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Don't Be A Dick
Anyone who has spent any time at all in the skeptical blogosphere has probably heard about the Don't Be A Dick controversey. In one corner, we have Phil Plait, skeptic, atheist, scientist, blogger, and all around Nice Guy. In the other, we have PZ Myers, skeptic, atheist, scientist, blogger, and all around asshole. The two of them have been duking it out over the Right, Correct, & Proper method of skeptical activism, dividing the skeptical community into two factions, forever dooming any and all efforts to form a cohesive, godless, activist movement.
Or, not really. This whole debate is really much ado about nothing. It's a pseudo-controversy, the way that evolution vs. creationism is a pseudo-controversy in the scientific community. In other words, it's not a controversy at all within the community - it's outsiders wanting to make it LOOK like there's a controversy where there isn't one.
Let's start at the beginning. There are two basic sides to the "debate". One side says that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, that we should be nice and polite to all theists and wooagers because we won't win them over to "our side" by yelling at them and calling them names. The other side says "fuck that" and thinks screaming obscenities at people is not only a fun way to pass the afternoon, but a great way to win skeptical converts as well. The anti-dick side wants to portray the pro-dick side as red-faced, foul-mouthed, blustering buffoons who can't hold a civil conversation to save their life. And the pro-dick side wants to portray the anti-dick side as mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy, turn-the-other-cheek-so-they-can-slap-it-too apologists who refuse to stand up for skeptical or humanist values in the interest of keeping the peace
The problem is that no one really thinks that - on either side. What the Nice side is saying, is that if you want to convert an individual over to skepticism, you have to treat him with dignity and respect, engage him in polite discussion and debate, lay out the facts in a way that doesn't belittle or demean him, and then he will be more likely to listen to you. And the Dick's all agree that this is, indeed, the best way to convert someone who is willing to listen and engage in respectful debate.
But the Dicks are saying that some people are not going to be converted no matter what you say or how you say it, but those people have been handed the reigns of power and are seeking to destroy us all, even other True Believers. To this kind of person, you cannot engage him in polite discussion and hope to win him over. The best you can hope for is to make his idiocy as obvious as possible through satire and ridicule, while simultaneously presenting the facts and evidence for your own side in an effort to 1) make everyone who is listening see what a doofus the other guy is and choose your side rather than be associated with the bozo you're arguing with, and 2) exact a social penalty for being a fundamentalist, hatemongering, menace to society that these people usually are.
And the Nice Guys are often seen using ridicule and satire against exactly these kinds of dangerous people in the opposition. Because you can't reason with them. Trying to affect social change requires a variety of methods, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that is going to work. Some people will be swayed by multiple conversations with a compassionate, considerate, soft-spoken individual, while some people will be horrified by the evidence that their idols are actually child molestors or murderers, and yet other people will join in simply because it's fun to make fun of people, and still other people will have to go through years of being exposed to all of these methods while the woo and irrational beliefs they hold are gradually chipped away through persistence.
Everyone will choose the method that best suits his or her own personality and stick with that most often, but in the grand scheme of things, both sides are necessary - they accomplish different, but complimentary, things. The vast majority of the time, calm, logical, considerate discussion is probably the best method for trying to convince any given individual that your position of skepticism, science, and rationality is the best position. But for those handfuls of people whose minds you will not change, and whose minds you are not attempting to change, many in the audience watching and listening will appreciate your satire and humor at the wackaloon's expense.
No one is debating the effectiveness of the "catch more flies with honey" routine. It's clear to pretty much everyone that most people are going to be more willing to listen to your point of view if you're not coming at them, screaming and calling them names. But while it's true that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you can catch the most amount of flies with horseshit. That's not to say that piling on crap is even more effective than being nice, it's to say that the analogy is flawed. Passion moves people. Anger is a very powerful tool, when wielded properly. To remove our passion and justified anger is to neuter the movement. Most of us are not skeptics because we're ambivilent or neutral about a topic - we're skeptics because we care, deeply, about the topic; because it touches the very heart of who we are, our ethics, our sense of justice, our morals even. And that strong emotion can be persuasive, providing we use it to guide the message.
As Stephanie Zvan once said, anger is the punctuation, not the message, and as any good writer can tell you, punctuation can change a message from something unintelligible to something understandable. As my high school poetry teacher told us when we studied ee cummings, you have to really understand the rules of grammar and punctuation before you can break them, and those who break the rules well create the most powerful pieces of poetry. If the message is sound, if your evidence is there, and if your points are clear, then your punctuation - your anger, vitriol, passion, sarcasm, and ridicule - can turn your dry lecture into a piece of art that moves the viewer or listener in profound and meaningful ways.
Since we all agree that vitriol will not change the mind of the person we are being vitriolic at, the point of it is to convince the audience of our position. And that can, indeed, change minds. Watching someone get angry or mean on our behalf, someone expressing outrage at injustice or ignorance for others, can be very powerful. The question should not be "who ever changed his mind because someone yelled at him?" The question should be "who ever changed his mind because someone yelled at someone else for you?" Calmly laying out a set of talking points, or referencing studies, is not usually very persuasive. It's dry and boring, and who has time to read through all that stuff when Oprah can tell us, in soundbite form, what to think? But if you get passionate, if you get angry, if you get vehement, then you are representing much more than dry labratory studies. You are representing the human element in the debate. And that sways minds. Of course it is important to think critically - that should underly all decisions, beliefs, and opinions. But values and emotions are also important, and much more likely to impress upon the audience that the critical thinking is a worthwhile endeavor.
Stephanie Zvan also pointed out the historical effectiveness of those who will not sit down and shut up. Every movement that ever made any traction started, and was led by, those annoying, angry individuals who refused to play nice and accept the crumbs from those in power. They were the men marching down the street in sequins and feather boas and hot pink G-strings; they were the women wearing pants and being jailed for mouthing off; they were the black men and women who would not say "yassuh, thankee kindly" when told their place was in the back of the bus. They were the people who shouted, who stood up, and who demanded our attention. They were the ones who forcibly grabbed the reins from those of privilege who couldn't see, couldn't hear, or didn't care, about everyone who was too timid to take those reins out of their hands. It took the passion, the anger, the shouting, the letter-writing, the calling-out, and the courage to stand up of all those who came before and who are responsible for giving us the current luxury for some people to say "shh, we're doing OK right now, don't rock the boat!" Well some of us happen to believe that "OK" is not good enough, and all the privileges currently enjoyed or that will be enjoyed in the future come from the efforts of people who did not have the privilege of choosing silence or noise ... and said something anyway.
James said it best in his article entitled Why Not Be A Dick?: The Nice Guys are saying "Sure, we shouldn't be totally spineless, but that doesn't mean we should act like douchebags," while the Dicks are saying "Sure, we shouldn't act like douchebags, but that doesn't mean we should be totally spineless." Both sides are saying pretty much the exact same thing, they're just coming at the problem from opposite directions. Be considerate when possible, stick to the facts and the evidence, address ideas and not the person, hold your ground, and use satire, sarcasm, and ridicule sparingly, but effectively.
"Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them." ~ Thomas Jefferson
"We shouldn't be gratuitously obnoxious; we should be purposefully obnoxious." ~ PZ Myers
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