Thursday, September 23, 2010

About Plait's "Don't be a dick" admonishment to atheists

Okay! Since I can't watch Youtube videos (at least not with the sound) due to some odd problem with my OS's Adobe Flash, it's taken me a while to get around to hunting down a transcript of this so that I can respond to it, since evidently it's vital I do so. Seems I missed quite a blowup in the skeptic blogosphere over it as well, while I was off not having the tubez.

The transcript I'm using is from here, so any potential misquotes should be taken with a grain of salt. However, Plait himself linked to this entry on his Twitter account, so it can't be that bad.

My Starting Point

The thing that I wanted to say going into this is that my big concern about this talk is that it was going to come down to a longer and better-rationalized edition of The Tone Argument (which, for those who haven't been hit with it before, is the assertion that the reason nobody listens to women, people of color, trans people, gay people, poor people, etc. is that these people are all too angry from years of not being listened to, and if they were just nicer, people would listen to them. It's a great way to dismiss somebody for being angry at being dismissed). Hopefully this doesn't turn out to be the case, because it's possible to make the practicality and delivery argument without sliding into The Tone Argument. It's just hard.

What Plait Said

The generic person out there, somebody not in our group, they tend to hear a message that science is hard and that it’s boring. And worse, skeptics and scientists, we tend to be thought of as being stuffy and stilted, antisocial, if not evil and downright sociopathic. Atheists eat babies, don’t you know? So it’s a tough sell.

Also, how do believers think of themselves? Many times, their self-identity is wrapped up in their belief. One of the most important things people use to define themselves is their religion or their belief. They might say, “I’m a UFO person” or whatever, doesn’t matter what the belief is.

Not only that, our society stresses faith. How many movies have as their final message something about faith? How many books, how many TV shows? The doubt in the movie is downplayed. The person who is doubting is shown as ineffectual, even bad. And the belief is the highest ideal. [...]

So all of this is stacked against us. And this is a lot of stuff stacked against us. Why in the hell would you want to make it harder to deliver that message?

Practicality here. Not bad. It is worth noting that there is a little bit of a discordant message for a second here: "Don't patronize believers. Don't treat them like they're stupid. Because, you see, believers are fragile soft-minded creatures who are easily swayed into believing (or not believing) things based on what makes them feel good. They don't think very well, but you can't tell them so, because it will only make them think worse and frighten the skittish believer away. Instead you have to seduce them into thinking straight by making sure it's not threatening or difficult at any point."

Personally, I am indeed of the opinion that people who believe crazy things are probably not really solid on their "it's safe to apply critical thinking to everything" analytical backbone.

Frankly, it's demonstrably true that everybody is inclined to believe things which make us feel good and disbelieve things which make us feel bad, and religious believers are the natural result of this. It isn't that what he's saying is inaccurate; it's that he's effectively saying all this in the same breath that he's telling skeptics not to treat believers as though they're lazy critical thinkers. The message seems to be, "We all know that they're not good at thinking, but don't tell them that. They don't think well enough to handle it properly, so let's just keep that our little secret.

What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Before you talk, before you leave a comment, before you engage a pseudoscientist, before you raise your hand, before you sign that email, ask yourself: is this going to help? Is this going to allow me to achieve my goal? And you also need to ask yourself: will this impede me from achieving my goal? Is this just to make me feel better, or am I trying to change the world?

I think that this kind of reflexive engagement is something that a lot of people wrestle with. Frankly, it seems to me that anybody who isn't afraid of conflict will often find themselves enlisted as an attack dog by those who are. That's certainly been my position. As a result, I sort of got the idea eventually that people keep me around to defend them.

This is why I've often had to step back, sit down, and get straight just what I'm trying to accomplish. Am I trying to persuade the person I'm talking to? Generally not. Am I trying to offer support to the people who agree with me, to prevent them from getting burnt out and exhausted? Frequently. Am I just trying to strike out at somebody saying something stupid because it'll make me feel better? Sure, now and again. I don't think that any of these are necessarily terrible motivations, but it is important to be certain which one is actually the goal at hand, so that I don't regret my failure to achieve something that (if I'm honest with myself) I didn't care about anyway.

Meta-Response! IT'S SO META.

This particular blogger gives a lot of excellent point/counterpoint bits at the end of this, and they themselves are noteworthy. This is the one that I happen to agree with. I wanted to give it some special attention, because I've seen first-hand that mockery is a better response to ignorance than engaging with it as though it were an equal "side of the story." See Creationism. See homeopathy.

Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Community of Austin has pointed out that while many children stop believing in Santa Claus because they catch their parents putting presents under the tree, others stop believing because they get teased about it by the older kids on the school bus. Or at least, this can start them on the road to doubting Santa Claus and figuring out the truth.

More generally, people don’t want to feel foolish. If they think their opinion will get them laughed at, they’re more likely to keep quiet. Now, this doesn’t stop them from believing foolish things, but it does help keep them out of the way when you’re trying to teach someone else. There are still people out there who believe in flying saucers, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, crop circles, and the CIA conspiracy to kill JFK, but they have no real sway in society because at this point they’re little more than a punchline. 9/11 truthers are, I think, rapidly heading down that road as well.

Along the same lines, while there’s still a lot of racism in the US, at least it’s gotten to the point where it’s no longer socially acceptable. This doesn’t stop people from being racists, but it does mean that anyone who wanted to, say, reintroduce segregated schools would quickly be booed out of the town meeting. If we could get to the point where creationism and ID are widely perceived as being a joke, then that would at least stop people from trying to subvert the teaching of science in public schools, which in itself would be a step forward. So I’ll score this as a point against Phil.

I'm a heavy user of mockery when I'm trying to make a point. Why? Because people who believe or disbelieve an empirical hypothesis based on how it makes them feel are thinking poorly, but what's really fun is to make fun of thinking poorly and then watch them wrestle with, "Thinking poorly is evidently ridiculous. I don't want to be ridiculous; thinking poorly is therefore a threat to my continued happy-feelings. However, thinking poorly is how I often preserve my happy-feelings. ZOMG POSITRONIC LOCK."

And before anybody asks, "Yeah, it's fun to watch, but does it work?" Yes. Yes, it does. It worked on me.

More on Mockery as a Rhetorical Tool

I can't even count the people I know who count themselves paragons of free thought, disobedient enlightenment, and independence because they don't believe that God created the world in six days, but who nonetheless believe that the way they spin their chakras can influence their rate of recovery from physical ailments. Why? Because the people they know (and I know this, because I know them too) mock Christian Creationists, but don't mock chakra-spinning, shen-balancing, fairy-consulting, chi-channeling distance reiki master chiropractor homeopaths who can cure anything that ails you by staring into your eyes, touching your skin, thinking really hard while on the phone with you, twisting your neck, or doing any of the above in the presence of magical water and then diluting that water a hundred times and then giving you the result.

People only protect from critical thinking the ideas which their social and cultural environment allows them to. Yes, I realize I am creating an environment hostile to ideas about Santa Claus, Creationism, fairies, and crystal-healing. Do you know why? Because people only protect ideas from critical thinking to the extent that they can get away with it without being thought ridiculous. Pointing out that what they're protecting is just as ridiculous as what they mock is not counterproductive, it's just uncomfortable for them.

If we're afraid of making people uncomfortable, then we're doomed from the start.

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them… -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816

Even More on Ridicule... This Time as a Deprogramming Tool

However! Calling someone an idiot to their face doesn't work. You have to target someone else. It's not scapegoating, because a "scapegoat" is an innocent target being made to pay for the sins of the guilty (see: Jesus, or the literal goats from which the term originates), which isn't the case when you're going after a faith healer who encourages parents to pray away diabetes (to give one example), or a woman who drowns her children because she believes that God talks to mortals and tells them to kill their children (see: Abraham and Isaac). Make someone who is not your conversational partner an object of ridicule for being ridiculous and you give them a powerful social and emotional incentive to not do the same thing. If you consider that we're probably talking about someone who got themselves into their beliefs by similar means (rather than by reason and evidence), then pulling the "social and emotional incentive" lever is a remarkably pointed approach.

The author of the blog entry I'm reading makes one very very good point that I think everybody needs to be aware of, so I'm giving it its own section.

BE EFFECTIVE (even when doing so requires unfair amounts of effort)

Having said that, there’s a lot to be said for doing what it takes to win. When insults and vitriol work, use them; when they don’t, don’t. One problem, though, is that this is not a war, where you destroy the enemy’s army and go home. Or a game, where you score the most points and go home. Or politics, where you only need to worry about one election at a time. What we the skeptical movement are doing is more like homesteading. The problems we face today — ignorance, superstition, and the like — are never going away, because each new generation starts out ignorant, and because our brains are wired for superstition. We need to be in this for the long haul. (...)

Don’t forget that you’re representing the team.

1. Yes. Do things because they work, not because they give us some kind of emotional release. This is true whether we're figuring out how to treat an illness, or we're trying to figure out how to accomplish our goal in a discussion.

2. Duh. A lot of people forget that atheists are like any marginalized group: there's a portrayal of us that a lot of people accept for two reasons: it gives them a convenient way to handwave us, and frankly they often just don't know any better.

We are stereotyped as being angry joyless assholes with a superiority complex. We have as much work to do against that stereotype as any group (which is why being a "nice" atheist is a little like being an "articulate" black man), and the fact that it's not fair doesn't make it any less the case. We have to do extra work to get heard. It's not fair, it's exhausting, it sucks, but we are starting from a rhetorical disadvantage. We either need to compensate for that or be okay with failure.

This is the difference between the practicality argument that I think Plait is making, and The Tone Argument. The Tone Argument says, "You are to blame for the fact that you're still being stepped on, because you've never been nice enough about it for anyone to want to listen to you."

I think Plait is making a different argument, and one that I can indeed get behind. It gives a nod to the truth behind The Tone Argument without laying the sort of blame that this conversation-stopper is known for (and which is basically its only purpose).

People don't want to listen to us, and that's not fucking fair. Unfortunately, wishful thinking isn't gonna make that disadvantage go away, so if we want to be heard, we're just gonna have to prove them wrong about us all being assholes. Which sucks, because once again the marginalized group has to be the "bigger person," while the people in power get to behave however they like. It's always like this, and while it's unfair, wishing it away won't make it go away. Maybe once they've deigned to listen to us, they'll realize how unfair it was to put us in this position to begin with.

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