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.

Sarcasm, Hidden Meanings, and Politeness

So much of communication is not about what we say directly, but about the implications of how we choose to convey the information. Most of my day job revolves around crafting a sentence’s literal content so that the audience/readers will most likely understand my intended, implied message.

What fascinates me is how easily we can understand a person’s intended message from even drastically different literal content.

Take the sentence “Your dog is very happy right now.” The literal meaning is obvious: the dog is happy! But what if it came right after you ask your friend, “What happened to my roast beef sandwich?” Suddenly, the intended message changes: the treacherous dog ate your sandwich! We’re able to draw the correct implication, but how?

More: Grice’s Conversation Maxims, implied meanings, & comments:

“More like OKStupid, amirite?”

That was the subject line of an email my friend James sent me yesterday. His email contained a link to this post by OK Cupid’s blog, where the OKC team sifts through their massive amounts of data to find interesting facts about people’s dating habits.

This latest post is called “The Mathematics of Beauty” and it purports to reveal a startling finding: women whose looks inspire a lot of disagreement among men (i.e., with some men rating them hot and others rating them ugly) get more messages. And the number of messages you receive is positively correlated with the number of men rating you a “5 out of 5,” but is negatively correlated with the number of men rating you a “4 out of 5.”  OK Cupid says, “This is a pretty crazy result, but every time we ran the numbers—changing the constraints, trying different data samples, and so on—it came back to stare us in the face.”

To explain these odd results, the OKCupid bloggers came up with two game theoretic stories: First, men who see a woman and think “She’s a 4” will also think “That’s cute enough for plenty of other men to be into her, so I’ll have lots of competition… but that’s not hot enough for it to be worth it for me to try anyway.” And second, if men think, “She’s really hot to me, but I bet other men will disagree,” they’ll be more likely to message her, because they expect less competition. So women with a polarizing look will turn off some men, but the men who are turned on will be even more likely to message her knowing that other men are turned off.

Based on these stories, OKCupid offers the following advice to its female users who want to get more messages from men:

“We now have mathematical evidence that minimizing your “flaws” is the opposite of what you should do. If you’re a little chubby, play it up. If you have a big nose, play it up. If you have a weird snaggletooth, play it up: statistically, the guys who don’t like it can only help you, and the ones who do like it will be all the more excited.”

Oh my. That sounds like really bad advice. Before people start enthusiastically pointing the camera at their fat rolls, maybe we should check and make sure this analysis is sound. Because my opinion is that OKCupid’s crazy results can easily be explained by much less counterintuitive stories than the ones they concoct.

First of all, the “attractiveness” ratings they’re using aren’t really attractiveness ratings. They come from a feature on the site called Quickmatch, which presents you with the profile pictures of a succession of people for you to rate from 1 to 5. But you’re free to click through to each person’s full profile. And if you like the way they present themselves through the written part of the profile, you might well rate them highly on Quickmatch; conversely, if you don’t like their written profiles, you might well rate them poorly. Treating those scores as pure “attractiveness” ratings is way off the mark.

Second of all, the way Quickmatch works is that if you rate someone a 4 or 5 and they similarly rate you a 4 or 5, then you both receive emails informing you of each other’s interest. So this data is even more tainted, because people are not simply thinking “How attractive is this person?” — they’re thinking “Do I want this person to contact me?” If you think someone’s not that attractive but you’d still want to date her, you might well rate her a 4 just in case she’s also interested in you.

In fact, I strongly suspect there are a lot of guys who just rate every single girl a 4 or 5, giving 5’s to the girls they think are good-looking and 4’s to everyone else. It’s a carpet-bombing strategy — why rule anyone out off the bat? (My suspicion is grounded in some results from a speed-dating study I worked on in college, with a psychology professor at Columbia; I got to look at the ratings sheets after each speed dating session, and there were plenty of guys who just circled the entire row of “YES” rather than circling YES or NO to each girl individually.)

And as you can imagine, if a lot of guys are using “4” to mean “anyone who’s not a 5,” then of course 4’s are going to be negatively correlated with the number of messages a girl gets, because many or most of those 4’s actually indicate 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s.

What I think the OKCupid blog post illustrates is how easy it is to come up with a story to explain any result, whether or not the result is real. To paraphrase my friend James for a minute: if you find yourself saying “I know this is crazy, but numbers don’t lie,” you should really calm down and check to see if you’ve made a mistake, because chances are, you have.

Policing our language

I got together with some friends to play a game of Fiasco the other night. As the game-coordinator was explaining the rules, he said, “Okay, so half the dice are black and half the dice are white. During a scene, any one of you has the option to decide whether the scene concludes well or poorly for the central character — just indicate your choice by placing one of the dice in front of that character. A white die means the scene turns out well, and a black die means it turns out poorly.”

One of the other players interjected: “Could we please not use that color-coding system, where white means good, and black means bad?” The game coordinator quickly replied, “Oh, sure. Let’s switch it around.”

I understood what she was getting at, and it struck me as a case of political correctness carried to an extreme. People’s associations of white/good, black/bad pre-date any intermingling of white people and black people, so it seems absurd to attribute those associations to racism. A more plausible explanation is that the associations with white and black originated in the fact that the blackness of nighttime means we are colder and more vulnerable to danger than we are in the light of day. So this girl’s suggestion that the color coding system was offensive struck me, at the time, as overreaching.

But talking about it later with a friend I re-considered. Even if I’m right about the origins of the white/good black/bad associations, isn’t it still possible that those associations have a subtle impact on how we view white people vs. black people? If we’re used to associating white-the-color with goodness and black-the-color with badness, then is it so implausible to think we might unconsciously apply some of those associations to white-the-race and black-the-race, too?

The question also reminds me of the debate over gender-neutral pronouns. The idea of using “he” as the generic pronoun, to refer to a person of unspecified gender, has been accused of being sexist. Attempts to coin a new pronoun for use in such cases have so far been a failure (en? hir? hesh? hizer? hirm? sheehy?).

And my initial inclination is just to say, look, everyone understands that when we say “mankind” we mean all men AND women, and that when we say “fireman” we mean a firefighter of either gender. Right? I mean, why change the way we speak?

But now I’m a little more willing to believe that there could be a small effect of our language on the way we think. If the mental picture you get when you say “mankind” is of men, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think of women as incidental to the course of history? If your mental picture of a firemanr is always a man, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think men make better firefighters? Or to think it’s unfeminine to fight fires because you associate that activity with men (due to our language)?

I’m not even making the argument that this effect does exist, only that it’s a reasonable hypothesis. And I’m also not making the argument that it would be worth the trouble to rewire our language in the hopes of rewiring our brains. But I am acknowledging that it’s not entirely ludicrous, politically-correct histrionics to say that there could be a causal relationship between these words and our perceptions of the world.

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