Monday, September 7, 2009

Impolite Company

What is it that polite company does not talk about? Sex, politics and religion?
If you've been reading along you can probably guess that my basic opinion on all three can be summed up by the all-purpose negation; "Bullshit!"
But that doesn't mean that there aren't ways in which those subjects should be handled. The same goes for skepticism.
Asshole skepticism doubly so. I do think that any and all skeptical issues should be argued vociferously in proportion to their effect upon the world.
Anti-vaccination should be argued with vehemence, and possibly with knives if necessary. Flat-earth theory should be argued with laughter, and possibly mocking finger pointing... that is if you are taking the asshole skeptical position.

I've already alluded to this, but I absolutely do not think or promote the notion that asshole skepticism is a blanket tactic. This will be one of several posts on how and when it is appropriate.

I'm going to pull a number out of the air and say that a more gentle approach to skepticism is the best-bet 80% of the time and that asshole skepticism is the way to go 20% of the time. I am probably being generous to us asshole skeptics with those figures, but let's face it, the numbers are arbitrary and merely serve the point that the greatest majority of the time soft-skepticism is the best approach.

In day to day life I would not personally use genuinely assholish tactics on anyone I expected to spend a lot of time with. Family, friends, co-workers - and anyone else I could expect to have to deal with regularly.

(A side note: I can see that I've skipped a stage in the out laying of my growing manifesto... What are genuinely assholish tactics? What non-asshole skeptical tactics are not genuinely assholish? I'm still working on that. For now let's merely say that being confrontational, heatedly emotional, and directly belittling are all part of the genuinely assholish bag of tricks; while using levity is a part of the less offensive part
of the canon.)
This is not to say that family and friends might not be subjected to such tactics indirectly - I have to assume that family and friends will read this blog, for example, but I'm not pulling punches 'just in case they do.' I'm not afraid of anyone finding out what my ideology is. They either agree, or they don't and if they don't they will have to make a decision as to whether that is something that will prevent them from being a part of my life. I have many times chosen to keep friends who maintain credulous beliefs in my life, without individual judgement, just as I've chosen to have friends with any accounting of minor foibles that don't quite jibe with me - in all cases because I think they have a lot of other great qualities that I build our friendship around.

I'm more than willing to respectfully discuss skeptical subjects with my friends and family - and sometimes I wade in when they aren't expecting it. When my step-mother sends out a forwarded email announcing that on August 27th Mars will look bigger than the Moon, I yell at my computer "No it's fucking not!" and then write a detailed email with the astronomical data explaining how the event in question was years ago and that the degree by which Mars would be closer than normal was so nominal that comparing it's size to the Moon was laughable.... and I also encourage her to forward my response to whomever sent her the email and so on. (A reverse chain letter!) And I chose to write a nice email instead of calling home and yelling "No it's fucking not!" into the phone because I love my father and I have no reason to alienate the woman he loves - not to even get to how I actually respect my step-mother a lot and think that she is great for my dad.

Perhaps this seems obvious. No sane person would treat their loved ones with utter contempt, but it seems to me that I should say so, otherwise somewhere down the line someone is bound to try to identify it as a glaring hole in my philosophy and toss out the straw man that it's all garbage as a result of the oversight.

Further though...

I think it's fair to say that people who adhere to empirically ridiculous and/or offensive beliefs are not very likely to get themselves too emotionally deep into my life. It's simply too likely that at one point or another one or the other of us is going to say something that makes the red-flags go up for the other and we will collectively take a step back.
But sometimes in life we are thrown in with people who do hold views that are diametrically opposed to our own truths and there is simply no way of avoiding interaction on a regular basis and it's also likely that areas of contention are going to come up.

You may have a co-worker, for example, that goes to a psychic regularly, is studying their own ability to read tarot and gives lectures to other co-workers about how the world is going to change in fundamental ways in 2012. I find it very hard to not say anything in these circumstances. I find it hard to suffer fools gladly. I find it nearly impossible to obey the "Bambi rule" if I actually get involved in the conversation. It's a very tough position to be in. No wins. I am trying to get better at it. But the one thing I have to remind myself of is that "I need to work peacefully with these people." So I will pick the point I most want to make and I'll make it. I will even argue it in a friendly manner. But as soon as I feel the instinct to get mean or emotional (usually simultaneously) I have to back off - even if I know exactly what I should say next (often precisely because I have the perfect zinger.) I smile and say "Hmmm. That's interesting." and back off. Often giving the false impression that they have won. I have to hope that staircase wisdom will give me a better solution further down the road and that I'll get another chance to pull it out. These are often situations where humour is an acceptable way to apply asshole skepticism. Preferably the 'target' has a sense of humour and a thick enough skin so as to be able to laugh at the light in the situation. Alternately the others in the room who are seeing through their bullshit laugh with you (or me) the asshole, and the 'target' feels enough of a twinge from being shamed that they do some useful reflection, but not so much shame that they feel persecuted. This is one heck of a tough balance to achieve. I'm not pretending it isn't, and at this moment I have no useful tips on how to hit that tipping point.

I'm betting that anyone reading this is thinking that that is un-satisfying. You are damned right it is! Imagine being me in those circumstances.
Sorry folks, that is as far as I have got on the personal front at the moment. But I promise that as I have more insights I'll explore them here. For now, I merely make the essential point that asshole skepticism is not an approach to be exercised with those you love and/or those you need to play nice with regularly.

In a future post I'll muse upon the broader circumstances where asshole skepticism is a useful tactic.

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