The Dick Delusion

I’ve been getting slapped upside the head with this “dick” meme that’s roaring through the skeptic community lately, largely because it seems that any time someone makes a generic criticism of rude, abrasive, confrontational critics of foolishness, the audience all thinks of the life-size poster of PZ Myers they’ve got hanging on their bedroom door back home. It’s a little annoying. Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school. It’s just not right.

Of course, there’s a range of criticism, too. I think Rebecca Watson is hitting the problem about right: it’s about picking your battles, and making a scene over trivial customs practiced with charitable intent is not a good idea. So, really, I don’t have to punch Granny in the nose—I can just say “thank you!”, and that’s fine. But when Granny tells you to get down on your knees and praise Jesus right now or you’re going to burn for eternity in a lake of hellfire, then some dickishness is not only justified, it’s necessary.

The thing is, the dickishness practiced is not nose-punching, it’s not even howling four-letter words at Granny…it’s a flat statement of “That’s crazy, I’m not going to do that, and here’s why.” That, apparently, is the New Dickishness.

One recent flashpoint in this argument was Phil Plait’s talk at TAM 8, in which he asked a rhetorical question, “How many of you … became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?” And the Pharyngula switchboard lit up. Lots of people wrote to me via email or twitter, some gloating, some just unhappy, stating that Phil had just called me out.

No, he didn’t. He didn’t mention me at all. He opened up against a strawman New Dick, which is unfortunate, because there isn’t anyone who fits that description in the skeptical movement. There are people like that elsewhere: drill sergeants and televangelists come to mind.

A few people are speaking out against the talk. Stephanie Zvan points out that Randi is one of these ‘dicks’, that his willingness to sneer at charlatans was an important factor in her own acceptance of skepticism. Matt Dillahunty thinks Phil was making a bit of a dick move himself, which actually demonstrates the utility of the making people think with a little harshness. I also fear that one of the reasons for the popularity of Phil’s talk (it did strike a chord with many) is that it reassured many that certain aspects of belief were going to be walled off from skeptical criticism in the name of politeness and tone and courtesy.

There is a fair point being made, that there are multiple strategies that work to convince people to rethink bad ideas, and they don’t all involve punching people in the face…and many of the best strategies do involve politely listening and criticizing. But I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.

I don’t, actually — it also seems like a dick move to try and associate a strategy with gender, since some of the most wonderfully dickish skeptics I know are female. But that’s a separate issue.