I’m one of the dicks Phil Plait is complaining about.

At the last The Amazing Meeting skeptic conference scientist/blogger Phil Plait gave a talk that has come to be known as the “Don’t Be a Dick” speech. In it he bemoans the fact that there are some skeptics out there who are less than… tactful… when it comes to addressing the idiots overly-credulous members of the general populace. Needless to say it has prompted quite a bit of discussion on the skeptic/atheist blogs out there. The video of the talk was made available about a month ago, but I hadn’t gotten around to watching it until today.

As I sat watching the video it became clear to me that I was one of the people he was complaining about. Phil has since said that he feels that he was misunderstood by some of the folks who have responded to his talk so he tried to be more specific about what he considers being dick-ish:

Perhaps I should have been more clear on what I mean by being a dick. I thought I had been clear, but a lot of people seem to think that I meant anyone who gets upset, or angry, or argues with emotion. I wouldn’t include satire in that category, or comedic work, or even necessarily using insults; tone and attitude count here. Think of it this way: when someone argues that way do you think to yourself, “What a dick”? I don’t; at least not necessarily. I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

Y’know. Being a dick.

Yep, done that on more than a few occasions and I don’t regret it at all. The reason why is simple: It’s what they needed to hear.

At the start of the video Phil rhetorically asks the audience how many people had their mind changed by someone calling them an idiot or a retard. In the video you can see that a few people actually raise their hands and he brushes them off as “probably kidding.” I can only assume the brush off occurs because it doesn’t jive with the point of his speech, which is that being a dick to someone will never change their mind. Yet there are many people out there, and I am one of them, who will honestly say that they have had their mind’s changed by being told what an idiot they are. There’s been more than a few topics on which I had wrong beliefs and was acting like an idiot until someone pointed out what an idiot I was being about the subject.

Phil says all that does is make people defensive and resort to knee-jerk rationalizations and that is often true, I’m certainly guilty of it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stop to consider the accusation of idiocy later when they have cooled down and are no longer in the midst of the argument. Not everyone will, but people who are anything like I am probably will and prompting that self-reflection can be the beginning of change.

Which isn’t to suggest that it’s always a good way to convince people of the wrongness of their beliefs or that it’s a tactic that will work on everyone you come across. It’s not even necessarily the first, second, or third approach you should take in any given situation, but to say that it never works is to deny reality. Some people need a swift metaphorical kick to the ass.

It should go without saying that the context of any given situation plays a hand in determining how much of a dick one should be. It’s probably not the best approach when in the middle of a formal dinner party, though I doubt that would stop Tim Minchin, and work is probably better saved for doing actual work. If the person you’re addressing shows any signs of being open to discussion then dickishness could indeed be counter-productive. The truth is that even us dicks aren’t dicks all the time. Anyone who has met PZ Myers first hand — often one of the first people pointed to as an example of a skep-dick  — will tell you he’s hardly the spittle flecked raving monster in real life that his detractors paint him to be. For that matter, neither am I. Despite what I may have named my blog. We can be more than reasonable and pleasant, and often are, but we can also be dicks when the situation calls for it. Which it sometimes does.

Pic of "Mistakes" demotivator poster.Of course there are some people out there for which no amount of ass-kicking will change their mind. But then nor will any amount of accommodating them with nicey-nicey non-confrontational presentations of the facts. Phil makes the mistake of assuming that it’s always the objective of the “dick” to change the mind of the target of their dickiness. I can’t speak for anyone else, but often times the person I’m in the middle of ridiculing is not the person I’m trying to reach. My real targets are the people who are watching the spectacle.

Phil is quite right when he says that the dream that someday all of humanity will reach some form of critical thinking Nirvana where all forms of pseudo-science and woo-woo are but faded memories will probably never happen. Critical thinking, as he points out, is hard and not the way we’re wired to think. Logically this means that there will always be some people who will believe even the stupidest of ideas no matter what facts and evidence you’re able to provide or how nice you are to them. We have a term for those people. We call them Lost Causes. As the satiric poster I included says: “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” I suppose if you wanted to be cynical about it, and I’ve never been afraid to be cynical, you could call these people “useful idiots.”

So yes, I’m a dick from time to time. Especially to the obvious lost causes who show up spoiling for a fight. If the chances of changing their mind are pretty much nil then I’m not sure I see the point in being nice about it. I’m definitely not going to hold back against the ones that are being dickish themselves. I don’t claim that being a dick is the only approach one should take or even that it’s the best, but I do feel that it has its place.

Phil metaphorically argues in his video that swinging wildly at a nail with a hammer will only destroy the wall. I say that when the wall is what’s preventing the truth from getting inside then destroying it should be the goal. I mean, why the fuck would you want to nail it closed any more than it already is?

13 thoughts on “I’m one of the dicks Phil Plait is complaining about.

  1. I have noticed that since I’m become more public with my writing and am actually working toward making a living at it, my tendency toward being dickish has waned. Hard to sell a book to someone who thinks that you’re an asshole.

    Of course, I’m still the same asshole, I’m just more diplomatic about it these days.

  2. The Cuttlefish says don’t be a Dick… or a Stan:

    There was a man whose name was Dick;
    Don’t ever be like him.
    His tone was rude; his tongue was quick;
    You’d never call him prim;
    He always called a spade a spade—
    Unvarnished was his truth—
    To argue, he was unafraid,
    And had been since his youth.

    Opponents claimed that Dick was mean
    (Of course, he did not care…

    I was shocked by Dickishness at first, but the truth is it helped me really face the fact that my faith was gone. Sometimes medicine makes you throw up and feel crummy.

    Later I came to understand that just saying you don’t believe in God is enough to be a Dick. The only way many faith-heads will be satisfied is if we sit down and shut up. No incredibly inoffensive bus ads, no orbiting teapots, no airborne pasta deities… just be quiet.

  3. I wouldn’t say that at all. I’m a big fan of Phil and his blog and I plan to watch his Discovery channel show when it airs. I just don’t necessarily agree with him that the only appropriate approach is the polite one. I have no problem with people taking that approach and I even use it myself when appropriate, but there are some folks out there who only respond to the unvarnished truth.

  4. One thing that seems to be roundly ignored by the DBAD people, far as I have seen, is that, pretty much without exception, we are all dicks to people when we think they deserve it. I doubt there are very many people, even the biggest of dicks, who don’t feel justified in their choices to be dicks when they were dicks. Even most all of the DBAD people have been dicks to different people or groups in the past, when they thought those people or groups deserved it.

    Looked at in that perspective, the proscription against being a dick really means little more than “Don’t be a dick to people I don’t think deserve it,” or, to rephrase it (and simplify a bit, to be sure), “Be nice to the people that I like.”

    Sorry, but that’s not how I operate. I will treat people as I feel they deserve to be treated, and you will do the same. To deny that is to either lie or to be extremely self-deluded. Your feelings may differ from mine, but that doesn’t change that we both think we’re fully justified in our actions.

    If you want me to ease up on a specific person or group, name a specific action I took that you feel is dickish and explain why you feel the target did not deserve it. Do no make blanket statements about the undesirability of “dickishness” when all you really mean is “Be nice to the same people that I’m nice to.”

    Especially when it isn’t clear that said dickishness is a problem, either in the general or in the specific.

    And you know what? Sometimes it’s just fun to be a dick. That’s why the Germans have the word “schadenfreude.”

  5. Good post, Les, and personally I think the amount of discussion going on about the subject is a good indicator that there is not a huge problem with assholes ruining the image of skeptics and non-believers. As PZ has pointed out, and DOF mentioned here, simply stating the truth as we see it, with no bad attitude at all, is a major source of completely unwarranted offence to believers in all kinds of woo, and especially the religious.

    I’m not one to always promote “the middle road”, but I do also think that Phil, and other people often referred to as “tone trolls” (especially on pharyngula) have taken a fair amount of unwarranted abuse just for promoting civility. I think that Phil was speaking to the wider crowd about basic manners, not saying that specific bloggers have any responsibility to keep things “nice” all the time. I’ve never seen “being a dick” as a problem here, or on Bad Astronomy or the Dawkins or Randi forums, or in anything that PZ has written either, but there certainly are, at times, a lot of smug, condescending, self-appointed expert assholes in the comments on Pharyngula. Some days, on some subjects, it reads like a Fark thread full of trolls. I have absolutely no problem with this, and I know that there are reasons…I deal with LOTS of uber-religious conservatives who can’t even seem to want to relate to me as a human being at all, and we all need a place to vent. It seems to me that Phil was talking more about real life, or at least personal interaction (not blogger posts, but conversations in comments) on the internet. Perhaps like me, he has known many people whose quietly held religious beliefs were not an obstacle to critical thinking in other areas, and who never expected others to live by them.

    I’ve been a liberal, non-religious skeptic since high school, roughly-I know full well that being overly worried about manners does nothing for an unpopular cause. There are many who will ignore, misrepresent, or poo-poo anything that goes against their beliefs, no matter how evidence-based and reasonable it is and politely it may be phrased. And there are certainly times when a good kick in the ass is what is needed. But I think many of us have also seen it from the other side. One comparison could be the classroom…I’ve had teachers who were sharp, witty, and to the point, who could skillfully use a bit of sarcasm or mild insult to make a point, and enhance the learning process. I have also had teachers who maybe thought they were witty enough to do that, but who were obviously alienating people(sometimes both the slow ones, and sympathetic others) who may well have been reachable and teachable otherwise. If a person is having trouble grasping or accepting a concept, it probably won’t help them if they know you think that they are already an obviously incurable moron, just because they are wrong about any one certain issue. And it seems intuitive to me(but perhaps dead wrong) that this would probably be even more the case when higher levels of emotion, internalization, or attachment are involved.

    I’m sure for many the reverse is true…when the belief is primarily based in emotion and tradition, maybe it is often better to use a bit of shock to crack the veneer. I’ve seen it work, or at least stimulate discussion that might otherwise never happen. Again, I don’t think Phil was advocating any kind of “appeasement” or saying that PZ and Dawkins need to shut up, but simply observing that if every single skeptic and non-believer opts for a scorched earth policy like some seem to, there will be plenty of people turned off, who might have been reachable. He could very well be completely wrong, and I’m sure that for many people, he is wrong- but there are aspects of religion that offer community, stability, and positive emotional experiences that critical thinking often does not, and I don’t want people to be dead or destitute victims of medical quacks, faith healers, psychics or other swindlers just because they fell they need the emotional comfort of belief in god or an afterlife, and nobody could be bothered to look for the reasonable aspects of their personalities. Maybe Phil is way too worried about fallout from negativity, but I’m not experienced enough to say for sure. I’ve been so thick-skinned, independent minded, and skeptical of just about everything for so long that I’m really starting to forget what it’s like to be a “believer” in any sense.

  6. Great writeup Les

    Particular this point: “I can’t speak for anyone else, but often times the person I’m in the middle of ridiculing is not the person I’m trying to reach. My real targets are the people who are watching the spectacle.”–

  7. I think Les has a point, but so does Phil. The whole point of these kinds of skeptical debates is (or at least should be) to understand the other (wrong) point of view so that you can tailor your arguments to the person you’re dealing with. Some people won’t respond well to being called names. Some will. Some people won’t respond well to being given logic. Some will.

    That being said I agree with Phil that there are too many in the skeptical community who DO insult the other side without regard to whether it will be an effective debating technique or not. THAT has to stop.

    I’d rather go with the slightly plagiaristic axiom that says “Don’t be a Dick…. until it’s time to be a Dick.”

    Or the more popular… and even more plagiarized:

    “You can get more with a kind word and a two-by-four than you can with just a kind word.”

  8. I can’t help but marvel at how un-clarifying that clarification is. Being a dick is belittling your opponent, but insulting them is okay? Anger, passion and getting upset are fine, but don’t use overly inflammatory language or aggressively get in their face? It sounds more and more like the “don’t be a dick” crowd–Phil included–are trying to come up with a blanket condemnation that still leaves room for all the examples that they approve.

    Which, as far as I’m concerned, renders the whole speech, movement, and attitude utterly useless. It’s one thing to give out advice on what specific things to do or not to do; that’s something that we can discuss and debate and otherwise intelligently engage with. When your advice boils down to “don’t do anything that you subjectively consider dickish,” you’ve offered nothing of value or substance to anyone. Obviously I’m not going to behave in ways that I would consider dick behaviors–unless, of course, I think the situation warrants it, as Les rightly points out–because I consider those to be dick moves.

    But what I think is a dick move is different from what Phil thinks is a dick move, and so forth. This clarification itself is unclear–is Phil saying you should trust your dick conscience, and not do anything that you consider dick behavior, or is he saying that you shouldn’t do anything that he considers dick behavior and just isn’t clear about defining that? Or does he think that “being a dick” has some universally-agreed-upon definition, despite all the calls for him to offer just such a definition.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if we’re going to talk about what we consider “dick” behavior, then I’d say talking down to a community of adults and saying that some of them have been very naughty and they need to learn how to behave in public is right toward the top. And while I don’t think that was necessarily Phil’s intent, his coy reluctance to provide examples, his inability to offer a coherent and objective definition, and his unwillingness to engage honestly with critics have conspired to make him look like the Haleakala of condescending pricks. And the legion of holier-than-thou “nice guys” who have surrounded him and each interpreted his speech to support their particular brand of smugly superior nonoffensiveness have soured an already sour presentation.

    That being said, I didn’t have any problem watching “Bad Universe” last night, and I don’t think Phil is intentionally being a jerk. I think he’s bought into a convenient narrative with a convenient scapegoat/bad guy, and I don’t think he’s thought it through enough to see that his waffling and strawmanning are signs of the position’s untenability.

    Sorry to use your comments as a soapbox, Les. Thanks for pointing me toward the post though.

  9. By all means, use my comments as a soapbox. I actively encourage it. 🙂

    I did think it was interesting to see Phil post the Penn & Teller Bullshit clip on anti-vaccination on his site considering his DBAD talk. I know a lot of people who consider the way P&T present their arguments as being the epitome of Dickishness, but apparently Phil doesn’t have a problem with them. Which just makes his definition all the more hard to grasp. I could argue that at my worst I’m still tamer than the average episode of P&T Bullshit.

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