As a skeptical activist, it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. My weakness has always been on-the-spot debate. I’m a planner, an organizer, a contingency maker and a writer of lists. I am strongest when I have time to think, to formulate a plan and then to act. However, the luxury of advanced planning isn’t always available. Sometimes, you are just confronted with a problem and have to be the ‘skeptic-on-the-spot,’ either in an online debate or, worse yet, in person.
I am weakest in these situations. I get flustered, nervous, I forget facts and respond with emotion or anger. I walk away and then write a strongly-worded follow up letter or blog post hours or days later. I look at people who are on the front lines of activism and I never cease to be amazed by how easily the words flow and the arguments formulate.
What I’ve realized though, is that I’m getting better at it. Admittedly, I’m not on the front lines of any debates with pseudoscience on a regular basis, but I am starting to see my skills at rational debate and discussion getting better.
As I have mentioned in the past, my father was a diplomat and I get a lot of my disposition from him. I tend to try to avoid conflict, to be the peacekeeper and the conciliator. I have extremely strong levels of empathy and that allows me to see all sides of an argument. Although in a lot of situations, this means my instinct is to shy away from confrontation, I am learning that empathy and respect are tools that I can use to my advantage when it comes to debate and discussion, in online forums and in real life.
I think a lot of skeptics shy away from arguments, particularly online. Even on the Skepchick blog, things can get heated in the comments and this can be intimidating. Just the time commitment alone is often enough for me to have to walk away, even when I have a point to make. I also suspect that women have an even harder time being confrontational due to the quiet, nurturing role society still expects us to play.
But I’ve come to realize that staying silent is the worst thing I can do. If I walk away from a conversation because I’m intimidated by people within the skeptical community, how on earth do I expect to be able to walk into a conversation with a non-skeptic? When I find myself in a doctor’s waiting room with a mother who is considering refusing a vaccination for her child, will I have the right words to say? Will I be prepared or able to have that discussion and get my point across effectively? Or will I shy away from that discussion too, and always wonder if a few words might have been what pushed her over the edge and made her decide to go ahead and protect her child after all?
I was going to include a comment at this point about why it’s important to keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are real consequences to what we do. But I don’t have to. Steven Novella wrote a post this morning that covers the consequences of action (and inaction) far better than I could.
Everyone has their limits, but argument, discussion and lively debate on our blog and in other online forums has a purpose far beyond discussing the topic at hand. As skeptics, this is our training ground, a somewhat ‘safe’ place where we can hone our skills of persuasion, debate and defense and prepares us for when we have to do it for real, in a scenario where it really does make a difference.
So the next time you feel like you ‘don’t really want to get into it,’ even though you have a point and a voice, don’t go with your instinct. Screw your courage to the sticking post, and find the confidence to speak out. Because if you don’t, you may not be able to when it really counts.