What to be, or not to be

First off, I’ll give credit for the idea of this post to Carl Sagan, and most especially his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I cannot recommend this book enough, and not just for those who pursue critical thinking – it applies to anyone, and makes the reader aware that there are lots of ways that we can be fooled. Moreover, Sagan has one of the best approaches I’ve seen, and is an engaging writer for any mature or semi-mature reader. I have been planning a book review for some time, and this may appear here eventually, but don’t wait for me.

Second, this post is another followup to the Don’t Be A Dick foofaraw, just to warn you. But this is not more of the debate – instead it’s perhaps a redirection and refinement. I recommend that you go on, but I was nice enough to include this warning and continue after the jump ;-)

To jump directly to the point, I think a much better message overall is, “Don’t Be a Pole.” No, this is not simply a variation of Phil Plait’s original message, utilizing a more vague term for penis, nor is it a slight against people from Poland. It’s actually an extension of something I posted about before. The key phrase from Sagan came in Chapter 17, and might be found at the top of page 300 in the paperback version:

And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs Them – the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive.

The idea of polarization comes up from our nasty tendency to cut choices down to only two, representing opposite ends of the spectrum: good or bad, black or white, and so on. But it also comes from another nasty tendency: to characterize someone by their stance on a particular topic or subject. You support government-subsidized healthcare? Why, you must be a socialist! You’re from Los Angeles? Geez, I feel sorry for you – the Lakers suck!

It represents a shortcut in thinking – no, scratch that, it represents a method of avoiding thinking altogether. We, as a species, are amazingly good at forming an opinion of people, from individuals on up to entire countries, based on some ridiculously tiny factor. And in doing so, ignoring the thousands of nuances that make all of us those individuals in the first place. And once we have characterized anyone as “them,” we can thus proceed with our contempt of them.

Now, let me pause right here and make a very specific, particular distinction, one that gets lost constantly: the issue is not contempt, the holding of it nor the use of it. There are actually very good reasons to have this. The issue is in how it is applied.

It is completely, perfectly okay to hold some standpoint, action, opinion, or statement in contempt – you have my distinct and irretractable permission. The issue only comes from extending such contempt beyond the contemptible concept to everything that the holder is or does. It is (usually) not an adequate reason to characterize someone, or to slot them into a particular set, or ignore the other things that they do. Be very specific, and address only the contemptuous subject. Sometimes, this takes no small amount of effort in breaking a habit we never really knew we had, much less resorted to constantly.

There’s another side of the coin, too – in receiving contempt, or even simply criticism or commentary (such as photo critiques – hah! Didn’t think I’d bring this back to photography, did you?), ensure that you’re responding only to the criticism or comment itself, and not treating it as a reflection of you as a person. If the statement is, “You didn’t consider Jung’s position,” the message is not, “You suck as a person and should be rendered into Soylent Green.”

And this is a large portion of the issues I had with Phil Plait’s approach. You see, many, perhaps most, people pursuing skepticism or critical-thinking are well aware of something called, “ad hominem attacks,” which means attacking the person, not the argument, and in fact they have to counter such approaches all of the time. While skeptics are not immune to such bad behavior, they are, of any group of people you care to name, much more aware of it than average.

Which is why I was one of many clamoring for examples of the behavior Phil considered common. I can, much more easily, find examples of any particular skeptic/critical-thinker who addressed a specific issue, distinctly and without rancor or derogatory content, who was then attacked personally (if only verbally/textually – I’m getting pretty annoyed with the prevalence of combative terms when referring to something as benign as discussion forums.) In far too many cases, for subjects like UFOs and alternative medicine to name only two, proponents and supporters react far too defensively to comments that were not derogatory or denigrating at all. There’s not much you can do about this once you’re on the receiving end, except calmly point out that you did not dismiss or attack, you only addressed the specific issue itself.

The key, of course, is that this is what you were doing in the first place, which is why I changed the message to, “Don’t Be A Pole,” or to clarify, “Don’t resort to extremes, polarization, or characterizing someone by a lone factor.” Address the issues, only.

Nicely? No, I said nothing at all about that – you should feel no restrictions whatsoever in being firm or even forceful (again, we’re talking discussion forums or conversation here, not physical action) if the subject you are addressing warrants it. Some standpoints, such as racial or sexual prejudice, deserve to be treated as ignorant, not simply misinformed, and being polite or mild in reacting to them fails to convey the strength of your disagreement. This is different from calling someone ignorant (or acting as if they are) because they vote along a different party line than you do.

Should this be a rule to follow? Not exactly, because there’s no criteria that can be expressed that will apply in a foolproof manner. Some standpoints are so extreme that avoiding polarization, while completely fair, is of little use. Pol Pot, for instance, might have been a great father, but I feel comfortable in saying that no amount of time with his kids, or even everyone’s kids, can offset genocide. I don’t like resorting to extreme cases, because the vast majority of things we will ever face will not come anywhere near this level of loathsomeness, but I feel obligated to include it as an example of using judgment rather than following “rules.” Overall, though, one should certainly make the effort to deal with the argument or standpoint, and recognize that virtually no one can be defined by solely one factor, so they shouldn’t be treated as if they are.

I’m even going to call Carl Sagan out on the message I’m quoting – simply because it doesn’t apply only to those who want to pursue critical thinking. Everyone, in all walks of life, has the same tendency to fall for polarized thinking, and needs to be aware enough of this very human “instinct,” for want of a better word. We have this tendency because, at some point in the past, it worked better for us – but that might have been in conditions that were entirely different. Just like Microsoft products, evolution can be very slow to weed out flaws in the system.

Okay, I just compared Microsoft to evolution, which both praised Microsoft and insulted the shit out of evolution. Please be aware I hold Microsoft a few thousand kilometers below the level of respect for evolutionary theory. A little above Pat Robertson, though…

But to recap, the more important message is to know your message, and stay on it. Someone may find capitalism to be a flawed system, and you may disagree – this doesn’t make them a communist. Someone might defend the catholic church – this doesn’t make them a pedophile. You should, however, feel perfectly warranted in asking them if the church’s coverup of such practices is consistent with their message, and in no way feel self-conscious about disrespecting beliefs, or think that you’re attacking them as a person – regardless of how they feel about the question. The idea of being a “dick” is purely subjective. Imagine, if you will, that we had some kind of law against being offended (note to roughly one-third of the population of the US: we don’t.) You would never be able to address any form of bad behavior again. Never fire anybody, regardless of how much they fucked up. Never jail anybody. Never issue a failing grade, or hold any student back a year. How utterly pointless.

There is also a difference between those that choose to embrace critical thinking, and those (like myself) that choose to promote it as well. When it is promoted, it should be shown to be more functional and effective than the alternatives. Displaying it as polarization, as a method of forcing an issue into an extreme position of one side or another, defeats the whole point, and is actually no different an approach than many used today, such as in politics. To some small extent, this is perhaps what the “Don’t Be A Dick” message was supposed to say. You can’t use vague subjective terminology to say this, though, because that’s ineffective communication as well. And as we got to see, the message was interpreted far too many different ways.

6 comments to What to be, or not to be

  • The Manatee

    I too am a big fan of “Demon-Haunted World” and would be very interested in your review of it. Be sure to address Sagan’s stance on how parents’ lackluster reactions to their children’s curiosity contributes to the quelling of their inquisitive nature as they grow.

    You state that folks who hold certain standpoints (sexism and racism are examples) “Deserve to be treated as ignorant, not simply misinformed”. I interpreted your intent here to be that racism and sexism are indefensible positions (I agree), but I wasn’t sure what you meant by the phrase that I quoted. Or perhaps a better pathway to my understanding your point would be to ask how you distinguish between “ignorant” (lacking knowledge) and “misinformed” (to be given false or misleading information) and what treatments they respectively deserve.

    • Al Denelsbeck

      As for the book review, sit tight on that for a few days – I’ve had less time to finish my notes this past week than anticipated ;-)

      To clarify, I was using the two keys words a little differently than what you stated, in one of the other common uses. “Ignorance” is differentiated from simply “not knowing” in that the information and opportunity are there, but willfully ignored or avoided – ignorance then being a purposeful state. “Misinformed” in your usage applies just fine, or can also be substituted with “uninformed” if you like. I try to write to get my point across easily, and not bog down the text with the efforts of being too precise, but in some cases this works the other way ;-)

      You touch on a contentious issue, though, and one that’s hard to state clearly: the difference between firm definitions and “opinion,” for want of a better word. Sexism, for example, has a specific definition, but applying this to real world situations often relies on interpretation. My usage of it for any particular circumstance could easily be challenged, because a large portion of such definitions is subjective. What many people fail to realize (I’m not making any accusations here, just taking the opportunity to mini-post) is that those precise definitions are defined by society’s use of them, not vice versa. Language changes. Letting yourself get drawn into a debate about whether a word was used “properly” is simply getting sidetracked. All debate is opinion – it almost never has the weight of “proper definition” on either side. The key is simply stating your opinion clearly, and with convincing rationale. The word “sexism,” for instance, didn’t appear until recently in our history, though the practice itself has been condoned in multiple cultures and ways for centuries. It was the weight of the argument, and the will of growing numbers of people, that changed the perspective and created the word, and by extension the reaction to it. Opinion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and no one should feel self-conscious about having one. But the emphasis should be on informed opinion.

  • The Manatee

    Better luck next weekend…

    I am fine with your point about getting overly involved in debating the meaning of words, and I agree with your point about society and language (Imagine how your life would be different if J. K. Rowling had titled her first book “Al Denelsbeck and the Sorcerer’s Stone”)! That wasn’t what I was getting at in my comment, I was more interested in difference in treatment, whatever definition you care to use for those terms. In the misinformed case, one (appropriate) response would be education, which could lead to larger scale improvements. In the other case (willful ignorance), depending on the extent of the willfulness, education also seems like an appropriate response. As you’ve indicated in other venues, another response could be strong disapproval which can serve to at least inform (if not educate) the party on how their stance is perceived by others.

    But how does this feed back into Sagan’s quote about the monopoly on truth? Where is the line between an us vs. them response that is “unconstructive” and being “firm and forceful” against willful ignorance?

    • Al Denelsbeck

      A lot of this is in the context of Phil Plait’s original post, so I’ll provide just a little background on that. Basically, he said [paraphrased because he never bothered to clarify any further], “Don’t be mean, it doesn’t work.” I disagreed. Being mean does, on occasion, work. But more to the point is that you have to tailor your response to the argument and/or the arguer.

      I linked to Touch of Grey because it addressed the idea of polarization, and has bearing on Phil’s advice. Basically, the dividing line you ask about above doesn’t really exist – there are no rules that can be applied, so your own judgment has to be used. And that also includes whatever personality you bring to the discussion. Certain standup comics, for instance, are known for biting sarcasm, and communicate effectively with this. The audience puts this approach into perspective very quickly and largely accepts it (with, naturally, some exceptions.)

      Online discussions/debates are a different circumstance from nearly all other venues. The comments are often open to anyone, the commenters are anonymous, anyone can choose what to respond to or simply leave, and so on. This leads to some traits not normally seen anywhere else, such as trolling, ranting, and posting lengthy screeds. These almost demand a responding style all by themselves.

      Education is all well and good, and I’m hoping I haven’t come across against it (the other posts on this blog should belie that, I think.) And when the opportunity to educate is there, by all means it should be taken. But not everyone is participating in a forum to listen to reasoned arguments or discuss the subject openly. On top of that, not everyone has arrived at their standpoint through rational means – surprisingly few, actually. One particular example is the ubiquitous, “If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?” The only reason this remains around is that it is repeated triumphantly in creationist circles. It has been answered, patiently, methodically, and with plenty of references, for the past 150 years, but the education aspect of that hasn’t worked… because the goal was never to find out how evolution works, but to support a position already firmly entrenched in the commenter’s mind. It’s a soundbite argument, and explaining why it’s total nonsense is likely to fall on deaf ears, most especially online.

      But suppose I shoot back a withering response that not only denigrates the stance, but calls the commenter’s intelligence into question? I am, by most definitions, being mean, or as Phil would say, a dick, maybe even a capital D Dick. That’s a no-no, if you follow the rule. The real question, however, is whether I have accomplished anything, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say, “Yes, I have.” For one, the argument is very unlikely to be used again by that commenter, or anyone else reading along. It has lost its power as a soundbite. It has become clear that I, at least, find the argument to be not only wrong, but stunningly so, worthy of contempt. And, quite possibly, it plants the kernel of doubt in the commenter’s mind about whether this information was received in good faith in the first place. Even if the commenter flees the discussion, when the topic comes up again, they’ll likely be paying attention to find out why they received the response they did.

      There is a certain aspect to debate that also has some effect, and it is rarely addressed in discussions. No response at all is often considered tacit agreement, rather than neutrality or, most unfortunately for anyone espousing critical thinking, simply realizing that responding is a lost cause. Would anyone debate Rush Limbaugh on any aspect of the things he continually has wrong? I suspect most people would avoid it because there wouldn’t be much point – but in debate terms, that’s actually a victory for Rush.

      It can be extremely easy to ask a question in but three seconds, one that takes several minutes to fully answer in an educational manner – provided you have the opportunity to spend that time (and are willing.) This is actually a common and well-known tactic, intended to provide a fast scoring point that cannot be rebutted easily. The tactic that works in return, so far the only one I’ve ever seen, is the nasty rejoinder, preferably one that throws the ball back into the opposing court. This now obligates the commenter to try again on the same subject, using another approach, and often they’re not ready for this. However, it also opens the door to discussion. Once you have received an honest question from the commenter, or a source of info, you can then begin to work from there. And yes, I’ve seen this work, and have done it myself.

      But how does this feed back into Sagan’s quote about the monopoly on truth? Where is the line between an us vs. them response that is “unconstructive” and being “firm and forceful” against willful ignorance?

      I suspect what you’re trying to ask is whether a “common ground” approach can be found that negates the “sides of the issue” type of debate, and again, this all depends on the argument. I think we’re approaching much the same thing from two different directions. Yes, in whatever case that this is available, finding or working from common ground is preferable, and more likely to be effective than many other approaches, most especially being mean, sarcastic, or condescending. Though there are occasions where common ground is unlikely to be found.

      What I’m saying, however, is to deal with the issues first and foremost, and all by themselves. In this way, you don’t enter into the opposing fields style of debate, but simply work on the idea of supporting a standpoint with its own merits, and requiring others to do the same. This does require a receptive and mature commenter and/or audience, however, and you don’t always have that. In the cases where you don’t, you have to choose a different approach or, by failing to respond adequately, you leave the issue as it stands, even when it is frighteningly misinformed.

      Some people may choose to avoid any negativity whatsoever, which is fine – I’m very much in support of personal preferences in discussion. It’s part of the reason I have issues with Phil’s approach, though, because he took the standpoint that, “Be Nice,” was the only effective method of discussion, which is just as polarized as if I had said, “Be Nasty,” instead. There is a time and a place for both. Judgment is what is necessary.

  • The Manatee

    I want to address your second reply in a point-by-point way in an incredibly well-crafted paragraph, but, as we are all aware, there is often quite a gap between what we want and what we can bring about. So, instead, I’ll address the points as I remember them in a less-than-organized response.

    To start with the Rush Limbaugh example – I both understand where you are coming from and agree under the rules of debate. But we are not having a debate with Rush (or Bill Maher for that matter), they are both entertainers and are often dismissed as such. Arguing against either of them, both gives more credibility and wastes the rebutters time. It goes back to what you said about a receptive debating opponent.

    I do, wholeheartedly agree with you that internet blogs and comments are a unique forum with problems not found elsewhere. The only analogy (sorry) I can think of is the way you can curse out the anonymous driver of a car in your circle of traffic influence, but immediately change your tune when you recognize through the windshield someone you know from your kids’ school. In that sense, I also agree that different styles of behavior are required to handle these different forums. In particular, your point about “Be Nice” is as useless as “Be Nasty” is well-taken.

    I also agree that the education option is time-consuming and can be a waste depending on the audience.

    I find my stream-of-thought not yielding a satisfying conclusion, so I’ll stop here and mull.