On Mockery and Persuasion

On Mockery and Persuasion April 6, 2012

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.

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