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.

Having made a small detour into the skeptic/atheist community on the web, I am happy to report that their blogosphere erupted with a controversial yet very well received presentation made at a recent convention organized by the Amazing Randi which has become known as the “Don’t be a Dick” speech. The speechmeister of note was Phil Plait who runs an astronomy blog. He began with noting:

Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning is about, it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise. … What I see is that hubris is running rampant. And that egos are just out of check, and sometimes logic in those situations falls by the wayside.

And closed with the quote above. For people who would like to follow the gist of the speech, I refer you to a summation and a rebuttal at the Ooblick blog. The comments I want to make here really have to do with dickery itself. People seem to have a hard time recognizing it. Which is a problem in a world infested by dicks all the way up to the highest places, wouldn’t you agree?

While many people welcomed Phil’s chastisement, others objected to it on the grounds that asking to eschew dickishness amounts to turning feisty discussants into fluffy bunnies and kissy-face accommodationists. I got into a discussion with a blogger who posted this frustrated reaction:

Pissed me off something hardcore having to sit through him lecturing me about being too mean to people. I felt the same way in a thread over on Pharyngula [part of Science Blogs] where people were saying women didn’t like how abrasive the skeptics/atheists are. It’s not true, I love it, it’s entertaining, it’s informative, it’s fun. I’m not a weak little girl, daddy doesn’t get to tell me to play nice with others. … And probably he didn’t mean it was never OK to raise your voice in a crowded room, but that’s sure what it sounded like to me.

After engaging and doing a bit of exploratory tapdancing, she said to me:
I don’t know that I think dicks are necessarily bad for the world. I find them entertaining and fun. I think the world would have been a much poorer place without people like George Carlin, HL Mencken, and Christopher Hitchens. I don’t have a problem with people arguing, I don’t think that behavior is bad, even when it’s vehement…

At this point, I opined that vehement arguing is not dickery in my world. Verbal abuse and underhanded argumentation is.

She also clarified: What I heard Phil Plait say was “Don’t be confrontational, don’t call people on being really stupid, and don’t be honest if it’s rude. We all have to watch our tone and be super nice and polite all the time or else other people might think we’re angry and negative people, and I want everyone to like skeptics and think we’re fluffy bunnies.” And I’m not a fluffy bunny. I don’t want to be a fluffy bunny. I don’t like fluffy bunnies. Plus, if you only eat rabbit, you die of malnutrition.

I challenged her to admit that she really *liked* abusing the opposition. And she freely did(!), speaking from the heart: I’ve been completely upfront about saying that I like vitriol and venom. I like it, I enjoy it, I think it’s fun and I enjoy reading it and listening to it. A witty verbal riposte is like sex to me. Someone tearing someone apart using big words and an arched eyebrow without raising their voice — if that’s not an artform, nothing is…I have memorized the review of North by Roger Ebert and think it may be the greatest piece of literature written in the 1990s. I like hate, I think it’s fucking sweet, particularly when applied by someone with great acumen and a large vocabulary.

It had begun to look like we were talking past one another, but when she used an example I could check out, new understanding dawned on me. I said: Thanks for the review tip. Fabulous! But notice… Ebert is not being a dick. He nowhere abuses either the actor/hero or the filmmaker. He abuses the movie.

Look, have all the vitriol you want, just don’t put it in people’s coffee, ok? There is a difference between attacking the idea, belief, behavior, presentation, product, etc., and attacking the person.

Clever flames are a pleasure. Ripping some hapless person to shreds is a pathetic ego trip.

She acknowledged that. And suggested that Phil should have made this clearer. So I thought… maybe we all need to be clearer. What exactly *is* a dick? Where else would I turn for enlightenment regarding this vexing question but… wikipedia, right? There I have learned the following:

“Don’t be a dick” is the fundamental rule of all … social spaces. Although nobody is empowered to ban or block somebody for dickery (as this itself would be an instance of such), it is still a bad idea to be a dick. So don’t be one.

Being right about an issue does not mean you’re not being a dick! Dicks can be right — but they’re still dicks; if there’s something in what they say that is worth hearing, it goes unheard, because no one likes listening to dicks. It doesn’t matter how right they are.

Being a dick isn’t equivalent to being uncivil or impolite (though incivility and rudeness often accompany dickery). One can be perfectly civil and follow every rule of etiquette and still be a dick. Avoiding dickery is not simply a matter of observing the more obvious rules of etiquette, but is a broader and more important concern, generally involving the practice of maintaining a position of respect for the intrinsic qualities of another person during the course of interaction.

Telling someone “Don’t be a dick” is usually a dick-move — especially if it’s true. It upsets the other person and it reduces the chance that they’ll listen to what you say. Focus on behaviour, not on the individual. (The term “dick” in this essay is generally defined as “an abrasive and inconsiderate person” of either sex.)

There, in a nutshell. I recommend reading the whole of it. But while a dick does come across as abrasive and inconsiderate, that’s not quite the gist of dickery, the icky heart of dickery. I say dickery consists of the endless variations on slugging the person rather than the artifact. It had already been recognized by the ancients as the ad hominem: attacking the person rather than their argument. It can be pretty safely said that most of the argumentation fallacies are dick sieves. You’d think we were to study them in order to avoid them. But nooo! Dicks love to use them and use them liberally. They are oblivious to the damage they leave in their wake; they want to be right. They want to showcase their memes. They want to win. Trampling the actual human underfoot is par for the course.

A quick round of “Spot the Dick” game:

Christian: I will pray for you.
Very ill person: Look, there is no God and no heaven and you are wasting your time and mine with your superstition. [⇐ Dick]

Colleague of a Christian who has been hit upon for conversionary purposes and has enough: No. I am not interested. And I mean that!
Christian: I will pray for you. (Previous remarks and current tone implying that the person is about to become Satan’s roast beast.) [⇐ Dick]

I still cringe remembering a car scene with a dear friend who has since died. She told me she thought God helped us find each other, and we were blessed. And instead of responding to the message underneath, which really said, “I feel so lucky to have found you,” I turned to her and expounded on the bad theology… because, hey, there are plenty of women like us out there who are as in need of a friend who are not sent one, blah blah blather blah! Ouch. The inner dick, in fine fettle, putting ideas above the relationship.

So. Ain’t it sweet to know that dickery is avoidable for those itching to smack idiocy with passion and snark? When the rumpus begins, just remember…