This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry.
(Content note: passing mentions of spousal abuse, rape, intense racism, homophobia, transphobia)
Strike that. Let me phrase that question in a more honest way, a way that makes my position clear: Where on Earth did we come up with the cockamamie notion that being a good skeptic means not having an emotional response to terrible, harmful ideas, and not treating those ideas with the contempt they deserve? Where did we get the notion that being a good skeptic means treating every idea, no matter how ridiculous or toxic, as equally worthy of consideration? Where did we get the notion that bad, harmful ideas should not make us angry, and that we should never get angry at anyone who brings them up?
Ron Lindsay recently wrote a piece, “Questioning Humanist Orthodoxy: Introduction to a Series” (No Faith Value blog, May 18, 2015), in which he criticized, among other things, humanists who respond angrily and emotionally to supporters of the death penalty, and who don’t calmly make what Lindsay considers to be good, rational arguments against it. PZ Myers has already responded to the core content of Lindsay’s essay (“Brave Ron Lindsay,” Pharyngula blog, May 19, 2015), so I’m not going to do that here. And in any case, I don’t want to pick on Lindsay: he is very far from the only person to put forth this idea. Several prominent atheists and skeptics have chided progressives for expressing anger over debates about abortion (citations collected at “Having a Reasonable Debate About Abortion,” Greta Christina’s Blog, March 13, 2014), and Massimo Pigliucci described these debates about abortion as “a tempest in a teapot” (“David Silverman and the scope of atheism,” Rationally Speaking blog, March 14, 2014).
This is a very common idea in the skeptical world: the idea that being a skeptic means being willing to entertain and discuss any and all ideas, with a completely open mind, with no attachment to any particular outcome — and with no emotional response.
And it’s an idea that should be taken out into the street and shot.
How are you going to respond? Are you going to say, “Hm, that’s an interesting idea — I don’t agree, but I’m curious why you think that, let’s calmly look at the evidence and examine the pros and cons”?
Or are you going to say some version of, “That is vile. That is despicable. The fact that you’re even proposing that is morally repulsive. Apologize, or get the hell out”?
And assuming that you did call the idea vile and toss the person out — how would you respond to someone telling you, “You’re a bad skeptic! You shouldn’t be so emotional! If someone is questioning black people’s basic humanity, you should be willing to debate that dispassionately, and with an open mind!”?
Now, some may say that if we want to change people’s minds about their horrible toxic ideas, we need to be willing to engage with them — and if we want them to listen, we have to do it in a calm and respectful manner. It is certainly true that we sometimes change people’s minds by debating, by listening and showing evidence and making good persuasive arguments. But that is not the only way we change minds. We also change minds by demonstrating that some ideas are repugnant, outside the limits of basic human decency.
And it is not the least bit skeptical to treat all questions as equal, and as equally deserving of consideration. We don’t do that with scientific questions: if someone asks if evolution is true or the Earth orbits the Sun, we don’t treat those issues as open to reasonable debate. We treat them as settled, unless someone comes up with some enormously compelling reasons to question them. We do that with moral issues as well. There are some moral issues that, in the absence of enormously compelling evidence to the contrary, we treat as settled. That doesn’t make them “dogma” or “orthodoxy” (to quote Lindsay again), any more than evolution or heliocentrism are dogma or orthodoxy. And since getting moral issues wrong has real power to screw up people’s lives, people respond to them emotionally. When terrible moral ideas are expressed, people often act as if they’re being threatened, or as if people they care about are being threatened — because they are. It’s unreasonable to expect anything else.
In fact, a very strong case can be made that calmly debating a question gives it gravitas, makes it seem respectable. There are many pro-evolution advocates and educators who will not debate creationists — because they think it makes creationism look like a serious idea that’s worthy of debate. If someone says that husbands should be able to beat and rape their wives, and you reply, “Hm, that’s an interesting idea, I don’t agree, but tell me why you think that and let’s debate it” — you’re treating that proposition like a serious idea that’s worthy of debate. Women who are vulnerable to being raped and beaten are probably going to have an emotional response to that. It’s absurd to want or expect anything else.
Which brings me to my next, very important point: It’s a whole lot easier to be calm, detached, and coolly logical, when it isn’t your basic humanity being debated. I don’t think it’s an accident that, when the debate is over women’s right to not be forced to donate our organs, it’s usually men telling women to calm down and have a rational discussion. Ditto cisgender people, telling transgender people to carefully consider the logic and evidence about whether they should control their own bodies and their own names. Ditto white people, telling black people to stop being so emotional about the fact that, in the United States, a black person is killed by a cop every four days. It is wildly unreasonable to ask people to be unemotional when their lives, their autonomy, their basic humanity, are on the line.
I’m not saying there should be skeptical or progressive dogma, ideas we should never ever question. After all, questioning what was previously unquestioned, what was previously considered unquestionable, is exactly the reason we now think that husbands should not be allowed to beat and rape their wives, that gay people should not be locked up in mental institutions, that of course black people are human beings and seeing them any other way is repulsive. We questioned dogma, we questioned received wisdom — and we made ourselves better. We made our ethical standards more humane, more consistent, more — well, more ethical. And we did it by questioning what was once unquestionable.
I’m not saying there should be ideas we should never question. I’m saying there are some questions we should be damn well careful about asking. And I’m saying that some questions can’t just be treated as neutral. I’m saying that when we ask questions and start debates about people’s lives, people’s autonomy, people’s basic humanity, we cannot expect them to treat it like an intriguing mental exercise, like a brain-teaser in the newspaper. Telling people to not show repugnance to repugnant ideas is telling them to not share information that’s crucial in a moral debate — the information that the idea in question is a violation of basic human rights. It’s an attempt to eradicate those moral sirens and warning lights, and replace them with a discreet, soberly-worded, easily-ignored handout. And it’s using the supposed principles of skepticism to silence people who typically don’t get heard, who can only make themselves heard by setting off their sirens. It’s bad humanism. And it’s bad skepticism.