Phil Plait Says Don’t Be A Dick

OK, so, Mr. Plait, who I am told is normally super super awesome and does genuinely seem like a nice guy, really irritated the shit out of me during TAM. And I say this with as much respect as possible and I acknowledge that this is my first exposure to him, and that people who know him and his work took what he was saying a bit differently than did I. He was basically saying that skeptics have a tone problem and more flies with honey and stop being assholes.

My level of being incredibly irritated with him for trying to be the Skeptic Tone Police has subsided a bit, partially because I think he didn’t mean it the way he said it. I think he was using general language because his argument was a little sloppy, not because he genuinely thinks no one should ever raise their voice in angry disagreement. To me, however, it sounded like he was saying “Christopher Hitchens, PZed and Dawkins have all got to stop being so strident and angry and dickish. Why can’t we all just get along?” But, apparently he was saying “The JREF forums are fucking hellish”. But I don’t read the JREF forums, so I wouldn’t know.

I agree that, generally speaking, you should be nice to someone you’re trying to convince if you’re having an argument with them to convince them. But, and this is important, that’s not the only reason you have arguments. Sometimes it’s to convince everyone else that you’re right, regardless of what the other person thinks. The internet is an amazing place where your arguments are all public. Sometimes humiliating someone who has a stupid point of view has the effect of convincing everyone else that you are right. Particularly if you can do it in a hilarious way. Hitchens made me OK with self-identifying atheist simply because he was such a hilariously snobby jerkface.

The entire speech was somewhat patronizing — here’s daddy figure Phil Plait telling us all to mind our Ps and Qs and not be so abrasive because daddy doesn’t like that. Pissed me off something hardcore having to sit through him lecturing me about being too mean to people. I felt the same way in a thread over on Pharyngula where people were saying women didn’t like how abrasive the skeptics/atheists are. It’s not true, I love it, it’s entertaining, it’s informative, it’s fun. I’m not a weak little girl, daddy doesn’t get to tell me to play nice with others.

And the fact is most of the people he’s talking about are people who are incredibly nice, polite and respectful in person. He’s got a problem with their online behavior. And frankly, it’s the fucking internet, that’s how people are and to fucking yell at a bunch of people who are really into the same thing you are because you don’t like the tone they take is a bit much.

AND I take issue with him treating skepticism as something we should be in charge of proselytizing. If I want to have an angry discussion about people hacking off little girls privates and be a complete dick to anyone who disagrees with me, I get to do that. Will that change people’s minds, I dunno, but it’s my way of dealing with the information and skepticism isn’t some fucking religion that has rules. His speech, more than anything, makes me a bit reticent to call myself a skeptic rather than an atheist because it makes me think he wants it to be treated as a religion, and that makes me very squeamish.

I know that this wasn’t the first skeptic event for most of the people in the crowd, but it basically was for me… and now I’m quite skeptical of this whole “Skeptic Movement”. I’m an uppity ginger, and I’m not joining any “movement” that tells me that who I am is not OK.

And, as I said, I don’t think that that was what he intended, I suspect it was at least partially him venting about behavior he witnesses online, and, as he doesn’t know me, I’m 80% sure it was not intended as a personal affront. Which is good, because then he’d be guilty of the behavior he’s denouncing. And probably he didn’t mean it was never OK to raise your voice in a crowded room, but that’s sure what it sounded like to me.

Phil Plait Says Don’t Be A Dick

43 thoughts on “Phil Plait Says Don’t Be A Dick

  1. 1

    I think the instantaneous nature of the Internet makes it inherently a more reactive medium. Combine that with the echo effect it can have of putting 1,000 people into the same conversation simultaneously (structurally impossible in the real world), and the volume of REACTIVE responses (shock, derision, irrational counter-attack, mis-reading) can heat up with such incomparable speed that the type of constructive argument he idealizes can be difficult to even establish. Really – has he never been on a forum before?

    And let’s face it, there are few people with the conversational judo skills of a Hitchens to come up with a derisive counterattack that actually re-directs the conversation towards a substance of his choosing. And to do it in one sentence. While drunk.

  2. 4

    ashleyfmiller – Is Patmos Pete a joke, or do you really have to put up with those kind of replies on your blog? Ick.

    Anyway, I think I agree with you for the most part – I don’t think Phil meant, precisely, what he said. I think what he wanted to say was being rude does not equal winning when you are trying to persuade. But it came across as “don’t be rude”.

    Now, I completely agree with he former, if I am trying to convince some woo-user that what they are practicing is wrong/dangerous, I try to sway them with a friendly tone and rock solid evidence.

    However, if I am speaking to/about Ray Comfort, Sylvia Brown, or some idiot who is defending homeopathy, I will be as rude as I please (and I am pleased to be very rude), and I will present rock solid evidence supporting why they are wrong.

    One of my favorite sayings is:
    Ad Hominem: You’re an idiot, and therefore you’re wrong.
    Not an Ad Hominem: You’re an idiot, and here’s why you’re wrong…

    1. 4.1

      Sadly I get much worse comments than Patmos Pete. I just ignore and put them up so other people can be amused too.

      Yeah, I know Phil has said he’s going to write a blog entry about the speech, I hope that involves clarifying what his intention was.

  3. 5

    I was trying to find the details for the ‘don’t be a dick’ speech, but the nearest I could find was a commentary on it, with extensive quotes.

    I follow Phil on twitter, so it was interesting that he wrote this
    “I have read Flim Flam and don’t think Randi was a dick. He wasn’t being a DB or mean spirited, just strong willed.”
    (I’m not sure what a DB is) It seems like he is willing to make exceptions in some circumstances (maybe for people he likes, I don’t know).

    I identify as ‘an ex-christian atheist’, more so than ‘a skeptic’. I have debated on many boards (especially ex-mormon forums) and I know only too well the effect a ‘polite conversation’ has on peoples attitudes. I also know that any presentation of evidence/facts, that people dont like, will be seen as an attack.

    My opinion… sorry Phil… being ‘nice’ just don’t cut it

  4. 8

    “I’m an uppity ginger, and I’m not joining any “movement” that tells me that who I am is not OK.”

    But isn’t that exactly Phil’s point?! He is saying, quit telling the other side that they are “not ok” (except rudely). Folks seem to be confused about attacking the argument or belief (go for it) and attacking the person (not so much).

    The issue is not whether people will see attacking the belief as offensive. They might. They might not, though, because people typically bristle at their person being attacked. The issue, IMO, is that attacking people creates a world where people treat each other as dicks. Whether you do it in the name of religion, or in the name of reason, who cares? Same crap.

    1. 8.1

      That that was Phil’s point was my point. He’s saying I’m not OK to be part of his movement, while saying that that sort of behavior isn’t appropriate. He’s not obeying his own bullshit rules.

      I’m a big believer that a movement has to be made up of a lot of different kinds of people. Some of those people are confrontational and some of them are diplomats, and it takes both kinds to get things done. I don’t think that most people are dicks to people in person, but even if they are, there are people who need to be shaken up to look at their world from a different perspective.

      Phil was being incredibly patronizing and self-satisfied. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a right to say that sort of thing, I just also have the right to call him on it and say that his point of view isn’t the only one.

  5. 9

    Since when does being a dick to someone convinces them to look at their world differently? Does that generally work for you when someone treats you like a dick?

    1. 9.1

      I don’t know how often someone being a dick to me has convinced me, I think it’s happened, but can’t think of a specific moment.

      I do know that someone being a dick to someone else has certainly swayed me more than once. Sometimes you’re arguing in front of an audience, and sometimes the people in that audience are going to be convinced by a good argument, even if it’s not nice. PZ Myers and Christopher Hitchens are both dicks, and both credited with many changed minds because of it. I just don’t buy the argument that being a dick makes you automatically unconvincing.

  6. 10

    Ah. No, being a dick does not make you automatically unconvincing. However, if you aim to change minds in order to create a better world, doesn’t being a dick sabotage that effort? How is a world full of atheistic dicks better than a world full of theistic dicks?

    1. 10.1

      I don’t know that I think dicks are necessarily bad for the world. I find them entertaining and fun. I think the world would have been a much poorer place without people like George Carlin, HL Mencken, and Christopher Hitchens.

      I don’t have a problem with people arguing, I don’t think that behavior is bad, even when it’s vehement and involves a few insults. I have a problem with people legislating what others can do or being violent against others. There’s a difference between someone yelling at me that I’m a sinner and them telling me I can’t legally marry whomever I may choose or bombing abortion clinics. I don’t really have a problem with the former. I’m free to think they’re retarded and move on.

  7. 11

    OK, so I am trying to understand more here. Is it ok when you are a white guy to be a dick to a black guy (or a woman), as long as you make it “entertaining and fun”?

    Let me clarify that vehement arguing is not dickery in my world. Verbal abuse and underhanded argumentation is.

    Where do you draw a line?

    (Disclosure: I have enjoyed some good flames back in the day. But what I see nowadays is more in the category of meanspiritedness and crass obstructionism. It ends up damaging the discussion.)

    1. 11.1

      I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying, and what I said originally. I’m not OK with verbal abuse (and I don’t tend to count writing or performance in this category). And I agree that if you’re having a conversation with one person (versus writing something or performing something going to many people) then being not nice isn’t going to win you many points.

      But, what I heard Phil Plait say was “Don’t be confrontational, don’t call people on being really stupid, and don’t be honest if it’s rude. We all have to watch our tone and be super nice and polite all the time or else other people might think we’re angry and negative people, and I want everyone to like skeptics and think we’re fluffy bunnies.”

      And I’m not a fluffy bunny. I don’t want to be a fluffy bunny. I don’t like fluffy bunnies. Plus, if you only eat rabbit, you die of malnutrition.

      1. I found your blog after a chain of links starting with Phil’s speech, which I saw on JREF.

        I was just going to click “delete” and move on, when I saw your response to Vera; then I felt I had to comment. I think you need to go back and listen to Phil again; you may have been there but it doesn’t appear as though you were paying attention, or you were hearing him through a filter of your own preconceptions.

        He did not say don’t confront, or don’t be honest; he’s not saying you always have to be “nice”. At one point, to illustrate how he was prepared to be confrontational he used the expression “….bring it on..” – not the normal language of diplomacy. He does say don’t resort to verbal abuse, which you appear to support. And, by the very nature of his speech, wherein he was polite and rational throughout, quad erat he was obeying his own “bullshit rules”

        I think you are deliberately misunderstanding Phil in order to justify your own approach and rationalise your reaction to his speech – cognitive dissonance, anyone?

        And one more comment – internet forum debates. yes, most people present know what the “fucking internet” is like, but if you are busily tearing some believer a second one, using more vitriol, spite and bile than logic and reason, this can easily persuade the “listener” (of which there will be many) that you are a rude and irrational person whose views, buried within the invective, are not worth consideration; an ad hominem reaction for sure, but isn’t that the weakness of many believers – lack of logic?

        1. I did actually pay attention and talked to quite a few peope who were also there. At the time I wrote this I didn’t have the benefit of a transcript or the video to work with. I freely admit repeatedly that this was my personal reaction and what I heard wasn’t necessarily what he meant, but as I wasn’t the only one who came away from the speech thinking he was tone policing, I did feel he could have been clearer. Which is actually my main point, I would have liked him to be clearer about what behavior he thought was and wasn’t ok.

          And I’m not sure where this line between acceptable criticism and verbal abuse is drawn. I support pz myers and hitchens, is what they do abuse? Is it rude to point out the obvious connections to cannibalism, vampirism, and zombies when it comes to christianity? Is it rude to say I think someone would have to be brainwashed to believe most of that?

      2. One further point struck me after I had I posted.

        To quote you from above “Someone saying I can never be honest if it’s rude…”

        I’m curious to know an honest statement that cannot be made without rudeness – please give an example. The facts are the facts; whether they are expressed rudely or not is the choice of the person delivering them and the language and mannerisms they use to express them.

        It is not rude to point out that someone is ill-informed, or not being logical and provide evidence to support the case, no matter how uncomfortable or upset it may make them feel *. It would be rude if the statement were to be prefaced with something like “You are a bloody idiot. Even a fucking moron can see that…[insert truth here]”

        *(well, perhaps politely pointing out to the grieving recently bereaved at a church funeral that there is no rational support for the concept of god may be considered rude, if only in the matter of timing)

  8. 12

    Hm. Well, I wasn’t there. What I heard him say via the transcript is… don’t be a dick.

    And I don’t think he was talking one-on-one… and neither am I (though of course I assume it too). I am talking about online forums. Are you counting arguing in a forum a “performance” where dickery is ok?

    And where do you draw a line between “a few insults” and verbal abuse?

    1. 12.1

      I was there and that’s the impression I got, though later I was told he was primarily talking about behavior on the JREF forums and not about people in the movement generally. I think there was an assumption on his part that people knew the JREF forums and would know that’s what he was talking about. I assumed he was talking about people like PZ or Hitchens, since I don’t spend any time on forums and they’re the only online people who tend to get tone policed.

      But I don’t know that I think any behavior in an online forum counts as verbal abuse. It can violate the TOS and threats of violence are illegal, but I just don’t know that anyone throwing around insults online qualifies as anything but the internet as usual. If people don’t like the Wild West of the internet, fine, they can go on AOL or something.

  9. 13

    So, are you saying that being a dick in online forums is par for the course and fine with you? You like busting people’s chops there, it’s fun and entertaining to stick it to the opposition, and hey… anyone who is saying don’t be a dick in an online forum would reduce us all to fluffy bunnies? Am I understanding you right?

    Insults privately are verbal abuse, but insults publicly on a forum are not? How so? What is the gist of the difference?

    Killing your neighbor in a jealous rage would still be called murder in the old wild west, even if there was nobody to police it. Nah?

    (I have never been to JREF but there is an overlap with skeptics on Science Blogs and the attacks there can be pretty intense. And I don’t follow PZ. And I used to hang at an atheist forum that was probably the nastiest, rudest, most malevolent forum I’ve ever been part of… Phil may have spoken of a particular forum, but the behavior in question is widespread, in my experience.)

    Oh and one more thing. This is not about “policing.” The question Phil raised was, look, we want to show people that our way is better. Are we really accomplishing it by treating people in forums like dicks?

    1. 13.1

      I’m saying A) I just can’t be bothered about the behavior on online forums so long as it’s legal. B) If someone wants a place without insults they can build the forum that does that (shethought for example). C) Someone saying I can never be honest if it’s rude is trying to turn everyone into fluffy bunnies. D) Killing your neighbor in a jealous rage would be voluntary manslaughter or not guilty by reason of insanity, not murder, and conflating saying something mean with murder is disingenuous at best.

  10. 14

    Um. I see we may have reached the point of disutility. Your assuming that I was conflating meanness with murder is, IMO, an attempt at strawmanning me. I was simply doing a riff off your wild west analogy. And frankly, I doubt that the wild west would have much use for the finer distinctions created by our modern legal system. Me killing a neighbor because he was caught kissing my wife back of the old barn would be murder. Which says of course nothing about meanness at all, and was only meant to illustrate that treating people like dicks in an unpoliced system does not somehow automatically make it not dickish.

    “C) Someone saying I can never be honest if it’s rude is trying to turn everyone into fluffy bunnies.”

    Aw. Why dontcha just admit you *like* abusing the opposition? LOL!

    P.S. Phil spoke of “vitriol and venom.” It may not have filtered down to the wider skeptics community yet, but being honest and civil are not exclusionary! Honest… It just takes a little more effort, is all.

    1. 14.1

      If you were not trying to link murder and verbal abuse, I misunderstood your point. I don’t have a problem with dickishness when defined as being honest to a fault. And I’m a big proponent of freedom of speech, so long as it doesn’t involve threats. I’m not really a part of the skeptic movement, I more readily define myself as an athiest, but I do think that you can be civil and a dick at the same time. I think maybe Phil’s definition of dick isn’t clear.

      I’ve been completely upfront about saying that I like vitriol and venom. I like it, I enjoy it, I think it’s fun and I enjoy reading it and listening to it. A witty verbal riposte is like sex to me. Someone tearing someone apart using big words and an arched eyebrow without raising their voice — if that’s not an artform, nothing is. I would totally make out with Christopher Hitchens calling someone an idiot and explaining very carefully why. I have memorized the review of North by Roger Ebert and think it may be the greatest piece of literature written in the 1990s. I like hate, I think it’s fucking sweet, particularly when applied by someone with great acumen and a large vocabulary.

  11. 15

    Thanks for the review tip. Fabulous! 😀 But notice… Ebert is not being a dick. He nowhere abuses either the actor/hero or the filmmaker. He abuses the movie.

    Can you be civil and a dick? Absolutely. It happens all the time. I don’t think that Phil needs to craft a precise definition… maybe what’s needed is for people who do forums to … er… reflect on what they are doing a bit more. A little bit less of “I am entitled to abuse you because you believe different from me, douchebag!”

    Look, have all the vitriol you want, just don’t put it in people’s coffee, ok? There is a difference between attacking the idea, belief, behavior, presentation, product, etc., and attacking the person.

    Clever flames are a pleasure. Ripping some hapless person to shreds is a pathetic ego trip.

    1. 15.1

      I don’t disagree. But phil was not specific. I heard never say anything mean about anything ever because people don’t like skeptics. If he meant focus on the argument not the person he should have said that.

  12. 16

    Mmm… maybe so. But maybe he assumed people knew?

    After all, that’s what “ad hominem” means. Attacking the person rather than the argument.

  13. 17

    Ashley, thanks for the exchange. I did not mean to sound like a know-it-all with the last. People don’t know, and Phil should have been clearer.

  14. 18

    Plait’s advice is as old as the hills. It’s basically the premise of the venerable “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, among about a zillion other books. It’s there in cultural aphorisms like “You catch more flies with honey” and The Golden Rule. The point isn’t that we should all agree or get along necessarily, but that we can present our arguments with some civility. I found this post from Plait’s own blog in a list of responses of varying viewpoints. A lot of the negatives focus on vagueness and lack of examples, which I find, like Plait, kind of unnecessary. For either side of the big skeptic arguments, one only has to look to the typical “debate”, which is all too often anything but.

    Think about it this way: who cheers the jeering when you do it vilely? Only those who already agree with you. It may be cathartic, but the trade-off is a lack of progress. Like the aforementioned Carnegie says (and many many others before him), nothing makes a person defend a viewpoint harder than attacking it. Any convincible audience that may have been one to your side probably won’t even be listening to your facts anymore the moment you get vicious. Maybe on Vulcan arguments operate on logic alone, but in the real world, emotion is extraordinarily important.

    1. 18.1

      I agree that emotion is a large part of debate and I think humor is one of those important emotions. What iheard from this speech, which I have since come to understand was not phil’s point, was that people like dawkins, hitchens and pz myers were wrongheaded in their approach. I took umbrage at the idea that being a firebrand, which is arguably different than being a dick, was not welcomed or needed.

      And I definitely think there’s a place and use for abrasive behavior in almost every movement. If nothing else it makes the moderates look reasonable.

  15. 19

    […] While many people welcomed Phil’s chastisement, others objected to it on the grounds that asking to eschew dickishness amounts to turning feisty discussants into fluffy bunnies and kissy-face accommodationists. I got into a discussion with a blogger who posted this frustrated reaction: […]

  16. 22

    I think the sort of thing Phil Plait is referring to is posts like this:

    (See also: )

    However, fuck what Phil thinks. At some point, the idiots aren’t going to listen to what you say, so whether you be a dick or not ends up being irrelevant. It’s not as if the majority of them are going to suddenly stop being stupid, so why should we pull out whiny accomodationist bullshit? Pseudoscientific bullshit has fucked up the planet for far too long and deserves no respect whatsoever.

  17. 23

    I’ve been hunting around to find what people think about this whole Don’t Be A Dick thing. There’s a point to be made that I haven’t come across before.

    Have you ever made a conscious effort to not be a dick when every fiber of your being is urging you…

    Hang on. That was starting to get into an entendre-space I didn’t intend to visit. Let’s try that paragraph again.


    Have you ever made a conscious effort to be respectful when every fiber of your being is telling you that contempt and ridicule are fully justified?

    I’ve tried it on a number of occasions. It doesn’t work. Turns out that I’m really, really bad at false respect.

    At best, I come over as smug and condescending.

    At worst, I just give my opponent a false sense of validation and additional ammunition.

    Whereas being a dick can be funny, engaging, peels back the obscurantist baffle-gab, and actually gives the opponent some motivation to provide a clear and direct response. Also? It’s much more interesting.

    I can’t write (or argue) like Carl Sagan. I tried, but I can’t. I fuck it up every time.

    Much better that I write like Daniel Schealler, and get whatever chuckles I can along the way.

    1. 23.1

      I agree completely — it’s much better to be rude and honest than rude and dishonest. At some point you hit a wall where you cannot hold your tongue anymore without essentially lying.

  18. 24

    […] Ashley F. Miller didn’t like it one bit. The entire speech was somewhat patronizing — here’s daddy figure Phil Plait telling us all to mind our Ps and Qs and not be so abrasive because daddy doesn’t like that. Pissed me off something hardcore having to sit through him lecturing me about being too mean to people. I felt the same way in a thread over on Pharyngula where people were saying women didn’t like how abrasive the skeptics/atheists are. It’s not true, I love it, it’s entertaining, it’s informative, it’s fun. I’m not a weak little girl, daddy doesn’t get to tell me to play nice with others. […]

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