Being a Dick is not Binary

(crossposted at Friendly Atheist)

“Should we be offensive?” is a common question in the secular movement. It’s also the wrong question.

The title of this post comes from Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” talk at TAM 8, which sparked conversation about the wisdom of offending people in the cause of critical thinking. Though it generated the most attention, it’s not the first time we’ve asked these questions: Should we condemn people for opposing LGBT rights? Mock people for believing in creationism? Call religion a delusion? Sometimes it seems like everything we do offends people – even the simple act of advertising our existence offended Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

In the face of that, it’s almost liberating, isn’t it? If everything we do is offensive, it doesn’t matter anymore – we can stop worrying about it. In fact, I used to argue that myself! When confronted with accusations that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was offensive, I’d point to the bus ads and billboards and say, “People get offended at the most mundane things. We can’t let that hold us back.”

But offensiveness not a simple yes-or-no issue. Like Julia wrote a few months ago, it’s tempting to treat belief as a black and white matter. It’s not – we can hold beliefs with differing degrees of confidence, and if we treat it otherwise we lose a lot of power to make distinctions, see nuance, and chart the best course of action. It’s the same with asking whether or not to be offensive. We need to add nuance.

At the first level, it’s probably more helpful to phrase the question “How many people are my actions likely to offend?” Not all offensive statements are equal. Sure, saying “People can be good without god” offends people, but not as many people as “Religion is a myth.”

We can go further. Asking how many people we expect to offend still treats the issue as a binary: they’re either offended or they’re not. A better phrasing would be “How offended will people be?” Billboards reading “Religion is a myth” and “Jesus was a bastard” would both upset a lot of people – but not to the same extent.

But even this isn’t what we want to be asking. To take the final step, we need to dissolve the question away into what we actually want to know. Each time we ask “Should we be a dick in this situation?” we’re really wondering a lot of things, like:

  • Do we like the short-term and long-term reactions this will elicit?
  • Would it attract attention for our message?
  • Would it reduce the chance of persuading the target?
  • Would it help push the boundaries of the national conversation?
  • Would it damage a helpful relationship?

There isn’t an inherent property “being offensive” or “being a dick” – that’s just a heuristic, and it’s not very precise. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say just a heuristic – labeling a message as ‘offensive’ is a helpful way to talk about expected reactions. But we need to be able to step back and refocus our attention when the heuristic causes confusion.

And the heuristic IS causing confusion. Treating it as a single, inherent property leads people to miss the strategic benefits – and drawbacks – of getting people upset in different ways and contexts. Treating it as a binary question leads people to wield anger indiscriminately rather than tactically.

What we should be asking ourselves, when choosing a message, is this: “How offended do we want people to be, and offended how?”

For example, I still stand behind my support of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day – it did cause a lot of offense, but it offended people in the right way: by intentionally disregarding the Islamic demand that we respect their prophet. That was the goal – shocking people into paying more attention to a dogma which wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t support using mockery in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist. When we’re trying to educate someone, a small amount of offense is useful to catch their attention – say, by openly disagreeing. But mockery is a different kind of offense, one that reduces our chances of convincing them.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about whether or not to offend people.  But we can be so much more precise thinking about it in terms of anger, surprise, disrespect, disagreement.

They say the devil’s in the details – so we should feel right at home.

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10 Responses to Being a Dick is not Binary

  1. I think Phil captured what you’re saying here – in his speech at TAM8 he included the phrase “…until it’s time to be a dick”.

    As I remember it, much of the controversy over Phil’s speech came from those who were not in attendance at TAM8 and misinterpreting as him talking about a binary when it – as you point out – is not a binary. Later, when video of his speech was placed on line, nearly all of the misinterpretation ceased but every so often somebody pops up making that claim that “don’t be a dick” is exactly the same thing as “accommodation” to believers.

    Last year at TAM8, when I was not yet an out-of-the-closet atheist (in fact, I was not even admitting it to myself then, self-describing as a deist) that conflation irked me to no end. I felt it misrepresented me other non-atheists in the skepticism movement. Though apparently simply pointing out that certain claims, like statues miraculously weeping, are testable (cf. Joe Nickel), but other claims, Jesus dying and coming back to life, are not testable (unless you have a time machine) is the same thing as completely shutting down skeptical discussion on religion. :-P

    Now, having recently made that (de)conversion (mostly) public, I find that conflation still irksome, though now for slightly different reasons, not all of which I can fully articulate as of yet. It includes the “simple” skeptical irks, like how it’s a strawman, and a bit of embarrassment that some members of the group I now identify with engage in the dishonesty of wilful ignorance to make that strawman.

    OK, rant over, sorry you got caught in that crossfire. :-)

    • Jesse Galef says:

      I totally agree – I brought up Phil Plait’s DBAD talk because I wanted to reference the wording and dynamic, not because I thought he did a particularly bad job of it in his speech. The phrase, regardless of how Phil intended it or used it himself, has been used to create a binary.

  2. PCGuyIV says:

    I couldn’t agree more that it comes down to terms of anger, surprise, disrespect, and disagreement rather than strictly being offensive. All people have the right to choose to be offended by something, but as far as I can tell, no-one has the right to expect to never be confronted with something that he or she might consider offensive, which is what it seems, at least to me, that so many people from all sides want.

  3. Max says:

    You should ask WHICH people you’re offending. Mocking a group of people or their beliefs probably won’t persuade that group, but it may persuade others.
    For example, drawing Mohammed is as offensive as burning the Koran to Muslims, so it won’t persuade them. Molly Norris, the cartoonist behind “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” changed her name and went into hiding after Al-Awlaki (may he rest in pieces) issued a fatwa against her. However, drawing Mohammed is less offensive than burning the Koran to non-Muslims, so it can be persuasive to them. Burning the Koran makes the same point, but it offends more non-Muslims by conjuring up images of Nazi book burnings, so it’s less persuasive.

  4. Pingback: Let’s See What’s in the News Today: 10/16/2011 | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  5. Nikodas says:

    I don’t see how drawing Mohammed day managed to raise awareness about anything at all. It just pissed off a lot of Muslims. If that’s okay then so is laughing at creationists and their ideas too.

    • Raligan says:

      I don’t think you’re getting the whole binary thing…
      Draw Muhammad day sparked quite a bit of varied response. There were Islamic college students finding the pictures of Muhammad and adding boxing gloves to his hands and appending Ali after his name- a healthy, appropriate reaction, instead of murdering/burning/etc. It raised awareness and made people talk about an issue that was uncomfortable or unknown, and showed, at the very least, that not ALL Muslims are up-tight fanatics that commit violence at the drop of a hat.
      And while laughing at creationists is often unavoidable, in the post he specifically says “in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist”. This implies that your goal is to change his mind- and making him defensive is not an effective method.
      The problem with black and white thinking is that it almost always drops you right in the middle of a false dichotomy.

      • Nisha says:

        I agree with Nikodas here. Who was supposed to be shown a point here? Certainly not radical/violent Muslims. They are so deeply blinded by whatever it is that they believe that they would never ‘rationally’ concede to any point being ‘rationally’ made by anyone. If there were Muslim college students going along with the drawings, chances are they already had alternative or more open viewpoints toward the faith they were raised in.

        I don’t like the idea of ‘offending’ people. I don’t see what the point is. I think that to build ‘rationality’ in the world (which I am defining here according to Julia’s video on the meaning of rationality), you should approach people with respect and openness, and a willingness to perhaps see things from their perspective. I don’t see what is wrong with the Islamic demand of respecting their prophet or why it should be challenged. If someone wants to wield violence towards others to uphold this belief, then their thinking processes should be challenged rather than the concept of respecting Mohammed itself.

  6. Patrick says:

    You guys are clearly well above me intellectually.

    But it seems like there is a difference between disagreeing and debating the merits of various arguments and just being a dick. I should know, I’ve mastered the being a dick part with lesser success on the ‘debating the merits’ strategy.

    One can make a respectful argument that Jesus Christ’s resurrection is hard to believe because there are no other examples of such a miracle happening. Someone might be offended, but you were not being a dick.

    Rolling your eyes and saying “Yeah, dead people arise form the grave all the time” is conveying the same meaning. But what a dick way to say it.

    Being offended is just a way to comfort our egos when our cherished assumptions are challenged. .

  7. Austin Parish says:

    In high school, I was a dick pretty regularly to all the Christians and Muslims I knew; in college, I tried to be much nicer, understanding, more careful not to offend. Now, I do neither: I’ve found that any sort of persuasion that I attempt with believers is pretty much useless – but more important than that, it doesn’t serve any of my long-term or short-term goals.

    Even if I could somehow link “convince a believer to think more broadly about the implications of their faith” (or something like that) to a goal like “cure cancer,” I feel like there would be much better ways to reach that larger goal than convincing believers.

    People out there, do you spend much of your time trying to persuade believers, whether in a dick or a non-dick way? If so, why – what goals are you pursuing in this regard? Are there better ways to pursue those goals?

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