Not a dry eye in the house

Catching up. Jerry has some thoughts on Phil Plait’s famous best-selling Booker Prize-winning Library of Congress-approved “don’t be a dick” speech. One thought is that it sounded a good deal too much like “Tom Johnson” and his Amazing Experiences With the Out-of-control Atheist Fiends. Another thought is that Plait didn’t offer a shred of evidence for all his claims of pervasive atheist baddery. Those two thoughts are not unrelated to each other. “Tom Johnson” didn’t offer a shred of evidence for his exciting tale of persecution and spitting, either, and oh hey gee what do you know, it turned out that that was because it never happened and Tom Johnson was just throwing mud at people he doesn’t like. So why should anyone think Phil Plait is doing anything different?

Well one reason is that Plait is a different guy, and has a lot more to recommend him than “Tom Johnson” did. And another reason is…no actually that first reason is the only one I can think of. The fact that he didn’t and wouldn’t and won’t give any examples means that we don’t even know what he means, which makes it possible for people who hate gnu atheists to think he means pretty much everything short of plain secrecy and silence, and also makes it possible for gnu atheists to feel universally if vaguely guilty or implicated. That’s the case even though what Plait actually does spell out doesn’t make me (for one) go “Oh right, I do that all the time! Must do better.”

Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain damaged or morons or baby rapers, may make you feel good. . . but is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

Yeah no, see, I don’t do any of that. I don’t see a lot of other people doing that, either. A few blog comments, but that’s about it, and that can’t be what Plait was making such heavy weather about. Can it?

Richard Dawkins (Mr Ground Zero of putative dickish gnu atheism himself) made a very helpful point.

Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along. 

When Peter Medawar destroyed Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the most devastatingly barbed book review I have ever read, he wasn’t trying to convert Teilhard. Teilhard was already dead in any case. Medawar was trying (and succeeding, in spades)to convert the large number of gullible fools who had been taken in by Teilhard.Similarly, when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

Why have I never thought to say that? Because I’m not clever enough, presumably. It’s dead right, and it gets at one of the things that I hate about the whole framey discourse, which is that it’s always personalized in this stupid way, as if every book or article or review were aimed right at sobbing Suzy R Innocent of Fluffy Falls, South Dakota. It’s not. Books and articles and reviews are written for a broad or narrow public, but a public, not a single person in the hopes of making her cry. People who write, write for the larger world, not for the nice church-going people down the street. We get to do that! We get to write for everyone, and for no one in particular. That means we get to write stuff without worrying too much about whether what we write will hurt the feelings of some fragile Christian who feels lonely and sad because the skeptics won’t eat lunch with her. It means we get to treat Plait’s maudlin invocation of crying believers thanking him for his speech with contempt. That’s good, because contempt is what it deserves.

Another young woman, one I had never met before, similarly approached me and told me much the same story. She was crying as well. Eventually I heard from others who told me there were several people in the audience who were crying because they had felt so alone. Many were feeling so isolated from the skeptical community — and had experienced so many encounters with other skeptics who were rude, boorish, insulting, and dismissive — that they were seriously considering leaving the movement altogether.

I want to know where they keep their stuffed animals, so that I can steal them.

114 Responses to “Not a dry eye in the house”