This started as a comment on Matt’s post about being a dick, but when it got to a certain length, I decided to barge to the front of the line and write my own post. That is, no doubt, a dick move on my part.
The problem with Phil’s approach isn’t that there are no dicks in the atheist community. Obviously there are, as highlighted by the “all Christians are retarded” post linked in that thread. All Christians aren’t retarded, and that’s a dick thing to say. One point for Phil.
The real problem is that by focusing on it in a speech this way, Phil gives the clearly false impression that this is systemic to the “leaders” of the “new atheist” “movement” (to the extent that there are leaders and it is a movement that is new, although I join many in despising the “new” designation).
There’s a bait-and-switch which always seems to go on in these discussions. PZ Myers, Dawkins, and we on TAE, do what we can to attack ideas and not people at every opportunity. Some people are dumb, but none of us wants to paint with a broad brush everyone who holds a belief as universally dumb. We say that up front, and we don’t hesitate to call specific ideas dumb, if it’s warranted. By focusing on the ideas we can pay attention to WHY they’re dumb, rather than calling names of people who, after all, are complex individuals with many different ideas and motivations.
We do attack ideas, but we attack them in a way that sometimes offends people. The point, though, is that the people who are taking offense are often doing so due to unreasonable beliefs. Like PZ Myers and his “frackin’ cracker.” It’s less about the offensive language and more about the fact that certain people believe the cracker is the body of Jesus — which it clearly isn’t — and they are willing to terrorize and intimidate people who don’t treat it with the respect due to a magical cracker — which it isn’t. It’s about the fact that people should be allowed to draw cartoons with Mohammed as a character — clearly an activity that harms no one except by annoying them — without receiving death threats.
In a nutshell, this is about drawing attention to an activity which shouldn’t be offensive but is. It is taking a stand to say that religious devotees cannot draw arbitrary battle lines and say “We hereby intend to be offended by activity X, and unless you cease and desist from doing X at all times, you are a dick.” I actually see a lot of parallel between this issue and the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, which is neither a Mosque nor at ground zero. On that subject, an opinion seems to be coalescing, even among people who are trying to appear reasonable, that “those Muslims have the right to build a cultural center there, but good taste dictates that they should not do it.”
I reject that. I think if anything, this whole crapstorm has made it more apparent that those Muslims should build their cultural center right where they damn well said they would, because if they give up ground on this issue then there won’t be a spot in America where they are allowed to build anything, ever. Free speech and free assembly aren’t just symbolic. If those rights aren’t exercised then we can still lose them.
I’m willing to have a reasonable discussion about what are the best methods for exercising our free speech to deal with unreasonable taboos. Sure , Phil, in a few situations it may be preferable to be polite and observe the taboos that you disagree with, depending on how important the fight is. I reject, however, the categorical statement that you shouldn’t do things that might make some group think you’re a dick. That way lies capitulation to every unrealistic demand of a new Taliban.
But Phil Plait would also like to strengthen his case by sneakily conflating two things. On one hand, we have posts that say “All Christians are Retards,” a statement which is both dickish and false. On the other hand, we have PZ Myers throwing his cracker in the trash. By conflating the two, we can be left with the impression that PZ Myers calls all Christians retards, when in reality the two acts are not equivalent.
It just seems to me that way too often, saying “Don’t be a dick” is actually code for “Shut up and accept it when other people are dicks to you.”