Skepticism and Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas

Greta Christina

Does being a good skeptic mean listening calmly and patiently to every idea and considering each one with a completely open mind?

Strike that. Let me phrase that question in a more honest way, a way that makes my position clear: How on earth did we come up with the cockamamie notion that being a good skeptic means not having an emotional response to terrible, harmful ideas and not treating those ideas with the contempt they deserve? Where did we get the notion that being a good skeptic means treating every idea, no matter how ridiculous or toxic, as equally worthy of consideration? Where did we get the notion that bad, harmful ideas should not make us angry and that we should never get angry at anyone who brings them up?

Ron Lindsay recently wrote a piece, “Questioning Humanist Orthodoxy: Introduction to a Series” (No Faith Value blog, May 18, 2015), in which he criticized, among other things, humanists who respond angrily and emotionally to supporters of the death penalty and who don’t calmly make what Lindsay considers to be good, rational arguments against it. P. Z. Myers has already responded to the core content of Lindsay’s essay (“Brave Ron Lindsay,” Pharyngula blog, May 19, 2015), so I’m not going to do that here. And in any case, I don’t want to pick on Lindsay: he is very far from the only person to put forth this idea. Several prominent atheists and skeptics have chided progressives for expressing anger over debates about abortion (citations collected at “Having a Reasonable Debate About Abortion,” Greta Christina’s Blog, March 13, 2014), and Massimo Pigliucci described these debates about abortion as “a tempest in a teapot” (“David Silverman and the Scope of Atheism,” Rationally Speaking blog, March 14, 2014).

This is a very common idea in the skeptical world: that being a skeptic means being willing to entertain and discuss any and all ideas, with a completely open mind, with no attachment to any particular outcome—and with no emotional response.

It’s an idea that should be taken out into the street and shot.

Let’s set aside abortion and the death penalty for a moment. Let’s use some different examples, ones that will make my point clearer. Let’s imagine that someone shows up at your dinner party, or comes into your online forum, and says that husbands should be allowed to beat and rape their wives. Or that homosexuality is a serious and dangerous mental illness and gay people should be locked up in mental institutions. Or that black people aren’t fully human.

How are you going to respond? Are you going to say, “Hmm, that’s an interesting idea. I don’t agree, but I’m curious why you think that. Let’s calmly look at the evidence and examine the pros and cons”?

Or are you going to say some version of, “That is vile. That is despicable. The fact that you’re even proposing that is morally repulsive. Apologize or get the hell out”?

And assuming that you did call the idea vile and toss the person out—how would you respond to someone telling you, “You’re a bad skeptic! You shouldn’t be so emotional! If someone is questioning black people’s basic humanity, you should be willing to debate that dispassionately and with an open mind!”?

Now, some may say that if we want to change people’s minds about their horrible toxic ideas, we need to be willing to engage with them—and if we want them to listen, we have to do it in a calm and respectful manner. It is certainly true that we sometimes change people’s minds by debating, listening, showing evidence, and making good persuasive arguments. But that is not the only way we change minds. We also change minds by demonstrating that some ideas are repugnant and outside the limits of basic human decency.

Other people’s opinions can act as a reality check. And that doesn’t just happen through the exchange of information and analysis. It also happens by emotional demonstration. In fact, a show of anger, insult, revulsion is an exchange of information—the information that the idea being expressed is considered morally bankrupt. Emotional responses get attention. They act as a siren or a warning light, letting you know that people see your idea not only as bad but as seriously and dangerously bad. If you tell an idea to everyone you love and like and respect—and they all look at you like you’re Hitler—you’re probably more likely to rethink that idea. And you should. Of course, everyone disagreeing with an idea doesn’t automatically mean we should give it up. But it probably means, at the very least, that we should stop and think about why they all disagree and consider whether those sirens are warning us off from going in a wrong and terrible direction.

And it is not the least bit skeptical to treat all questions as equal and as equally deserving of consideration. We don’t do that with scientific questions: if someone asks if evolution is true or if Earth orbits the Sun, we don’t treat those issues as open to reasonable debate. We treat them as settled, unless someone comes up with some enormously compelling reasons to question them. We do that with moral issues as well. There are some moral issues that, in the absence of enormously compelling evidence to the contrary, we treat as settled. That doesn’t make them “dogma” or “orthodoxy” (to quote Lindsay again), any more than evolution or heliocentrism are dogma or orthodoxy. And since getting moral issues wrong has real power to screw up people’s lives, people respond to them emotionally. When terrible moral ideas are expressed, people often act as if they’re being threatened or as if people they care about are being threatened—because they are. It’s unreasonable to expect anything else.

In fact, a very strong case can be made that calmly debating a question gives it gravitas, makes it seem respectable. There are many pro-evolution advocates and educators who will not debate creationists because they think it makes creationism look like a serious idea that’s worthy of debate. If someone says that husbands should be able to beat and rape their wives and you reply, “Hmm, that’s an interesting idea, I don’t agree, but tell me why you think that and let’s debate it,” you’re treating that proposition like a serious idea that’s worthy of debate. Women who are vulnerable to being raped and beaten are probably going to have an emotional response to that. It’s absurd to want or expect anything else.

Which brings me to my next, very important point: It’s a whole lot easier to be calm, detached, and coolly logical when it isn’t your basic humanity being debated. I don’t think it’s an accident that, when the debate is over women’s right to not be forced to donate our organs, it’s usually men telling women to calm down and have a rational discussion. Ditto cisgender people telling transgender people to carefully consider the logic and evidence about whether they should control their own bodies and their own names. Ditto white people telling black people to stop being so emotional about the fact that, in the United States, a black person is killed by a cop every four days. It is wildly unreasonable to ask people to be unemotional when their lives, their autonomy, their basic humanity are on the line.

See, you have to look at who’s asking the questions. When men are deciding whether husbands should be allowed to beat and rape their wives, when straight people are deciding whether gay people should be locked up, when white people are deciding whether black people are human beings—the important thing isn’t necessarily to answer those questions. There’s a much more important question at the root of all those questions: “Why are you the ones deciding this? Why do you get to decide whether other people have humanity and the right to human auton
omy? Do you really not see the power dynamics, and the history of those power dynamics, inherent in the very notion that you’re the one who gets to make that call?” Or, to put it more succinctly: “Who died and made you king?”

I’m not saying there should be skeptical or progressive dogma, ideas we should never ever question. After all, questioning what was previously unquestioned, what was previously considered unquestionable, is exactly the reason we now think that husbands should not be allowed to beat and rape their wives, that gay people should not be locked up in mental institutions, that of course black people are human beings and seeing them any other way is repulsive. We questioned dogma, we questioned received wisdom—and we made ourselves better. We made our ethical standards more humane, more consistent, more . . . well, more ethical. And we did it by questioning what was once unquestionable.

I’m not saying there should be ideas we should never question. I’m saying there are some questions we should be damn well careful about asking. And I’m saying that some questions can’t be treated as just neutral. I’m saying that when we ask questions and start debates about people’s lives, people’s autonomy, people’s basic humanity, we cannot expect them to react as if this is an intriguing mental exercise, like a brain-teaser in the newspaper. Telling people to not show repugnance to repugnant ideas is telling them to not share information that’s crucial in a moral debate—the information that the idea in question is a violation of basic human rights. It’s an attempt to eradicate those moral sirens and warning lights and replace them with a discreet, soberly worded, easily ignored handout. And it’s using the supposed principles of skepticism to silence people who typically don’t get heard, who can only make themselves heard by setting off their sirens. It’s bad humanism. And it’s bad skepticism.


Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).

Having an open mind doesn’t—and mustn’t—mean willingness to engage in dispassionate debate over reprehensible ideas.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.