Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics

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.

My Favorite Slide Ever

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.

Yes = Protect Kids, No = Something about fairness?

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.

TAM Sunday: I give a presentation to a zillion people

I got up early to get ready to see the papers, and to make sure I was there to watch everyone else’s papers because they usually aren’t crowded.  TAMmers leave in droves on Sunday before the event is over and the papers were really poorly advertised this year.  There was no program, there was no schedule that anyone had access to, our names weren’t printed anywhere, certainly our subjects weren’t printed anywhere.  It was poorly done, I have to say — we’re not headliners, but we are people who still had to pay despite the fact that we’re talking.  The least they could have done is put our names somewhere so people would know what they were listening to.

Anyway, I went to the papers.  I was fairly nervous, but it was OK, I was the last to go, so I had to sit through 6 other papers before it was my turn and, unfortunately, the paper before me ate into my time a little, so I had to shorten mine up on the fly.  Which was also fine, because I could see anything thanks to the lights reflecting off of my glasses, so I couldn’t really read my notes anyway.

It went over very well.  The presentation was about the importance of using emotion and recognizing emotion in discussions, using the failure of the LGBT side in the Prop 8 campaign as an example of how emotional messanging works.  There’s a huge tone debate in the movement at the moment, for those of you who don’t remember DBAD, because some people think that other people are too mean or confrontational.  The point of my speech was to say that emotional content is one of our most useful tools, and being a dick creates an emotional response.  It’s a useful tool in the tool box.  But most importantly, just because the movement is about logic and rationality that doesn’t mean that ignoring emotion is the right way to go about convincing others — ignoring human emotion is irrational.  Including within the movement — skeptics are not immune from being human, we should start taking that into account better when we argue.

I got a large applause when I was done, and after I left the stage a little crowd of people came over to thank me or talk with me about the issues.  It was very cool.  I was expecting some backlash — perhaps from being on the internet for too long — I thought some people would tell me that emotions have no place in rational debates or that they didn’t appreciate my assumption that everyone in the room was pro-gay rights, but the responses were great.

I was too keyed up to sit through the next presentation, especially as the World Cup Final was about to take place, so I just went into the hallway and talked to people who came up to me to say thanks about my presentation.  To pat myself on the back a little, I’m going to write some of the Twitter responses:

kefox: Great talk this morning on communicating w/emotion. Our side is smarter & really ought to be the Jedi masters of this.

Tasutari: Ashley could easily have given a full talk – good slides, good content, well presented.  Plus, there was a Joss Whedon quote.

charlesj: Ashley tells us what we need to hear, continuing from Tavris’ talk yesterday

jennifurret: Ashley nailed it on using emotions when arguing skepticism.  Sometimes you need to be a dick!

TCTheater: Ashley is kicking ass and taking names.  Excellent capstone to papers segment.

SkeptiCareBear: Propaganda bad, but lack of all emotion worse.  Good talk by Ashley.

StevenTheWonky: Ashley is kicking ass.

ArcheoWebby: A presenter that knows how to use a computer.  Nice.  Good Job Ashley.

So that was awesome.  Then I went to watch the soccer game and it was so depressing, partially because there was no food at the bar and I was starving to death while also watching the US kill themselves — I’m happy for Japan, but we lost that game because we made a lot of stupid, careless mistakes and couldn’t get shots on Target.  My heart goes out to Abby Wambach.

Then I heard the end of the diversity in skepticism panel, which I sort of lost interest in thanks to DJ seeming to think that getting conservatives and religious people in the movement should be some sort of a priority.  I’m with Jamila on the whole getting active about causes that skeptic people should be able to see are ridiculous — the war on drugs, the prison policy.

Sean Faircloth gave essentially the same speech he’d given at the SCA Summit and it went over very well.  He’s a very good cheerleader.

Then there was the closing remarks from Randi and we were done.  I ran into Randi in the hallway and thanked him for letting me speak and he said he’d heard I’d done very well.  I’m sure he was just saying that, but it was still awesome.  I went down to the Del Mar and hung out with a lot of people who were still there and then went to Penn and Teller over at the Rio.  Boy are Las Vegas cabs expensive, by the way.  We were in the first seat in the Mezzanine, which was actually excellent because it was easier to see how they were doing the tricks.  A lot of their tricks have been on their show or on other shows, but it was still a lot of fun.  And then someone in the line for cabs recognized me and thanked me for my talk, so people at the Rio cab line probably thought I was some important person.  Buahaha.

Then I packed and went to bed.

Monday, I got on the airplane and swallowed my crown.  And I’m freaking out about it.  Yep.