The “Don’t Be a Dick” Speech August 17, 2010

The “Don’t Be a Dick” Speech

At The Amazing Meeting 8 last month, the most controversial talk turned out to be Phil Plait‘s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech. (Check that link for more background info.)

Video of his talk has now been made available by JREF, so watch it unfiltered:

Has your mind about the talk changed from before now that you’ve seen it?

***Update***: Phil’s take on the talk is here.

"The problem is that the school didn't prevent her to wear it because it was ..."

Christian Sues School After Daughter Gets ..."
"But did you fix the alleged thingy with the underage boys? *cough* cough*"

Preacher: I Just Cured Rush Limbaugh’s ..."
"Sure you did, Skippy. Sure you did...(Heywood backs away slowly...)"

Preacher: I Just Cured Rush Limbaugh’s ..."
"I wonder if a T-shirt on which is written"Asexuality is god's way1 corinthians 7:25-29"would be ..."

Christian Sues School After Daughter Gets ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anonymous

    I’d prefer some sources from those “Studies show” comments. We cannot demand them from Anti-Gay people and not provide them ourselves.

  • Hitch

    I agree with him, but it also doesn’t cover it all.

    One problem we have is that even mild criticism, or vocalizing an alternative position is sometimes misconstrued as impolite.

    The other thing is that the bigger problem is not how inclusive we are, I actually think the skeptic community is pretty inclusive overall, but that we excluded by other larger groups.

    And it is exactly there, when one needs to assert ones existence and position, where external charged of impoliteness mix with the absolute necessity of not turning around.

    There is a very real problem in science outreach. It’s embattled. And I think we actually need warriors and diplomats. The example Phil gave about the young earth creationist is nice. But that same approach will not work when facing people who know exactly that it’s about opposing education and science because they have discovered that this is exactly what fosters critical thinking.

    I don’t like to use harsh words, but I like to be direct. While noone may have ever been converted by being called names, certainly being confronted with views, or a reality that was hidden before can have positive outcomes.

    I think we can handle a whole spectrum of personalities, and as long as people play roles that in their respective spaces do something productive that is good. So we don’t want to match a warrior-type with science outreach in a very religious community, and we don’t want to make a diplomat with the task of handling an adverserial political situation.

    One thing I have a problem with is this kind of idea that only one type of approach works, and that there is a need for a certain homogeneous approach. First I think it’s unrealistic and second I don’t know any movement that has pulled this off.

    As for skepticism, all it takes is education. If we can protect pathways into education and keep the quality high, it’s good.

    And that’s exactly why we have battle-grounds. Those opposed to skepticism have realized that they have to influence education to not lose their stronghold.

    I cannot help but think that we need people who get angry when textbooks are rewritten for the worse. If too many try to be diplomatic about it, we compromise for the worse.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    This is a valuable thing to keep in mind. I am always trying to be a diplomat in this area.

    I think the majority of vitriol is the understandable result of newly liberated minds reacting to the years of oppression and misery.

  • @Viggo

    I think that’s very true. As a Christian I see it all the time as the other way around: new Christians, or I’d guess new to any belief or non-belief, intuitively want to show everybody else what they’re missing out on. So they actually hurt their own cause quite a bit by arguing for it in such a way that people don’t want anything to do with it.

    That’s what I find the most interesting about this talk: I’ve heard many very similar speeches addressed to Christians about how crappily we treat atheists…

  • Roxane

    I loved the example at the end about the flat-earth creationist student. I think what he achieved there was to respect her search, and let her do the heavy lifting, which either would or wouldn’t continue after he left the room. He’s absolutely correct that no one is going to do a 180-reversal of their position in an afternoon. To pretend otherwise is to commit the same mistake as the evangelist who thought he saved ten people because ten people politely took a pamphlet.

    I’m not a fighter by nature, and the only success I have had is as one of the diplomats, when we took in a gay friend of my daughters who had been thrown out of the house by her fundie parents. She came in as a self-lacerating fundie, and after living with us for three months, left as an agnostic–and we didn’t really mention religion, and even took her to her church when she wanted to go. But because we treated her and our daughter with more respect than her parents had, as though they were rational people capable of thought, she decided we were really onto something, and we certainly didn’t fit the mold of what she had been told to believe about atheists.

    But if it weren’t for our Hitch/Dawkins loudmouths, there would be no effective atheism movement. They get the media attention and draw people’s attention to the fact that, yes, atheists exist, and we’re out here, and you can join us. When they hit the bestseller list, a lot of us headed for the internet and started looking for ways to connect with other people who already disbelieved. Whether they’ve actually changed anyone’s minds, who knows?

    I guess, fight if you’re a fighter; if you’re not, do what you can.

  • Deiloh

    Personal attacks should certainly be avoided. Beyond that, multiple approaches are not a bad thing (excluding torture of course). Lets not be overly simplistic about human psychology. Bill Maher, an anti-vaxer, has had multiple approaches thrown at him and he’s still not budging, and may never do so. As for me, I made my final goodbye to religion after reading The God Delusion, a book accused of being Dickish.

  • Alyssa

    Is there a Mrs. Plait yet? He’s amazing.

  • Alyssa

    Dammit. I reached the 21st minute.

  • What constitutes “good behavior” depends on the context. When trying to convince someone of something face-to-face, you should act very differently than when you’re publicly calling out a dangerous charlatan.

    How many of you lost your faith… because someone called you an idiot?

    If instead he’d asked

    …because someone called someone like Ray Comfort, Peter Popoff, Uri Geller, etc. an idiot?

    no doubt there’d have been a few more hands raised.

  • Spawn

    See, there’s three kinds of people: dicks, pussies, and assholes. Pussies think everyone can get along, and dicks just want to fuck all the time without thinking it through. But then you got your assholes, Chuck. And all the assholes want us to shit all over everything! So, pussies may get mad at dicks once in a while, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes, Chuck. And if they didn’t fuck the assholes, you know what you’d get? You’d get your dick and your pussy all covered in shit!

  • BrianE

    Spawn – my favorite movie and movie speech of all time. Now excuse me while I go puke my guts out in the alley…

  • Scott

    He makes some good points, but I think he’s missed some aspects of the analysis. In particular, discussions between skeptics and believers—including most of the ones he’s talking about—occur in public. It’s not just one skeptic “in the face” of one believer.

    The “dicks” create a platform for others to work. Nobody took atheists seriously or gave them a voice in anything until the “new atheists” (those strident, militant, arrogant, jerks) upset the apple cart.

  • Deiloh

    Agree with Paul. Was thinking about Anne Coulter, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck. The best way of dealing with them is going to be much different than talking to middle school students.

  • Todd

    Thanks for posting. Come to think of it, I’ve noticed a lot more “vitriol and venom” on this blog over the past several months.

  • Phil—who is not a dick—has seemed a little reluctant to name names. Have I just missed it? Who, specifically, has been a “dick”? You don’t give a speech like that without having specific people and/or incidents in mind, so just go ahead and be specific.

    As I watched Phil’s speech (online), I kept having the same thought: The issue is not “being a dick.” The issue is that, when it comes to religion, people’s threshold for what constitutes “dickishness” is much, much lower than for any other topic. Richard Dawkins would be perceived as a “dick” by some religious people no matter how he phrased his critiques of religion. It is the fact that religion is being criticized—in any way—that makes religious people think he’s a “dick.” If religion were treated like every other subject, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all. It all comes down to the same basic paradox: People get most upset when you challenge the beliefs they are least justified in holding.

  • I’ve posted about this a few times. In one of those posts, I divided “theistic skeptics” into three categories. Here was one of the categories:

    “The “Martin Gardner”

    This individual acknowledges that they’re not being skeptical of their theistic beliefs and that they have some emotional reason for believing. Often they’ll acknowledge that their beliefs most probably would not hold up under the critical evaluation of skepticism.”

    Shortly after posting this, the following comment appeared below that post:

    “Couldn’t you find an example of someone who wasn’t such a positive good in total? Or was that your intention, to aggressively attack an icon of the overall skeptical community?”

    This clearly demonstrates some very serious problems. Here’s a skeptic who took offense at my comment and characterized it as an “aggressive attack”. There was no attack, aggressive or otherwise – I accurately stated Gardner’s position.

    So, why perceive it as an attack? Because he’s mad at Gardner. He’s mad that his icon did something that conflicts with the pedestal he placed him on. He’s mad because on some level he realizes that he’s not being very skeptical – by creating a little idol that he’d prefer was immune from comment or criticism and any chink in that image is re-spun as an attack.

    So, how negative would I have had to be before this person (who actually agrees with me) views me as a dick?

    How much more amplified is this perception when we’re talking to non-skeptics and addressing core beliefs that they hold sacred?

    Never meet your idols and never read what anyone else says about them…provided you care about blind exaltation.

  • I think he makes a good point and did the right thing while taking to the student who was a Young Earth creationist. That was right way to say it in that situation.

    Previous commenters make a good point in writing that sometimes a person may accuse another person of being insulting or of being “a dick” when in fact they’re not.

    The way I see it is that if someone is just being insulting, then that’s just rude. However, if someone is making a joke or using satire that actually has a good point in it, that can be useful in some situation, but maybe not in others.

  • It goes without saying that being purposely insulting is not the way to sway people, especially those who are vehemently opposed to you. But at the same time, when people are vehemently opposed to you, there is quite often NO amount of “diplomacy” or “niceness” which is going to help.

    If we listen to Dr Plait, then we end up accommodating the militants and give them the idea that they are “right.” I’m not sure there’s any benefit to that. If anything, accommodationism is what has pretty much has put the militant believers into the driver’s seat in this country. The “less-extreme” believers in the US have gradually ceded them their political power over the years. This has had the effect of awarding militant religionists a much larger share of political power than they would otherwise have acquired. The militant religionists’ entire approach, I believe, is constructed on the tactic of assuming that if you bully people hard enough, long enough, and persistently enough, they will cave in and let you do whatever you want.

    That’s not what we need to do with these people. So I wonder what Dr Plait thinks should be done about them. Less-extreme believers have already done enough damage by having already surrendered to the militants. It would now be insane for non-believers to do precisely the same thing.

  • Claudia

    We need diplomats AND we need warriors and we ESPECIALLY need to stop discussing the matter as if it were an either/or situation.

    For face to face, person by person wearing away at people’s irrational beliefs, we absolutely have to put on our grown-up pants and treat people gently and not call them idiots. Get used to the idea that you are almost certainly not going to see a transformation or a recognition you are right. But you may plant a seed that much later can grow into a budding skeptic.

    However we DO need warriors. A diplomat wouldn’t have written the God Delusion. Without that book, I’d still be calling myself an agnostic (no disrespect to those who still do) and thinking religion was no big deal. Our warriors rally and give heart to our own. Yes they will alienate some people, but sometimes mockery is also needed. If warriors are no good, then Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Hirsi Ali and Dennett (more a diplomat, for my money) gave been counterproductive, which I doubt even the most polite diplomat would say.

    There’s a difference between insulting and disrespecting an individual and mocking (while debunking) an idea. I would bet hard cash that there have been creationists who went to college and reconsidered their position once confronted with the open, withering disdain that biologists have for it. Not because someone called them an idiot, that’s not helpful, but because they overheard or sat in on conversation where ID was openly mocked and throughly destroyed without it being made personally about them.

  • Aj

    I agree that’s it’s the wrong approach, and just wrong to attack a genuinely interested person who is misguided like the young creationist Phil met. I usually only lash out in anger, in response to insults or jerkish behaviour. Especially for people who are attacking and lying about other atheists (calling them “fundamentalists” is the most common way) and people who harm others like faith-healers or anti-vaxxers (more so if they’re harming kids). You should see the posts I’ve written and then deleted without posting. These people are not going to be persuaded, they’ve already heard what I was going to say, they’re just general bastards.

    Phil Plait is an “accommodationist” who likes Chris Mooney, only speaks on “fundamentalist” (meaning religion he doesn’t like, not actually fundamentalism) religion, and then only when it directly attacks science. He subscribes to the irrational concept that anything bad coming from religion is misuse, abuse, or bad religion. He’s fine with religion as long as they agree with him politically and don’t attack science. I still find it hilarious that someone who is calling on people to stop insulting each other is launching the slogan “Don’t Be a Dick”. Does “dick” mean something else where you come from Phil?

    I don’t recall being persuaded by insults but also not by other means. I think the question is a sort of trick, abusing knowledge of human psychology. When has anybody suddenly changed their views about things they care about like that? I can recall insults and aggressive arguments changing my mind, afterwards, when I’ve reflected over a longer period. They didn’t hinder me changing my mind, and I was able to understand why people were angry. I think Phil was right about it depending on context, because if you want someone to hear what you’re saying sometimes insults are very counter-productive, but sometimes insults are very productive.

  • Unholy Holly

    Ahem. My dad’s name is “Dick”.

  • For a TAM video, I found this video incredibly trivial. No offense to Phil who is awesome but “don’t be a dick”? This is supposed to enlighten me as a promoter of atheism? As if it just never occurred to me that offending those who might be listening or reading is a bad idea? How about fleshing the matter out a bit.. off the top of my head,

    Consider the venue. At a formal debate it is utterly appropriate to hold yourself and your opponent to the highest academic standard, regardless of whether or not it is a nice thing to do. If you’ve been invited to speak to a room of theists or do Q&A, then by all means use some sensitivity and tact.

    Presentation Flavoring. Where possible and appropriate, give what you are saying emotional flavoring that prevents even your opponents from shutting off. Make it funny, or at least engaging. Be quirky or self-deprecating.. if you can do any of these things reasonably well you can get away with saying just about any damn thing you want.

    Forget about the extremes. Stop worrying about the tails of the bell curve that will love or hate you no matter what. It might bother you that some are perturbed and they may be very vocal, but they are often a small minority. Let them go, or else you’re just chasing your tail.

    You might get some of these ideas from Phil’s talk but they are not presented in a useful, specific way that can actually help secularists better serve their goals.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    It was Phil’s Bad Astronomy Board that got me involved in the skepticism movement, so it pains me that I have to agree with the posters above who are critical of his talk.
    Come on, is there anyone who would have laughed in the face of a 17 year-old girl taking extra courses in science? Isn’t this just a kind of straw-man?
    Would I laugh in the face of Ham or Hovind, Wells or Geoffrey Simmons? You betcha! These men are not only paid, professional liars – they are actually using the civility of scientists to bolster their credibility with their audiences.
    Like Phil (& Shermer), I ate up the UFO, Big Foot, Bermuda Triangle stuff when I was young; then I grew skeptical. I never argued with anyone about it (those being the pre-internet days) so I was never actually called stupid, and cannot say how I would have reacted to such insults. However, I did read criticisms of this junk that made me feel stupid for believing and I became more critical.
    Perhaps if there had been more withering criticism of those who spread this trash, we may not have gobbled it up so eagerly in the first place….?

  • Dave

    Isn’t it the people who believe in that pseudoscientific crap the ones who are getting in our face most of the time?

    If someone is going to get in my face claiming something and I tell them it’s bullshit, why am I the bad guy? You can’t always reason with these people. Sometimes you just have to call “bullshit”.

  • Does calling someone a hypocrite count as being a dick? I mean, if they really are one?

    If I were face to face with B.Obama and said “Hey dude, you say you support equality for gay people yet you’re opposed to gay marriage. What’s up with the hypocrisy?”

    Would that make me a dick?

  • stogoe

    Speaking for myself, I don’t want to change hearts and minds, at least not the hearts and minds of the hateful fringe. To attempt such a thing is to attempt the impossible. Instead, I merely seek two things – make them ashamed of their stupidity, and stop them from burning the world down around themselves. If these can be accomplished, then it doesn’t matter to me what kind of fairy tales they believe because they’ll soon be dead of old age and their offspring will have mostly deconverted.

  • Hitch

    The point is indeed that our reality is not just cooperative. Politics is largely argumentative and adversarial. If you go in there with a stretched out hand and seeking middle ground you basically conceded half the way already. And then you have to fight to keep the rest.

    I would love a world that is built on purely cooperative principles. It’s not the world we have and we may never have it. As long as views need advocacy, we will need to do more than diplomacy.

    Greta got that perfectly right. Advocates create the negotiation space for the diplomats.

    That doesn’t mean that advocates should create a hostile environment and call everybody names. But visibility is good and if you are visible expect to be unfairly criticized for it (“you are aggressive” etc). Incidentally that’s exactly what we see with respect to say Dawkins.

  • Matthew

    Nice Wil Wheaton reference in the title!

  • Alyssa, I totally agree 😀

    I also think the guy is right, when it comes to converting people from religion to sense … but I also believe that we need guys like Dawkins and Hitchens to show the hardcases we are up against their place … (and I sort of love named gentlemen too, for being so damn smart)

    I think that in the ordinary discussion with ordinary people, you get waaay further by planting a seed. Fertilizing it with respect, not of their faith but of them as a person. You do not convert people by calling them names.

  • I like this guy more and more each time I hear him talk.

  • I am a Christian, and this guy has great, solid points.  This feels so much like how my youth group talks, honestly, I see so many parallels. I watch this sort of thing because I want to learn, and I want to find the truth. #Skepticalchristian