A recent email from a listener had summed up what I think is a common situation that most of us have to deal with.
I have friends that I’ve known for twenty years. Those friends could be described as conspiracy theorists or denialists. They are not crazy, have jobs and many people who meet them find them personable and intelligent. They do not preach their message to unfamiliar people but are quite vocal about their beliefs when in the company of close friends (for example, me). Those beliefs start with the common “Bush did 9/11″, vaccine conspiracy, global warming scam and run all the way to the belief that the way we are taught to eat is wrong. In other words they resist everything and anything that “the establishment” tells us.
Before I started listening to your show I was indifferent towards their beliefs but since then their inconsistent reasoning and faulty logic has started increasingly to bother me. When we are together as a group and these subjects come up I either stay silent, which I mostly do, or challenge their methodology and poor reasoning causing conflict. We had previously agreed not to talk about 9/11 but it is close to impossible to completely avoid these issues as their beliefs cover a broad range of subjects. Either way the show has indirectly caused me to resent my childhood friends…
So…you have wisely chosen to be a skeptical advocate or activist. You feel it is your duty to represent critical thinking, stand up vocally for logic and reason and not be the quiet one who lets ignorance win. Have you also come to see how this can sometimes be a total pain in the arse?
At some point we flex our skeptical ideology in response to someone else’s non-skeptical beliefs. I think of these moments as conversational fight or flight. Do we jump in and give it our best or do we stay quiet and get frustrated or angry. Taking a strong intellectual or emotional stance on any belief has the potential to piss someone off. In my experience it makes people on both sides of the discussion/ argument upset and quite often nothing is gained.
More times than I can remember I’ve actually been the asshole who makes people cry. One time I was at a dinner with an extended group of friends and one of the girls there was telling a story about her grandmother. She was telling all of us that her grandmother had the “Evil Eye.” I asked her what that meant and she explained some nonsense about how she could curse people. I defiantly told the girl “Maybe your grandmother was just fuc###g ugly.” My friends laughed and the girl got very upset. At that time I thought I was clever and righteous. Today I look back and think that I actually accomplished nothing. I didn’t even try to have a reasonable discussion with her. I possibly could have nudged that girl in the direction of critical thinking with a little patience and some smart questions. Instead I took the easy way out of the conversation. Even after many lessons like this one, to this day I’m still tempted to argue and find it hard to hold myself back. There’s still a sense of wanting to win. I’ve learned to pick my fights better but my skeptical lion is always there and it wants blood..and 14 hours of sleep a day.
Being a critical thinker is definitely not the easiest way to live being that we are steeped in true believers. Can we change the world? Sure. But it wont be sudden and it wont be easy. Starting with our own circle of people, we need to represent the greater body of critical thinkers. This means making smarter choices when we are faced with the above challenges.
What are the options?
Jump in and fight it out! I love a good fight..that’s why I’m addicted to Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 2 which I highly recommend. Nothing is more fun than killing some 13 year old kid in Oaklahoma who’s callsign is LUVS2KILLU. Other than making your friends laugh whoever you are making a fool of, this wont get you anywhere. It’s fun but no one walks away better off.
Decide not to engage. This may very well be the best option for most cases. I try to determine if there’s a chance of having a legitimate conversation. Will they listen? Will I be able to listen to them? Is this the right place to have this conversation? Do I know enough on the topic to do this right?
Engage with patience and knowledge. The best case scenario is that you have a conversation where all those involved remain reasonable and are willing to listen. As the skeptic, being armed with knowledge of the topic is also critical.
One thing to keep in mind. Most of the time conversations we have are not in a bubble. Other people are listening and their beliefs are being tested too. The other people may very well change their minds or be influenced even though they are not involved in the conversation. If you come across as easy to talk to they might decide to have a conversation with you. I bet that if I ran into the girl with the Evil Eye grandmother today she would not be interested in a nice chat.