Yesterday the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, put up a video of his TAM8 talk titled “Don’t be a Dick”. That’s sage advice to anyone, but at the largest Skepticism conference in the country, it has special significance.
As self appointed guardians of reality, we Skeptics are often the bearers of aggravating news; No, there is no magical being bestowing morality from on high, we need to figure that out for ourselves. No, praying your tumor away won’t work, you need expensive chemotherapy. No, you can’t prevent autism by avoiding vaccination, sorry but all you’re doing is killing children. No, that woman isn’t really communicating with your dead father, sorry I know you felt comforted by that belief.
Regardless of how we approach these cherished beliefs, we are often going to look like jerks. It comes with the territory, we know it, we accept it. However as Phil points out in his talk, more often we lately seem to go out of our way to actually be jerks. He argues that this needs to stop.
But should we?
Often times while perusing the days most popular Religion & Spirituality articles on Examiner I’ll find a heavily trafficked article on atheism or say Creationism, that is either written in an intensely vitriolic manner, or inundated with comments that are insulting rather than informative. These columns are not necessarily popular because of the information they give, but because they have pissed people off and thus get a lot of attention as insults fly and tension rises.
Clearly this approach is at least effective in sparking debate. But as the Bad Astronomer points out early in his talk, the actual percentage of people who have altered their personal beliefs due to some vitriolic exchange is exceedingly low. In fact psychological studies have shown again and again that “negative affect” (aka anger) is a central indicator that a person is irrationally resisting your argument – ie they know you’re right and are resisting it.
If you get angry in an argument, you’re unconsciously telling the other person, “You’re right, I’m wrong.” While it may not be true, that is the message being conveyed, and it makes their resistance of your points that much easier. So clearly he’s correct and we should not be dicks, right?
While his talk is brilliantly delivered and well on point – it in fact stresses points that I’ve gone out of my way to attempt to follow during my time here on Examiner – there are times when being a dick is not just called for, but works better than being nice.
Psychology may repeatedly show that being insulting shuts down peoples will to listen, ridicule improves a persons information acquisition. The reasoning behind this appears to be one of intent. Unlike simple derision, ridicule promotes a wish to prove the other person wrong and invests the target with motivation.
If you were to say in an argument with a Catholic, “Screw you, you pedophile worshiping baby-rapist” you’ve scored a cheap point, angered your opponent and accomplished nothing else.
If instead you said “Seriously, you sound like an idiot. Nothing you’ve argued exhibits any understanding of the subject and if you bothered to get off your knees and crack open a book other than the Bible, you’d know the clergy reports a higher percentage of abusers than any other trackable group,” there is a very real likelihood that your opponent will go away and actually crack open a book – just to prove you wrong!
In terms of return on investment, if you’re goal is to get people motivated to educate themselves, a few rapid-fire exchanges and a scathing tongue can often be far quicker than the time necessary to develop a personal relationship strong enough that a person is willing to do you the favor of challenging their sacred belief. PZ Myers is the exemplar of this approach, and he weekly he gets email from people saying that this approach is precisely how they’ve come around on Evolution, or atheism.
So what lesson is there to take away from this? Do we avoid ridicule, mockery and other forms of rude behavior simply because they are rude? Is being polite a better choice than being insulting?
In the end, I have to favor being polite. Others will obviously disagree with this, but in my opinion that is good. While mockery and ridicule might be great short-term strategies, for every person you coerce into going that extra mile to debunk you – and in turn proving themselves correct – there will be ten others who just hate you.
Politeness, no matter how difficult, will always be the better long-term strategy. Best yet, if you can manage polite mockery, you’ve the best of both worlds! This mixture is difficult to come by, but it does exist. One real life example of this method is the new Egyptian television show “I Want To Get Married,” featured on yesterday’s All Things Considered.
A sitcom, the show challenges Egypt’s traditional views on marriage, lampooning the outdated customs while still remaining within the bounds of decency and humor. As the show’s creator says “I predict it’s going to be a huge hit, without a doubt. It will invite controversy and discussion and debate, and that’s the exciting part.”
Precisely so, because it ridicules without insulting. It challenges without resorting to vitriol.
In the end, feel free to mock and ridicule – just don’t be a dick about it.