Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fuck you. And other thoughts on being 'a dick'

Not for the first time I am late to the party on this.

For quite some time there's been an argument raging around the skeptical blogosphere that comes down to, as Dr. Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer) describes it, "Don't be a dick." You can find the talk he gave on the subject on YouTube, in three parts. Basically, it's an argument about tone - why do we have to be mean? Why are we insulting? Why do we use bad words? Your demeanour gets in the way, why can't you be nice when shattering people's ignorance and delusions?

Not surprisingly, I don't entirely agree with Dr. Plait and other people who make the same argument. Whilst I agree that you should focus on your goal, I don't agree that the only way to reach it is by being nice. This post is about why I really don't like the tone argument. In fact, I think it is bullshit.

First I'll start with the obvious irony that has been pointed out already I'm sure. The tonesters make an argument against calling people names by... calling people a name. Nice. Did that just pass the tonesters by or was it part of a cunning plan to prove their point? If, as the tonesters say, people are not convinced by calling them names then what did they think their argument that my tone makes me a dick would do? Convince me? Because, if they as a tonester believe what they say is true, then they knew it wouldn't convince me, didn't they? So they were just being insulting. In fact, they were being a dick. In the words of Phil Plait - what was their goal?

What the tone argument comes down to is this - we (skeptics, scientists, critical thinkers, atheists) have a hard message to sell and being rude, or using naughty words, just makes it harder. No-one will listen to us if we are mean. We won't achieve our goal of debunking nonsense if we aren't polite.

I have one thing to say to this:


And here is why it is bollocks: no matter how polite we are, no matter how careful we are to avoid using naughty words or even the appearance of being insulting or rude, somebody somewhere will think we are being a dick. We are criticising cherished beliefs that people have invested their lives in. We are criticising things that form the foundations of peoples whole belief systems and even their way of life. We are criticising things that make people money. It doesn't matter how nice you are about it - they are going to think you are being a dick. Even if you have all the facts on your side. Even if you phrase your argument in as friendly and neutral a way as you can, somebody will think you are being mean. Someones feelings will be hurt. You're already being a dick before your tone is even considered.

This being the case, who defines what being a dick is? Is it something more than just telling people they are wrong about something? Who gets to decide and why?

Is it the tonesters? Because as far as I can see their definition is "A dick is anyone who doesn't argue as politely as I do." So they can just fuck off.

Is it the people who we are arguing against? Surely everyone can see the problem with that. Dissent can be utterly silenced because all anyone has to do is say "I think you are being a dick." And that's the end of that, isn't it? So they can just fuck off too.

Are the tonesters so naive and sheltered that they think nobody anywhere will ever get upset by even the most carefully worded and polite criticism?

But then, if they accept that yes someone might be offended no matter what, how then do they take their tone argument as anything other than a capitulation? As self censorship? If I can't be a dick, but someone somewhere will undoubtedly think I am being one no matter what I do or say, then where are we? The answer is, we are left unable to say anything lest we tread on someones toes or hurt someones feelings. And our goal, to light the flame of critical thinking, is extinguished from the beginning.

And I know that not wanting to be a dick has resulted in censorship of skepticism because I've self censored myself (hey, that type of anecdote was good enough in Phil Plait's speech, why not here?). How many of you who consider yourselves to be skeptics have knowingly not made a skeptical argument to someone because you just knew that they were going to think you were being mean? That you were being a dick? I've refrained from saying stuff to lots of my friends, even just politely pointing out that they were wrong about something factual or pseudo scientific, because I knew they would think I was being a bit of a dick. A killjoy. A bit arrogant. A bit rude even. How many skeptics have been called mean, rude or angry because they politely pointed out some point of inaccuracy or nonsense? On Facebook I wrote a little thing about some of the horrors contained in the Bible and was called mean and angry. Was it because I used the words "fuck" and "bloody" or because I pointed out that the Bible contains all manner of things that no-one likes to talk about? In other words, was someone who themselves used plenty of those gosh darned naughty words offended by my tone, or the substance? I also remember once very politely and calmly (yes, I can do it) pointing out the problems with The Secret to a group of friends - you should have heard the names I was called just for doing so.

And so, if it was the substance rather than the tone that made me a dick then, well, what are we supposed to do if we can't be a dick?

Furthermore - who says that a polite tone or demeanour stops you from being a dick? When the Pope makes a well written and calm speech that equates atheism and Nazism, is he being a dick? I sure as shit think he is, and I don't think the only correct answer is "I respectfully disagree sir, but I respect your right to compare me to Heinrich Himmler just because I don't believe in the existence of gods." This version: "Fuck you, you child rapist protecting dress wearer. And by the way, here's why you are wrong..." is just as good. Sometimes we need to shake people up. Sometimes we need to show people how angry we are. Because that might help them understand.

Or how about this. My in-laws have tried to teach my children Christianity, basically to convert them to good little god botherers. Without my consent. Behind my back. Despite my express wishes, which they are well aware of. I found out only by accident. They were, I am sure, polite about it. I am sure that, as far as they are concerned, it was done with the best of intentions. Were they being dicks or not, as the tonesters would see it? There was nothing wrong with their tone or demeanour, after all.

Calling homosexuals sinners - are you being a dick or not? Telling me I am going to hell for not believing - being a dick or not? The tone isn't offensive to me. There are no naughty words. But I still think anyone who holds and expresses those sentiments is being a dick even though they didn't insult me.

The point is that tone on its own doesn't necessarily make you a dick - they're just words. Substance on its own can, and if we have to censor the substance then we've lost before we even begin.

On top of this - what is wrong with calling something as you see it anyway? The fear of calling religion what it is, is the very reason it has the privileged position in society that it does. Politeness is the worst enemy of criticism. If someone is being an idiot, why shouldn't I say so? If something is bullshit, why shouldn't I say so? Sarah Palin is a moron, why pretend otherwise? Sylvia Brown is a lying old hag, why shouldn't I point that out? The Law of Attraction is a crock of shit.

Which leads nicely to my own position on this - if people are going to think I am a dick because of what I say anyway, then I am sure as hell going to have fun with how I say it, and I am going to express myself honestly and openly. And that means I am going to be a dick sometimes. Alright, most times. And if you think I'm doing it wrong and your way is better I have one thing to say to you:

Fuck you. With bells on.

Mockery of religion and pseudoscience, in other words people being dicks, is what helped me start to question those things - and I know of others. As PZ Myers and others have written on the subject - we need both approaches, the polite and the not so polite. To use a few of the analogies that Phil Plait uses in his talk: Yes, sometimes small well aimed taps of the hammer will do and are the best approach, but sometimes we need a fucking great big wrecking ball. Or: Yes, I might be scoring cheap points, but even cheap points can win the game if it means you score more than the other guys.

But here is the real kicker - I, and nearly all of the skeptics (and the rest) that I read, generally adopt the tone of the person I am responding to. So if I am being a dick, guess what... ?

They might not think they are being a dick, but that is how I interpret it.

And that is why the tone argument is so fucking stupid.


  1. Jim, you're a dick. Don't change. As various evangelical preachers have found out, life is better if you have some dick in it.

  2. Jim, you're a dick.

    Ha! Thanks. Come on, confess, how long have you been looking for an excuse to say that!

  3. There's a film that has something about "dicks" and "assholes", and "pussies" too (albeit metaphorically, not literally.