Irony, Hypocrisy, and Being Human

I began this as a comment in response to this post by Daniel Loxton, but I had more to say than I thought, so I moved it here. Although this topic has been discussed to death, I do want to weigh in with a perspective that I have yet to see clearly expressed. Perhaps my experiences are unique, but I doubt it.

A little background:

I tend to be somewhat of a centrist. I often find that the center is the most rational place to be in most debates. In this case, very few people seem to be of the opinion that we should never raise our voices and so the argument is between those advocating for a tone which lacks ridicule, meanness, and other personal attacks and those who claim that such approaches are often effective and sometimes the best choice.

The most vocal of those on the “no ridicule” side are Daniel Loxton and Phil Plait, whose now infamous talk at the Amazing Meeting 8, which I have embedded below, has now been discussed ad nauseum, misinterpreted, clarified, praised, criticized, and every other manner of dissection. In his post, Daniel gives an excellent analysis of the discussion, but even after all of this talk, I continue to feel that the discussion is incomplete and this is my attempt at filling it in.

We all seem to agree that kindness/dickery is not dichotomous, yet we continue to talk about it as if it were.

I would not characterize myself as “kind” in most situations, which troubled me when I first began to think seriously about this issue.

I thought, “There is really no way to tell someone that they are wrong (even if you do it by simply stating what is correct) without hitting a nerve.”

Now, after much thought, discussion, and reading “dickery”, I have realized that being direct, and even forceful, is not “being a dick”.

I do not believe that there is ever a time when ridicule and ad homs are the only choices and I think that there are very few circumstances when they are the best choice. The only situation which comes to mind is when one has been repeatedly subjected to such arguments themselves. (Of course, I do not always make the best choice, but I’m human.)

That said, we do not need to be “kind” or “gentle”, which often requires sugar-coating criticism, to avoid being a dick.

At least by my definition of those terms, the sugar-coated approach is usually as ineffective as vitriol (yes, I can back that up with literature).

What we need to be, as Daniel mentioned, is truthful. And what we need to do, also as he mentioned, is construct valid arguments with supported premises. Ad homs and ridicule have no place in rational debate.

Of course, rational debate often doesn’t work, either, because people are very poor reasoners. However, I stand by my conclusion that it has a better chance than any form of dickery has of advancing our cause, which I understand to be the promotion of critical thinking.

We are not here to convince people to adopt a party line – a set of conclusions. If that were the goal, all of those morally and ethically questionable persuasive techniques would be part of an effective arsenal. And, were that the goal, I would not be a part of it. We aim to give people the motivation and skills to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions – to be rational.

I find the irony of this debate beyond words. We can promote reason using irrational personal attacks? Really?

Phil’s talk:

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

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4 comments to Irony, Hypocrisy, and Being Human

  • Yours is probably one of the more calm and rational responses to the whole mess. Like you, I tend to be more centrist. I think being a dick is usually a bad idea, but I can see that it has a place every now and again.

  • Seantheblogonaut

    I think side with Daniel in his point about questioning why or whether DBAD really needs to be explained. But then I have an education background and generally am fairly nice around people generally, even when they are being arseholes. I think this debate is now flogging a dead horse, yep be truthful, give good reasoning don’t sugar coat things and remember you are not there to beat the other person into submission.

    Similarly it doesn’t mean don’t speak up if you have a view.

  • badger

    In Daniels blog entry, he quotes a humanist principle “Every person needs to be accorded a modicum of respect and dignity”

    The word ‘needs’ is important, due to our evolutionary and cultural history as homo sapiens. We have relied on our group for support and for the majority of our history would die without that. If a person is not accorded respect and dignity, at a base level they respond as if their existence is threatened.

    In my humble opinion, this mitigates constructive communication.

    Combined with what you write above, Barb, I think that a lot of progress can be made in fostering critical thinking.

  • Deb

    I think the important point you hit here is about goals. So much of the discussion I’ve seen is getting hung up on who and what a dick is, rather than asking what are you trying to achieve and how can you achieve it. And there seem to be a plethora of different goals out there.