On Mockery and Persuasion

Since I defended Richard Dawkins’s Reason Rally remarks calling on atheists to mock religious ideas the other day, there have been a lot of charges that he is merely calling for bullying. I was going to write a post on what does or does not constitute bullying in argument. But I have written a lot of posts on that already and I just reread a portion of an earlier post that I think is worth quoting here as a definitive expression of my opinion on the matter:

We can make vigorous, rigorous arguments to refute any bad ideas as necessary without resorting to adding superfluous epithets.  If I can prove my point with the facts and with logic, then adding “you idiot” to the end of my argument adds nothing but gratuitous insult that is more likely to hurt your feelings and make you defensive than to increase your receptivity to the case I just made.  And even when it is persuasive to emotionally bully someone with abusive name-calling, the name-calling itself serves as a decidedly irrational, emotionally manipulative way to coerce agreement that should repulse rationalists.  To a rationalist believing the right thing is not enough, but believing it for rational reasons is.

Now, we can employ emotions in persuasion.  But we must do so rationally.  Mocking an absurd idea helps people concede the logical point that the belief needs to be abandoned by tempting them to laugh at it.  If they laugh, they involuntarily admit a point they were willfully trying to ignore but knew was true.  Genuine, defensible, logical, moral outrage at pernicious beliefs or the invidious implications of beliefs helps awaken appropriate moral responses to those beliefs in people.  Sometimes cornering someone intellectually and confronting them precisely where their ideas contradict each other helps them feel their cognitive dissonance as a palpable frustration with their inability to explain it away and get you off their case.  These techniques can each be done either abusively or in ways that make people uncomfortable in a good way.  It requires us to be sensitive human beings if we are to help each other grow more rational through challenging one another instead of provoke each other to retreat to our shells when intellectually threatened.

So emotions can be employed in ways that are consistent with helping people reason better.  But resorting to name calling is bypassing reason and attacking people in a personal, disrespectful, uncivil way.  Religious people deserve no more respect than any one else.  I am not saying religious beliefs are at all off limits to the same aggressive queries and critical analysis that all other consequential (and even many inconsequential) beliefs should be.  Religion deserves no special deference and has no right to insist any one hold anything sacrosanct.  But religious people also deserve no less respect than anyone else.  It is the moral-political hallmark of Enlightened civilization that everyone is treated with respect regardless of their personal merits.  Respecting people does not mean having in every context to humor their bad ideas or soft-pedal one’s critical remarks about them.  Respect, in many cases, means believing that someone is strong enough and smart enough to handle honest, well-reasoned, well-intentioned criticism.  People who we pander to because we have contempt or fear for their supposed inabilities to handle what we really think are not people we respect but ones we patronize.

In a nutshell, true respect means giving people the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—but with no name calling.

It means not demeaning them, not calling them abusive, non-descriptive names.  If someone says something misogynistic you can describe it accurately and call what they said misogynistic.  If someone belongs to a religious tradition with a centuries or millenia old history of prominent misogynistic dimensions that you can argue overwhelm whatever other pro-women dimensions they may have within them, then you may call that institution generally misogynistic.  Similarly, if someone says dishonest things call them dishonest, if they argue in bad faith say so, if they have authoritarian ideas call their ideas authoritarian or say they sound authoritarian if you want to be diplomatic and invite dialogue, etc.  You can associate individuals with specific, bad traits when the facts clearly warrant it, but calling someone an “idiot” is not descriptive, it’s simply abusive and demeaning.   Describing someone as ten demonstrable awful things that you have a factual basis for characterizing them as is even better than lobbing one non-specific cruel insult.

Decent, moderate, uncertain people in the middle will assess your descriptive terms as fair if they are fair.  But they will see your epithets as the equivalent of an emotional assault.  And if they are not fully aware of the facts and need to trust one of your characters or the other, they may be tempted to side against the person whose bellicosity implies they are a mean and possibly untrustworthy person who is possibly resorting to abusive language to compensate for a weakness of intellectual ammunition.  Don’t undermine your good arguments by giving the impression you need the crutch of emotional bullying to win an argument.

People need to stop thinking that criticism of their ideas, religious or otherwise, is, all by itself, an unacceptable personal assault against them.  Intellectually and morally, I think we have obligations to distance ourselves from our ideas and be willing to subject them to scrutiny and let others scrutinize them, however painful that may be for us.  But it is also intellectually and morally vital that we not exacerbate the conflict and pain in this process anymore than necessary by resorting to non-descriptive epithets that only confirm their suspicion that all harsh criticism of ideas is personal criticism of people.

We cannot allow people to conflate honest, scathing, truth-revealing criticism with personal cruelty and belittlement anymore than they are naturally inclined to do so.  That does not help the cause of reason at all.

Read More.

I think Dawkins’s admonitions to atheists are consistent with these exhortations and that’s why I defended his speech.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Alverant

    Mel Brooks said something like, “You can’t reason with a fanatic. All you can do is make him look foolish.” and since reason doesn’t really work with the devout, mockery is a valid Plan B since it is more likely IMHO to get them thinking critically about what they insist is true.

  • eric

    People need to stop thinking that criticism of their ideas, religious or otherwise, is, all by itself, an unacceptable personal assault against them. Intellectually and morally, I think we have obligations to distance ourselves from our ideas and be willing to subject them to scrutiny and let others scrutinize them, however painful that may be for us.

    This is the essence of critical thinking, IMO: being willing (and able) to use our analytical tools to scrutinize a wide range of beliefs, including our own. You aren’t thinking critically when you’re limiting scrutiny only to intellectual or hypothetical ideas that have little personal value to you.

    Your arguments against name-calling reminded me of the joke with the line “At Harvard, we don’t end our sentences with a preposition,” and the resultant name-calling. I’m not willing to say its always and entirely inappropriate, but I agree with the gist of what you say – in the context of converations about serious beliefs and such, its far more likely to be detrimental than constructive.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Context makes all the difference.

    If you can reach the audience and get them hooting with derision, failing to persuade your debate opponent may be a more than acceptable tactical trade-off.

    In a personal one-to-one conversation, you will probably fare better by leaving a conspicuous point hanging so that the other person has to revisit it on their own, and foregoing any attempt at a conceptual knock-out punch.

  • http://dododreams.blogspot.com/ John Pieret

    A bit of sematics: “bullying” implies some sort of power over the other person. I can’t bully someone by calling them an idiot (for example) unless I threaten to punch all idiots in the nose or I am that person’s boss or otherwise have power over them. What you are talking about (and hinted at) is, I think, more correctly described as “manipulation” of others. But, as you also indicated, “persuasion” is usually also a type of manipulation. If I use my (presumably superior) ability to use reason (not to mention “moral outrage”) to persuade others to think differently than they did before, I have manipulated them, just as much as any politician using, say, emotional appeals to patriotism, does. The real question here is how do we know the difference between “good” manipulation and “bad” manipulation. I personally agree that manipulating people toward reason is “good” but it is not obviously true.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, John, that’s a false dichotomy between physical and emotional pressure and abuse. Physical violence and threats thereof are not necessary to emotionally push some one around. It’s more than merely manipulation. Manipulation can be subtle and not directly an attack on someone’s person and feelings. Name-calling usually implies superiority of course, it usually implies you’re better than the other person or in a position to tear them down. It is at least an attempt at bullying, even if the given person is not actually effective at it.

      And manipulation is the word for autonomy-subverting forms of emotional persuasion. Not all appeals to people’s emotions are manipulative. To accept that would be to accept that the emotions are inherently irrational and that all appeals to them therefore undermine rationality and manipulate the person against their reason. But sometimes emotions are important for discriminating truths and so there must be ways to evoke emotions as part of getting someone to grasp or acknowledge a rational point.

  • http://dododreams.blogspot.com/ John Pieret

    Physical violence and threats thereof are not necessary to emotionally push some one around.

    I didn’t say it was.

    The important point is that appealing to “facts and logic” also usually implies you’re better than the other person (in knowing the facts and logic) and in a position to tear them (or at least their ideas) down. It is frequently, if not always, an attempt at “bullying” in your sense of the word.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, but I think your attempt to distinguish them is over simplified.

    manipulation is the word for autonomy-subverting forms of emotional persuasion

    It is possible that my term is no better than yours.

    To accept that would be to accept that the emotions are inherently irrational and that all appeals to them therefore undermine rationality and manipulate the person against their reason. But sometimes emotions are important for discriminating truths and so there must be ways to evoke emotions as part of getting someone to grasp or acknowledge a rational point.

    I’m not quite following. If you’re distinguishing manipulating a person against their reason and using emotions to get someone to grasp or acknowledge a “rational point,” how is the latter not manipulating a person against their reason? Are you not saying that is is ok to manipulate someone to accept your reasoning? Now, your reasoning may be better than other person’s (and, in the case of many theists, no doubt it is) but I’m not seeing the distinction in what you are doing.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Reason is neither “mine” nor “theirs”. Reasons are reasons. They are facts, they are inferences, they are appeals to experience, etc. It’s not bullying or twisting someone to offer them reasons. It’s an appeal to something in them, namely their reason, which is, in the relevant respects the same as anyone else’s.

      And No, presenting someone with an argument or evidence is not presenting myself as superior to them. It is treating them as a rational agent and saying, “here is what reason says, apply your reason and hear it too, fellow rational agent.”

  • http://dododreams.blogspot.com/ John Pieret

    Reason is neither “mine” nor “theirs”. Reasons are reasons. They are facts, they are inferences, they are appeals to experience, etc.

    But, of course, you can recognize them but “they,” despite being fellow rational agents, can’t without playing on their emotions. I’m not going to belabor the point. I think you have underdefined your distinction but who am I to try to change your mind, fellow rational agent?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Again, if you’re “playing with” their emotions, you’re manipulating them. If you’re appealing to their emotional dispositions that are attuned to rational reasons, then you’re appealing to their reason. Some rational truths are grasped with emotional components, like the wrongness of murder or the rightness of charity.


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