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.