Monday, January 4, 2010

Everybody Play Nice

This post may seem like a departure from my usual thoughts on parenting, but I think it suits the evolving purpose of this blog. When I started this blog, the focus was on my infertility and pervasive sadness. Then, when I renewed my interest in it, the focus shifted to caring for a newborn and trying to make decisions based on reason instead of fear. Now my thoughts turn to my budding skepticism, and how to best model rational behavior for my son. His social development is really starting to emerge, and he looks to me for cues on how to respond to the world. It's a huge responsibility and I take it very seriously.

I'm pretty new to the world of skepticism. It's only been since my baby was born last June that I even apply that label to myself. Since then I've realized how exhausting and frustrating it is to be a skeptic in the face of overwhelming idiocy. There are a lot of ignorant jerks out there (both in the real world and on the internet) and no amount of reason or common sense can get through to them. It's tempting to call a spade a spade and tell people like anti-vaccinationists, creationists, and 9/11 truthers that they're a bunch of jackasses who should leave the room (or comment thread) while the grownups are talking.

Unfortunately, that's counterproductive, and only serves to further reinforce the notion that skeptics are arrogant, conceited eggheads. There are a lot of people whose minds aren't made up yet, and acting like a jerk will only discredit your cause. Not to mention that, if there are no other skeptics around to rally to your cause, you can find yourself quickly alienated if these topics of conversation come up in a social setting. As someone who has all-too-frequently felt alienated, I know how unpleasant and lonely this can be. Better to just bite your tongue and go along to get along.

Or is it? Lately I've been made aware of a third option, one that requires far more patience and carefully thought out speech than most of us are used to. Instead of starting from the premise of "you're wrong, idiot," a skeptic should simply counter misinformation with fact. No raised voices (or all caps), no name-calling, no broad generalizations. None of the latter techniques will get your point across, as they immediately put people on the defensive and give them permission not to listen to anything you have to say. In other words, be nice.

This is going to be a huge challenge for me. I'm generally not a jerk, but damn I get mad at stupid people. In fact, the name of my blog is an homage to the late comedian Bill Hicks, whose hate-filled tirades are legendary (and hilarious). Like many smart, angry people, Bill Hicks felt like the lone voice of sanity in a world of morons. It can be very liberating to just say exactly what you think, eviscerating your enemies verbally, cutting them down to size. This style of oration works well in comedy; not so much in the real world.

I don't want Harrison to be an asshole. It'll be hard enough to be raised an atheist and an intellectual without the added burden of an abrasive personality. So it's up to me to not be an asshole, even to someone who richly deserves it. I worked in child care for most of my 20's, and it's been my observation that kids who are jerks have parents who are jerks. If I want Harrison to be a decent kid who other kids don't mind hanging out with, I have to teach him how to speak his mind respectfully. Which means (sigh) that I have to be respectful, too.

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