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Don’t Be a Dick redux — now with Real Life Adventure!

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.

Comments

  1. says

    So he was an atheist in order to be anti establishment, not because he had any real understanding of rational thought.

  2. says

    Ashley?I seriously doubt that. He's like the nicest guy on the planet, pretty much. At least when the camera was on him, he was.

  3. says

    What intrigues me the most is that these people believe that their government, in cold blood, murdered over three thousand people and demolished several prominent NY buildings, and yet they go on about their lives as if nothing has happened. If I sincerely believed 9/11 conspiracy(s) I wouldn't spend my time trolling on the internet or chasing people down the streets – I would be gearing up for a freaking civil war!I understand this as evidence of conspiracy theories being popular primarily because they have the power to make a group of people feel special. It makes you feel that you have a privileged knowledge, that you are the smart one who managed to divorce himself from the brainwashed masses. It has very little to do with getting the 'real story' straight.Also as a European I would like to propose that atheists in the U.S. are on average more reasonable than in the old continent. Many if not most atheists in the U.S. are people who were born into and raised in religious enviroment; They had to first exert some degree of intellectual willpower to break themselves free of religion. On the contrary, here, in Europe, you are by default more likely to be born into an atheist/non-religious enviroment. Therefore the atheists here have very little need for the faculties of critical thought and rational arguments simply because they never needed it in the first place.P.S. Please don't tell me it was Ashley. :(

  4. says

    Descriptions of these kinds of encounters always seem to be couched in an unspoken suggestion that the person is purposely choosing to act this way. As if self-awareness can be turned off and on at a whim?Some people simply don't have the "skill", are ostracized, and spiral downward from there. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. I'm surprised it doesn't induce more sympathy than it does.

  5. says

    It wasn't Ashley… it was a self-appointed "art director."And yeah, I just don't get people. I spend time worrying about how I come off to other people, even if I had wacky views I can't imagine drawing that much attention to myself in public.

  6. Martin says

    And no, if you knew Ashley you'd know that, as mild-mannered as he is, losing his temper in a crowded mall is about as likely as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann getting gay-married. (And remember, I said this idiot was not part of the regular TV crew.)

  7. Martin says

    AbnormalWrench: Not a bad point, but lacking any formal diagnosis from a mental health specialist, I am content to attribute this to bad behavior that any mature adult should know better than to display, and that one can choose to outgrow. Now, if you want to argue this guy just isn't a mature adult, I'll get behind that.

  8. says

    I'm guessing it was Keryn in drag.But seriously, if it makes you feel any better Martin, this kinda stuff is entertaining as hell. Even though you thought you were snarky in responding to his point that the planes had "nothing whatsoever to do with" the towers collapsing, I would have to assume that the only explanation he could come up with was that all the eyewitnesses at ground zero were paid off, and that the footage was doctored with CGI. You might've been able to go down this conversational road if you had responded with a straight face. You know, for your own personal amusement.

  9. Martin says

    Well, I wasn't inclined to be amused or entertained today at the spectacle of having my space invaded by a screaming moron. I mean, callers on the show are one thing. When I'm out trying to enjoy a pleasant day like everyone else, it's different.

  10. says

    To everyone who commented on this, it CLEARLY states it was posted by Martin lolAnyways, this was yet another fantastic blog by AE! lol As a part owner of a small business jointly owned by fellow atheists, I know what it's like to meet a crazy atheist. It's the most frustrating thing in the world. Typically (not in every case, just typically), they'll have the logical understanding as to why religion makes no sense. Sweet, way to go! However, EVERYTHING ELSE about them is, honestly, ridiculous! They say things that are highly questionable (sometimes downright despicable), they'll do things that are morally questionable (sometimes downright objectionable), and they'll display their total ignorance in everything else! They act super snarky, especially when talking to a theist discussing whatever crazy crap they believe in, but then when it comes to other important matters, like politics or social interaction, they haven't a clue! What makes it even worse is that if you get into an argument with them, they become loud, belligerent, and overwhelmingly condescending to the point where you don't even want to interact with them anymore!The sad part about it, too, is that half the time you're talking to them, you're smiling in their faces like "Yeah, sure you're totally right" when in you're mind you're like "did this idiot really just say this crap?!" just to avoid an argument with them over something they're CLEARLY wrong about! It KILLS me! It's bad enough we have all these crazy theists to deal with, but now we have to disown members of our own kind too, just because they're crazy and make the rest of us look bad!Those are my two cents lol Check out my blog @ themaddhousestudio.blogspot.com and follow me on Twitter @theultimaterage

  11. says

    Great job, Martin! Thanks for sharing your story and keeping your cool. I definitely need to constantly police myself to not be a dick and this is a great reminder of where I can end up if I let my emotions get the best of me.

  12. says

    Sounds like a guy seriously lacking even the modest amount of self-awareness.Personally, I think that part of my obligation to myself as a skeptic, is the dedication to test my positions and assumptions as much as possible. I have held irrational ideas in the past, so I know I'm not beyond fault. A skeptic view of the world requires one to constantly confront and examine new facts and ideas against old ones.As for the behavior of this guy: I tend to observe that people who hold a fringe worldview have an unusually strong need for antagonists. They need enemies in the same manner most people need friends. It seem to help them reinforce their fringe belief and personal confidence. The more hostile the reaction they provoke the more assured they are of their position.I know I sometimes seek the craziest fundamentalists on youtube, watching their insane videos just to contrast myself against them. It's childish, I know. But at the end of the day it's not the specific people I see as enemies- but ignorance and fear.

  13. says

    Sounds like a lousy day, Martin. Sorry you had to go through it.It sounds like this guy has had a warped view of what atheism is since his ACA days. It just goes to show that there is more than one path to atheism, and this guy sure didn't take the rational one.

  14. Mamba24 says

    @ Petr kudlacek-This would seem to make sense, I got into a pretty fierce argument with someone from Amsterdam(or somewhere in that region of Europe) about 9/11 conspiracies a while back. When it came to beliefs in a god, we were both atheists, but when it came to anything about America, it was just anti-American attacks full bore from this person. I even happened to agree with some of his criticisms, but some of the other things were just absurd, not only the 9/11 BS, but he started accusing America of being "fat beer drinking bums"(Apparently he thinks only Americans drink beer…lol) While advocating his use of marijuana as a drug that causes more open-mindedness and increased intelligence,(while beer just "dumbs-down" society in his words, which I may agree to, but from a different perspective). I soon realized that while we both labeled ourselves as atheists, we had completely different thought structures. Where as my rational and critical thinking brain led me to atheism, I get the feeling that he was an atheist merely because of the society he lived in, not because he naturally became an atheist from reasoned thought and logic. So it wasn't surprising to hear him use the same kind of irrational and illogical thinking that most religious people possess, only in regards to a different subject. Anyway your post reminded me of this guy, what we like to call stupid atheists I suppose. LOL

  15. says

    I have encountered a similar combination of conspracy theorist(CT) and personal space invader / unwarranted discussion starter before.I think at some point everyone who ever asked a CT for his opinion on his favourite topic has enough of his rants, so no one asks for his opinion anymore. Since he still has a strong desire to open the people's minds to the "truth", he starts discussions himself, even on the risk of being off-topic (since his topic of interest is more important than other topics anyway). The aggressive and patronizing attitude that can emerge in this kind of discussion with a CT stems, imho, from the CT's inherent sense of superiority and the percieved willful ignorance of others. After all, the CT has, contrary to most other humans, figured out (at least in part) how the world REALLY works… and nobody believes him! I can believe that this is really frustrating, and to an even more fervent protection of one's views from outside attacks. Being a CT is kind of like being in a religious minority that gets constantly told by the religious majority (non-CTs) that it's beliefs are stupid.Long argument short: I can understand that CTs get more aggressive and defensive in the protection of their beliefs over time.Of course, that does in no way excuse this guy's behavior. The way he acted wasn't socially acceptable. Screaming is not the right method to channel the vigor that a discussion creates in you.Then again, given your previous experiences with him, it doesn't come as much of a surprise. With the "art director"-campaign and his reaction to your criticism thereof he allready showed his inability to grasp the effect his actions have on others and to accept criticism (due to sky-rocketing arrogance, and because he knows much better how the world works than you do anyways).I think a bunch of factors came together to bring you the "discussion" you had to endure:1) his belief that his view of the world is more correct than that of most other people.2) his desire to "fix" the world by opening people's eyes to the "truth".3) his anger that others are "willfully ignorant" by not considering/accepting his views.4) his lack of understanding of (if we give him the benefit of the doubt) or disregard of, the rules of basic civility. (Maybe caused by anger)Without point 4, he would be rather harmless. He would still be a CT, but he wouldn't be an ass. Point 4 makes him an ass, and he allready was one before he became a CT (or before he showed himself to be one).So, yeah. Basically this guy acted like an ass because he is an ass. (Of course, there may be tons of context that excuses his behaviour, but given his track record…) Maybe he's just clueless, but he should be old enough to have learned how to behave in society. That he chose conspracies as his tool to be an ass was more incidental I think, because that's what he currently cares about.You're right. Being an atheist doesn't prevent you from being an ass, just as it doesn't prevent you from being a CT.You said it better and shorter than I could: "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".PS: If my rambling gets too incoherent, I am sleep deprived right now and I am from europe.

  16. says

    Sorry to hear you had a bit of bother Martin.It is another small example witch proves we really are all jumped up Apes.It sounds like you kept your cool and acted in the best way under the circumstances.Sadly as a member of a species that evolved with a fight or flight reflex to adrenalin fueled situations like this. Doing the right thing is not gonna stop you feeling pissed off about the whole incident.

  17. says

    As it has been said 100,000 times, the one unifying characteristic of atheists is that we do not believe in God. Outside of that, we are as diverse as the tree of life. So…you can be insane and irrational and delusional while being skeptical of religious claims. I don't think anything drove him to this point, but he has just been handed some very bad misinformation that he found compelling. My father is a scientist. My brother is a biomedical engineer and a Marine. Both are atheists, yet both are on the fence also about 9/11 being an inside job, and yes Spare Change and Zeitgeist did the thinking for them. So I try to present counter arguments, based in logic, not science, and still it goes nowhere.Other than that, they are rational and clear thinking.

  18. says

    "as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann getting gay-married."That is beyond hot.Ahem.Sorry you had to endure such a thing, Martin, although as a longtime tourist of High Weirdness media and politics I find such people wonderfully entertaining.(Come to think of it, I wonder how much of an FBI file I have, given all the crazy mail I've received over the years. On second thought… I don't want to know.)In the future, a good trick is to tell them you were just reading something that agrees with them and it's in the car (or wherever) and you'll be RIGHT BACK with it. Then don't come back.

  19. says

    I know exactly who Martin is talking about. It's a shame because RF was a founding member who designed the group's official logo 13-14 years ago. I used to consider him a friend, but I can no longer be around him.

  20. says

    I am very sorry for the rude, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior from this fellow atheist. I'm not sure he was a theist before becoming an atheist, but some people who give up deep, deep, religious experiences require something to replace it with. It's almost like what the theists tell us about everyone having a god sized hole that can only be filled up with god. Also, I have seen more and more rational people going full tilt and I'm not sure why. Radiation? Poor economy? I would say that there is a little bit of mental or emotional illness going on and he is clearly not on his meds. I'm serious. I have no time for arogant, crazy people and I assume you don't either.Traitor to Religionhttp://traitortoreligion.blogspot.com/

  21. says

    Atheism——-9/11 conspiracy theory.AND NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET!Last time I looked the two were not mutually exclusive, hell some atheists believe in visiting aliens and some believe in illuminati mind-control so why is he being a dick to atheists in general? What a massive arse to do that in public, I expect you will see him waving at traffic soon with a hand-painted cardboard sign araound his neck proclaiming "Pepsi and Coca-Cola are the same! Wake up people!".BTW Martin,why keep this king of knobs anonymous? He was being a dick so why not mention his name?

  22. says

    I work for "the big bad government" in a not very important way. But I deal with many, er… "governed" people every day. When all the hours and days bleed into one, it's the social oddballs that stand out. Just today I had someone tell me that Obama was personally out get rid of all "people like him" (never really figured what that meant) and someone else who used the old stand by that Republicans want to kill old people. Which is ironic, since it seems to be their voting base. There is something very hypnotic and empowering about the belief that your government is out to get you. It's also a built excuse for any bad situation. When you add this common paranoia with a really unhinged or socially uninhibited person and you can get something quite interesting.Off topic- I had one lady who wanted to know if medicare would pay for her friends who prayed for her while sick. She said she was a christian scientist who had years of documentation that it works and she was always healthy… except this time. But the prayers were what made the medical treatment successful. No kidding.

  23. Martin says

    Well, I didn't write the post just out of personal revenge or anything. The involved individual is not a public figure, and so naming him would mean nothing to those who don't know him. (And as bigfatatheist has shown, my description of him alone was enough to identify him to those who do.) In a general sense, I just wanted to take today's event and use it as a springboard for a discussion of those behaviors that we should all take care not to fall into. Another friend of mine told me this guy sounds like he may just be plain crazy and not merely guilty of dick behavior. Still, a person can graduate from unchecked dick behavior to true crazy quicker than you might think. It's a good thing to be aware of, and watch out for, so we don't slip down that same slope.

  24. says

    @MartinEven if the man in question was a hermit from the mountains of Kazhakstan I would ask his name out of basic human curiosity :)

  25. says

    We have a guy like this in our local Freethinker's group. He's an atheist simply to be an iconoclast, not because he'd know critical thinking if it clocked him upside the head with a ClueByFour. His bugbears are UFO, Bigfoot and Ghost investigations. Although I haven't heard him spout off ever since we sat down with a PhD. physicist during our Fermilab tour and the good doctor told him six ways all his E.T. theories were impossible bullshit.I think it's part and parcel of a larger syndrome, though. We sat down to watch The God Who Wasn't There, and this guy opened the discussion with, "so–we all agree that there was a historical Jesus, right?" Um, no, I want to watch the movie and see where the evidence leads. I'm not in the business of starting with the conclusion and then accepting or rejecting facts based on that.

  26. says

    One of the enjoyable things for me since becoming an atheist is the freedom to admit being wrong from time to time. With this being my experience, I find it hard to imagine people exhibiting this kind of behaviour on any position that was arrived at via rational thought. However, even though the behaviour described in this post is extreme, the potential to hold on to a position for the wrong reasons (such as ego or fear) exists in all of us.

  27. says

    Violating personal space and shouting is just being a bully, trying to intimidate someone into giving in to your position. This is often a tactic of people who cannot justify their position in a rational way anymore, so they just react to the humiliation they feel and lash out. I have yet to meet anyone that endorses this kind of behavior in any reasonable way. It sounds to me like this guy is into his 911 beliefs so deeply that any challenge to them is regarded as a personal attack.My only real problem with the whole “Don’t Be a Dick” thing is that ransoming feelings against having a particular idea challenged is BS maneuver also. There is an intrinsic, though small, confrontation inherent in an atheist position. Belief in god is so main stream in the U.S. If we are to avoid challenging anyone who might be offended in the slightest we won’t be able to talk to anyone who still believes in no time at all. Telling someone who plans to give all their money away because the rapture is coming that they are wrong is almost certainly going to hurt their feelings, but just not mentioning they are following a crazy belief, allowing them to keep making bad decisions, seems a much worse evil.

  28. says

    @John K.:Telling someone that he is wrong isn't "being a dick". It depends on how you tell them.And people can be offended by what you say, even when what you say isn't actually offensive in itself. There are irrational reasons to be offended too.Every voiced disagreement with another person holds the potential to offend that person. Slightly offending someone's feelings to prevent him from ruining his life? I see no evil in that, not even a small evil.

  29. says

    It wouldn't mean anything to me to know the name of this chap. I was just over checking out the latest internet brouhaha at Pharyngula and thought it was a funny coincidence. Never have I seen more of a flap about so little. Somehow there's even a Dawkins boycott. Wow. I'm actually glad that I will be at the shore rather than TAM this year.

  30. says

    Sorry that happened, Martin. Sounds quite unpleasant for you.I agree, don't be a dick. A way to avoid that is to examine your beliefs and be sure that they're founded on reason, and not some emotionally-comforting delusion.As an illustration, why was that guy so emotionally invested in this belief? Why was it so important to spout about it, and to make every casual acquaintance agree with him, and become extremely emotional when you didn't?He's obviously got some really deep emotional reason for holding this, such extreme actions would otherwise not be necessary. Everyone, keep away from that kind of thing in yourself.

  31. says

    Yikes.Let the record show, I guessed Ashley simply because I tried to think of people who used to be A.E. staples who were no longer on the air.And seeing that I only know you all from the YouTube clips and from postings, who knows what you are like off screen?So I thought, Hmmm… Ashley could have snapped.If Ashley is reading this, it was just a guess.(I am sure this is a HUGE weight off of Ashley's shoulders)

  32. says

    oh no, Martin and Russell disagree on something. To be a dick or not to be a dick, that's the question.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8wVmYMjR74Now if I were a fundementalist atheist I would have to ´interpret´ Martins post in such a way that I could still be a dick. Luckily I am capable of making my own decisions by judging situations and acting accordingly.I still wanna see a deathbattle in which you and Russell duke it out (verbally) to find out who will reign supreme.

  33. says

    After reading your description of this man's behavior, I can't stop picturing him wearing a fanny pack. He just seems like that kind of guy.

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