When you express any feelings and opinions online, no matter if girded by references and logic, you will have those commenters who must disagree, sometimes with colorful words and sentiment and often without substance. I think some people just look for ways to mouth off on Facebook when the rest of us just don’t bother to say anything. I sort of expected that my post “Why the Darwin Awards Must Die,” expressing the faulty premise of the Darwin Awards and my great dislike of them, would not be a popular sentiment. I was not in praise of it, but clearly against it and that would annoy its fans.
For some odd reason, many in the “skepto-atheist” crowd like the idea of laughing at these unfortunate people. There were a fair number of readers who appreciated it but that sentiment was overwhelmed by those who insisted I was a hand-wringing, po-faced, bleeding-heart liberal who made much ado about nothing. I’m not making any apology — it’s my opinion and I have every right to express it. Unloading on me about wishing for a more civilized society makes you look even MORE insensitive. Politicizing it was absurd. I was surprised at how several commenters so neatly supported two premises I discussed: those who love the Darwin Awards are ignorant of how evolution works, and meanness is enabled and encouraged by social media interaction. A third observation is how poorly people who identify as Skeptics or Humanists can argue points of disagreement.
This negative reaction to my view is rather puzzling, but maybe it shouldn’t be. There are plenty of daily reminders that internet commenters can be ignorant and nasty including this recent incident of people who thought a sick boy deserved to die. This is a widespread problem not limited to any group – a subset of the population is not so well-behaved in public and that gives a green light to others to be outright uncivilized. Call me disapproving and uptight if you want; but I support fair and respectful discourse, not name calling and public scorn, in order to make progress in the world. From the internet to our rude President, being arrogant and disrespectful is “in”. The Darwin Awards (that have existed before the Internet was mainstream) is just one of many symptoms of this. It’s a base sentiment that has been branded and marketed so that it feels legitimate.
I wanted to follow up with a post-mortem of the post reactions to bring these undercurrent into the light and think about what it might mean. I considered the Facebook comments that appeared on my FB pages, the Doubtful News FB page, and, most interestingly, a page titled “Scientific Skepticism, Reason and Humanism” (SSRH). With regards to the SSRH page, the moderator posted my link and even defended it against the onslaught of hollow reactionary complaints of how I was just so wrong. She (at least I think it’s a she, apologies if not) said she appreciated the discussion but not the ad hominem comments against me personally. And, she noted that many comments were caught in the page’s profanity filters. Nice practice of reason and humanism, there. The hypocrisy was the issue that most stood out. These people were on a page that CLEARLY emphasized skepticism (critical thinking), reason, and Humanism, yet more than half of these commenters were not exhibiting any of those characteristics at all! (Of course, you are more likely to see dissenting comments as that’s what prompts more people to post than if they simply agree. But it does skew the perception of the reaction when the majority is negative.) I don’t think half of them read or comprehended the piece but felt obliged to berate it (as is the norm on Facebook) and tell me I was overdoing it in some fashion. Was I making too much of the fact that this concept is mean-spirited, misguided, and commodified? Let me show exactly what they did say and what that may reveal about at least the Facebook version of this community.
Here are some reactions worth reflecting upon. (At least that’s my opinion. Certainly many facebookers will disagree and let me know. Can’t say that I really value what they say about it anymore.)
A comment by Ravi on the SSRH page said that I didn’t know what I was talking about regarding how evolution works or how intelligence is inherited (or not). I checked sound sources before I wrote it. So I don’t think I’m wrong. He just called me wrong without providing sources that showed the opposite. My argument that intelligence is just as much part of our upbringing and environment as genetics was weakly disputed. I stand by my opinion. A brain is a terrible thing to waste stuck in poverty and never nurtured or is overly influenced by the unintelligent actions of those around him.
Ravi and others painted me as overly serious, a downer, humorless and making too much of this. I couldn’t take a joke, I didn’t get humor. Or, I was being trite, this was a silly subject to address. I wonder if they hate philosophy and editorials. Do they think xenophobic and racist humor is OK? Do they laugh at animal abuse? Probably not. But those are other examples where the humor reveals an ethical concern. Some research suggests that disparagement jokes lead to normalization of the prejudice. The world is not all laughs. All these commenters failed to see the difference between mocking deaths of others and laughing at America’s Funniest Videos. I’m not asking for a boycott of AFV or even the Darwin Awards, I’m asking you to think about what it means that a person is PROFITING off of a fault premise that is mean-spirited, shallow, and mischaracterizes evolution. I’m not on a high horse. I’m pointing out the obvious and supporting it with facts – Wendy Northcutt considers this a business venture, her own words show that she doesn’t seem to care too much about what the victims’ families think, this is not “evolution in action”, and it’s not a joke to those who knew the victims. To mock me by saying I’m overly serious is to know absolutely nothing about my life and behaviors and just judge on this one thing that has made you angry because I ruined your pie. So, you’re going to lash out at me. Dude, I’m not the downer here. Maybe you couldn’t handle a dish of truth.
I looked for other people who had arguments for or against the Darwin Awards. There are plenty of sources that promote it; I found a few people that hated it but didn’t give the extent of reasons that I’d thought of. So, because this wasn’t a widely covered point of view, I felt it was worth my time to write it out and have it out there for discussion. The argument that there are more important things to worry about is a weak comeback. Where does one draw the line on that? Should all talk be about stopping genocide or curing cancer? Are we not allowed to have personal interests to write about? My position is that society would be better off without the Darwin Awards and the behaviors that come with it. Maybe we need to take millions of tiny steps to solve the worst problems in the world and taking this step of being more thoughtful and civil to one another is a good start.
More than one person took the position that there was nothing wrong with “weeding out” those who are “too stupid”. This smacks of eugenics and it is a generally rejected and unethical position, warping “Darwinism” to justify racism and classism. Social norms do not condone such callousness – we consider it moral duty to protect and provide for those who are abandoned, disabled, or seriously ill and we do not allow them to die because they can’t survive on their own. How different is having a low intelligent quotient from being physically disabled? Is it OK to mock them because they have difficulty navigating modern society? Sadly, some say yes.
There was blame placed solely on the victims as if they could have avoided this. It’s true that if some factors had been different, the result would have been otherwise. But one of my points in the piece that was generally ignored was that we don’t know all the factors at play. We’ve all had moments of doing dumb things (of various risk-levels) and were simply lucky to have gotten out of it unscathed. It’s not comforting to think that in the age of the Internet, bad outcomes are promoted for all to point and laugh at if we weren’t so lucky. One commenter said that even the “shooting a video” guy and his girlfriend (the example that prompted the post) were victims of their own “cavalier attitude” and “lack of research”. They should have watched Mythbusters, he said, because they already showed this shooting myth was busted. Really? This is your argument? I must assume, then, that he thoroughly researches everything before making any conclusion and is reasonable and logical ALL the time. I was not aware that Mythbusters was required education for living in the 21st century.
Many people misinterpreted the point of my piece. They even disagreed with each other on the point I was going for. So, either I did a bad job expressing it or they didn’t read very carefully. Considering the several other mischaracterizations, including those who read my short bio and dismissed me as a paranormalist, I have some justification for concluding they were the ones lacking in comprehension.
It may be that the subject created some cognitive dissonance and that discomfort skewed their view of the whole piece. Any piece can be improved upon, for sure, but I feel I was clear on my points. One commenter on the SSRH page even put up a cute graphic on how many of the comments missed the point of the piece entirely but ranted about it anyway. That’s rather a typical outcome in Facebook comment threads which are not prized for erudite and pithy responses.
Some exaggerated to say I was forcing my personal morality on others. They expanded my conclusions out of context to say that I must think it’s bad to mock climate change deniers. Well, I’m not “forcing” anyone to not do this or that. However, it’s not disputed that mocking usually is counterproductive to getting a positive outcome. Those who enjoy mocking don’t like when I say it, but it’s my argument, my blog. You are free to disagree.
Finally, one comment that I’d seen a few times was one (the only one I found) worth considering. This type of humor, they said, is beneficial because it helps us cope with senseless death. People who claimed to be first responders said that they tell jokes about crazy deaths to each other as a form of gallows humor to relieve the pressure. One persons said that I personally must be removed from death situations because I don’t laugh at it. That’s a bizarre assumption and does not follow from the post at all. It’s not about coping with picking up dead bodies. But I can see a point about gallows humor that could have a kernel of truth. It’s a mistake, however, to generalize this and say it’s good or necessary for people to practice it. Humor isn’t required to cope with death. Do medics have a habit of sharing such stories in public? It’s one thing to commiserate with colleagues on the horrors of the job and quite another to commodify and celebrate it. Another outcome of horrific exposure to death is post-traumatic stress disorder. Are they suggesting that if you don’t laugh at death you end up with a mental disorder? I disagree. This is an extreme oversimplification and to cite it here is bogus.
Many of the negative comments, including the insulting and mean ones, were “liked” by a lot of people. The supportive comments less so. One might conclude that Facebook is a spectator sport, not an intellectual exercise, and people are more happy playing along. Making snappy rude comments makes the commenter feel better. They didn’t have to write a whole post about it, they just can click an icon or make a witty remark and feel like they contributed.
I have an aversion to people to tell me to “lighten up” or “chill out”, or remarking on how I can’t take a joke or get the humor. Contrary to their interpretation, I was not telling anyone what to do. IT’S A BLOG POST! Not a directive. So don’t you tell me how to feel. It is the epitome of obnoxious behavior to tell another person that their passionate views are unwarranted. In no way am I saying that humor is bad or wrong; clearly people find humor in various things and I’m all for free speech. In the post, I even justified the feeling of Schadenfreude. I get it. I regularly feel it. It appears some commenters are too “chill” to have considered these points and to have a measured discussion about them. A flippant remark without any basis isn’t helpful.
I may be misinterpreting reaction to the post, but I suspect many readers took affront to my opinion because it suggested some moral failing of those who enjoy dark humor. They read that post as saying those who like the Darwin Awards are insensitive and lack critical thinking skills. They reacted defensively to my pointing out a serious issue with something they never took very seriously before. I was challenging their sense of self so it’s no wonder they got mad. I get this response every day to people who don’t take kindly to my disagreement or critique of a cherished belief. Sugar-coating the issue is not one of my skills. I thought I was speaking to those who could fairly consider a counter-argument without resorting to being rude. I was incorrect. I thank Emil Karlsson of Debunking Denialism who went out of his way to respond to some of these commenters with reason and references. And, thanks to those who said they agreed that it was a worthwhile topic to bring up. I don’t regret it at all, it was instructive.
In conclusion, I remain confused and slightly disturbed by why so many who subscribe to “Skeptic,” “Humanist,” “Free Thinker,” “rational,” or “reason” groups, or identify with that community, find it fulfilling to mock those who hold an opposing position. If this elitism and self-righteous attitude is a widespread characteristic (it certainly seems to be prevalent), there is something rotten at the core. I’ve heard that some skeptics groups may have had the founder of the Awards as a speaker. I’d like to know how they reacted to it.
Correspondence can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m looking for thoughtful responses or additional information. I’d appreciate keeping your insults to yourself or, better yet, go start your own blog.