re just terrible people, a lot of people who sound like dicks really aren’t. Tempting though it may be to reply in kind, if you make yourself sound like a dick in return, then you’re just two people pissing all over Wheaton’s Law and everyone loses.
When you get a message that seems kinda dickish to you, you may have to go out of your way to make yourself clear. You may have to delicately choose words that don’t drip with contempt, even if you think contempt is merited. You may have to tolerate people being a dick to you, without retaliating the way your animal instinct urges you to, and make allowances for the limitations of certain forms of communication. You’ll definitely have to give people more of a break than you think they deserve.
Does this sound like a lot of work, in which you get a crappy deal and have to smile patiently while idiots misunderstand and insult you? Yeah, it pretty much is. It’s called being a grown-up.
And if you’re not doing that… well, you’re probably being kind of a dick.
Don’t do that.