He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
For a while recently I pursued, for the first time in my life, a policy of deliberate ignorance on a subject. The issue in question seemed so crushingly disappointing in terms of the standard of debate around it that investigating it properly would lead to nothing but further depression and disillusionment.
But eventually they make you do it. I have a crippling addiction to Twitter, for instance, and it becomes impossible to escape the latest round of what is increasingly known as “skeptidrama”. It’s visited The Heresy Club, as well; there’s no shortage of posts of late contributing to the continuing spat(s) between Rebecca Watson of Skepchick and “Coffee Loving Skeptic”, Tony Ryan. I gather it involves whether or not a particular ribald term for the female genitalia was used or not, and each camp has lined up to launch their well-prepared salvos of priggish self-righteousness over this phantom fanny. Then I heard Paula Kirby got involved and Freethought Blogs took some flak and Thunderf00t threw in a broken bottle and then I got bored and went to watch QI on YouTube again.
Then again, summarising it with such brevity would be like discussing the founding of Protestantism without mentioning Jesus Christ. Remember DJ Grothe’s comments about harassment at JREF? Remember Elevatorgate? Remember “faitheism” and the casting-out of the “accomodationists”? I certainly do and I’m sure lots of others do too, besides other spats on issues of tone and presentation.
What’s become increasingly clear to me is not that these disagreements are in any way unimportant – quite the opposite, especially over feminist issues – but that the strong sense of superiority that a lot of skeptics have over non-skeptics is horribly misplaced. We’re just as bad as they are. There’s just as much nasty tribalism and unthinking condemnation and lionisation in what I laughably call this “community” as there is in any small-town church. Personal loyalties are winning out over the rationality we so pride ourselves on almost every single time. Bitter personal attacks take the place of the sanity and refulgence that the “movement”, such as it is, is supposed to promote.
It’s gotten so bad that here we’ve had to introduce a new comments policy (if you hadn’t heard, consider this your four-minute warning before the atomic banhammers arrive). I know it’s usually a terrible idea to venture below the line, and I’m lucky (?) enough that my three previous posts for this site have been relatively unremarkable and unremarked upon, and I haven’t said anything especially controversial to trigger the rage of the internet skeptics. But there’s an extreme sort of nihilistic unpleasantness that Hayley so affectingly laid out in her last post that seems reserved for intra-group arguments.
The disagreements between a conservative and a liberal, for example, are probably far less explosive and offensive than the disagreements between a socialist and a social democrat. And because the aggregated differences are so small between most skeptics, the language used becomes ludicrously extreme to compensate. Women who’d prefer not to be called bitches and cunts become “feminazis”, while men who aren’t necessarily convinced of certain problems become shrieking, Hitlerian misogynists. People who think differently are “splitters”; people who don’t are cowards and quislings. Make a mistake, you’re a liar; press for correction, you’re juvenile and pernickety.
Anything but this horrible style of debate. I hesitate even to call it debate – it’s more like Klingon feuding than Socratic dialogue. And it’s no good saying one side is maybe more unpleasant than the other, that isn’t the point. With grim irony, criticism has become anathema in skepticism, replaced by a ferocious devotion to the generally accepted viewpoint or division into two sharply opposed camps. When I was a lot younger and a lot less forgiving, I spent a lot of time on PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog. I still have memories of how badly dissenting voices were treated by the commenters there. Liberal Christians or even atheists with a fondness for religion who showed up with earnest, gentle viewpoints were savaged for not agreeing with Myers’s every syllable. And heaven help you if you were a Republican – like pitting Christians against lions, except the lions are really hungry and have been given assault rifles for the day. I haven’t been back in a long time and I’ve no reason to expect the comments are any better or any less nauseatingly uniform – it’s a shame, too, because Myers himself is one of the most eloquent, fair-minded and combative voices on the side of sanity. (I quite like Ed Sheeran, but his fans…)
This kind of foaming-at-the-mouth, over-the-top reduction to goodthink and badthink is too far into the skeptical mainstream for healthy debate to take place. If the tone doesn’t shift down a few semitones from its unsustainably high pitch, we’ll be left with even more damaging personal rifts and even more jaded, disillusioned bloggers like your humble servant spewing out well-intentioned drivel to the baying commenter mob. It’s not nice. It’s not constructive. It just turns people into caricatures and demagogues and cynics.
Also, it just kind of makes us all look like dicks.
There’s that too.