Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more. – Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
This is the paper I wrote as a reference to what I was going to talk about at Dragon*Con, which was itself an expansion on the paper I submitted to TAM9. What I did at D*C was longer, more conversational, and a bit sillier than this paper is, but it will give you the basic thrust of what I talked about.
My background is in film and media and I’m currently getting my PhD in Mass Communications. I’ve worked in Hollywood, I’ve worked in South Carolina, and other horrible places in between. Film is a powerful medium because it speaks not only in images but also in emotions, and emotions are what I want to talk about today.
When I think about films that I saw long ago, I rarely remember the plots or the character names, though I often remember the actors. What I mostly remember are the moments of extreme emotion in the film. I remember the shower scene in Schindler’s List, the reuniting of the sisters in The Color Purple, the death of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the pain and horror of Sara when she is reunited with her father and he does not recognize her in A Little Princess. We are drawn into movies for many reasons, but they tend to stick with us because of their emotional power.
Movies use a lot of tricks to get this to happen, they use music and lighting, they use editing and writing, they use actors that are famous and that we’re already emotionally attached to, and they use the close-up. Think about how close you have to be to someone to see them as close as you see someone in a close-up. Most people only ever see their family and their lovers that close. The art of false intimacy! I say this merely as a preamble, to show you how easily one can get caught in emotions and to show that emotional manipulation is something that any filmmaker, and furthermore anyone who is trying to engage an audience, should be using.
Last year at TAM, Phil Plait (who I love!) gave a talk about how to successfully argue, and his broad theme was Don’t Be A Dick. As a smart ass, I took this rather personally — I’ve mostly moved on, but I’ve spent the year trying to distill why exactly it got under my skin and it is this: nice doesn’t always work and mean is an effective tool when wielded correctly. Being a dick triggers an emotional response, but not always the one you’re looking for, it is important to use emotion with intent.
What Phil Plait was absolutely right about was this: the skeptic movement doesn’t always take emotion into account when it argues, and it should. This doesn’t necessarily mean being a dick, of course, one can very easily use emotion without invoking dickitude, but being a dick is a tool (lol) in an arsenal of emotional weapons. This doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for every job, in many circumstances being a dick is not going to get the reaction you’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean it never will.
There are two things I want to cover today: why dickishness can work and why emotions are important. These things are interrelated – insults are almost always emotional, and not necessarily negative. An insult brings about different emotional responses in the insultee, the audience, and the insulter themselves. Emotions are not easy and are less scientifically certain than logic, but they are essential to making good arguments.
To bring in someone else’s opinion on the issue, I’ll refer to Aristotle. There are three essential parts of any rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos – logic, ethics or integrity, and emotions. I think skeptics really have the first one covered; logic will never be our weak link. Ethos we struggle a little bit more with, not because we’re not ethical, but because oftentimes we are perceived as unethical, particularly the more atheistic your arguments are. This is slowly changing, the more we get out there and spread the message the more people realize we aren’t eating babies. Emotional arguments are an important way to rehabilitate the image of someone, though they are also easily used to undermine someone’s character.
We often see this in ad hominem attacks, these attacks undermine credibility without actually talking about what someone is arguing. To most humanists, and I would guess to most people in the audience, the ad hominem is generally immoral because personal traits shouldn’t be relevant to an argument. And, in terms of being strictly logical, that’s true.
Except, that’s not always emotionally true. When Ted Haggard is railing about the immorality of gay sex and is then engaging in it, that sort of hypocrisy should be exposed. This is a form of ad hominem tu quoque (you also), it remains logically fallacious, just because Ted Haggard had gay sex doesn’t mean his argument that gay sex is bad is incorrect, it just means he’s a hypocrite. But most people care if someone’s a hypocrite a lot more than they care about logic.
This is at least partially why there’s been a large push in the movement towards charity and embracing ideas beyond the traditional scope of skepticism. It’s almost an attempt to rehabilitate the ethos of the skeptics. The Foundation Beyond Belief, for example, does do a lot of good for the world, but it also promotes an image that gives atheists more credibility. In the same vein, there’s also a push from many in the movement, such as Jamila Bey, Greta Christina, Debbie Goddard, and others, to approach more meaningful topics that maybe fall outside the “traditional” range of skeptic issues. How can we develop credibility among people who are not in any way served by us? Why don’t we address issues that are important to people who aren’t a part of the movement, like drug laws and the insane number of black men in prison? Like abstinence only education and the wage gap? I admit that I am very strongly in favor of this, and am therefore biased.
Finally, there is pathos, the emotional side of things. Obviously, all three, logos, ethos, and pathos, are interrelated, but when you focus exclusively on logic you’re still impacting ethos and pathos, you’re just not doing it intentionally. It’s easy to understand how skeptics drop the pathos part of arguments, skepticism is about rationality after all, but my main argument here is that it’s completely irrational not to take emotion into account. Have facts, by all means, have all of them you can find, be smarter than the other guy (or gal), but use emotion to your advantage.
The trouble is that people are not rational. It’s the reason we have trouble winning lawsuits, and it’s the reason that Separation of Church and State groups like the SCA are moving away from Establishment Clause cases, which argue abstract philosophical ideas, towards equal rights cases, which are about people being mistreated. You have to take into account how people already feel AND get people to respond to your arguments emotionally.
Using emotion doesn’t mean lying, it means rationally taking into account the fact that humans don’t respond solely to logic. That’s what makes us human, and we should be glad of it, not try to suppress it. And if we know it’s there, we’re foolish not to take advantage of it, because our opponents are already masters of emotion and therefore have a huge advantage. With facts you have what’s wrong, but with emotion you have why someone should care.
One of the greatest dicks of all time, Cicero, was the king of rhetoric. Cicero is an interesting case study, despite his Machiavellian emphasis on how pliant people are when you’ve appealed to their emotions (or perhaps we should say Machiavelli was Ciceronian?), he is also recognized as one of the fathers of the humanist movement. Civic humanism, the devotion to a public life of trying to make the world a better place for the people who have to live in it, is modeled almost entirely on Cicero’s own dedication to education and ethical politics. Cicero believed that man is set apart by reason and speech, which allows for the formation of society.
Cicero recognized an important distinction that we should recognize as well, when you’re arguing in public, you’re not simply arguing with a person, you’re putting on a display for an audience. This is true regardless of the medium. Obviously I am giving a display to an audience here (Ed. Note: pretend you’re at Dragon*Con), but I could easily insult someone in the front row and make you the audience hearing my insults. I could also insult you and make you both the insultee and audience. This is true of debates that go on onstage, of conversations you see on television shows like Bill O’Reilly or The Daily Show. This appeal to the audience is true even when things are recorded without an audience for broadcast, and true for any argument in any public space.
This is true when arguing on YouTube, or on a blog, or on an online forum. An argument in these places isn’t just meant for one person, though it may be aimed primarily at them, it is aimed also at convincing other readers of your point. It is perfectly possible to make a mean argument that the supposed target will completely ignore but that will convince others that you are right.
Among the many speeches Cicero gave, many were devoted to tearing apart the character of Mark Antony. These speeches were not meant for Antony, they were meant for the audience – the senate and the public, who proceeded to consolidate their support for Cicero. Insult worked here to speak truth to power, but primarily to weaken support of the power in question.
Insults are also entertaining, how else explain the popularity of House MD and Yo Mamma jokes? People enjoy insults as comedy, as clever, as signs of intellectual superiority. An insulter is not necessarily a bad guy – insensitive perhaps, but often the bringer of truth in an entertaining way. When House calls someone a liar, he does so with the kind of flourish that makes you like him – we like him because he’s confident (to the point of delusion, perhaps) and because he is a dick. He is not afraid to speak the truth, preferably in the form of a putdown, and preferably against the prevailing “good manners” of the day. To someone’s insistence on humility, he says:
Humility is an important quality. Especially if you’re wrong a lot… Of course, when you’re right, self-doubt doesn’t help anybody, does it?” (#109)
The entertainment purpose here shouldn’t be underestimated. If you think of the rise in attention to atheists and the massive rise in attendance to skeptic or atheist conferences in the past few years, you can attribute a lot of that to the increase in how entertaining atheists are. To get media exposure one doesn’t need to be right, unfortunately, they just need to be interesting – viewers equal dollars, and almost all of the media has a bias towards whatever makes them more money. Insults are entertaining, and therefore get coverage. And coverage means awareness, and awareness means people can’t pretend we don’t exist – whether they agree with us or not.
I know there’s been a big hullabaloo over the tone atheists take on billboards and so forth, but how much coverage has that earned atheists in the news?
Thomas Conley’s “Toward a Rhetoric of Insult” has brilliant insight and analysis on the cultural impact and importance of insults. One of his most interesting insights is that for an insult to work, the people in the audience have to share the same worldview and values as the insulter – an insult is inherently stating that the speaker is morally or otherwise superior and that anyone in the room, including the insultee, should hold to the same moral standards that the insulter is referencing.
For example, if HL Mencken, insulter extraordinaire, says of Warren G. Harding:
He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
He is appealing to the idea that everyone thinks that bad English, wet sponges, and barking dogs in the middle of the night are bad things indeed. Even Harding himself would have to agree.
Insults can also be powerful motivators, think of coaches and drill sergeants, or to take a less warlike example, think of sororities and fraternities, which put people through hazing before joining. This creates, strangely, a very tight bond between the insulters and insultees.
To quote Thomas Conley directly:
[O]ne side of insult calls for shared values and beliefs, rests on a kind of intimacy between insulter and the one being insulted, and can be a way of reinforcing social bonds, not just asserting alienation. Insults can be viewed as indirect celebrations of public virtue and as an implicit recognition of the ubiquity of hierarchy. And insults can be a method of motivating people to do their best-what, I suppose, we might call “the noble insult,” like the “noble lie” in Plato or Quintilian. Finally, insults can be a powerful mode of truth-telling.
There is, perhaps, a huge gap between a troll on a website and Christopher Hitchens, though I suspect many Christianists would accuse Hitchens of trolling them. But the spectrum of dicks doesn’t mean that you either have to be Hitchens or you can’t be a dick, it means that context matters (of course!) and that you should at the very least be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish through the way you’re speaking. This is the art of rhetoric generally, but there is a place for being a dick within that art, precisely because of the skillful way in which dickishness can elicit emotional responses.
So, we’re back to the broader point, emotions good! Use them!
People respond to personal stories, people respond to emotional appeals, and if that doesn’t feel right to you, all you have to do is look at Prop 8. Dave Fleischer did an in-depth case study of the Prop 8 campaign, and what follows is an analysis of the importance of emotion in the arguments, and how the gay marriage side failed to emotionally connect with voters.
The gay movement and the atheist and skeptic movement have a lot in common. Like LGBT, atheists and skeptics are usually an invisible minority in the United States. We face a culture that is subtly and not so subtly biased against us, and we face the fact that people are always shoving their woo down our throats. Like LGBT, no one has to know we’re atheist, we can remain “in the closet”. And the more we do so, the more the untruths and false stereotypes about us are allowed to persist. I say this not to encourage people to out themselves, though they should, but because this is the emotional groundwork laid before we even get to the table. It’s an uphill battle, but we already know what’s there.
For those who don’t follow gay rights issues, I’ll give a brief background of Prop 8. In 2000, a ballot initiative called Prop 22 easily won the popular vote and was created as a law, which for these purposes is less effective than a constitutional amendment. In 2004, San Francisco began offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which led to a long series of court battles and in 2008 the California Supreme Court said that same-sex couples had the same right to marriage as heterosexual couples, making Prop 22 invalid. Gay marriage in California began in June 2008, but on the ballot that following November was a constitutional amendment that would take that right away.
Prop 8 was a constitutional amendment for the California Constitution that said that marriage was only between a man and a woman. California, unlike the US as a whole, only requires a simple majority to amend its constitution. The campaign was the most expensive campaign in the history of propositions, and second only to the Presidential election in 2008. The gay rights side failed, and the amendment was passed. 18,000 gay couples got married in the window between the overturning of Prop 22 and the enforcement of Prop 8.
The No on 8 campaign was, in many ways, a horrible mess for the LGBT crowd. Not because it wasn’t well-funded, even though their opposition had a seemingly endless supply of money courtesy the Mormon Church, No on 8 was outspending the anti-gay marriage crowd 2:1, even 4:1 in the final week of the campaign. Their problem was that they let the Yes on 8ers have the most emotional capital in the game. For weeks, Yes on 8 had the major advantage of having better emotional messages without facing effective counterarguments.
The shocking thing is that Yes on 8 didn’t even come up with a SINGLE emotional appeal that hadn’t been used thousands of times before this campaign, the gay rights crowd could have easily guessed what they were going to do ahead of time, and most certainly should not have been surprised when those same Anita Bryant tactics were used once again. There had been many previous campaigns headed by NOM, the Catholic Church, and the Mormons against gay marriage in the decade preceding Prop 8, and the anti-rights crowd used the same tactics they always had.
No on 8 had resources, but their ads weren’t effective because they didn’t use pathos. One of their biggest ads was called Conversation and it was two women looking at photos saying that they weren’t too fond of gays, but taking away “fundamental rights” seemed sort of wrong.
This ad was so ineffective, it actually got pulled early. Why? Because it was boring. And because it made no arguments to support its assertion that gay marriage was a fundamental right. There was no emotional appeal, just a moral appeal to something people weren’t sure was moral or not.
The most effective ads the Yes on 8ers used played on the fear of the voters, and most particularly on the fear of parents. In fact, their most effective ad was called Princes, and it was a child coming home from school telling her mother about how she learned at school that a prince could marry another prince, and she could marry a princess. Then a man says “Think it couldn’t happen here? It already is.”
This played on the subtle message that gay marriage was going to pervert childhood in some way. That’s all they had to do, was just imply it. There’s a similar bias against atheists — all someone has to do is hint at it for it to be negative. And the worst part is that these horrible stereotypes just aren’t true. This ad pulled the support of some 500,000 parents who had been on the No on 8 side — half a million parents switched their votes. Had they voted the other way, No on 8 would have won.
The ad that most changed public opinion back towards LGBT equal rights came too late in the campaign, and it was just a direct rebuttal to the Princes ad — it unfortunately came out weeks later because the No campaign had been unprepared, but it did come out.
The numbers show that the ad was effective, so even if someone catches you unprepared with an emotional message, you can still reply. It’s not nearly as effective as defining the emotional stakes of the discussion yourself, but it’s so easy to get out on front on these issues when you know that they will be coming.
What this means for skepticism and atheism is this: If you were promoting skepticism on a billboard, which would be the stronger message: “Homeopathy is minuscule amounts of questionably useful substances diluted beyond a trace” or “Homeopathy kills, it’s not medicine, it’s fraud”.
We’ve even got the clever “Homeopathy, there’s nothing in it” stickers, right? I love these! They’re delightfully nerdy, and if you’re a big fan of Moles then you’ll love it. But it doesn’t resonate with most people and why should it? It’s just not that important in the scheme of things, unless you point out that it causes actual harm, not just that it violates all the known laws of physics.
If we protest saying “Under God” in the pledge, no one cares. It just feels petty to people, even though we’re right. If we talk about a kid being bullied by teachers for not saying it, on the other hand, people are more likely to care. Think the “It Gets Better Campaign.” If you can point to harm, particularly to children, that works. Scientologists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaxxers all deny potentially life-saving medical treatments to children. Talk about perfect targets for insults.
Psychics and Faith Healers, two categories of charlatans I can’t tell apart, have had some of this leveraged at them. James Randi has effectively used the emotion of humor to reveal just how pathetic people like Uri Geller are, teaching through mockery — which is kind of dickish, just to bring this full circle. Earlier this year, atheist and mentalist Derren Brown released a special about faith healing, humorously skewering these people as frauds, grifters and scoundrels (and not the fun Han Solo type).
He exposed their tricks – the facts of the case, if you will – but he focused on emotion as well. These healers aren’t just bilking money from little old ladies, they’re bankrupting them. They’re killing them and blaming their illness on lack of faith. They’re not just tricksters, they’re not just giving false hope, it’s much worse than that.
We need more of these exposures. We need more personal stories of people who have been taken advantage of and who have been hurt by pseudoscience and irrational beliefs. We need to be getting more involved in the community, to be doing public acts of charity, to be engaging with issues that matter to people who aren’t skeptics, who aren’t atheists. We need to be thinking about how to use emotion, we need to recognize that we’re using it whether we intend to or not, and we need to recognize that there are different tactics and, most importantly, room for people who have different tactics.
It’s hearts and minds, right? We’ve got the facts to win their minds, now let’s not be afraid to use emotional rhetoric to win their hearts as well.
26. The Lost Gospel of Judas – Bart Ehrman
This book is very similar to most of Ehrman’s other books, but it focuses a bit on the Gospel of Judas. It’s an interesting subject, if only because seriously, Judas had to do what he did for Jesus to save humanity, so why is it that he isn’t praised rather than condemned? I didn’t love the book, but it was pretty good. B
27. Forged – Bart Ehrman
I loved this book, it felt more focused than some of his other work. I cannot over recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of the Bible. A
28. Monarchy – Christopher Hitchens
This barely qualifies as a book, but I’m counting it because it took me over a month to get my hands on it. I had to have it shipped from an out-of-state library. It wasn’t that great, if only because anti-monarchy arguments are fairly, you know, obvious. It was interesting to see how Hitch wrote 20 years ago, though. B-
29. Griftopia – Matt Taibbi
Read this. Right now. Not even kidding. The most fascinating read about the financial crisis and melt down and who is to blame for it. I learned a lot about Alan Greenspan who I now despise. Also, he makes fun of Ayn Rand, which really always makes me happy. I feel obligated to find and read a lot more Taibbi. A+
We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it — who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust these people to do the right thing, but we can’t, because, well, they’re scum. Which is kind of a big problem, when you think about it.
30. The King’s Speech – Mark Logue and Peter Conradi
Pretty good, interesting to see the actual history and how it got changed and consolidated for the film. Very very good.
As the year winds down, I’m posting the last brief reviews of books that I’ve read this year. My initial challenge of 50 books in a year seemed daunting at first (a book a week? Who has time?) yet I somehow did it, and I don’t even feel like I spent that much time reading this year. I think everyone should do the 50 book challenge, because A) why not and B) it doesn’t actually require that much time or effort.
61. God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens, read by Christopher Hitchens
I love this book. Once I hit 60 and knew I’d probably get to 65 for the year, I decided that I could just go ahead and do some guilty pleasure re-reads if I wanted to. I admit I simply love to listen to Christopher Hitchens speak, and I would probably listen to him read a cookbook, so long as he was allowed to make snarky remarks, but this book is truly remarkable if for no other reason than it offers opinions on things that are much different than what you hear from day to day. Mother Teresa and Gandhi are sold, compellingly, as villains, as is all religion, including Eastern Religion. There’s also an interesting chapter on why religions don’t like pigs and another on whether religion is child abuse.
Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody — not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms — had the smallest idea of what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge. Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.
62. QI Second Book of General Ignorance
I started with the second book because it was more recent (logic!) and I did enjoy it. QI, for those not in the know, is a British Trivia show (Quite Interesting) where comics answer tricky trivia questions and are awarded points for being interesting and lose points for being obvious and wrong. It’s awesome. The book repeats the show a bit, but it was interesting.
63. Book of General Ignorance
I liked the second book more.
64. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
This is an amazing book. You need to read it. It’s about a poor black woman in the 50s who died of cervical cancer, but whose cancer cells were the first immortal human cells and have been used in millions of experiments since then and contributed to almost all human biological knowledge discovered since they were cultured. But no one asked her for permission to take the cells, and no one told her or her family that they were being used. Here’s an excerpt.
65. The Nuremberg Trial – John and Ann Tusa
I didn’t know anything about the Nuremberg Trials, really, just that they existed. This was a really human and fascinating account of the first trial. It was a slow read, but it was a lot like reading a courtroom drama, especially because the Nazis were portrayed as three dimensional. If you like courtroom stories, this is a good, if disturbing, one.
Let’s say that the consensus is that our species, being the higher primates, Homo Sapiens, has been on the planet for at least 100,000 years, maybe more. Francis Collins says maybe 100,000. Richard Dawkins thinks maybe a quarter-of-a-million. I’ll take 100,000. In order to be a Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about 25 years, dying of their teeth.
Famine, struggle, bitterness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years. Heaven watches this with complete indifference. And then 2,000 years ago, thinks “That’s enough of that. It’s time to intervene,” and the best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate parts of the Middle East.
Don’t let’s appeal to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization. Let’s go to the desert and have another revelation there. This is nonsense. It can’t be believed by a thinking person.
Why am I glad this is the case? To get to the point of the wrongness of Christianity, because I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all, and that is the one of vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else, vulgarly known as scapegoating. In fact, originating as scapegoating in the same area, the same desert.
I can pay your debt if I love you. I can serve your term in prison if I love you very much. I can volunteer to do that. I can’t take your sins away, because I can’t abolish your responsibility, and I shouldn’t offer to do so. Your responsibility has to stay with you. There’s no vicarious redemption.
There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all. It’s just a part of wish-thinking, and I don’t think wish-thinking is good for people either. It even manages to pollute the central question, the word I just employed, the most important word of all: the word love, by making love compulsory, by saying you must love. You must love your neighbor as yourself, something you can’t actually do. You’ll always fall short, so you can always be found guilty.
By saying you must love someone who you also must fear. That’s to say a supreme being, an eternal father, someone of whom you must be afraid, but you must love him, too. If you fail in this duty, you’re again a wretched sinner. This is not mentally or morally or intellectually healthy.
And that brings me to the final objection – I’ll condense it, Dr. Olafsky – which is, this is a totalitarian system. If there was a God who could do these things and demand these things of us, and he was eternal and unchanging, we’d be living under a dictatorship from which there is no appeal, and one that can never change and one that knows our thoughts and can convict us of thought crime, and condemn us to eternal punishment for actions that we are condemned in advance to be taking.
All this in the round, and I could say more, it’s an excellent thing that we have absolutely no reason to believe any of it to be true.
I confess I cried watching it. I have a somewhat irrational emotional attachment to Christopher Hitchens, he has such an eloquent and engaging approach to writing and speaking. I don’t always agree with him politically, but I think everyone has to admire the honest way he’s approaching his own death.
AC: In a moment of doubt, isn’t there… I dunno, I just find it fascinating that even when you’re alone and you know no one else is watching that there might be a moment where you, you know, want to hedge your bets.
CH: If that comes it’ll be when I’m very ill. When I’m half-demented, either by drugs or by pain, or I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumor later on. Because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumors, you know on his death bed he finally well… I can’t say that the entity that by then wouldn’t be me wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing, but I can tell you that not while I’m lucid. No, I can be quite sure of that.
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.
Should we pray for Hitch? I will, in part to piss him off.
That’s what’s fucked up about it. You’re not praying because you think it’s going to legitimately do him some good, you’re praying because you see his illness as a chance to be a complete jerk? Tell me how that’s not fucked up.
And I agree with the rest of what Sully says
I don’t believe in treating the sick as suddenly tender souls who cannot enjoy humor and debate – and that would apply in truckloads for my dear friend. I’m delighted that no one ever pulls a punch with me on the grounds of chronic disease and I’m sure Hitch would feel the same way.
Absolutely, don’t pull punches, don’t be afraid of debating, and if you want to be a dick fine, but we’re gonna call you on it. And I would think that religious people would have a problem with their religion being used specifically to be a dick — oh wait, nevermind on that one. And if you feel the need to pray, fine, but what you said was
May the God he believes poisons everything be with him
DICK. And oh so guilty of being the kind of Christianist that he claims he hates.
Today he posted about Hitch’s Cancer and said the following:
I’m devastated by the news. We need Christopher around for a long, long time. I do not know the details and understand his need for privacy. But he seems in good spirits if this classically British understatement is symptomatic of his mood:
“I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me.”
May the God he believes poisons everything be with him. And a simple word of encouragement: surviving a potentially fatal disease can be a form of liberation. I look forward to an even more liberated Hitch.
I’m glad that he cares, and I feel much the same way towards Sully as I do towards Hitch, they’re both interesting to read even when I totally disagree with them which isn’t infrequent. But what a dickhead thing to say. He doesn’t believe God does anything because he doesn’t believe in God, he thinks that religions poisons everything because it’s false. It’s in the damn title of the book he wrote, it’s not difficult.
And then, using the opportunity of someone’s major, potentially fatal illness to insist on pushing your religious bullshit is… well it’s fucking rude bullshit.
I was really excited, I was supposed to go to a book signing in LA with Christopher Hitchens. He was going to give a talk this week. It was going to be awesome. A couple weeks ago, there was a thing in Seattle that a friend of mine was trying to go to, he cancelled for “personal reasons”. Not long after that, he cancelled the one in LA, also for “personal reasons”.
I threw myself into full internet research mode, but there just wasn’t any info out there. I even tried to get the Pharyngulite Horde onto it, but no one really responded.
He’s got cancer. Esophageal cancer for which he’s getting chemo, which means it’s probably advanced. The average five year survival rate, according to Wikipedia, is 5%. According to the following site, 14,250 are diagnosed each year, and 14,000 die.
While no surefire way to prevent cancer of the esophagus exists certain risk factors can be minimized to reduce the risk of cancer. Smoking and excessive alcohol multiply the risk of esophageal cancer up to 44 times, so avoiding these two factors decreases the risk and improves your overall health.
Well, that’s Christopher Hitchens in a nutshell, he smokes and drinks, it’s who he is. It’s a shame if that means he’s going to die at 61. He’ll probably laugh and say at least he got his memoir done before he died. 🙁