Most Americans are rightly appalled at the level of civil discourse over most matters of politics, culture, or morality. Would you like to see a shining example of how this can be done exactly right?
Back in 2006, Randy Olson released his documentary film A Flock of Dodos, which attacked the Intelligent Design (ID) movement as a thinly disguised form of Christian Creationism. As such, he argued (and courts have agreed) it must not be taught in public schools. Olson was uncompromising in his arguments, and his rejection of the ID positions. Olson is a marine biologist turned film-maker, whose subsequent work has tackled global warming issues, and he specializes in light-hearted and humorous treatments of weighty issues. His subtitle was The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.
You can agree with his argument, or disagree. But note how he accomplishes his goal.
When I rave about this film, liberal friends assume from the title that Olson must have been condemning or mocking the ID people as dodos – stupid, uneducated, bigoted, obsolete, and deserving their inevitable fate of imminent extinction. He wasn’t. What is so glorious about the film is the treatment that Olson offers of his adversaries, who throughout are viewed as well-intentioned, serious, generous, and even playful human beings, who happen to be wrong on this issue.
Olson has a good word to say for literally every ID person he discusses, and some of his interviews leave you with real admiration for those people. Challenging one family committed to the ID cause, he really does not get a serious answer. His interviewee is impatient with the arguments, because they have so many more important and pressing matters to handle right now. They are too busy running a soup kitchen downtown to feed poor immigrant people, and just can’t spare the time to quarrel over these technicalities of biology. When Olson argues details of evolutionary theory with another man, he presents him as wrong and outdated in his arguments, but nevertheless, a decent and friendly individual. Flock of Dodos is the exact opposite of a prosecutorial approach or an exposé.
Incredibly from a modern perspective, Olson deliberately pulled from his main film moments that showed his opponents in too bad or embarrassing a light, although he subsequently made these “pulled punches” available as out-takes.
Surveying his ID opponents, Olson offers a notable tribute. They may be wrong, while his scientific friends from Ivy League institutions are factually correct. But as he says, if he was ever holding a social evening or a poker night, he would much prefer to fill it with the ID people, who are interesting, smart, pleasant people. Definitely not the respectable scientists.
You end the film having learned a good deal about arguments concerning evolution and intelligent design. You also end it hating or despising precisely nobody. This was striking, back in 2006. Today, it is astonishing.
I’d like to suggest that the film suggests rhetorical techniques by which controversial issues can be handled with decency and civility. Is there a word for this method? An ad hominem argument is one that attacks the adversary rather than his/her argument. But what is it called if you go out of your way to be really nice to the other person, showing them all respect, while politely making it clear that you absolutely reject what they are saying? The best lesson I can point to is that it helps immensely to be a nice guy with a generous sense of humor. Someone who can see adversaries as functional human beings you happen to disagree with. What a concept!
Are there Academy Awards for Decency in Film-Making? Why not?
The film is available on Netflix, but only on DVD. It is eminently worth watching as a lesson in how debate can and should proceed on pretty much any controversial issue.