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?