It struck me this weekend as I was arguing with my cat that the conversation was remarkably like some I’ve had over the last years online with so-called Men’s Rights Activists. I say “so-called” for a few reasons. First because the word “Men” implies “adult,” and part of being an adult is taking pains to see others’ points of view; second because what they advocate for are actually ossified privileges and not “Rights,” and third because “Activists” implies something other than being on the Internet all day.
But my typical exchange with an MRA, at least when I’m in an optimistic frame of mind and don’t engage in mockery, generally runs like:
MRA: [unsupported assertions stated as bald facts, often with an unwarranted tone of assumed superiority]
Me: “Well, now, the problem with that is that [data] and thus [logical inference], especially seeing as [more data].”
MRA: “Yes, but what you fail to realize is [word-for-word repetition of the statement I just argued against, as if I hadn't said anything at all]
Which for some reason came to mind this weekend as I walked into the kitchen to get some water. The cat came racing into the kitchen, nudged at the cupboard door where we keep the treats, and the following conversation ensued:
Me: “I just fed you your lunch. You have perfectly good food in your bowl you haven’t touched. And when I gave you treats this morning you barfed them up in twenty minutes. I’m not giving you more until you eat some real food.”
Cat, looking at cupboard and then glaring at me: “MEOW.”
Thus engaging in a typical example of argumentum ad NOMiNOM.
It’s probably unfair to compare online arguments with MRAs to me aimlessly talking to a house pet. It may also be needlessly insulting. I mean, one of the two conversations involves a pointless attempt to communicate with a not-precisely sentient being with a brain the size of a walnut, who is mainly motivated by base, unthinking desires which he is unable to cover with a veneer of rationality. And the other involves me talking to my cat.
But the similarity is there: one person trying, in however flawed and ineffective a fashion, to communicate some data and nuance and logic, to actually move the discussion in one way or the other, and the other there only to convey his opinion without listening.
I can’t say as I really blame them. If you’re not used to it, thinking is hard work.
I used to be a little puzzled at the prevalence of MRAs in the skeptics’ movement. On the one hand, a political tendency whose very existence depends on its members refusing to consider all available data. On the other hand, an intellectual movement devoted to encouraging people to dig up and then consider all available data. When I hit my teens way back in declining days of the Nixon Administration, prominent skeptics provided a really helpful role model, debunking things like Uri Geller’s spoonbending and homeopathy and such. Some decades later I fell in with the amateur skeptics in the Usenet newsfroup alt.folklore.urban, out of whose fetid and meanyheaded waters later rose what would become snopes.com. They were good influences, despite their best efforts.
Having a skeptical reflex is an interesting thing for an enviro in today’s environmental movement, believe me. That’s a post for another time, but I do get how uncomfortable it can be to have data accumulate against a proposition which you desperately wanted to be true. On the other hand, I also know pretty well just how smugly satisfying it is to be that person who says “that Facebook post is an urban legend, check this link here.” Even if you mean it utterly guilelessly and you’re correcting your best friend, there’s that little one-uppersonship that can give you a little destructive frisson if you’re not on guard against it.
As MRAs already imagine themselves as heroically standing up to orthodoxy, it’s not surprising they’d find Skepticism 101 appealing. As long as data that challenges the propositions they desperately want to be true is kept outside that Bright Spotlight Of Facts We Notice, it’s easy to understand how they might find the movement perfectly copacetic.
That Bright Ring can even blind the bright lights of the movement. I think it was about 20 years ago Penn Jillette first criticized recycling as a waste of time whose value was not supported by empirical data, based on empirical data he got from landfill operators because what possible motive for fudging the truth could they possibly have? There’s a parallel here. Libertarians postulate that unfettering everyone’s most self-serving economic motives is the best way to create a vibrant, egalitarian economy, just as unfettering a giant unstable slope of rocks on a steep hillside is the best way to create a stone cathedral at the base of the hill. MRAs hold that men are unfairly treated in today’s world by comparison to women, while simultaneously holding that the subjugation of women is natural and inevitable and no big deal. Libertarianism and MRAism are philosophies that will not withstand honest and rigorous investigation by a moderately bright 7-year-old, in other words, and yet the ranks of skeptics’groups are crawling with both.
Or, as I said a few months back in fewer than 140 characters,
Skepticism as video game: Religion is End Boss of Level 1. Then come Sexism and Libertarianism, but most declare victory & quit after 1.
I greatly value skepticism; I’ve learned methods of inquiry and intellectual discipline that have served me well in the last half century, and to the degree that I’ve made a difference in my work those methods get some of the credit. I see skepticism as a form of mental hygiene that I think everyone should practice. At its best, it underlies crowning achievements of human endeavor: all of science, much of literature and art and learning. I don’t see it as an end in itself, but as a better way of interacting with the world.
For myself, when I started to think skeptically, I started to want to change the world. I saw lies we were being handed and expected to swallow that ended with people being badly hurt, with species going extinct, the powerful accumulating greater power all the while. I found this intolerable and I still do. I know there are skeptics who find that kind of position unsupportable. Jason has referred to them as “hyperskeptics,” but I think “cynics” is a better word.
My question for those folks is, what are you going to do with your hard-won skepticism now that you’ve got it? Aside from feeding the cat.