Tim Minchin is an Australian née British musician/composer/songwriter/comedian, particularly known for his outspoken skepticism. All the best humor can be found overseas; here we think Saturday Night Live is humorous, apparently since not very many people learned in school what “humor” actually means. It’s not fair.
Anyway, one of his most popular works is the beat-poem, Storm, later animated. I usually can’t stand beat-poetry, but this isn’t a bad example at all, and of course, I’m easily swayed by the subject matter. The scenario is all-too-familiar to those who promote critical thinking: some flaming nitwit drones on in public from a state of self-impressed ignorance, but it’s considered impolite to inject an empirical perspective. We have weird standards in our cultures, and Tim, among others, would prefer to see these become a bit different. That’s enough setup; watch the video.
It’s not just the act of contradicting someone publicly – skepticism itself is often considered to be mean, taking cherished beliefs away from people who, it seems, are emotionally delicate. The argument that such beliefs “don’t harm anyone” is heard pretty often, as if that’s the only standard that matters.
Or as if it’s even been established in the first place. Actually, many forms of ‘cherished beliefs’ have been demonstrated to be harmful in numerous ways – we cannot hide behind the shield of ‘opinion,’ since opinion informs our decisions. There’s a difference between what color we might paint our walls, and what we decide to do when our child is sick. It’s not opinion that’s the key factor, but consequence.
Here’s a portion of the difference between an outspoken skeptic and the hypothetical ‘polite’ person. Not speaking up, not correcting misapprehensions, not daring to create the cracks of doubt in the façade of self-assurance, has consequences too. The potential for real harm weighs rather heavily against the possibility, or even guarantee, that someone might get upset. What kind of person places the pleasant nature of their dinner party higher in importance than effectively treating a future illness, or guiding legislature towards useful purposes, or even just the hint that expecting some ‘spiritual purpose’ to guide one’s life is a waste of both time and intelligence? At best, it’s someone who pretends the correction, the better information, will occur someplace down the road before harm can be done. Mostly, however, it’s cowards – afraid of confrontation and believing that if no one gets upset, everything is just fine.
But, here’s an important bit: the skeptic does not have to be confrontational when providing their input, and this is where Storm is seriously misleading. Minchin goes off on a rant, clearly frustrated over seeing too much of this, and openly derogatory. But this is self-indulgent itself, alleviating frustration in a way virtually guaranteed not to have much of an effect; he even notes this himself in the poem yet, to all appearances, credits this to the intransigence of Storm rather than his own approach. While his overall points have plenty of well-grounded facts behind them, the delivery is as emotional as those who revel in ‘spiritual’ and ‘holistic,’ and such an approach is more a contest of wills than a discussion of relative merits. In most cases, a matter-of-fact approach is incredibly disarming; non-confrontational, non-judgmental, non-emotional – just, “this is how it is,” with supporting details as needed. This won’t work for everybody, but imagine those others at the party, listening to the discussion between a calm, lucid person and a dramatic, emotional one – who do you think they’re likely to pay more attention to? Who will provoke the consideration that perhaps there’s more to be learned? Who, to be blunt, seems to be working from solid info rather than a dogged commitment to what they want to believe?
Let’s not forget that no one ever concedes defeat in an argument, except dismissively or sarcastically. The goal cannot be to win, only to start the process of examination – the change will take time. Make your point and let it go.
The title of the poem has a secondary meaning – not just the name of the antagonist, but Minchin’s own thunderhead building to a climax. Storms often make people cower, however – the goal is to slide in under their umbrella, like a… damn, I can’t close this metaphor thematically. But you know what I mean anyway.