Not to reopen raw wounds, but reposting my talk from Netroots Nation reminded me of two other sessions I attended, both on the theme of snark and satire. Unfortunately, video from the one I want to talk about today is not yet online.
As you’ll recall, sciencebloggers and skeptics were really bored over the summer, and to pass the time they got into a fight over whether it was good or bad to be dickish. Those who said “no,” generally argued that there’s no particular evidence that such behavior is effective at convincing people to join your cause and the peer reviewed literature found dickish behavior to be a turnoff for audiences, while non-dickish behavior was more effective. Those who said “yes,” tended to argue that a) you’re the real dick, b) I have anecdotal evidence which refutes your peer reviewed studies and c) The Daily Show and other satire can be powerful tools for an activist.
I obviously tend to side with the first camp, and to find counterarguments a & b unconvincing. Argument c is intriguing. I would note that the identifiable leaders of the “dickishness is ok” camp are not comedians or professional satirists and that this tends to make their satire less effective than Stewart or Swift. But that’s not an argument against their point in principle. What if they really were funny?
Because the Netroots Nation panel consisted of people from sites like Pandagon and Sadly, No! and The ‘Toot, I didn’t think they would know about or want to get into the specifics of the “Don’t Be A Dick” fight. Instead, after they talked about their opinion of the best targets for satire and snark (short answer: the powerful, especially those who abuse power), I asked whether there were targets that were inappropriate for snark or satire. And remarkably for a group of snarky liberals, they all basically agreed: snark and satire are inappropriate to use against those weaker than yourself, or indeed those who are weak in society. Which seems like a broad endorsement of “Don’t Be A Dick.”
It leaves room for snark and satire, but doesn’t allow “it was satire” to be an all-purpose excuse. Those are tools for the powerless to use against the powerful. So it’s one thing to deploy snark against, say, the Pope, another to deploy it against Iranian mullahs, and quite different to direct it against an imam in lower Manhattan. And never mind a Muslim cab driver or a Catholic janitor. Or, as the right wing loves to do, a ten year old kid who is sick and got a shout out from the President.
To my mind, this division between the powerful and the powerless is vital to the “don’t be dickish” perspective, and to the differences of opinion around it.
When I started blogging in 2004, blogs were barely powerful, and scienceblogs had no power. Bloggers, including SB’s Nick Anthis, claimed some scalps thanks to their reporting, and by 2010, blogging is not powerless, per se. I wouldn’t be surprised if this blog wasn’t part of what got Nancy Boyda elected in 2006, along with a pro-evolution Kansas Board of Education. Blogs have brought down Senators, won major journalism awards, and (if journalists are to be believed) have singlehandedly destroyed print journalism. Howard Fineman just left Newsweek to be an editor at Huffington Post.
Bloggers who started as the powerless have to adjust their thinking now that they are among the powerful. PZ Myers, who used to regard a profile by a local newspaper as major media exposure, was just profiled in Playboy! He has a massive readership and huge cultural reach. He cannot be considered powerless. Snark which would once have been directed at those with more power than him now is hitting those less powerful, and his changing status requires him to change tactics. With great power comes great responsibility.
Where this gets tricky is with criticism of, mockery of, satire about, or snark toward, religion or some specific religion. It’s not hard to get a sense of how powerful the Pope is, nor how powerful some Muslim cab driver might be. But how powerful is Catholicism globally? Catholicism in Ireland? Catholicism in the US? Religion globally? Religion in the US? Religion in science departments at elite research universities? In mocking a religious belief, is one also mocking every person who holds that belief? There’s no question that religion in general, and quite a few specific religions, have a lot of power in society at large. This is true in the US, with its religious majority and legal commitment to separation of church and state, and it’s true in Sweden, with its nonreligious majorities and state religion (until ten years ago). So mocking religion should be fair game. (But note that religion is not powerful in academia, so maybe that means that religion in academia deserves a gentler sort of criticism. Maybe not! Take it to the comments.)
But mocking religious beliefs often shades into, or can seem as if it shades into, mocking people who hold those religious beliefs. And while some of those people hold power, others don’t. Indeed, the powerlessness of certain groups of religious adherent against religious ideas is a common theme in atheist writings (whether “new” atheist or old atheist). That is to say, most religious adherents were never tabulae rasae, and belong to their religion because of the power religion holds in their family, in society at large, etc. Attacking people for holding such beliefs in general means attacking some of the most defenseless people in society: the old, the poorly-educated, children, the brainwashed, etc. Those who perform the brainwashing deserve satire and more, but simply accepting certain lessons from a source which seemed credible but isn’t … that’s not grounds for mockery. Those are victims. Mock Ken Ham, but don’t mock people for listening to him. His audience is powerless, and that’s why they listen to him.
It is not inherently dickish to mock religion, or to mock religious doctrines, but that mockery, snark, or satire, ought to be done in a way that lets adherents separate themselves a little bit from what’s being mocked or satirized. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is brilliant satire in many ways, but it doesn’t do anything for a lot of religious adherents but make them feel that their beliefs are being mocked. This fails the “don’t be dickish” criterion, and also fails to give religious adherents any reason to cross the aisle and join in anti-creationist or anti-religious authoritarian activities.
The upshot, then, is that snark and satire can be used against religion without accusations of dickishness. But using snark and satire in ways that implicitly or explicitly attacks people for believing those claims is dickish. If those beliefs are abusive or harmful, then adherents should be treated as victims. And if the beliefs are not harmful or abusive, then it seems inherently dickish to interfere in such a personal matter.
NB: This debate started with a talk by Phil Plait which borrowed the phrase “Don’t Be A Dick” from Wil Wheaton’s blog. This, unfortunately, led to a focus on whether certain people are dicks, when the issue is whether certain behaviors are dickish, and therefore whether those behaviors are or are not helpful in achieving broadly shared goals. Hence my shift from “don’t be a dick” to “don’t be dickish.”