I got a message

Back in December 2008, commenting on the career of the recently-deceased Conor Cruise O’Brien, Daniel Davies casually sketched out… well, I’ll let him tell it:

I think his decline and fall from sensible, interesting, Good Bloke to reactionary ballbag outlines the Three Prime Directives, the rejection of which defines Decency:

1. Think about the consequences of what you’re saying

2. Don’t become an ethnic partisan

and, the Ultimate Prime Directive

3. No need to be a c**t about it.

CCO’B started off on the right side, but one by one he gradually broke them all.

(Daniel didn’t use asterisks, but I’m a bit less fearless about causing offence. Plus I’m getting quite enough one-handed traffic as it is, thanks to this post.)

In the shortened form of ‘BACAI’, the phrase has entered the language – at least, it’s entered the jargon used on Aarowatch and D^2 Digest. What does it mean? I’ve written elsewhere on what precisely the insult in question signifies, and Daniel’s usage isn’t that far from mine. Basically there is no need to start from the assumption that disagreement can only be motivated by evil and stupidity; no need to be aggressive, wilfully insensitive and deliberately offensive; no need to challenge the other person to jump through hoops of your own devising and denounce them when they fail to do so. Above all, there’s no need to enjoy doing all this, or to congratulate yourself and others for doing it. (If anything sums up the meaning of the C-word in BritEng, it’s this combination of insensitivity and self-congratulation: he’s ruined your day and not only does he not care, he thinks he’s been rather clever.)

As well as identifying the deep affinity between BACAI and what’s become known as the Decent Left, Daniel has repeatedly stressed the importance of the (Ultimate) Prime Directive in blog discussions (the other two have rather fallen by the wayside). I think the PD can be unpacked into two equally important statements:

1. Whoever you are and however just your cause, there is no need to BACAI.
2. This matters: BACAI is never a good thing and should always be avoided.

The second statement is there to help enforce assent to the first, which everyone is wont to regard as dispensable on special occasions (e.g. when they’ve been annoyed by somebody enough to want to BACAI).

Fast forward to last weekend and TAM 8 – the eighth annual session of The Amazing Meeting, James Randi’s sceptics’ conference. And:

Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

This is a quote from a blog post by someone called Andrew Arensburger. The post includes extensive quotes from Phil‘s talk, some of which I’m now going to borrow:

Let me ask you a question: how many of you here today used to believe in something – used to, past tense – whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that? You can raise your hand if you want to. Not everyone is born a skeptic. A lot of you raised your hand. I’d even say most of you, from what I can tell.

Now let me ask you a second question: how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?

When you’re dealing with someone who disagrees with you on some matter, what is your goal? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain-damaged, or morons, or baby-rapers may make you feel good. (That’s been used, by the way.) It may make you feel good. It may help you vent, it may help you release frustration, it may rally the troops, it may even foment people to help you and to take action, and let’s be honest, it may allow you to feel smug and superior, at least in that moment. But is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

It’s not terribly controversial to say that when someone is being attacked and insulted, they tend to get defensive. They’re not in the best position to be rational or self-introspective. It’s going to be very difficult to change their mind when you’re doing that.

In times of war, we need warriors. But this isn’t a war. You might try to say it is, but it’s not a war. We aren’t trying to kill an enemy. We’re trying to persuade other humans. And at times like that, we don’t need warriors, what we need are diplomats.

So after all this, I think I can sum up my points like this: first, always ask yourself what your goal is. […] Is this argument necessary? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Before you talk, before you leave a comment, before you engage a pseudoscientist, before you raise your hand, before you sign that email, ask yourself: is this going to help? Is this going to allow me to achieve my goal? And you also need to ask yourself: will this impede me from achieving my goal? Is this just to make me feel better, or am I trying to change the world?

And second, and not to put too fine a point on it, don’t be a dick. … But seriously, don’t. Don’t be a dick. All being a dick does is score cheap points. It does not win the hearts and minds of people everywhere, and honestly, winning those hearts and minds, that’s our goal. And I asked you two questions at the beginning when I stood up here in the first place. The first one was, if you used to believe in something. And the second one was if you lost that belief because someone was a dick to you. My goal, my personal goal is have everyone in the world raise their hand when they’re asked that first question. And the other part of that goal is to never even have to ask the second one.

Being a dick probably isn’t exactly the same as being a c**t, but they’re close enough to be going on with. (It’s worth noting that Daniel’s first directive also comes in here – Think about the consequences of what you’re saying, or in Phil’s words, Is this just to make me feel better, or am I trying to change the world?.) Andrew’s post is a good response to the talk, with a lengthy and thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of not being a dick, and an interesting followup. Then there’s a good response to Andrew’s response here: Josh Rosenau goes through Andrew’s scorecard and finds the case much less evenly balanced than he did. Josh makes some interesting connections to broader social movement activism (which I’ll come back to), and concludes that there, too, BA[C|D]AI isn’t the most productive strategy:

in womens rights, are inclusivist feminist groups more effective or are separatist feminists more effective? How often do you see someone like Valerie Solanas and her S.C.U.M (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto cited as proof that feminists are just man-haters, and that groups like NOW, or calls for an equal rights amendment, or equal pay for women, or other simple gender equity measures, can all be marginalized? Again, point: Phil.

In gay rights, how much help was it for ACT UP! to storm St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, desecrating a communion wafer along the way? LGBT leaders decried that militancy, and generally regarded the action as “utter failure.” It raised visibility, but it didn’t raise acceptance of LGBT citizens, nor of the importance of resources for people with AIDS. What did the job was thousands of individuals telling their families and friends about their sexual orientation. That took gayness from being “other” to being close. I know people in California who voted against gay marriage in the early 2000s but actively campaigned against Prop. 8 in 2008 because their sons and daughters came out and wanted to be able to marry the same-sex partner of their dreams. The single best predictor of whether someone supports marriage equality is how many close friends or relatives they know who are gay. Point: Phil.

Not all of the responses have been so friendly. I suspect that Ashley Miller speaks for quite a few people:

I agree that, generally speaking, you should be nice to someone you’re trying to convince if you’re having an argument with them to convince them. But, and this is important, that’s not the only reason you have arguments. Sometimes it’s to convince everyone else that you’re right, regardless of what the other person thinks. The internet is an amazing place where your arguments are all public. Sometimes humiliating someone who has a stupid point of view has the effect of convincing everyone else that you are right. Particularly if you can do it in a hilarious way. Hitchens made me OK with self-identifying atheist simply because he was such a hilariously snobby jerkface.

And the fact is most of the people he’s talking about are people who are incredibly nice, polite and respectful in person. He’s got a problem with their online behavior. And frankly, it’s the fucking internet, that’s how people are and to fucking yell at a bunch of people who are really into the same thing you are because you don’t like the tone they take is a bit much.

AND I take issue with him treating skepticism as something we should be in charge of proselytizing. If I want to have an angry discussion about people hacking off little girls privates and be a complete dick to anyone who disagrees with me, I get to do that. Will that change people’s minds, I dunno, but it’s my way of dealing with the information and skepticism isn’t some fucking religion that has rules.

This really is an epic display of point-missing. The strongest and most relevant point is the first one: Internet polemic is a spectator sport, and it’s certainly true that very few of the people piling on to Prince Charles or Gillian McKeith or Terry Eagleton are actually hoping to change Prince Charles’s or Gillian McKeith’s or Terry Eagleton’s mind. The logic is, as Ashley says, to win people onto your side by being devastatingly clever, witty and contemptuous. “Hitchens made me OK with self-identifying atheist simply because he was such a hilariously snobby jerkface.” (Maybe this could go on the paperback of Hitch-22?) But there’s a playground quality to this that I’m really not happy with; to put it another way, the appeal seems to be entirely to rhetoric rather than logic, which is surely a bit misplaced when the argument turns on How Things Are. “Witty and persuasive” doesn’t always go with “rationally grounded and logically coherent” – get talking to a priest some time.

The second and third points we don’t need to spend so much time on. That’s how people are [online] – not everyone, not everywhere, not all the time, and in any case we’re talking about how people should behave. And to fucking yell at a bunch of people who are really into the same thing you are because you don’t like the tone they take – or at least to explain to them how and why you don’t like the tone they take, which is more like what Phil did – is useful and important, if you think the tone they take is important (and see above for why it might be). As for the third point, of course we all get to do that, just like students get to heckle lecturers and workers get to turn up to work drunk if that’s what they feel like doing – what we don’t get to do is escape being challenged by other members of our community.

Which brings me in a roundabout way back to Josh’s analogy with gay and women’s liberation activists, which I don’t think is as unproblematic as he makes out. The research in my book (which is going to be reviewed in August’s Red Pepper, incidentally) is based ultimately on Charles Tilly’s concept of the ‘repertoire’ of protest tactics, and (more importantly) the informal negotiations through which some tactics are accepted as legitimate and others branded “extreme” or “violent”. (The subject of ‘violence’ reminds me that I’ve been meaning to give a big plug to Luke’s blog for months now. For the time being, read this.) The point here is that, in any more or less disorderly social movement, there is always a spectrum of tactics, from shockingly ‘radical’ to tamely ‘reformist’. And, more importantly, there is always a continuing process of negotiation which determines where the line marked “Extreme” gets painted.

The concept of ‘extreme’ here is an interesting and quite complex one. I think it was Joan Smith who argued that what the Yorkshire Ripper symbolised wasn’t the opposite of mainstream masculinity but its extreme – somewhere you wouldn’t want to go, God knows, but somewhere you could get to from here. On similar but less troubling lines, ACT UP! isn’t the opposite of the movement represented by the “LGBT leaders” Josh refers to, but its extreme. And any movement must have its extremists. This is partly because the most radical fringe of the movement will inevitably (necessarily?) come to be seen as its extremists, however tame they may be in absolute terms. But it’s also the case that an element of extremism is necessary: somebody needs to push a bit further, take more risks, do something that hasn’t been done before, in order to put down a symbolic marker for just how much the movement wants to change things. It’s a question of visibility, but at a more fundamental level than the one Josh talks about: it’s about making the movement visible to itself. Thanks to ACT UP!, in other words, LGBT activists get to tell themselves “we are the kind of people who would stop at nothing… well, we’re not, but we know these people… and actually we don’t really like them that much… but we do know them and they are on our side and they would stop at nothing… even if we wish they wouldn’t…” (It’s a conflictual business, being in a social movement.)

So is the kind of dickish behaviour Ashley celebrates just the extremist leading edge of the rationalist movement – or the Decent Left movement, come to that? I don’t think it is, because I basically don’t think there is any such movement, in either case. Josh again:

I am not aware of any consistent agreement about what the criteria for success would be among the “New Atheists.” Eradication of religion? A more vocal atheist minority? More representation in political office? WIth the civil rights movement, the repeal of Jim Crow laws was a simple and obvious metric for success. With feminism, equal pay and equal rights were clear measures of success, since there were blatantly discriminatory laws on the books and policies in effect. Similarly with gay rights, there are clear cases of institutional and enforced discrimination. With atheism, the case is murkier. There are undeniable problems to be solved in terms of discrimination against atheism and atheists, but the major legal barriers to atheism were overturned last century, often as a result of activism by other religious minorities. Which tends to argue for conciliation and collaboration, rather than absolute, unyielding, and indiscriminate opposition to all religions.

Last sentence misses point, I think. The major legal barriers to atheism were overturned last century – as oppressed minorities go, atheists aren’t (any more than Blairite humanitarian imperialists are one in Britain). There are wrongs to be righted, but there’s no one big set of issue, no cause that needs to be advanced by atheists because believers can’t possibly Get It. (I understand immediately if a woman says, Sure, you say you’re opposed to sex inequality, but you’re a man But: Sure, you say you want to stop the teaching of creation science, but you’re a Christian Not so much.)

Sometimes, being ACAI is something that happens at the leading edge of a powerful and important social movement (I’d argue that sometimes planting bombs is, etc, but that’s another story). And sometimes it’s just indulging yourself in your own anger. Most of the time, for most of us – atheists and skeptics, conspiracy theorists and anti-conspiracists, Decents and denouncers of Decents – I think that’s what it is. It’s a terribly seductive feeling, as well: you can get to a point where your anger isolates you, but that doesn’t matter because it also justifies feeling isolated – which in turn justifies feeling angry – which in turn…

The title of this post comes from David Byrne’s “His wife refused”, which you should be able to hear here. It’s one of those songs, like Patti Smith’s “Land”, which begins by building to a peak… then building to a higher peak… then building up again until it essentially explodes (“Do you know how to pony?“). But where that song is about sex, violence and rock’n’roll, this one is all about this kind of anger – all about feeling that your anger validates your isolation, your isolation validates your anger, and on and on until…

Great big house – with nothing in it.
He turns round, says, Now wait a minute!
He’s coming in, she’s going out,
He turns round, says, What’s that about?
Do what they like – the kids in school –
Think he don’t know? Now who’s kidding who?

He turns around, says, Who wants to know?
Open the door and there’s nobody home!

Go ahead! Fill their heads!
Go ahead! Fill their heads with poison!
Take a look! These people are savages!
Take a look at their misfortune!

I’m going up! I got a message!
I’m gonna wait till I close the door,
I’m gonna wrap myself in blankets,
I’m gonna roll out across the floor!

We all feel like that some of the time; we all end up acting like that some of the time. But there is no need to BACAI.


  1. Richard J
    Posted 20 July 2010 at 15:31 | Permalink | Reply

    Clive James, of all people[1], once made an insightful comment, in an otherwise favourable profile of Germaine Greer[2], to the effect that one of the big empathatic gaps between the personalities of campaigning types and other people was that the former had a habit overestimating the moral courage of the latter, while underrating the complexity and satisfaction of the lives that they did end up leading.

    ( http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=YoYyrf9VGC8C&lpg=PA197&dq=clive%20james%20germaine%20greer&pg=PA201#v=onepage&q&f=false)

    [1] Well, these days. Like Steve Martin, you can track his creative decline to a single inflection point (his eulogy for Diana compared to Parenthood)
    [2] Which, come to think of it, given the backstory between them, puts the subtext into BACAI territory.

  2. ashleyfmiller
    Posted 20 July 2010 at 18:34 | Permalink | Reply

    I agree that rhetoric != logic, but most people can accept a logical argument without feeling compelled to deal with it. I am a huge fan of rhetoric, probably my entire problem with the Don’t be a Dick philosophy is that I really enjoy polemicizing, as a form of entertainment and reaching out to emotions. But that’s what it is, an emotional appeal. Humans, of course, aren’t strictly rational beings.

    Does that make it less worthy than logic? I dunno. I mean, one would hope that an argument can both be emotionally compelling and logical. I worry that the skeptic movement is so obsessed with science and logic that it forgets that a lot of people are into feelings and flights of fancy.

    I don’t think Hitchens, Dawkins, etc are extremist, because their points of view just aren’t that different from your average atheist. I can just use myself as an example, and that of course is anecdotal, but 10 years ago I would have been too afraid of the repercussions from declaring myself an atheist. Now, there are visible intellectuals who have some amount of grudging respect, people who’ve shown me there are devastatingly witty ways of dealing with assholes on the other side.

    I just think we need to have both — nice people and dicks, logic and rhetoric, rationality and emotional appeal.

    • Posted 20 July 2010 at 22:03 | Permalink | Reply

      10 years ago I would have been too afraid of the repercussions from declaring myself an atheist

      Why? What were they?

    • Phil
      Posted 20 July 2010 at 22:20 | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks, Ashley – that was probably more temperate & rational than my response to your post, which is ironic in the circumstances.

      It’s true that we can’t do without rhetoric. Someone could probably do a reverse version of Phil P.’s talk, about how an approach based on logic and reason alone is useless at best and dishonest at worst – because when it does work, it works by covertly appealing to authority. (I’d read that. Maybe I should write it.) But I do think there’s a playground quality about the behaviour Phil talks about – and some of the pile-ons I’ve witnessed; I’m not happy with the idea of “[s]he really knows how to humiliate people, I’ll join the gang [s]he’s in”. Maybe it is just a question of balance.

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