One of my favorite writers is David Simon, one of the creators of the TV miniseries The Wire, Treme and The Corner. He also wrote the excellent non-fiction books Homicide (which I read last year) and The Corner, which I'm working my way through now (man, it's a rough ride!).
|The Wire creator David Simon (left) with actor Andre Royo (Bubbles)|
He also maintains a blog called the Audacity of Despair, which I check in on occasionally, but not frequently enough. Normally, the comments sections of most blogs and news sites are nasty swamplands filed with noxious vapors. But I actually enjoy reading the comments area of Simon's blog (as well as that of Ta-Nehisi Coates). Simon's arguments and counterarguments are sharp, concise and always on-point. I always take notes and practice his methods in my own arguments, which as an advocate for diversity and equal opportunity in astronomy, I get plenty of practice.
One of the things I've noticed about Simon's argumentation style is that he doesn't pretend that politeness is the only acceptable way to engage in civil discourse. Politeness is a tool, to be employed when most effective or appropriate. But there are other tools at ones disposal, and plenty of times when the argument that needs to be made is not polite at all. If someone is thoughtless enough to punch me in the face, I'm not going to try and hug them.
|The art of arguing (image credit)|
The over-reliance on politeness is one of the defining characteristics of discourse in astronomy. Wait, let me clarify that. The over-reliance on apparent politeness is one of the defining characteristics of discourse in astronomy. I suspect this dates back to the era when astronomy was run by British gentleman, and the tendency of the older generation of astronomers to romanticize that period of time. But as a uber-minority in monochromatic field of science living in a race-obsessed country, I have no inclination to romanticize the past. I can admire the specific accomplishments of past astronomers. But I refuse to diefy them, given that they conducted science as part of such an exclusive club. A club with minimal competition and minimal participation from others with better ideas.
This is probably a major reason why I appear so confrontational to my peers in astronomy. The fact that I don't respect all points of view is seen as intolerance. But I see it as the result of a critical selection process. If an idea has merit, I'll respect it. If it lacks merit, then the idea deserves to be dragged out into the light and squished. If that makes the person with the idea feel bad, then go back to the drawing board and try again. Its the idea that was bad, not necessarily the person who made it. The only way we get better at critical thinking is to toss out ideas and see what sticks and what gets thrown back. I learned this in my college dorm common area and on long road trips with my college buddies. I've learned it since then in talking with my colleagues.
|"Distinguished" men of science, from Wiki commons. Leaving open the|
question of from whom did these men distinguished themselves? Other
white male aristocrats? If so, that's quite the competitive talent pool!
Everyone has a right to say what's on their mind. But if one's idea is intellectually weak on its face or insulting in its reception, then there should be no expectation that it be respected. To be sure, a person's statement should be acknowledged. "I recognize that you think that horrible thought and are willing to say it aloud." But there should be no expectation whatever that a statement should be respected. "I'm sorry, but that's the most insulting thing I've heard this year. What's it like to not have to think critically before speaking?" Yet I've found many otherwise bright people in science, and in astronomy in particular, who believe otherwise.
So it was with great pleasure and rapt attention that I read a comment thread at the end of Simon's post about the movie 12 Years a Slave---a movie that I will watch, but I know it's going to be a tough viewing given that it's one of Hollywood's few true-to-life depictions of the American institution of slavery. I hear the movie pulls no punches in depicting the fundamental American institution upon which our nation was founded, namely the state-sanctioned dehumanization of an entire group of people, and the state-sponsored system of terrorism that was used to enforce it over several centuries.
Here's one of the commenters, a typical troll, along with his apologist buddy. Also included is Simon's expert response. Watch and learn. This is how it's done. I've added my personal comments in bold to draw parallels with how this exact pattern plays out in discussions of social issues among astronomers.