On unavoidable dickishness and whether to let the Wookie win

One of the prevailing themes to have come out of The Amazing Meeting 8 seems to have been, “Don’t be a dick,” which also happened to be the specific name of Phil Plait’s talk. Now I didn’t attend TAM8, so I’ve only recently gotten to hear the talk now that it’s made its way online. The issue that Plait was addressing was that of the tone skeptics use when challenging a particular belief, and it’s been a common topic of discussion among skeptics for some time now. In his talk, Plait draws a distinction between what he calls “warriors” and “diplomats” within the skeptical community.

In times of war, we need warriors. But this isn’t a war. You might try to say it is, but it’s not a war. We aren’t trying to kill an enemy. We’re trying to persuade other humans with logic and reason. And at times like that, we don’t need warriors, what we need are diplomats.

Now there’s certainly not much more I could add to the discussion that hasn’t already been said by others, so Plait’s talk is not the subject of this piece. But the reason I’m bringing it up is because last month I was reminded of one very serious obstacle skeptical “diplomats” face when interacting with true believers.

Because the true believer typically forms such an emotional attachment to a particular conclusion that it becomes part of their very identity, they often make it virtually impossible to politely disagree with them. This doesn’t just go for fanatics like the anti-vaccination community but is often especially true among post-modern relativists like New Agers, which I discussed in my last post.

Last month, there was a Saturday where I saw the benefits of the diplomatic approach. I encountered a pack of wild evangelicals in Union Square Park and I managed to have lengthy and very civil conversations with three of them individually. Each exchange pretty much ended with us shaking hands and in one case, I was even given an email in case I wanted to continue the discussion. This was a great example of what can happen when skeptics aren’t dicks.

But then the following Wednesday, one of my co-workers, whom I’ll call Storm after Tim Minchin’s spoken word piece, came into the office and mentioned that she’d gone to a psychic. I decided to bite my tongue and shut up for a little while. I didn’t want to be a dick. I was then relieved to see that another co-worker, Dan, started politely asking critical questions. Then an old friend of mine who I also work with followed suit.

When I saw World War III didn’t break out, I jumped in with some incredibly reserved softball skeptical questions of my own. As tempted as I was to jump on my skeptical soapbox, pull out the classic Forer Test example I always carry in my wallet, and go into explanations of basic mentalism  techniques like cold reading, I didn’t do it. In fact, the only thing I can even remember saying was simply that I hadn’t seen sufficient evidence to convince me that anyone had genuine psychic powers and that if they were real, I’d expect the world to look very different, with psychics working at banks and in trade negotiations, as well us being able to locate Osama bin Laden, etc. Very softball stuff.

Dan, who seemed to me much more moderate in his beliefs, continued to innocently ask critical questions and a conversation began. It was nothing new as we all often got into elaborate conversations at work about all manner of topics.  But then after about a minute of discussion, suddenly and seemingly without warning, Storm became agitated. She accused everyone of attacking her personally and accused me personally of some sort of blind disbelief in psychics because I was a “skeptic.” This was something that never actually came up when I was at work but was something my friend had apparently told my co-workers one day when I was out. And I suspect he completely failed to accurately explain the skeptical position.

But I was a little worried that it might have been something I’d said until Dan assured Storm that no one was calling her stupid and that we were just having a friendly conversation. And indeed, to any rational person, that’s all this was. And yet Storm seemed almost furious. The one minor point of agreement I scored came when she espoused something that sounded very much like The Secret, wherein she suggested anything was possible if one applied oneself. I replied that at 5”6’, I was unlikely to ever be Michael Jordon on the basketball court no matter how much I applied myself. Apparently psychic powers are credible but me becoming the greatest player in the NBA defies all plausibility.

The problem is that often true believers are easily offended by even the slightest adversity while skeptics tend to thrive on and genuinely enjoy conversing with those with different opinions. And so quite often even the nicest skeptic looks like a big, old meany simply for stating their opinion.  And yet nobody ever seems to view the believer as a big meany for bluntly and unapologetically expressing their opinions because skeptics tend to be tough and not generally brought to tears or fits of rage by mere disagreement.

I’m somewhat reminded of the chess scene in Star Wars when R2D2 is warned about upsetting Chewbacca by defeating him in the game. C-3PO comments that no one is ever concerned about upsetting a droid, to which Han Solo famously responds, “That’s because  a droid doesn’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose.” It makes me wonder if more people would choose not to “let the Wookie win” all the time if more skeptics pulled a few arms out of sockets too, so to speak.

As I said in the New Age piece linked to above, it seems as though relativism has regained popularity through the New Age Movement, which surprisingly, can be among the most vitriolic opponents in disagreements even though their reputation is that of touchy-feely, infinite open-minded, post-modernism. The problem is that the movement is open-minded and non-dogmatic of just about every type of belief except one that disagrees with their relativistic beliefs. So simply taking the position that some people may be objectively right about something while others are objectively wrong, especially in cases where those beliefs are mutually exclusive, is a big no-no with them. This makes them crazy because what their actual position is is anti-confrontationalism. They just want everyone to get along. What they don’t seem to realize is that confrontation can be a good thing and is often very beneficial to society.

I think the skeptical community needs both warriors and diplomats.  We also must realize that we’re often powerless to control  which of these two we’re going to be perceived as by the believer. And while this is a topic worthy of ongoing discussion, I think we take up far too much time on chastising ourselves instead of actually advocating for good science and highlighting the errors of bad science. In any group there are bound to be the fanatics who need to be reigned in but I find that among the big leaders of the movement, even the most aggressive skeptics are still many orders of magnitude more rational and reasonable than those on the other side. Skeptics shouldn’t feel like the only way they can not be a dick is to say nothing. Skeptics should always strive not to be dicks but there is a time when the kid gloves do have to come off and for the warrior to come out. And if the skeptical community is going to continue to grow, it’s going to need a few dicks who refuse to let the Wookie win.

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1 comment to On unavoidable dickishness and whether to let the Wookie win

  • Jake Krauss

    Great article, Mike, as usual. I agree with the major points. It doesn’t contradicts the “don’t be a dick” edict at all, though – being a non-dick doesn’t mean being the milquetoast straw-man that some critics attack (I’m not saying you’re doing that at all – I’m thinking of other people).

    Not being a dick means trying not to escalate things (and if possible, attempting to de-escalate them like Dan did), not backing down and being a doormat if the other person insists on escalating them. It means not being a wookiee yourself, not whimpering and retreating if the other person is a wookiee.

    “Assertive” is not synonymous with “dick”. If you say something to score a cheap point now even if it’s counterproductive in the long run, that’s being a dick. If you say something that the other person won’t like but try to be reasonably respectful so as to have a chance that it’ll be effective somewhere down the road, that’s being assertive.

    As with Storm, the believer may get disproportionately upset. Intentionally upsetting someone is dickish, but as long as you’re reasonably respectful, their lack of emotional control is their responsibility, not yours. To never express disagreement out of fear of upsetting someone’s eggshell emotions isn’t respect – it’s submission to emotional manipulation.

    Based on your description of what happened with Storm, you were a diplomat in a tense situation – a diplomat doesn’t magically transform into a warrior no matter how much the believer insists that disagreeing with them is tantamount to attacking them. This isn’t an example of unavoidable dickishness, but rather of being assertive – something any good skeptic must be if they want to be at all effective.

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