Feet of Clay and Bathwater and Stuff

[A comment made elsewhere, turned into a rough-and-ready post here, because it mostly stands on its own.]

IMO one of the best things about approaching the world from a rational/sceptical perspective is the ability/willingness/whatever to avoid either ad hominem attacks or argument by authority: arguments are supported and agreed with, or otherwise, because of their intrinsic strength, and not because of who makes them, or — and this is kind of the point — what their other beliefs are.

I’ve always found it both infuriating and admirable about Dawkins, for example — not that this is solely about him, obviously — that he seems able to value arguments made by others that he agrees with on that matter, and to not let other disagreements — even significant ones — get in the way of that. I’m thinking specifically here of Hitchins’ position on the invasion of Iraq, but there are other examples.

I do think this ability is admirable — because it means we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we don’t feel that we need to agree with everything someone says to champion anything they say. It feels like a very intellectually grown-up attitude. But it is also infuriating, because — whether it’s meant or not — it’s hard to avoid an implied support for all the other crap that someone might spout. It’s also infuriating because of how hard it is to do. It’s very very easy — perhaps even natural — to want to agree with everything someone says, or nothing.

This tendency is, I’d say, one of the causes of the magnitude of the genuine distress over what Dawkins said. When someone has been as prominent as he’s been over the past twenty years, and as much of a standard-bearer of sorts, we want them to be perfect. We want to agree with everything they say. We don’t want them to show feet of clay, as Dawkins seems to have done. That situation is, perhaps unfortunately, far more common than the opposite, though. Bill Maher is indeed a dick about many things. Penn Jillette has political views that to me are a bit revolting (and which seem to be largely unmentioned in the sceptical community). Hitchins’ position on Iraq is a long way from mine. And so on.

It does seem to show a maturity in a community that it’s possible to go beyond circling the wagons when an insider is an idiot, and trying to defend them against criticism specifically because they’re an insider. There’s a obvious, and understandable, tendency to do that when a community is small and feels threatened from outside. But if it’s going to grow, and especially if it’s going to grow in a way that’s consistent with principles of intellectual honesty and rigour, it’s entirely right and good to criticise that which deserves it, no matter where it comes from. But it’s every bit as intellectually honest and rigorous to support that which deserves it, no matter where it comes from.

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