Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shut up and listen

This “shut up and listen” nonsense is getting tiresome.

This is what PZ said:

So my internal conversation when I’m feeling that way is “OK, that was a bit weird. Shut up. Think about it. Do they have good reason to think that way? Maybe I should consider where they’re coming from more.” My plan is to listen and learn here.

It’s perfectly clear that PZ is saying shut up and listen to what’s being said, have a think about it and then respond.  Don’t interrupt, don’t talk over people, don’t trust your immediate gut feeling. It;s entirely possible that by listening you’ll find out that your gut reaction was wrong or at least worth re-evaluating.

PZ is not saying that you should never argue with minorities. He’s saying that it’s good practice to listen to them first. Surprisingly many people don’t do this. Surprisingly many skeptics don’t do it, which is strange. My own reactions were the first thing learned to be skeptical about, they are what led me to skepticism in the first place. I read a lot of pop-science books when I was a kid. Some of them were woo masquerading as science and I wasn’t sure what to believe. My immediate reaction to what I read was not a good indicator of what turned out to be true. Isn’t that what skepticism is? Isn’t that all PZ is saying?

But this is what Ron Lindsay and others took from that message:

But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.

Relax, Ron.  Nobody is trying to shut you up. Nobody is likely to succeed if they tried. But people have been shut up. You know who? Members of minorities with communities who are bullied into silence or ignored or constantly interrupted and shouted down or who have to work harder than majority members to get to the same place or who have to pretend that an unfair situation or position is not.

THAT is why we ought to shut up and listen. When we’ve done that, we might have changed our opinions a little. We might still have some points to make and we should make them. But then we should listen to the answers too.  We might never agree, but we’ve given it every chance.

Isn’t that the least we can do?  Isn’t it the most human and skeptical thing we can do?

I’m not saying we should give every opinion equal weight. This whole issue is about members of (in this case) the skeptical/atheist community who are interested in applying skeptical tools to the issues they care about or about examining those issues in the light of atheism or religion.  There is no possible negative consequence of listening. The worst that can happen is that we disagree and go back to whatever we were doing.  So shut up and listen.


  1. Anonymous1:21 pm

    I agree, it's tiresome.
    How about we "shut up" and just listen to each other without preference to race, sex, nationality, religion or social status.
    If somebody is talking shite it doesn't get better simply because they are purple. There are people are in the majority that have pretty shitty lives in comparison to some in the minority and may have something important to say. If you don't give equal time you are simply being a racist. It's all about mutual understanding and respect of the individual.
    As an atheist watching the twitter feeds from #wscfi, it shames me to say that the amount hate and vitriol being spewed is making everybody involved look like a bunch of immature, intolerant pricks.
    Don't expect to attract any new members.

    1. Members of what? I'm not sure I'm a member of anything. I don't think I'm trying to attract anyone to be a member of anything.

      I'm not sure you understand what I'm saying. Are you saying I'm racist because I don't think every view is equally valid? Haven't we dealt with that sort of thing before? If you're not saying that then I'm afraid I don't understand so please explain.

    2. By the way. It's totally fine to be anonymous on my blog. But I invite you not to be. I don't think I can have a conversation with you if you're anonymous.

    3. Tell me who you are, sunshine. we can talk about awesome stuff.

  2. Here I am :)
    I don't mean to imply that you are racist. The notion that we should examine people's cultural/sex/ethnic identity/religious/social status/etc. background in order to assess the worthiness or value of their arguments doesn't seem bigoted to you? I hope you would agree that it is. Yet, this is essentially what the arguments on twitter/blogs have boiled down to. Don't you think it's more important to talk about more substantive issues women are facing?
    I was using "member" in the sense of member of that conference and by extension of CFI. I agree with a lot what was said but the lack of respect and general tone is unbecoming and can only serve to detract people regardless of any good point that may have been made.

  3. No, we don't have to examine people's background in order to assess their arguments. I didn't suggest we ought to.

    What I said was that if we *already know* that someone has a different background, it might be a good idea to shut up for a while and listen to what those people have to say. That's all I'm saying.

    1. It's a good idea to shut up and listen to everybody, regardless, but it's really only part of it, isn't it? Is it sufficient to "shut up and listen"?
      I think one would rather follow the rules of engagement as outlined by Dennett's "tools for thinking" rule #2 . This is much better advice and preferable to the uncivil discourse on the conference twitter feed. (If there was meme equivalent to "road rage" for tweets, I would use that. )

      "1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

      2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

      3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

      4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism."

      Cited From:

    2. Shutting up and listening is necessary. I never said it was also sufficient. Obviously we need to do other stuff too, sometimes, but to say it for the final time, we should *begin* by shutting up and listening and we should shut up and listen throughout any subsequent debate. In particular, we should be able to recognise when our own voices are drowning out everyone else's.

      Yeah, we need to do stuff that isn't shutting up and listening too, but I never suggested for a moment that we don't.