The problem is this: It is easier, faster, and far more emotionally satisfying to discredit someone by attacking their character than by civilly dissecting their arguments.
Or, ironically summed up by Phil Plait, don’t be a dick.
I’ve always found this piece of advice a little bit naïf for my taste, for it falls short. Yes, most of the times you needn’t be a dick: when people disagree with you or when they’re incautiously wrong, you can point out why they might find useful a different perspective or considering your point of view. So far, so good.
But it turns out not everyone out there promoting nonsense is an ingenuous person. There are con artists who profit off the ignorance of others, there are bigots out there who enjoy people being discriminated against due to biological traits, and these people couldn’t care less about getting their facts straight. Ideology comes first, second and third in their priorities.
I claim it is our moral duty to expose this charlatans and attack their character because they’re not making a mistake out of ignorance, unawareness or lack of time; they’re hurting people with their agendas and they won’t entertain the thought of being wrong, let alone consider all the damage they’re doing.
Think of Deepak Chopra, pope Francis (any Pope, actually) or David Icke — the reason they’re peddling nonsense all day long is because they’re ideologically driven to do so. We shouldn’t stop at proving them wrong, we ought to question their motives and connect the dots. That’s more in the iconoclast tradition of Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette and James Randi.
Yes, being kind to people when they’re honest is a good rule of thumb; but failing to call out the motives and agendas of ideologically motivated people who seek converts by means of ridiculing freedom, science, intelligence, knowledge, and those who defend them is doing our cause a great disservice.
After quoting Salman Rushdie, Damion insisted: “Ideas may be (and sometimes must be) flensed ruthlessly, but individuals must be treated with dignity“. I retort: individuals must be treated with dignity as long as they have any left. Someone who scams people, someone who takes advantage of someone else’s trust, someone who lies their way through life have no right to claim to be treated with the dignity reserved for honest people — if there is anyone even remotely dishonest in this respect within the secular community (and I’m positively sure there are some), they shouldn’t be given free passes or treated with any less contempt than Uri Geller.
I could go even further: they’re tainting our community, perverting it, and turning it upside-down. Ours is a community that advances an evidence-based worldview, which takes science and Human Rights seriously and finds it disheartening when public policy is based on fairy tales or people are discriminated against because of some gratuitous assertion. If you have any appreciation for evertyhing it took us to get where we are, your contempt of these people should be, justifiably, even stronger than that of the run-of-the-mill charlatan.
I think we would be right to dissociate from people doing this kind of stuff in the name of our cause: misrepresenting the secular community by engaging in dishonest behaviors should be reason enough to distance ourselves from them, not just their fallacies.
Failing to do so is the other part of the problem — how are we supposed to be the ones who civilly dissect ill-designed arguments if we’re not even capable of telling us apart from the very people who can’t do civility? People who willfully gave up on civility and decency don’t get to be treated civilly.