Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Being a Dick

I was pleased to read this recent blog post from the Barefoot Professor, Dr. Daniel Howell, advising new barefooters against being jerks. 

As a rule, I wholeheartedly agree with what Dr. Howell is saying. In fact, although he might not have intended it, he is paraphrasing the "Atheist Commandment" which is "Thou shalt not be a dick". I think that such a decree has some unmeasurable value, especially at moderating the tone of the discussion away from confrontation and tension.

However, I also think it's important to remember that sometimes, bad ideas can and will only go away when exposed to the harsh sunlight of ridicule. In other words, although we may attempt to live by the commandment "don't be a dick" as much as possible, sometimes it's advisable to not just bend, but to break this important rule. To show this perspective, I think we can get value from looking at the discussion that we atheists have amongst ourselves about whether we help or hurt our cause by sometimes "being dicks". 

Our leading atheist figures have often been accused of being "shrill" or "strident" for the way in which they question a particular point of dogma, or for implying that believing something without evidence, regardless of what is on the table, is a bad idea. There then follows a backlash from more friendly types of non-believers who will decry such "harsh treatment" of religion, believers, etc. This then inspires the original group to defend their statements which get even more criticism...wash, rinse, repeat. 

While I appreciate the gentler side of our causes, as they attempt to cajole our critics with kindness and understanding, I also think that we should value those who will stand firm and challenge those who would spout bad ideas as though they were Undisputed Truth. 

I think that Public Displays of Stupidity SHOULD be mocked. If we simply let them slide, there is the chance that we will become numb to stupid ideas, and it will require stupider and stupider acts to elicit our outrage. I guess to sum up, I think that sometimes the best (and only) way to move the markers down the field is to go against that one lone commandment to not be a dick. 

I will leave you with the following quote from PZ Myers, of the blog Pharyngula, who discussed this very topic of "playing nice" recently, and had this to say at the end of his blog post (emphasis mine): 
So here we are, once again talking about how to communicate, and I fear that we'll lose is the sense of what to communicate [sic]. Don't forget: the truth is our pole star, science is the vessel we use to progress, and a passion to explore and learn is the engine of our purpose. If we lose sight of that in our concern to be gentle with those who impede us, we'll lose our way.
So get out there, go barefoot, be proud, be nice, and don't be a jerk/dick. Mostly.  

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