I had a disappointing experience this last week when a fellow skeptic (and person I had previously thought of as a friend) viciously attacked me, and ended that friendship over what I thought was a fairly minor disagreement. It’s experiences like this that make me want to give up on even involving myself with the skeptical movement, not because I don’t believe in the basic principles espoused in the movement, but because it seems like so few people in the movement actually embody these principles.
I’ve written before on my blog that I fear that some skeptics/atheists are little more than people who like to sit around and pat each other on the back for being smarter than everyone else. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this kind of behavior. When I was a fundamentalist I knew many fellow Christians who did the same thing, only rather than for being smarter it was because they were saved and everyone else was destined for hell. Even though I’m an atheist, I still have a good deal more respect for a Christian who tries to convert me than one who treats their “correct beliefs” as something to smugly hold over others.
More than a wiliness to educate others, though, is the need for self criticism. If our attempts to educate people on science, reason and other subjects are to be taken seriously then we MUST be our own worse critics. If we aren’t, then we are inconsistent at best and hypocrites at worst. When fellow skeptics tell me I must not disagree with them or their friends, this sends off warning bells in my head that this person isn’t really interested in skepticism; they are just interested in being right, or more accurately, in being told they are right, and they use the skeptical movement as nothing more than a group of “yes men” to make them feel good about themselves.
I tend to notice three separate arguments come up in the conversations with these sorts of “skeptics”:
1. Isn’t it better to have friends than be right?
This question is a bit loaded, but the short answer is that if your answer to this question is an unequivocal yes, then you have no business calling yourself a skeptic. The much longer answer is that it really varies depending on the friend. For starters, I have lots of friends who aren’t involved in skepticism, or who do not engage me in my debate spaces, for whom I tend to be much less picky. For one because these people aren’t representing organizations that promote critical thought, and for two because those people have not invited such conversations. I love talking moral philosophy but I’m not going to force a conversation about that with every person I meet.
On the other hand if another persons position is that I can be their friend only if I never openly disagree with them, then honestly, no, I don’t want to be that persons friend, regardless of whether they call themselves a skeptic or not, because that person sounds controlling and manipulative.
2. You are being divisive to the movement, and you need to stop that.
I hear this one constantly, not always directed at me, mind you, but just as often directed at other bloggers I’m fans of who occasionally criticize some of the skeptical movement’s shortcomings. Of course, it is not entirely inaccurate to claim that disagreements can be divisive, but only if the people involved let it. For instance, I missed the last American Atheist conference, but I happen to know that they invited the Reverend Barry Lynn to speak there because of his defense of the separation of church and state. Every atheist at that conference openly disagrees with Lynn on the question of god’s existence but it doesn’t stop both us and Lynn from being partners on the things we do agree on, nor does it mean that we pretend those disagreements don’t exist.
The point is that disagreement is only divisive if you are so personally invested in your beliefs that you view any questioning of them as an assault on you personally. This is a natural tendency, but it’s not one conducive to being rational and as skeptics something we must all work to avoid. The way I see it, I think people who launch personal attacks and end friendships over disagreements are doing much more to divide the movement than those who try to offer a polite critique of someone else's arguments. Also, as I pointed out earlier, refusing to engage with your critiques without some reasonable cause (such as a critic being abusive) is simply a refusal to be a skeptic in any meaningful sense. Which brings me to the last argument I hear.
3. You pretend civility is important, but you really just use it to avoid listening to those who disagree with you/you are just as much of an asshole as me, you just use requests for civility to hide it.
Now, let me be fair here. I’m human and therefore quite imperfect, so it is entirely possible, even likely, that I don’t always enforce civility rules equitably within the online spaces I control. I may let my friends off the hook for something I would call someone else on, I may be more likely to notice the incivility of those I’m disagreeing with than those I agree with. I can do the best I can, but I’ll never be perfect.
As an example about a week ago I had a person on my Facebook page insult another poster, I asked him to knock it off if he wanted to continue to have the right to post on my page and he responded by personally attacking me with a misogynistic insult. I said “fuck you” and I blocked him. The blocking was justified, I’d already warned him this would be the result and he doubled down. However, saying “fuck you” before I did it wasn’t my most shining moment. Not because of any rule against swearing, or because I’m worried about hurting this guy’s feelings, but because for just a moment he dragged me down to his level. Still, that we sometimes fail is no reason to not try.
What I find ironic about this argument is that, by and large, those that use it are usually the quickest to anger and the most consistently antagonistic towards those they disagree with. I may not be perfect, but I know that there is a world off difference between saying, “that argument is faulty” and saying, “you are a shitty person.” Though I’m beginning to think that people who make this argument legitimately can’t see the difference between the two since they always seem confused when I try to explain it. I’ve been told my various “failures” stemmed from everything from not having been socialized properly as a child to not getting “laid” often enough, by people who seemed bewildered when I suggested that their behavior is uncalled for and obviously worse than anything they have received from me.
Of course, to be clear, I’m not saying “that argument is faulty” is always acceptable and “you are a shitty human being” is always wrong. In fact, I can think of exceptions in each case, which I won’t get into here, however, I don’t think it’s bad as a general principle to say the first is usually ok, and the second is usually wrong, and we should have a good reason for deviation from that.
I also don’t much accept the argument that I use requests for civility to avoid arguments I don’t like. Remember that discussion I mentioned earlier where I blocked someone? In that same discussion I disagreed with another person just as strongly who did not get blocked because, while I still disagree with him, he didn’t start hurling insults at people because of this disagreement.
So what should we take from all of this? All I can really say is don’t be that person. Don’t be the skeptic who refuses to take your own medicine. Your ideas need to be critiqued as much as the next guy and you are at risk for every single one of those logic problems that skeptics groups point out. You know the ones, like confirmation bias and bandwagon effect? You aren’t harder to fool than anyone else, and the moment you think you are is the moment you are most vulnerable to being fooled. Remember, skepticism is a means of improving your own thinking, not a social club that gives you leave to think everyone else is an idiot and that no one has the right to criticize you. If you treat it as such, then you are not a good skeptic, and you aren’t even a very nice person.