Being a Dick is not Binary

by Jesse Galef (crossposted at Measure of Doubt) -

“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 my sister, 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.

About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • http://www.thehighwayhermit.com James Bulls

    Some people will be offended no matter the courtesy or tact you put forth; in the words of Oliver Goldsmith, “Be not affronted at a joke. If one throw salt at thee, thou wilt receive no harm, unless thou art raw.” The obstacle with some theists is that they take affront anytime anybody questions their beliefs or asks them to question to their own beliefs – it’s as if a doubt-radar detects the beginnings of something that could lead them toward atheism or agnosticism, switches on the alarm klaxons and flashing red lights, and puts them on the immediate defensive. Some people are ready to honestly consider important questions, and then, some aren’t no matter how polite you are.

    • Scotty

      True.  I have a number of xtian friends from my past that hide themselves in a bubble at the mention of a free thought………

    • Chana

      Hi James,

      I think you’re completely right. Some people will be offended no matter what. Your qualifiers, though, seem to demonstrate that you feel that some people will only be offended by some things and not others, and I think it’s those people that Jesse is asking that we think about. For example, what kind of actions would best serve our purpose with those people who are ready to consider important questions, but only if they’re phrased in a persuasive way?

    • Chana

      Hi James,

      I think you’re completely right. Some people will be offended no matter what. Your qualifiers, though, seem to demonstrate that you feel that some people will only be offended by some things and not others, and I think it’s those people that Jesse is asking that we think about. For example, what kind of actions would best serve our purpose with those people who are ready to consider important questions, but only if they’re phrased in a persuasive way?

      • http://www.thehighwayhermit.com James Bulls

        The experience I’ve had with hostile theists is that it’s as if any questions I ask are taken as personal attacks. If I ask a theist questions such as, “Why do you believe in a deity (at all)?,” and, “Why do you believe a supreme creator would have human frailties, such as pride, vanity, and lust?,” or, “Why does an omnipotent, omniscient, immortal spirit require the praise, adoration, sacrifice, and obedience?,” I often encounter frustration and confusion that quickly leads to an, “I don’t know,” “We can’t know everything,” or else a diversion about how I’m hurting their feelings. It’s not that I’m being rude or insensitive – I am genuinely interested in their responses – but the results are often thankless.

        EDIT

        But you’re right, I got distracted on a tangent… it’s important to consider *what* you say or do in context to the audience. Like the “Draw Muhammad Day,” the intended audience in that case is not the Muslim community but the people watching the reaction of the Muslim community. Sorry, so easy to get off on a tangent…

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    Or we could just stick to the truth, and realise that if someone chooses to take offence, that is their choice, their business, and their problem.

    A statement is not ‘offensive’ or ‘inoffensive’ inherently, it’s entirely a matter of whether people choose to treat them that way.

    • Chana

      Hi Ewan,

      The truth is definitely important, and part of our core values as atheists and freethinkers. I also agree that statements aren’t inherently offensive, but it’s still true that some statements or actions cause more offensive or offense of a different kind than others. There might be ways to say things that are true in a way most likely to help our cause. Doesn’t it seem like that’s worth doing?

      • Karmakin

        Yes, but just because someone says they’re offended by something doesn’t mean that it’s your tone that’s offending them. It might be your basic message that’s offensive.

        For example, lets take the phrase “I am an atheist”. It’s a ME statement, it says nothing about the other person. Yet it has a whole lot of offense wrapped into it. For starters, you’re saying that what they believe in is false/fake/a myth. You’re also implying that if in a conversation with a theist, they believe in something that isn’t self-evident. Their theism might be a belief in love, or everything or whatever. (Although I’d argue that’s not ACTUALLY theism).

        And that’s just a start.

        In short, while we shouldn’t go out of our way to be intentionally hurtful and offensive, all the same, we need to take claims of being offended with a serious grain of salt. What they call being offended we should call out as a grab at privilege.

        • Chana

          I’d argue that it’s not even a matter of intention in offensiveness, but just being smart about the way we offend. We know that some things are offensive, and we also know that there are ways to frame them in such a way that they are less offensive, or offensive in a more productive ways. With that knowledge, we can achieve more of our goals.

          • TheBlackCat

            You are consistently conflating “less offensive” with “more productive”.  On what grounds do you make that conclusion?

            • Chana

              Ah! I see the cause of our disagreement. A simple misunderstanding. I was in no way saying those were the same; quite the opposite. I’m pointing out that offense can be productive, and we should gear our messages and actions to be of the most productive kinds of offensiveness, if we must be offensive.

              • TheBlackCat

                In all of your posts you either just suggest being less offensive, or you say we should be less offensive first, then mention being offensive in more productive ways (which assumes that our current efforts are not being producitve).  So you are claiming two things:

                1. being less offensive would be a good approach
                2. people who are currently being offensive are doing it in a bad way

                With 1 being your primary focus (you have made several posts pushing that without pushing 2, but you have not made any posts pushing 2 but not pushing 1, and you always list 1 first).  You have provided no reason to think either of these statements are correct, nor have you provided any reason to think 1 should have the special emphasis you put on it.

                You are also strongly endorsing posts that call for less offensive behavior, and questioning posts that don’t or call for a balanced approach.

                You may think you are being, or at least seeming, neutral, but you aren’t.  You are clearly pushing the idea that current offensive behavior is bad.  You need to provide some basis for that.

                • Chana

                  Hmmm, I think I see your point. I could give examples of where I think we have been too offensive, or at least unproductively so (PZ’s excoriation of earnest creationists who write in actually wanting to learn, AA’s Seven in Heaven lawsuit, the WTC Cross debacle), but all of those would really be subject to debate on the measurable effects of each, and that would require a longer conversation than I have time for.

                  Rather, I’m advocating (and I think so is Jesse) for a framework in which we consider the effects of our actions, including their probability to offend, but more importantly their effectiveness in communicating our message and achieving our goals, in the calculus of whether or not we should do something. If offense is called for because it is of the right kind, or is persuasive, then I say go for it! The point is simply that one should not be or not be a dick, but rather use offensiveness strategically, as a tool. There might be times in which I would call for more offensive, but I’m afraid none come to mind.

    • Elliott776

      I disagree. I think is an irrational fantasy that disregards others’ humanity and squarely puts the influence of words on everyone else. It’s like saying words have no meaning.  As I said to another, Its tantamount to saying your Sh** doesn’t stink.

    • Elliott776

      I disagree. I think is an irrational fantasy that disregards others’ humanity and squarely puts the influence of words on everyone else. It’s like saying words have no meaning.  As I said to another, Its tantamount to saying your Sh** doesn’t stink.

  • http://twitter.com/TortugaSkeptic A secret red slider

    I’ve definitely seen the attitude of “We are right so it doesn’t matter” creep into the way some Atheists behave and talk.  Ironically if you question them or disagree with them then it doesn’t matter, you are wrong, they are superior.  Much of the conversations in Atheist communities end up breaking down to round tables of consensus which do little good to anyone, except maybe the ability to continue to feel superior.  
    That is why I think it matters to ask the basic questions of:  
    1.  Why am I really doing or saying this
    2.  How open to changing my mind am I
    3.  Is saying it (doing it) this way helpful
    4.  Am I being fair
    I understand that our mere existence will offend some people, but that is not an excuse for cloistering ourselves into a small community and pushing out those who don’t follow what we believe Atheism to be.  Life and people are complicated which, I think, is much of the point you were making.

    • Anonymous

      Great breakdown of issues – you’re clearly focused on making a positive
      difference.  That’s what we need to do going forward as a community.

      Like you, I’m not one to say “But I have the truth!” or “But I’m right!” as if that’s the final issue.  How we communicate the truth and how we handle being right matter.

      - Jesse

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Patrick/100000027906887 Adam Patrick

    Personally, I think being offensive is inherent in any kind of activism, but there’s a difference between “just being a dick for the hell of it” and “trying to get people to think about what they believe.” Both of these things seem to offend people especially when it comes to matters of religious beliefs. No matter how hard you try, you are going to offend someone.

    Of course, some people will only respond to more confrontational methods.

    • Chana

      Hi Adam,

      Some people will only respond to more confrontational methods, to be sure, but there are also people who might only respond to calculated, calmer statements. If we think about those people, then while we might always offend someone, we might offend fewer people, or offend them in a more productive way. Is the goal to offend, or to convince?

      • Karmakin

        In the end, we need messengers of all stripes, those to do the soft sell and those to do the hard sell, as they each reach out to different people.

        • Chana

          Certainly different methods work on different people, but isn’t it likely that not every method works equally well? And that some are actually counterproductive? Not all answers are equally right, after all, as we well know.

          • Maevwen

            It’s the old dynamics of arguing.  When you’re arguing, screaming “hear ME hear ME!!”  – both parties doing it – neither listening, no progress, just escalation and possibly violence.
            Progress is made in relationships when needs and beliefs can be made assertively and respectfully, and each party actually listens.   Assertive is different from passive, agressive, or passive-aggressive.

            Also, some people don’t respond in the moment, or change their mind, but will take time to think about it on their own.

            Is our goal really to change their mind?  To make them like us?  Our “superior” selves?
            Can’t we let them be self-determined?  While still advocating for the abolution of ‘isms that they may participate in?

            • Mrs. B.

              This, exactly. I came to my atheism on my own. Nobody shamed or ridiculed me into it.

              • Elliott776

                Me too! I never heard of such a thing. I came to question the logic of god and later religion. After some fact finding and analysis of religion I really can’t think of how a strong willed person can believe such nonsense. Off course I may have answered my own dilemma :)

      • TheBlackCat

        On the other hand, it may turn out that confrontational methods are the most effective way to convince people.  I don’t know, and neither do you.  You are making an argument from ignorance here (or at least strongly hinting at one).  ”Nobody knows the answer, therefore my answer is best” is not a valid argument.

        • Chana

          It might very well turn out that way! That’s not where the evidence is now, but if we’re discussing the empirical data about the most tactical ways to persuade, then we’re absolutely on the same side. 

          I reject the idea that I was making an argument from ignorance. I didn’t argue for any particular way of persuading people, only for a strategic approach to sending messages. If there are people who will never be convinced, then why are we worrying about them? Let’s work on the people who can be convinced and do our best job to use the information we have to persuade them that we are correct.

          • TheBlackCat

            “That’s not where the evidence is now,”

            As I already explained, the evidence is far from straightforward or consistent.

            “I didn’t argue for any particular way of persuading people”

            You just did in the previous paragraph.

      • TheBlackCat

        On the other hand, it may turn out that confrontational methods are the most effective way to convince people.  I don’t know, and neither do you.  You are making an argument from ignorance here (or at least strongly hinting at one).  ”Nobody knows the answer, therefore my answer is best” is not a valid argument.

  • TiltedHorizon

    Personally, I try to be polite to a fault when the topic of religion comes up. The problem is religion, for a great many people, appears to be based in emotion.  So any attempt to politely discuss religion usually results in emotional reaction instead of logical rebuttals. IMHO it is much like trying to discuss with a love struck teen of the perils and pitfalls in relationships, their responses show little or no consideration for the honest points made.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget the fact that many people who are offended aren’t really offended by what we say but that we even exist.  When people get “offended” at the “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone” billboards it isn’t because we are saying something mean or harsh or even  controversial.  It’s that we are saying something.  That is what bothers them.  When we speak up at all we are showing mere disagreement for their sacred ideas and that can not be tolerated.

    Part of when we need to do is explain that people deserve respect, not ideas or beliefs.

    This is NOT an easy thing to do, mind you.  People have a bad habit of wrapping their identity in their ideas.  Criticize one and you are attacking the other.

    So, our existence is an affront to their existence.

    That said, ridicule and mockery are useful rhetorical tools.  Sometimes treating an idea as reasonable leaves an audience with the impression that it IS reasonable.  It is NOT being a dick to point out that a bad idea is bad, it’s a moral duty.  Are we so overcome with ridiculousness that we have to pretend it’s reasonable just to get people to listen to us? No, I say if people don’t want to be ridiculed they should not believe ridiculous things.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget the fact that many people who are offended aren’t really offended by what we say but that we even exist.  When people get “offended” at the “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone” billboards it isn’t because we are saying something mean or harsh or even  controversial.  It’s that we are saying something.  That is what bothers them.  When we speak up at all we are showing mere disagreement for their sacred ideas and that can not be tolerated.

    Part of when we need to do is explain that people deserve respect, not ideas or beliefs.

    This is NOT an easy thing to do, mind you.  People have a bad habit of wrapping their identity in their ideas.  Criticize one and you are attacking the other.

    So, our existence is an affront to their existence.

    That said, ridicule and mockery are useful rhetorical tools.  Sometimes treating an idea as reasonable leaves an audience with the impression that it IS reasonable.  It is NOT being a dick to point out that a bad idea is bad, it’s a moral duty.  Are we so overcome with ridiculousness that we have to pretend it’s reasonable just to get people to listen to us? No, I say if people don’t want to be ridiculed they should not believe ridiculous things.

  • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

    As Comedian Jimmy Carr once put it, “Offense is taken, not given.” I can’t help it if someone is offended by what I have to say. My intention is to be honest and when people are living a lie and calling it “Truth,” honesty is very offensive. It is their choice to be offended. It is not my choice to offend. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/liberalism Katie Hartman

      Isn’t that overly simplistic? Over time, you’re bound to learn which people tend to react one way or another in response to any given tactic you use with them.  Predictability is control, and that’s a good thing – offense can earn you media attention without alienating your target audience, if your message is tailored to elicit different reactions in different groups.

      That nuance is extremely useful. Consider the “Don’t Believe in God? You’re Not Alone” campaign: it offended a small group of highly vocal individuals who weren’t in the target audience, which gave it considerable press coverage. That’s free advertising to the intended targets, and without much (if any) risk that they, too, would be offended.

      And sure, it’s their choice to be offended – but we both know it’s a predictable choice, and a choice that we can manipulate by being strategic thinkers.

      • Anonymous

        “And sure, it’s their choice to be offended – but we both know it’s a predictable choice, and a choice that we can manipulate by being strategic thinkers.”

        #winning.

        • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

          It’s only a win if you’re happy to be seen as saying whatever is best suited to manipulating someone, rather than having an honest discussion with them.

          Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but it’s hardly very nice, and anyone behaving in such a manner has no claim to any moral high ground because they’re being ‘polite’ rather than ‘offensive’.

          • http://www.facebook.com/liberalism Katie Hartman

            I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that having an honest discussion with someone IS manipulating them, assuming you’re even the slightest bit persuasive. You’re acting as though saying the most effective thing and being honest are mutually exclusive.

            • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

              There is a difference between honest manipulation vs. dishonest or patronizing manipulation.

              • Elliott776

                Please explain the difference between honest and dishonest manipulation.

                • NorDog

                  I think there’s a word-choice-problem here.  Personally I would say that as regards personal interaction/discussion,  persuasion pertains to the intellect, while manipulation pertains to the emotions.

        • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

          It’s not always a predictable choice and the burden shouldn’t be on us to read people’s minds. 

      • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

        Just because we know what might or will offend someone doesn’t change the fact that it is their choice to be offended. It is not my choice to offend.  They don’t have to be offended. They could choose not to be offended. I can’t choose not to offend unless I am dealing with one (or a very small group of people) who I know well. Even then, they still might choose to be offended despite my best efforts. Take the UnitedCoR billboard which I am a huge support of btw. That message is an inoffensive as possible and yet large numbers of people take offense to it. Bus companies have attempted to restrict it. A lawsuit had to be filed to protect our right to express that message. People were offended by it. Every time news crews interviewed people on the street they found someone and in many cases multiple people who were offended. The only way to stop people from being offended by it is to educate them and to make this message so prevalent that they just have to get used to it. But we really don’t have control over what offends others. All we can do is guess and when dealing with large numbers of people (such as a billboard or a bus add) we lose every time.

        • Eskomo

          I would like to see the news ask “Why are you offended?” rather than just “Are you offended?”

          • gsw

            do you think they will truthfully answer:

            “because offence is a very effective weapon in this 21st. century PC country”

        • http://www.facebook.com/liberalism Katie Hartman

          If you’re trying to make the point that there’s some relevant difference between “Choosing to offend” and “Choosing to say or do something, knowing that there is a high probability that it will offend,” I don’t see your evidence for it. It’s semantics.

          I think you’re assuming that causing offense is inherently a bad thing, and I don’t think it is. In many cases, it’s unproductive – and sometimes actually harmful. But there are certainly cases (as you cited above) where offense is limited to a small percentage of people who are unharmed by the message (short of some small experience of displeasure), and whose offense creates a media storm that can be used to benefit a much larger receptive audience.

          • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

            I don’t see how the number of people claiming offense makes a statement more or less offensive. Besides, you keep saying that it is only a small number of people claiming offense when it seems like it is a much larger number.

            Don’t get me wrong though, I fully support the UnitedCoR billboards and agree with you that the outrage of offended Christians is great for another round of publicity. But that really isn’t what we are talking about here.

            I am saying that we shouldn’t worry about offending the religious at all because we aren’t responsible for what they find offensive.

            I think religious people should be concerned about offending us except that they don’t care about us and we usually don’t take offense to their ridiculousness. Maybe we should. Maybe we should be offended by the religious. Since offense is taken and not given, we should take offense to their claims much more often than we actually do.
             

            • http://www.facebook.com/liberalism Katie Hartman

              I don’t see how the number of people claiming offense makes a statement more or less offensive.

              No statement is inherently offensive, as Jesse has already explained pretty thoroughly in his post. 

              I am saying that we shouldn’t worry about offending the religious at all because we aren’t responsible for what they find offensive.

              “Look, you SHOULDN’T be offended!” isn’t some magic spell that erases the negative consequences of our decisions regarding tone and messaging.

              What we should be asking is ourselves is how we can tailor our messages to be the most effective while causing the least harm. And we won’t ever get there if we  (a) pretend that the harm doesn’t matter, (b) become fearful of causing ANY harm, however slight, despite the positive effects our message can have on many lives, or (c) decide that the most important thing in the world is putting the “blame” on someone else.

              • Chana

                ^^This.

              • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thaumas-Themelios/100001074236927 Thaumas Themelios

                What we should be asking is ourselves is how we can tailor our messages to be the most effective while causing the least harm.

                Please demonstrate how someone getting offended at something I say equates to me causing them ‘harm’. As in, real, actual harm. Not imagined harm.

                That’s just the issue. ‘Causing’ offence is not causing harm. I draw the line at harm, not at offence. There is no such thing as a *right* to *not* be offended. And anyone who says there is will cause me to be incredibly, mind-blowingly offended.

                • http://www.facebook.com/liberalism Katie Hartman

                  We could argue the definition of harm, but I use it to refer to disutility; causing a person mental discomfort, pain, fear, etc. would all fall under the umbrella of ‘harm.’ I would think it difficult to be offended by anything that one did not feel affected them adversely. I don’t feel that people have a right to be sheltered from this kind of harm in all cases, and I haven’t implied that – but I do think it ought to be included in our cost/benefit considerations.

                • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thaumas-Themelios/100001074236927 Thaumas Themelios

                  You are listing imagined harms. What ‘fear’ or ‘pain’ am I causing when I say “I think belief in any gods is ridiculous.”?

                  Any fear or pain over that would be entirely based on prior beliefs of the theist, e.g. hell. That’s not me causing them fear. That’s the belief (again, e.g., belief in hell) causing them fear! I didn’t put that belief in their head, their religion did! I’m against that belief and the harm that *it* causes, and will tell any theist that straightforwardly.

                  Again, where is the harm that *I* am causing?

                  And, by the way, you are causing me mental discomfort when you say that my reasonable expression of my opinions causes others mental discomfort. Here I was living in my comfortable mind, and you had to come along and make me all uncomfortable. Not very nice of you. Therefore you should not have said that. (According to your argument.)

                  Also, it inflicts upon me a deep mental pain when you say that others are so enamoured with their irrational and dogmatic beliefs that my criticisms of those beliefs causes them mental pain. Ouch! Stop saying that! You’re hurting me with mental pain! Are you sadistic, or what?!

                  And finally, you instill a deep, terrifying fear in me when you say that my efforts to promote critical thinking are something that others are deeply fearful of, rather than seeing them as a way to break out of fear-based religious indoctrination. Oh my FSM! If promoting critical thinking is dangerous, then what are we going to do?!?!! Oh no! The world will end! I fear for my life! Why are you so callously causing me mental fear?

                • Chana

                  I agree with Katie about the utility calculations, and would furthermore like to point out that in some cases, unnecessarily offending people can do harm to us, as in be counterproductive to our goals, and that absolutely needs to be taken into consideration.

                • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thaumas-Themelios/100001074236927 Thaumas Themelios

                  But Chana, that’s a complete Red Herring. I asked what harm *I* am causing to the theist. One thing at a time.

                  What is the *real*, actual harm done by making strong, reasoned criticisms of deeply-held, but nonetheless deeply irrational, dogmatic, and demonstrably harmful beliefs held by millions and millions of theists–who will all get thoroughly offended by my criticisms.

                  Staks said that we are not responsible for what others get offended at. He is correct. Katie replied to that with “we should … tailor our messages to be the most effective while causing the least harm.”

                  Now, I agree we should not cause harm. No argument there. My disagreement is with her implication that *merely* causing offence *actually* causes *any* harm at all. I simply don’t agree with that. There is no *real* harm done to anyone *simply* by causing offence.

                  Don’t try to snow-ball or rabbit-hole this into something more than it is. We are not talking about anything that *actually* causes harm, like harassment, bullying, calls for violence, smearing, defamation, etc. All of these kinds of things are wrong, and in most cases illegal. But you know what’s not on that list? Causing offence. And for damned good reason. Because *anybody* can literally get offended about *anything*.

                  For example, I’m deeply offended that you seem to be supporting Katie’s claim that offence causes real harm. Think about that. Seriously. Think about how ridiculous that sounds.

                  That is exactly as ridiculous as is the claim that honest, outspoken atheist voices are actually causing any theists any real harm at all.

                  In case it needs to be repeated: Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

          • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

            I don’t see how the number of people claiming offense makes a statement more or less offensive. Besides, you keep saying that it is only a small number of people claiming offense when it seems like it is a much larger number.

            Don’t get me wrong though, I fully support the UnitedCoR billboards and agree with you that the outrage of offended Christians is great for another round of publicity. But that really isn’t what we are talking about here.

            I am saying that we shouldn’t worry about offending the religious at all because we aren’t responsible for what they find offensive.

            I think religious people should be concerned about offending us except that they don’t care about us and we usually don’t take offense to their ridiculousness. Maybe we should. Maybe we should be offended by the religious. Since offense is taken and not given, we should take offense to their claims much more often than we actually do.
             

          • Elliott776

            I think Staks Rosch just disagree with the original Post. 

    • Anonymous

      Can’t agree with that. It absolutely depends on the statement made. There are certainly statements that are meant to be offensive.

      In other cause, neutral or harmless statements are taken to be offensive when they really aren’t.

      • Chana

        But are the statements inherently offensive or harmless? Or are they just taken that way in, as Katie says, predictable ways that we can take advantage of?

      • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

        Who decides if a statement “really is” or “really isn’t” offensive? What is the criteria?

        My point is that anyone can be offended by anything. Offense is taken not given. Sure, we can say something that we know someone will probably be offended by, but it really rests on them to be offended by it. I can intend to be offensive, but if my target chooses not to be offended, they it isn’t offensive despite any intentions I might have.

        • http://cory.albrecht.name/ Cory Albrecht

          So, you mean that if you use a term, like kike, nigger, wop or kraut, which have historically been used in degrading fashions by the privileged parties and never in a friendly, loving manner, it’s not your choice to offend, it’s all up to your listener to chose to take offence?

        • Elliott776

          Basically it sounds like you are saying that you are not responsible for what you say. Rather “everyone else” is responsible for what they perceive. To a point I believe this is true. But your fervor suggests to me that you are entirely avoiding responsibility for anything and everything you say, and the social consequences it may incite. 
           
          So do deny the word “Incite” actually has any meaning or do you just believe that you can’t actually incite anyone? basically I think you are saying that your crap doesn’t stink.

    • http://cory.albrecht.name/ Cory Albrecht

      Stakes: I would argue that, at least in some cases it *is* your choice to offend. You have the choice to use popular turns of phrase like “what up, bitches?” even though you know a lot people find the use of the word “bitch” offensive”. Or maybe you’re just complaining to a friend about how you got “gypped” when buying something – most of us know but forget that it is a back-formation from “Gypsy” and just as bigoted as using the “N” word for black people.

    • Anonymous

      Offense can most certainly be given. There are both respectful and disrespectful ways to express truth.  Even if you are speaking truth, if it is done from a heart of love, full of respect and consideration for the other person’s feelings, you will be far less likely to offend than by merely expressing the truth without regard for their feelings.

  • Daniel Olsen

    Offense can only be taken, not given.

    • Chana

      That’s a clever idiom, to be sure, but is it true? Not worrying about who you offend or the effects (positive and negative) that offense can have is basically giving up, and I have higher hopes for atheism than that.

      • Maevwen

        Agreed, Chana.  Our actions are chosen, most with specific intent, and they have effects, outcomes, or consequences.  We don’t each walk around in a bubble.   We can choose to be active,  and do the work, or passive, and say we have no responsibility.   

    • Valleycat1

      Maybe it can’t be given, but it can be intentionally provoked.  We all know people whose buttons are easy to push, or who find it easy to push ours.

      • Chana

        Right! And that’s something to take into account.

      • Chana

        Right! And that’s something to take into account.

      • Chana

        Right! And that’s something to take into account.

    • NorDog

      I don’t buy that.

      It’s unreasonable for a theist to be offended if in conversation you say, “I’m an atheist and I think you’re wrong because…etc.”

      It’s also unreasonable to think you don’t give offense to a Christian if you say, “Hey, you’re one of those cannibals that worship and eat a zombie!”

      • Maevwen

        exactomundo. 

    • NorDog

      By, “I don’t buy that” I mean that I disagree that offense can only be taken, not given.

  • Maevwen

    I have discussed this with other non-theists.   If you’re getting an emotional payoff from offending others with mockery, disrespect, emotionally-loaded language, then your *intention* is likely not the moral high ground (nor much different than those you supposedly “despise” – and if you do despise them, then you have emotional issues of hate to work through). 

    If all you care about is sounding like the more “educated” or “rational” one, ie king of the hill, shiny with superiority, then who the eff cares about you?  You’re just another bully on the playground.   I don’t want friends like that. 

    Additionally, I think that it’s lazy social skills.  We all need to work on our social skills.  To resort to offense is the easy way out in a conversation, rather than building relationships.  Building relationships is hard. 

    Also – what kind of example are you setting for anyone?

    And finally – if we as non-theists clamor for acceptance, and legal justice, then how are we really serving any moral purpose or high ground by promoting intolerance with offense, mockery, disrespect, emotionally-loaded language, etc.

    I have friends who are extremely religious.  We know each others’ belief system.  We respect each others’ position, and still enjoy each others’ company because we each strive to be good people in our word and actions and go to each other.   There are non-theists that I will not associate with because of this very reason – the bashing, bullying and whining of people with religion.  I would prefer to strive for inclusion of diversity – whether it’s people of color, people with or without religion, people with sand in their shoes – than use offense for a notch in the billy club.  And for the advocacy of being good, positive, or relationships builders, in general – of all people.

    The real question I think, then, should be:  if I seek to offend, what is my REAL purpose? 

    • Maevwen

      “strive to be good people in our word and actions and go to each other. ” should read:   “strive to be good people in our word and actions and good to each other.”

    • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

      “The real question I think, then, should be:  if I seek to offend, what is my REAL purpose?”

      That sometimes a useful question, but often a red herring. If I’m seeking to offend you I’ll just pick on something, anything, that I think will wind you up – that’s essentially trolling.

      If I tell you what I really think about something, knowing that you’re likely to take offence at being told, that is a very different thing. It’s not ‘seeking’ to offend, it’s simply not caring that offence is a predictable side-effect of making my point.

      • Maevwen

        HI Ewan,
        Which is why there’s the prior part of the sentence:  seek to offend.
        What folks say is true, in that questioning and/or speaking one’s mind may likely offend others if the belief systems differ.
        However, I think that there’s a difference between respectful discourse among individuals with differing belief systems, and using mockery, disrespect, condescension, trolling, baiting, emotionally-loaded language etc.

        A Secret Red Slider / / / / above stated it very well:
        1.  Why am I really doing or saying this
        2.  How open to changing my mind am I
        3.  Is saying it (doing it) this way helpful
        4.  Am I being fair

        I think these are imperative, and promote inclusion rather than intolerance, not to mention our own continued learning.

        I think that as a demographic that seeks inclusion and acceptance, we’d do well to become more educated in the dynamics of diversity and inclusion vs. discrimination and the micro or over things that can be destructive or intolerant, etc. 

        • Maevwen

          overt things

    • Elliott776

      “And finally – if we as non-theists clamor for acceptance, and legal justice, then how are we really serving any moral purpose or high ground by promoting intolerance with offense, mockery, disrespect, emotionally-loaded language, etc. ”Well said. I think that about sums it up!

    • gsw

      Maybe the real purpose is to hit back because one is hurt?
      The following offends me terribly, and is also the cause of a great deal of suffering, so when I tell people who believe these things that I consider them despicable, it is not just to be offensive, merely a truth.
      However, while I know that it will offend them, maybe it will also help them to realise that ‘sensitivity’ and respect cannot be a one way street.

      There are many more things in the so-called ‘holy’ books, demanding respect and obedience that, in my opinion deserve “offense, mockery, disrespect, and emotionally-loaded language” it is after all an emotionally-loaded subject.

      —————————————————————————————-
      Bukhari (6:301) … the deficiency in her intelligence…

      al-Ghazali said:
      “stay at home and get on with her sewing.  She should not go out often, she must not be well-informed, nor must she be communicative with her neighbours and only visit them when absolutely necessary; she should take care of her husband… and seek to satisfy him in everything… Her sole worry should be her virtue… She should be clean and ready to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs at any moment.”

      • Maevwen

        Yes we know that such things are in such books of their faith.  You do not abide by it, you don’t need to be emotionally hooked by it into returning a volley of hurt.  

  • Sajanas

    There really isn’t a ‘polite’ way of telling people that you think their deeply held beliefs are wrong.  Atheists don’t even get that ‘two paths to the same truth’ cheat, even though (at least from my experience) behind closed door, every church talks about how stupid all the other churches are.  Some people take it a step further, and get aggressive in their language, but still, compared to some of the religious talk about atheists, calling someone dumb for believing in God is still a lot less offensive than the people that call atheists arrogant, militant, or just straight up evil.  I’ve had people on forums say that I serve the Devil himself.  But of course, taking that experience and applying it to all religious believers is wrong, but seriously, you can see elements of that same sentiment in the liberal believes that role their eyes and ignore you rather than talk.  

    Also, I’d say writing in a more inflammatory way is just more fun to read and write, versus trying to write like a theologian.

  • Anonymous

    Yes it’s true that we aren’t responsible for offence that is taken, but we do have a moral responsibility to refrain from certain behaviours that are part and parcel of oppression on a larger scale. Racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of bigotry should not be tolerated even in speech.

    But when it comes to opposing bad ideas, ignorance, and wrong conclusions, it is often both acceptable and effective to employ ridicule and mockery and aggressive confrontation. A hammer’s not the tool for every job, but having one to hand is useful should the occasion arise.

    But mockery is a different kind of offense, one that reduces our chances of convincing them.

    This assertion is made often, but without evidence.

    • Anonymous

      “This assertion is made often, but without evidence. ”

      Most research in psychology of persuasion has found this, actually.  Carol Tavris gave a great talk about it at TAM9, and yet another study just came out from the awesome team of Nyhan and Reifler that feeling comfortable about your identity makes you more open to accepting contrary positions: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/opening-political-mind.pdf

      • Anonymous

        Studies like this do not account for long term and cumulative factors. Ridicule also uses the same psychological principle, except the idea is that as long as a person accepts the wrong information or the wrong position on an issue, their self worth will be called into question. Presented with this message over and over, people will often reevaluate and question their previously held beliefs.

        As far as I know, there has been no comparison of the general effectiveness of polite persuasion vs. harsh ridicule over a long stretch of time in conditions which attempt to replicate real world frequency and consequences.

        • Anonymous

           Very true – I would love to read a study like that! 

          Until we have those studies, we should base our decisions on the information we have – which points away from out-group mockery.

          If you know of any studies about the long-term impact of mockery (especially from out-groups, like the secular community is viewed) let me know!  I found one and printed it out; it’s sitting on my table at home for when I get a chance to read it.  I’m dying to find out more, and would gladly argue in favor of more mockery if we had evidence it’s more effective.

          • Anonymous

            I don’t know of psychological studies, as I said.* But we do have historical evidence that shaming works. The strides made  against racism have come about largely through shaming of those who express racist attitudes, for example.

            We have lots of anecdotal evidence that people have become atheists or accepted evolution or gave up believing in psychics and ghosts after being made fun of for their beliefs (or seeing others ridiculed for holding those beliefs). No one likes to be thought of as a fool, after all.

            *Though perhaps there are studies on bullying or socialisation of children or peer pressure or religious shunning that might apply.

          • TheBlackCat

            Studies are wildly incosinstent on this questiont.  There are studies that can be used to support being less offensive, but there are others that can be used to support being more offensive.  It seems to depend on exactly how the study is designed and what questions are asked.  For instance studies related to peer pressure show that mockery can be a powerful force to either change peoples’ minds or prevent it.  It is far from being as one-sided as you make it out to be.

            • Anonymous

               Awesome!  Do you have any titles or links for me to read?  Like I said, I’m interested in learning more – that’s sincere, not facetious. 

              My view on peer pressure is that a big component of that requires ‘peer’ status – as I said, an in-group vs out-group dynamic mucks it up.  I have a paper on this printed out that I need to find…

              • TheBlackCat

                Good places to start would be the wikipedia articles on Minority Influence and Normative Social Influence.  They have a decent list of references to check out.

                Of course you can also check out the article on majority influence which points in the other direction.

                That is assuming our message is the one who want people to hear, rather than an attempt to trigger an even worse backlash from our opponents (which was the explicit goal of PZ’s crackgate episode).  In that case something called Reactance comes into play (also check it out in wikipedia, the psychology one), where he was basically trying to get people to reject someone else’s message.  Whether that was successful is an open question, but there certainly is some basis for it in the literature.

                And yes, being a peer can be helpful according some studies (although others say it can be detrimental), but what we define as a “peer” is very fluid and context-dependent, and increasing visibility regarding the prevalance and diversity of atheists, even when it might offend people, can certainly help with that.

        • Elliott776

          I apologize if I am off topic. But I am more offended by “polite persuasion” than “harsh Ridicule”. To me, it is the most offensive harassment because it insinuates that as long as the persuader “acts” nice to me then they actually are being nice. When in fact, they are using deception and enticement to trick me into their persuasion, which is an affront to my intelligence and character as a human being. 

          I’ll take a heckler over a Christain proselytizer any day. But that may also be because I’m not afraid to confront them and tell them I don’t share their beliefs and tell them where to go if they try to push the topic. The “Nice” a** hole seems to get away with much more because he/she is more accepted by society. 

          In this way I treat others as I would be treated. (I suspect Christians would love to take that and say I’m a closet Christain lol). I will refrain from acting nice to push my stance on others unless I am specifically asked to speak on it.

        • Elliott776

          I apologize if I am off topic. But I am more offended by “polite persuasion” than “harsh Ridicule”. To me, it is the most offensive harassment because it insinuates that as long as the persuader “acts” nice to me then they actually are being nice. When in fact, they are using deception and enticement to trick me into their persuasion, which is an affront to my intelligence and character as a human being. 

          I’ll take a heckler over a Christain proselytizer any day. But that may also be because I’m not afraid to confront them and tell them I don’t share their beliefs and tell them where to go if they try to push the topic. The “Nice” a** hole seems to get away with much more because he/she is more accepted by society. 

          In this way I treat others as I would be treated. (I suspect Christians would love to take that and say I’m a closet Christain lol). I will refrain from acting nice to push my stance on others unless I am specifically asked to speak on it.

      • Anonymous

        Studies like this do not account for long term and cumulative factors. Ridicule also uses the same psychological principle, except the idea is that as long as a person accepts the wrong information or the wrong position on an issue, their self worth will be called into question. Presented with this message over and over, people will often reevaluate and question their previously held beliefs.

        As far as I know, there has been no comparison of the general effectiveness of polite persuasion vs. harsh ridicule over a long stretch of time in conditions which attempt to replicate real world frequency and consequences.

  • T-Rex

    Seeing as how I’m offended pretty much every day by theists doing or saying something rediculous or offensive, I have no problem saying what’s on my mind. I’ve been around long enough that I really don’t care what some delusional idiot thinks about me or if I offended them. Every day I hear and/or see something offensive, disgusting or just down right fucked up done or said by theists of all colors, shapes and sizes. Since I don’t associate with any fundies why should I care what they think about me? You’re not going to change their minds anyways if they’re offended by just the mere mention of atheists. I say fuck em! I hide nothing. Plus, knowledge is the key to putting delusional bigots in their place. That’s why they don’t knock on my door anymore. They just can’t stand having the inconsistencies and atrocities contained in their precious ancient text’s thrown back at them. It makes their brains hurt.

    • Chana

      You’re offended every day, so you must realize how counterproductive it is to go around offending people. You think literally no religious person will change their minds? There are a ton of ex-religious atheists will disagree with you. Atheists are for truth, so we’re not advocating that you hide anything, just that our rational approach involved taking into consideration what effects your actions will have. 

      • T-Rex

        I don’t go around trying to change anyone. Most of the people I associate with are indifferent when it comes to religion. Like I said, I don’t hang around or deal with fundies, only when they confront me. Then it’s on. I’ve had enough converstaions with religioius people to understand that 99.9% of them are not going to listen to anything I have to say regarding their beliefs. If they are that far gone, it will take more than me nicely asking them to consider their beliefs. They just stick their fingers in their ears and sing la la la la, or state something like “I know god is real and I’ll pray for you to find it in your heart to accept Jesus as your savior”. In my experiences, the only thing that usually causes a theist with strong convictions to really consider their beliefs is some kind of catastrophic event. People on the fence tend to be more receptive, but like I said, it’s not my goal to change peoples beliefs. Live and let live. Why should I go around trying to convince people what I believe is true if I detest that very same thing when it happens to me?

      • T-Rex

        I don’t go around trying to change anyone. Most of the people I associate with are indifferent when it comes to religion. Like I said, I don’t hang around or deal with fundies, only when they confront me. Then it’s on. I’ve had enough converstaions with religioius people to understand that 99.9% of them are not going to listen to anything I have to say regarding their beliefs. If they are that far gone, it will take more than me nicely asking them to consider their beliefs. They just stick their fingers in their ears and sing la la la la, or state something like “I know god is real and I’ll pray for you to find it in your heart to accept Jesus as your savior”. In my experiences, the only thing that usually causes a theist with strong convictions to really consider their beliefs is some kind of catastrophic event. People on the fence tend to be more receptive, but like I said, it’s not my goal to change peoples beliefs. Live and let live. Why should I go around trying to convince people what I believe is true if I detest that very same thing when it happens to me?

        • http://www.facebook.com/liberalism Katie Hartman

          Why should I go around trying to convince people what I believe is true if I detest that very same thing when it happens to me?

          But do you, really? Or do you only detest it when the individual’s arguments are weak, and the conversation quickly becomes mired in an unproductive debate?

          I’d wager that you spend a good deal of your time trying to convince people that what you believe is true – we all do. We’re just usually not doing it with beliefs that people hold so dearly that they use them to define (in part or full) their worldview. These discussions are almost always uncomfortable, because we know they have a very high risk of becoming totally unproductive and potentially even damaging our relationships.

          You’re not alone in choosing to avoid those (often costly) confrontations, but let’s be clear that there are many reasons that they can be fruitful. Religious belief is sometimes totally benign, particularly when it’s relegated to a very small area of a person’s life – but often, it’s not.

          • T-Rex

            “I’d wager that you spend a good deal of your time trying to convince people that what you believe is true”

            And you would lose that bet. Like I said, unless someone comes up to me and asks me about religion or politics, I try my best to avoid those types of conversations.

            All I’m saying is, if someone has the balls to come to my door and push their hokey religion and superstitions on me, then I have no problem putting them in their place. And if they’re offended by my reply, well, they asked for it. I’ve got better things to do than debate people about their beliefs. It’s just not an issue in my circle of friends and family.

             I suppose I’d feel different if I didn’t have kids and a lot of friends to occupy my time with better things. Or if I lived in a heavily religious community, but thankfully, that’s not the case. I just see no reason to walk on egg shells around theists when they’re throwing their beliefs all over the place and trying to influence others with them. After all, they don’t seem to have a problem saying and doing things that offend others.

            • Anonymous

              Katie said:

              I’d wager that you spend a good deal of your time trying to convince people that what you believe is true – we all do. We’re just usually not doing it with beliefs that people hold so dearly that they use them to define (in part or full) their worldview.

              To which you responded:

              And you would lose that bet. Like I said, unless someone comes up to me and asks me about religion or politics, I try my best to avoid those types of conversations.

              That actually seems in line with her point – with religion and politics, it’s a more deep-seated belief. But we clearly try to persuade people that our beliefs should be shared – about what would be the best place to have lunch as a group, whether it’s a right or left to get to the store, or even how often we try to persuade people (I love meta-references…)

              We obviously accept that kind of persuasion, so why do we get annoyed by persuasion on topics of religion and politics? Is it, as Katie suggested, just that those topics are 1) poorly argued most of the time and 2) butt up against our sense of identity? Seems a reasonable theory.

              • Elliott776

                I disagree. When I speak of Atheism I am not trying to convert or persuade anyone. It’s an informational conversation. You and Katie seem to suggest that every conversation people have is a persuasive one.

          • T-Rex

            Also, when I said I’m offended every day by theists, I didn’t mean ina personal way. I meant that I read or see something on the web or in the news every day. And I’m offended by the stupidity, usually  in a face palming kind of way.

        • Elliott776

          I agree with what you are saying. You have touched on the oft ignored fact that Theists and Atheists have opposing view points and neither will ever agree with each other. Sadly, Atheists seem to not know this either. The only people who will change are those already seeking change or experiencing doubt.

          Witnessing, preaching, or arguing logic or science will dissuade the other.

  • Mrs. B.

    I think one thing to always remember when talking with devout Christians is that for many of them the very act of questioning their beliefs feels like they are committing an affront to their god. If they believe god is all-seeing and all-knowing, then to question his very existence will make many of them extremely uncomfortable. Yes, it seems stupid to us, but not to them.

    I love this statement on many levels: “On the other hand, I wouldn’t support using mockery in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist.” I have a political blog where I have been offensive and obscene to the point that I embarrass even myself sometimes. In real-life, personal conversations I would never call anyone a name or swear at them. My writing is a chance to blow off steam towards a group or activity I find offensive, and say things I wouldn’t dream of saying to an individual.

    I’m relatively new here, so please disregard this question if it has been asked and answered 3,000 times in various posts, but do any of you believe there is anything, any argument at all presented by a Christian, that could convince you that god exists? I’m quite sure even if god tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hi there. Yup, I’m real,” I’d toss it off as a mild stroke or something. I’m wondering, for the obvious reason; should we expect that any of our arguments will have any more of an impact on a believer’s faith than their arguments do on our atheism?

    • Eskomo

      My reply for what it takes to convince me god exists is ” He would know.” This assumes god is all knowing.

    • Anonymous

      There are believers who have at least started their own internal quest towards atheism after hearing arguments against god(s) or a specific religion.

      However, few people are affected when they are directly confronted. For example in a debate or discussion, you are not going to convince your opponent. But someone in the audience who listens to what you say, may just think about it.

  • Tbarklay

    Are we trying to save the ‘saved’?  It seems like atheism may sound like just another religion. I don’t want to start a storm, but why do people care if people believe in a god? I understand why atheists should be offended, because religious zealots use that power to infiltrate society & law and that isn’t right. It’s gotta be hard to fight against. A lot of  businesses and countries and such were built on religious precepts. No wonder non believers seem so weird. I don’t know what I am trying to say. The whole thing just perplexes me, really it does and I wish I could understand it more. I’m just as confused in my life without religion as I was with my life with religion, if that makes any sense. It’s hard to be a few in a sea of many, but sometimes it feels so vindictive, for lack of a better word.
    Please be gentle, I really am confused and trying to sort through it all.
    I do not believe in anything god like or religion as a whole. I’d rather believe it what is seen and consistent and proven repeatedly. I like the warm fuzzy feeling I get from Science, not the cold abandonment I feel from old testament god :)

    My comment has no focus, sorry, just thinking out loud on the internet.

  • andrew

    Conversing with atheists on Facebook can be a terrible experience. 

  • Ronlawhouston

    Love this post.  It’s not often you get relativism and dickishness in the same post.

  • Robert Thille

    I tend to side with Thomas Jefferson on this: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/39508
    Ridicule is a very powerful tool, as it tickles lower emotions and tribal identity.

  • TheBlackCat

    I think you are missing an important issue and an important dynamic: The people we are offending are often not the only people listening.  So you need to take into account the impact your statements have on the larger audience, not just the person you are speaking to.  Of course this goes both ways.  If you are offensive, you might turn people off.  On the other hand, if you aren’t offensive people might not listen, or might not even get the message at all (since calm discourse doesn’t make headlines).  So although this doesn’t really settle the issue, I think it is a critical component.  There is something to be said for talking to people who will never change their mind, or talking to people in a way that won’t change their mind, where the goal is to change the minds of other people you aren’t talking directly to.

    • Chana

      Yes! I think you’re exactly right. All that data needs to be taken into account when we think tactically about how best to get across our message. We’re looking to achieve the greatest success at our goals, and so we want to use offensiveness to our best advantage. You make a great point that the people offended are not the only ones listening, and so we should pay attention to the latter group. Sometimes it’s also the case that there might be more effective ways to target that latter group, since we have some evidence that offending people isn’t always the most persuasive tactic. So we look at the evidence and act accordingly. Is that what you’re saying? 

    • Chana

      Yes! I think you’re exactly right. All that data needs to be taken into account when we think tactically about how best to get across our message. We’re looking to achieve the greatest success at our goals, and so we want to use offensiveness to our best advantage. You make a great point that the people offended are not the only ones listening, and so we should pay attention to the latter group. Sometimes it’s also the case that there might be more effective ways to target that latter group, since we have some evidence that offending people isn’t always the most persuasive tactic. So we look at the evidence and act accordingly. Is that what you’re saying? 

  • Anonymous

    The fact that there exists those who don’t believe what they believe offends believers. The fact is, in most cases, if someone asks you what church you attend and you tell them you’re an atheist, they’ll look at you like you’re about to rape and murder their children. 

  • M Entropy

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and adding some nuiance to the dick/don’t dick dichotomy. :-)

  • Eric C.

    One of the reasons I no longer go to PZ Myers blogs is because he is, well, a dick. His style of “debate” (better described as diatribe) sets our cause and movement back decades.

    I truly appreciate Hemant’s methods over PZ. In fact, PZ is so bloated and self-righteous I think I would be hard pressed not to slap him if I ever met him.

    I have the propensity to be assertive and sometimes aggressive when it comes to defending freedoms and rights but there is a way to do it without alienating everyone, including the “choir”.

    PZ needs to learn this.

  • Eric C.

    One of the reasons I no longer go to PZ Myers blogs is because he is, well, a dick. His style of “debate” (better described as diatribe) sets our cause and movement back decades.

    I truly appreciate Hemant’s methods over PZ. In fact, PZ is so bloated and self-righteous I think I would be hard pressed not to slap him if I ever met him.

    I have the propensity to be assertive and sometimes aggressive when it comes to defending freedoms and rights but there is a way to do it without alienating everyone, including the “choir”.

    PZ needs to learn this.

  • Eric C.

    One of the reasons I no longer go to PZ Myers blogs is because he is, well, a dick. His style of “debate” (better described as diatribe) sets our cause and movement back decades.

    I truly appreciate Hemant’s methods over PZ. In fact, PZ is so bloated and self-righteous I think I would be hard pressed not to slap him if I ever met him.

    I have the propensity to be assertive and sometimes aggressive when it comes to defending freedoms and rights but there is a way to do it without alienating everyone, including the “choir”.

    PZ needs to learn this.

  • Erica

    I think offense generally results when you take people too far outside their comfort zone/worldview. Let’s say you assigned people a religiosity rating ( 0 is super-atheist, 5 is agnostic, and 10 is super-fundamentalist). The trick is to interact with them in a way that is a couple levels below their current state. A 5 can understand an argument for 3, but a 10 would just be offended.

    For example, when interacting with an agnostic, it is fine to question beliefs in god(s) and argue the atheist side. However, when interacting with fundamentalists, this would be counter-productive: You would just be enforcing their beliefs that atheists are annoying/evil. The GOAL with a fundie ISN’T to convert them. It’s to get them from a level 10, to a level 9– to get them to accept that atheists can be good people and deserve respect and religious freedom. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to befriend them (I happen to work for many various fundies), and THEN once they’ve accepted that you’re a good person, *casually* mention that you’re an atheist. Don’t push the issue, or try to change their mind, just let them KNOW…”Hey, this person I like is an atheist…Maybe I don’t want all atheists to burn in hell after all…”

    The difficulty arises when you are acting in some sort of public sphere which is visible to people of many different levels. Billboards or zombie Jesus costumes are a perfect example. They target agnostic people in an unoffensive manner, because they are not too far outside their comfort zone. However, they can be extremely offensive (thus counterproductive) to a fundie.

    The question is, what is your GOAL? If your goal is to “convert” people to atheism, then it’s fine to offend a couple fundamentalists in order to reach a larger agnostic target, since the fundamentalists are not going to do a 180 and convert anyways. However if your goal is to make atheism more acceptable and less hated, then your target audience ISN’T the agnostics (who already don’t hate atheist), but is the religious people themselves. In this case, you should be presenting information that is close enough to their comfort zone that they don’t just reject it out of hand.

  • Tom

    Mr. Galef is starting to sound like Greg Epstein.  We can’t have that.

  • Tom

     The arguments for belief in god have been presented again and again in a seemingly immeasurable amount, and our side has won quite easily every time.Unfortunately, I see it is very hard for some people to get past what has already been established: that the arguments have been won, and now it is time to change people’s minds. I heard the most anger and intensity from the atheist debater when there was a false statement made or a refusal to look at the facts. Rightfully so. In the world of reason, blatant untruths and false statements cannot be left unattacked for fear that they may corrupt the very element that makes the rational world what it is: the truth. The unfortunate part is that it is at this point in the discourse that there is greatest risk for closing off the very minds we are trying to change. The intense anger expressed at the opponent’s refusal to acknowledge the truth initiates a built-in human defense mechanism that erects walls around the mind, preventing any change from happening. This reaction is complicated in itself, and the explanation goes out of the scope of this discussion, but it occurs often nonetheless. If the goal in the beginning was to convince this person that there is no god, then the nontheist has failed.This does not mean that the person is free to believe whatever they want and that truth can be whatever they want it to be. Definitely not. When those in power in our government attempt to establish laws that protect lies from being removed from our society, we should provide the rational response. When fundamental Christians try to convince the nation that stem cell research is equivalent to killing babies, we should provide the rational response. When they preach that condom use is sinful and in the process cause the deaths of millions of Africans through the spread of AIDS, we should provide a rational response. What I want to point out is that in a purely rational world, the rational response would work 100% of the time, and since it does not, it suggests there being more to this world. And there is. There is the human world out there, and it often requires an understanding of human nature in order to achieve success in it. We want humans to be more rational, but we have to consider the way humans operate in order to do so.So what is the key? I say compassion. Compassion, in the sense that we understand the human condition, and that we often do not act rationally. Compassion, in the sense that we as humans make mistakes, and that there are times in a person’s life where they are lost, confused, and simply unready to accept the cataclysm that is a shift in world view. Compassion, in the sense that we know the person whom we are talking with may be extremely emotionally attached to what they believe, and that they may respond in an irrational way in order to defend that which holds their own little world together.This does not mean we are relativists. The above approach is the approach we take when we care what someone thinks. When we are faced with a world where power is decided through a democracy, for instance, we care what other people think. When we have a loved one who is suffering through horrendous guilt because they feel ashamed for not being as perfect as god may want them to be, we care what they think. When we want to change people’s minds, this is a wise approach to take. When we don’t care what people think, we don’t have to be so compassionate =P. We don’t care what people think, for instance, when we establish laws. The stakes are much higher here. In the example of religion, the first amendment states this implicitly in that you can believe whatever the hell you want, just don’t impose that on anyone. So, to sum up an important point, YOU MUST CHOOSE WHAT YOUR MAIN GOAL IS: 1) TO CHANGE HUMAN MINDS or 2) TO DEFEND REASON

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Wow what an excellent post, stimulating an excellent discussion. A lot to think about. I’ll be coming back to learn more from the OP and all the comments  many times. Good work, Jesse and everyone.

  • JeseC

    It seems to me that there are multiple different situations that are being conflated.  One is offensive statements aimed at the in-group, so to speak.  Atheists talking with other atheists, in this case, or at least in atheistic spaces.  To many of us this can be a helpful therapeutic experience, but generally the comments are not intended for the ears of those not already persuaded.  Then there’s offensive comments and actions aimed at making people think or persuading them of a position – these are I think mainly what the article is talking about.  And then there’s offensive actions intended mainly to tick off or annoy the religious, which really don’t have much point.

  • Skepacabra

    Nobody worries about offending an atheist. That’s because atheists don’t commit violence when offended. Thrusts have been known to do that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.j.jordan Scott James Jordan

    “People can be good without god” = Being an offensive lying dick
    “Atheists can’t be good” = Lovingly spreading the truth

    Irony, much?

  • Anonymous

    My general objection to “tone arguments” in this case comes from being out as queer going on 21 years now, and doing a fair amount of educational work on that. There, I was often confronted with the problem that the act of simply coming out led some people to evaluate my behavior and mannerisms as pushy and swishy.

    I’m not going out of my way to offer offense people, but when my non-religious views are judged as inherently offensive, I’m unwilling to shoulder the burden of being inoffensive. And at some point, we need to deal with the whopping stereotype bias associated with “don’t be a dick.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thaumas-Themelios/100001074236927 Thaumas Themelios

      Excellent point, CB. It reminds me of a regretful episode from my past in which I basically shunned a person who came out as gay to me in conversation. I realize now that I was subconsciously homophobic, and my response–which amounted to *nothing more* than being ‘offended’ over it–was actually the most harmful action in the whole encounter.

      I deeply regret my reaction, but at least I learned something from it–namely that being ‘offended’ over something like that actually causes me *no harm*, and that I should have just gotten over it. I’m glad I’m over it now. Life is so much better when you shed yet another layer of unconscious, unexamined bias.

      My response to “Don’t be a dick,” is, “Who are you calling a dick?”

      The “Don’t be a dick” crowd would do well to check their own assumptions, and stop throwing around aspersions against unnamed, unspecified atheists (they never seem to point out any actual examples of significant or widespread ‘dickishness’ that I’ve ever seen; and the very few ‘examples’ I’ve seen have been embarrassingly ‘undickish’ in actuality). I would wager that tacitly supporting the meme that outspoken atheists are stereotypically ‘dicks’ is actively doing more harm to more people than any so-called ‘dick’ atheists are.


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