Recently, while wandering about the tubes of the internets, I came upon an essay by Salman Rushdie on the site of openDemocracy, titled Defend the right to be offended. The key paragraph that I found to be most relevant to my own thinking was the following:
At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.
Many other bloggers and assorted contemporary philosopher/pundits have also pontificated on this point. The problem appears when the person whose beliefs are being criticised takes all such denigration as a personal attack. In America, the True Believer ™ Xians are noted for hysterical reactions to any overt criticism of their particular religious beliefs. Such people appear to believe that their own deeply-held religious faith is the only real way to think, they seem to be unable to grasp the concept that there could possibly be any moral or rational person who does not think as they do.
A direct consequence of this type of thinking is seen when efforts are made to extend to ‘others’ the same rights and benefits under the law as the Xians hold. The most obvious example at this time would be the various attempts to legalise same-sex marriage. The mere idea is seen by the fundamentalists as perpetrating an all-out assault on them and their religious faith. They are screaming about “bias” and “oppression” all the while they are acting in biased and oppressive ways toward gay and lesbian couples who wish to marry.
So why should we be ‘nice’ to those who are ready to employ lies, false history and violence in their ongoing efforts to stop the extension of equal rights?
Why should we be nice to those who don’t want, not only their own children, but any child, to be taught science?
Well, we should be nice because they are often our family and friends, our co-workers, people that we interact with on a daily basis – but we should not be nice to false ideas and beliefs and we should ‘attack’ such non-rational thinking – just not the person. It does little to win converts to rationality if we call opponents, “IDIOT!” or “NAZI” or “TERRORIST!”, when what we are really opposed to are particular beliefs that the person may hold dear.
The truly sad aspect of dealing with those who hold so strongly to irrational thinking is often their blindness to the fact that they often agree with their perceived opponents when still other groups are being discussed. Just one example of such thinking is found with fundamentalist Xians and Muslims who hold similar ideas regarding the place of women in society.
Then we may also see that within any specific religious faith there will be those who understand and accept the reality of science and there will be those who do not. There will be individuals who believe in astrology and others who hold to the same religious belief who understand that science has proven the falsity of astrology many times over, there will be some who think homeopathy is a medically-valid science while others in that same church or temple who know that homeopathy is nothing but a fraud.
What can the rational person do?
Think before speaking. Have the facts at hand when disagreeing with another. Don’t attack the person – attack the ideas.
The inimitable PZ Myers says it much better than me
Wherein ‘jerk’ is defined as anyone who vigorously opposes creationism