Had an absolutely insane personal encounter today that I’m still having difficulty processing, because it was the sort of display of flagrantly irrational, histrionic and emotional behavior that we as atheists and rationalists criticize, but which you in fact rarely get to experience right in your face. It reminded me of a great many basic axioms though. For one thing, being an atheist is no guarantee you’ll come with rationality pre-installed. For another, it never fails that people who have fanatical views that they refuse to see challenged will be the first to praise themselves as beacons of reason. It’s a human flaw I suppose we must all watch out for.
So I’m at a nearby mall today, when I pass by a fellow — who Shall Remain Unnamed — who, many years ago, used to be an ACA member. He left a while back, to the disappointment of few, it must be said, and I recall not liking him much personally for some prima donna behavior he exhibited in regards to the TV show at the time. But anyway, I caught his eye and decided it never hurts to be friendly, so I waved and said hi. I soon had cause to regret my sociability.
We spoke for a moment, and everything was gas and gators. Then he demonstrated that, since leaving the ACA, he’s travelled to a much weirder place, by turning the conversation towards — are you ready? — 9/11 conspiracy theories. Basically, he buys them.
Now, before I continue, I’m sure this is futile but the point of this post is not to start a sprawling endless comment thread debating such theories. (Just go here if you want to have that discussion.) It’s to talk about, well, behavior. And I think it dovetails with a lot of current kerfuffle that’s playing itself out among the online godless community right now — like Rebecca Watson and the Elevator Incident. In other words, part of living the rational life is having a sense of self-awareness. How you interact with others has much to do with how your message will be received. This is basic common sense and socialization, not an advocacy of tone trolling. Indeed, there are times in-your-face rudeness is the way to respond. But in most cases — and certainly in public — how you behave reveals more about you than you might wish people knew. Not only does it reveal what your beliefs are, but it reveals how those beliefs inform whether you’re a normal, cool person that others want to interact with. In short, if you cannot control yourself, expect to be an embittered loner, whose sense of victimhood is shored up by righteousness. Which brings me back to the person at hand.
So the guy shows me the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and indignantly denounces its cover story debunking 9/11 conspiracy mongering as “propaganda.” He then goes on to speculate that the Center for Inquiry has been infiltrated by the CIA, who planted the story in the magazine. (He did not, in his genius, consider that if the CIA was doing this sort of thing, they certainly have the wherewithal to plant such a story in bigger and better-selling publications than Skeptical Inquirer, whose global circulation is around 50,000, compared to, say, Time‘s 3.3 million.) Anyway, it was a farrago of absurdity, and I could tell he was passionate about it.
Now, you know me from the show. I’m snarky. So when he mentioned that the airplanes that crashed into the towers had “nothing whatsoever to do” with their collapsing, despite destroying support columns and causing fires in excess of 1000 degrees, I replied, “So what, was it just special effects on TV, when we witnessed the planes actually hit the buildings?”
Rule #1 when dealing with the fundamentalist mindset (which is something one sees displayed often in non-religious environments, you know): Mock them, or even make them think you’re mocking them, and they will completely lose their shit. Which this guy did. Right there, in public, in the middle of a shopping mall.
So he leans in, and starts shouting at me. No really…shouting. And it has now become a “violating personal space” issue, in addition to the plain inappropriate public display of temper. So, not being one to take this kind of crap, let alone from someone whom I approached for a friendly social chat despite not especially liking him in the first place, I put up both hands and said, “No! Wrong! I’m not doing this in public. Goodbye.” And I walked off.
Naturally, he followed me, keeping up his harangue. How could anyone believe that “gravity could make buildings fall”? Etc etc. Now I am seriously pissed, and begin making my way towards a nearby jewelry store, where they usually employ a cop. Really. I am not making any of this up.
Finally, I stop, in the hopes of just convincing him to fuck off before I have to go and make things really ugly, like pressing public nuisance charges. After another few seconds of heated exchange, he wailed that he has “lost all respect for every atheist blah blah blah.” I say, “Good, so goodbye! Stop following me!” And he leaves.
Gang, this happened. I mean, this happened.
What is it that turns a person into something like this? I understand ideologies, I understand being someone who gets too emotionally involved in what you believe, and I understand a lack of self-awareness and poor social skills. But outside of street riots — where the environment seems to be conducive — you don’t tend to encounter someone whose complete lack of anything resembling basic respect for others and common sense is so proudly on display.
At the core of it all, I think, is irrationality married to poor social skills. Irrationality is not necessarily about what you believe (though yeah, it often is), but how you believe it, why you believe it, and how your beliefs inform your personal interactions and behaviors. After all, why would a rational person choose to take a friendly greeting in a shopping mall as an invitation to start a shouting match about whatever political thing you have up your ass today? And if you expect the person you’re trying to pick this fight with to disagree with you anyway (he began by saying that he expected I, like “most atheists,” to have “swallowed the official 9/11 story”), then what other than arrogant stupidity would provoke you to go ballistic at them when they give you the expected disagreement? If he really hoped to persuade me I’m wrong for not believing in a conspiracy, did he really think totally jumping my shit in the middle of a fucking shopping mall was the way I’d have my mind changed?
I reiterate that this fellow is an atheist, and that his reason for leaving ACA was that we weren’t the group of political agitators he wanted us to be, plus the part he doesn’t mention, which was that he also didn’t like the way we reacted negatively to his being a douche to everyone. But his behavior today was entirely in keeping with his behavior of the past. When in the group, he angered the entire TV crew — of which he was not a part — by turning up at the studio one Sunday holding a bunch of signs he’d had printed, pronouncing himself “art director,” and proceeding to redecorate the backdrop (which took 45 minutes longer than it usually did) with these signs, which had type so small they couldn’t be read onscreen. When repeatedly told this, he flounced off in a huff, making a misogynist insult against one of our women crew and deriding our “amateurishness.” I followed him into the parking lot and chewed him about six new assholes, and never saw him again, until today. Guess I shouldn’t have been shocked.
So, why am I belaboring you all with this? Well, in part, it’s cathartic. In other part, it was a healthy reminder of the dangers of irrationality — the unwillingness to have your views challenged or to entertain that you may be wrong, the blindness to how your behavior affects others, the inability to what what behavior is appropriate and when, the failure of letting temper control you rather than vice versa. We all talk about crazy fundies and how they impose themselves where they aren’
t wanted. But if we wish to consider ourselves on the side of the “angels” of reason, if you’ll pardon my phrasing, then we should be vigilant and self-aware, strictly applying our own standards to ourselves before we demand them from others. I guess what I’m saying is — “Don’t Be a Dick!” I don’t, like Phil, think we all do it, and I certainly don’t agree that challenging anyone in any way is dickish. But with a little too much ego and self-absorption, and too little sense and rational thought, anyone can be a dick if they don’t watch out. An encounter like today’s is upsetting, sure. But you can take it as a cautionary tale, and get the positive from it.
And that’s your drama for today. And I bet you thought Matt got all the wackos. Now, I’m going to go hang with my dogs.