Alright, before I get into my possibly anal critique of an off-hand remark from the good Dr. Myers of Pharyngula fame, let me preface what follows with the disclaimer that I really love PZ Myers. I think he’s great. There are few bloggers I read who make both my brain happy and butter up my Id at the same time. Of course I don’t always agree with him or always prefer the same arguments to the same conclusions we share. Not by a long shot. But nary a week goes by when PZ does not really knock one out of the park. And for that I am grateful. I say all this upfront because I have learned (in the comments section to this post over at Butterflies and Wheels that it’s hard to criticize PZ without getting a fair amount of people to confuse your disagreement with one of his tactics or opinions for either (a) a wholesale disparagement of the man, his blog, and every species of squid on the planet or (b) an underestimation of the effectiveness as a blogger for “spreading the word” and advancing the atheist cause.
So, let me get it out of the way up front—I love PZ. If anyone ever asks me for just one atheist blog to read, I’ll tell them Pharyngula. If I ever find myself in Morris, Minnesota, I will pilgrimage to meet him. If I ever I acquire a squid, I’ll name it PZ (and not only because of its physical resemblance to him).
But here’s one thing he does that irks me.
He often conflates using civil language choices with capitulating on matters of truth and in a recent post he dismissed the very prospect of reexamining a controversial opinion in light of challenges with a Sarah Palinish “don’t retreat, reload” kind of defiance that misrepresented principledness as stubbornness. To be sure, substantively I basically agreed with his goals and views in his post against those whom he nicely dubbed “Dictionary Atheists” (despite a few quibbles I may work out in another post and addressed a little already).
But here was the line where he was, admittedly, being humorous—I get that—and yet managed to bug me:
The godless raged at me on youtube and twitter, thanks to the recent broadcast of my talk in Montreal. I have a tangent in that talk where I deplore Dictionary Atheists, going so far as to say I hate those guys, because they’re so superficial. Apparently some people identify with shallow atheism, because they took it personally and got rather upset.
I had to think about this. Should I back down and apologize, and maybe revise my opinion of this subset of the atheist community? Have I gone too far?
Nah. Obviously what this calls for is an escalation. I think I need to summarize all the things about atheism that bug me, and that I wish people would stop doing. There simply aren’t enough atheists angry at me now. So let’s get to it and piss everyone off! It’ll be fun! Here’s a list.
What bugs me about this is that he casts the issue as an either/or between listening to criticism on the one hand and standing up for what he believes is true on the other. The false equivalence here is that to actually consider whether he was wrong would be a matter of apologizing to an offended group instead of being truthful. So, of course, PZ the non-accommodationist extraordinaire chooses bravely to fight for truth rather than mollycoddle those whose delicate feelings will be all upset by such forthrightness.
While he is clearly being playful here, it’s an attitude he often expresses and so is partly sincere. Like Sarah Palin herself, he really does pitch himself as an embattled truth-teller whose enemies never make an argument genuinely worth taking seriously. The impression he likes to give is that everyone else just wants him to be quiet just because they can’t handle the truth. Now, I get it—quite often that’s exactly what “accommodationist” atheists and religious people themselves are calling for us activist atheists (and Myers himself quite specifically) to do. But this is not the case every time he uses this language of standing his ground on principle. For example, the case at hand is such an exception. No one was saying to just “stop making him angry” but he presents it like this is the only other option, not a genuine reconsideration.
I do get that the language of “escalating” rather than recapitulating is PZ playfully setting up his foray into some (actually quite valuable) internecene criticism. But I worry that we atheists are not as careful as we should be of avoiding the temptation to stubbornness and closedmindedness simply because we are in the habit of so often hearing ridiculous arguments and being asked to respect them in ways they do not deserve, and because we are so very often on the side of reason and rationalism themselves against people who explicitly attack them, it becomes easy to start to think everything we think is a matter of what reason itself indisputably warrants and that every challenge we get is really just an attempt to silence us.
Fighting bad arguments so often and standing in principle for reason itself against its explicit enemies can make you overestimate your own rationality and reasonability on other issues that are not as flat-out easy as rejecting superstition and fairy tales is. And standing on principle in saying unpopular things against people who in so many words ask you to be dishonest for pragmatic, calculative reasons can puff you up to think every time you stubbornly refuse to rethink a position it is an instance just of principle.
I think in this case, PZ was not being stubborn but was in fact being honest and principled and admirably willing to challenge his cohort atheists and should be commended for all that. And I think he was, in the main, on the right side of the debate. And I also know he was kidding with his language of “escalation”. But I do worry that even in this case when he was right on principle and on the merits of his arguments, he used the combative language of stubbornness and of false choices between honesty and insincere apologies to mollify offended groups. It’s unnecessarily jocular. It’s bad role modeling from an influential leader about how to approach debates. It’s too dismissive, even in jest, of the ideal of constantly reconsidering one’s views. It’s too “Sarah Palin” to me.
But maybe I’m just being pedantic about some leavening levity that makes a substantive ideas post go down more smoothly for the readers by giving it a little exciting flavor of a cage match.