when should you speak up?

How do you know when to speak up when someone says something inanely stupid and when to bite your tongue? I was reading a post about this topic on The Atheist’s Way earlier today. It was specifically about religion, but the topic could be expanded to other areas, such as alternative medicine and the paranormal, as well.

Melissa belongs to a crafting group made up of mostly Christians. At a recent get together, the woman sitting next to her made some incredibly stupid comments, ending with…

“Yeah, look what happened to New Orleans.”

Melissa’s response:

I was flabbergasted. Of course, I know that there are people who actually think that way. They see natural catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina as god’s judgment for sin, and even when I was a Christian, I considered that idea utterly preposterous and appalling. I remember people of faith proclaiming that AIDS was god’s judgment on homosexuality and shaking my head in disgust.

Rarely do I have to sit next to such stunning ignorance, though. Most of the people I know, even the Christians, don’t think that way, and if they do, they keep it to themselves. I sat next to this woman feeling a small war within myself. Should I speak up? Should I point out the obscenity of her assertion that all of the innocent people who died in that disaster deserved it because of some imagined “sinfulness” of New Orleans as a whole? Or should I let it go, not afford her the dignity of any response?

Find out what Melissa did, and read the whole post here.

When and how should we speak up when we hear people say things that are just plain ignorant? And when is it not worth it? What’s the best way to engage people in a discussion, rather then just slapping them down as fools? I know we discuss this a lot here, but I think at this time of year, when many of us spend more time with believing friends and relatives than we normally do, it’s good to think about how we will respond if (when?) weird topics come up in conversation.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. After several incidents where I was called “closed minded” and “Western biased” by my future colleagues, I decided to shut up for a while about how certain things (homeopathy, acupuncture) were garbage. But then someone brought up autism. “Should day cares be responsible for providing special diets for kids who have autism if they’re parents want that?” I said “no”. Somewhere in my reasoning I mentioned how there was no evidence to suggests that a change in diet would make an appreciable difference. “Well, Jenny McCarthy [here my face turned red I’m sure because my rage turned up to 11] was on Oprah and her kid was cured with a special diet.” I tore that guy a new asshole in a very professional and scientific way.

  2. And just to clarify why that was the straw that broke the camel’s back (no it wasn’t the mention of Big J), this person is a future health care professional and I made the decision that I’d rather be unpopular than unethical in keeping my mouth shut (possibly getting future clients/patients hurt). That was totally worth it, but for a while it didn’t feel like it.

  3. It’s so hard! And it’s very easy for me to say sitting here comfortably behind my computer. But… never let horrible ignorance pass. I suppose that I would hope that i’d be brave enough to say something like “Let he who is without sin… man. That’s terrifying. Because if that entire city was wiped out because of ‘sin’ a god like that can just kill anybody at any time. Seems a little nuts to me. No thanks. Real people died there and had their lives permanently altered. That was weather and it was awful. What a terrible, easy philosophy to think otherwise. Anyway, pass the chips.”

  4. You speak up when you can’t stand it anymore. What else can you do, fight every fool everytime?

  5. I’ve been wondering this as well. I will be staying with my future inlaws over the holidays and one of my future SILs is doing a graduate program in “somatic psychology”. Joy! Honestly, I think it will be easier to keep my mouth shut, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel good about doing so.

    I tried to dissuade some of my classmates of their big pharma conspiracy theories and I’m fairly sure that no one’s mind was changed. And then I spent a couple days worrying about whether I’d been too confrontational. Being an extremely non confrontational person makes is difficult for me to engage people, even when I believe that it`s the right thing to do.

  6. Speaking up in some of these situations can be very difficult. Then again, most things worth having are worth enduring some hardship to obtain. I tend to view silence in the face of bigotry as implicit agreement with the bigotry. This leads me to distinguish between responding to bigotry (which I feel I must do) and simple ignorance (which I feel less of a requirement to address, depending on the circumstances).

  7. I think one has to become sensitive to the conflict that is sure to follow and make a judgment call. I try to avoid situations that are un-winnable and un-teachable. There is no point. It is also effective to consider the type of personality your opponent exhibits and tailor your argument to be in a format that this type of personality finds most acceptable.

    Within that framework, my answer is EVERY SINGLE TIME…

  8. This can be very tricky. I’ve been in several situations like the one described and they’ve all ended badly. The times when I remained quiet filled me with regret for not speaking out against ignorance. The times I spoke out left me feeling abusive and petty for picking on someone’s ignorance.

    I think in order to be successful, you need to be a very outgoing and engaging type of person. You can’t just deliver a canned tirade and expect people to be receptive of your argument. Never directly confront the ignorant person–you’re never going to overcome personal conviction–instead try to win over the crowd and subtlety convey to them that this person has no idea what he or she is talking about.

  9. It depends, I’ve been in similar situations. Sometimes the stunned silence of the collective group is all that (doesn’t) need to be said.

  10. Having said that, if someone personally attacks you, you should probably stand up for yourself, especially if the facts are on your side.

  11. My main client believes the usual crazy stuff: vaccines cause autism, 9/11 was a conspiracy… all the fun ones. He’ll bring one or more of these up a few times a week. I have tried occasionally to debate him, and you know, bring up the facts, but he just believe it. He’s definitely one of those people that thinks if they believe something to be true, it must be true. Even if I point out a logical fallacy to him, his usual responses are “no, you’re wrong” or “that’s not what I said.”

    So my frustrations are a) how do you debate someone like that? and b) should I even bother when he’s my main source of income right now? (especially in this economy)

  12. I’ll usually rise to the occasion. Sometimes with an invitation to debate and sometimes with sarcasm. I will not do so if it will cause undo embarrassment to my wife or other loved-one or it will hurt my career. I’m much more picky about the things I’ll put my family or job on the line for.

    If someone seems educable I’ll try reason. A typical conversation will go, “Oh, so you read about harmful vaccines in USA Today? Shall we open today’s copy and find out what else you should believe in?” If they are beyond reason then it gets really entertaining. My challenge is to use their same species of logic. If they think CIA was behind 9/11 I’ll come back with, “How can you completely discount the involvement of the New Zealand SIS?!!” The entertainment value alone is worth at. At a minimum they usually stop bothering me with their brand of idiocy.

  13. I believe part of the problem with speaking out when faced with ignorance is because the issue and close mindedness can be completely out of left field.
    I remember having a co-worker proclaim that the moon landing wasn’t real. My response of “You are insane,” did not have the desired effect. I was too caught off guard that someone actually believed the moon landing was staged to form a rational argument and explain why her belief was incorrect.
    We can be armed to combat the more popular or common level of ignorance and speak out, but we will always be caught unawares at some point. I think in Melissa’s case that was what happened. Who would really expect anyone, no matter what their beliefs to think a natural disaster was God’s wrath? I think I would have said something to the women, but it would not have helped the level of discourse. It would have been along the lines of a shocked, “You are insane.”

  14. I tend to leave things that are just basically ignorance alone. However things that come from bigotry I can’t let go. Hatred has to be faught even if it’s one person at a time.

  15. @megbat: “I remember having a co-worker proclaim that the moon landing wasn’t real. ”

    Ah. Red meat. I like, “You are insane”, but it usually brings the conversation to a close too fast. You could come back with, “That’s right. And did you know that every president since Nixon has been a fake? Oh sure the media plays along and shows us a new face every now and then, but this country has really been run by Henry Kissinger and his secret cabal since 1974.”

    If people truly don’t believe anything they read or see on TV then they will die in frustration at not being able to explain the difference between a fake moon landing and a fake president.

  16. When it comes to deeply seated, cultural stupidness (racism, sexism) I have challenged people on occasion. I’ve found that afterward they tend to continue spouting off the same stupid, but clam up as soon as I’m in their sight. It’s less often I hear people preaching about pseudoscience or conspiracies. The times I’ve challenged them I’ve been met with instant, red-hot hostility. For things like the latest pseudoscience, there is no ‘socially inappropriate’ deterrent, as a casual bigot keeps the inflammatory epithets undercover around strangers. I guess that’s where we come in, moving to make uncritical thinking unacceptable in general. Some people are just too far gone, and I’ll give them enough rope. The 911 Truthers are hard for me to leave alone, but I am guaranteed to instantly jump down the throat of a vocal anti-vaxer.

  17. I lived in New Orleans during Katrina, and I actually heard the same “punishment for the sinners” bs. I pointed out that I, an outspoken atheist, suffered absolutely no damage, and Bourbon Street, the epicenter for debauchery here, was also unscathed. Meanwhile the areas where people were drowned in their own attics, were predominately God-fearing neighborhoods. Awfully bad aim for omnipotence.

    God got no game!

  18. It’s different every time.
    If you don’t feel like an altercation, don’t speak up. If you’re not in the mood for it, don’t speak up. You’d probably end up just sounding like a grump. If you are in a situation where the other people aren’t in a rush to leave, have a few minutes top hear you, and you’re in the right headspace.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door this morning for the first time in years. I just politely said I wasn’t interested and shut the door, because I knew I was sleepy and stressed at the same time and would probably have not been able to keep it together enough for a long conversation on topics that I feel strongly about. Had it been another time, maybe I would have asked them in.

    What I mean is that there probably is some upper limit of when you speak up regardless, like when aliens land and insult your mum. Below that, it’s a very wide fuzzy line and people shouldn’t be thought less of because of whether they speak up or not.

  19. I think you choose your battles. I don’t usually bother correcting or challenging strangers – I find it bizarre when someone out of the blue challenges me for something I say off the cuff. With friends and family, I try to get them to think about things, not just accept them but I don’t force anything. When teaching and someone challenges evolution, the age of the Earth, Moon landing, the Mars face, Atlantis or any number of things, I always go right to the point and give my evidence and ask for theirs. That is very effective in general though you seldom convince the person who began the argument but most of the rest of the class is open and interested in what you have to say.

    Apparently it is common knowledge that I’m a “card-carrying atheist” (the words of another faculty member who is the opposite) but this seems to bother folks less than the fact that I’m “liberal” on many issues. I almost never discuss either in class, particularly politics, as I teach science. It’s funny because those that harass me about my lack of belief or politics, seek me out for advice on life and other things. The mind wobbles.

  20. I have a friend who has unfortunately completely gone down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. I was talking with him the other night about the 911 conspiracy and he actually dragged out the canard that no Jews were in the twin towers that day. “What’s your evidence for that?” I asked him. He hemmed and hawed and said it was “common knowledge”. I said it wasn’t, actually, it was common knowledge that it was a lie. I argued with him for quite a while, not that it did any good; but I was proud of myself for not just laughing uncomfortably and saying nothing, which is my normal strategy.

    I spoke up in this situation because this guy’s my friend and I don’t want him going around making an ass of himself – even though I didn’t change his mind, I think I made him think twice about spouting that sort of nonsense in public. On the other hand, whenever I hear bigoted or stupid speech from my clients, I say nothing. Because I need them to keep paying me.

  21. When it is a harmless delusion, like aliens playing with Klingons on Uranus, it is ok to let it go. But when it is a blood libel against a group it can’t be given a pass. That is how xenophobia gets built based on lies.

    I remember when I was maybe 10 years old, a Catholic boy my age told me that Jews used the blood of Christians in their Passover rituals and to make matzo out of. I knew that couldn’t be correct because Passover predated Christianity and so there could have been no Christian blood to use in the many Passovers that occurred before Christianity. Also blood is never kosher to eat, and especially blood from an animal that is not a kosher animal (human flesh cannot be kosher). In later life I learned that this same blood libel had been promoted for centuries. That was how anti-Semitism was built up in Europe and which eventually led to the Holocaust.

    Remember when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed 9/11 on the gays and liberals? If it had been up to them, the “response” to 9/11 would have been to round up all the gays and liberals.

    People who blame things like Katrina, 9/11 and HIV on certain individuals are implicitly saying the way to prevent things like Katrina from happening; round up everyone that they think are doing the things that brought God’s wrath down on that region. Round them up, and put them in one place so when God wants to target them there won’t be as much collateral damage. That is how pogroms like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere get started.

  22. I am absolutely horrible at debunking stupid comments. And yes, like many of us, I’ve heard a full spectrum of idiocy. Unfortunately, whenever I do say something I usually end up sounding like a total bitch. If only I could be more like my old astronomy proff (who was very charismatic)… he had this awesome way of correcting people’s stupid comments by saying, “Well you know, that’s a very common misconception, but….”
    It always caught people off guard. Even when the comment was sooo stupid, like “no gravity on the moon!” he still replied with the same thing. I remember great episodes of giggling after some of the “discussions” hehe. In the end he always had them agreeing with him…

  23. It’s funny this is brought up here, because I was directly faced with this dilemma the past week. It was not clear cut; not at all. I had a friend of mine who committed suicide on Sunday morning. We had a memorial group open for everyone to share their memories and their feelings, and it was working really well, and people were being very honest and open, and lots of very deep and precious things were shared. However – and I hate to even add this, because it just detracts from the whole situation, but it bothered me immensely: there was a girl who felt the need to outline her biased opinion, online, that the reason my friend had done this was because (and she listed them out) 1. neurological disorders, 2.mercury fillings in cavities 3. vaccinations (HPV, flu shot, etc) and 4. justshe mentioned how her kids were never going to get vaccinations , 4. chemtrails (look them up, she said)… and the list went on. I was so offended, I didn’t know what to say. I think this may be just one of those situations in which you just have to keep quiet , because if you don’t, you lower yourself to her level.
    I wanted to write a response to her saying that, hey, you know what, this memorial site is not the place to get up on your soapbox, please respect what this site is for.
    But I didn’t. because i thought, you know what, I would just be acknowleding her, and drawing myself into this stupidity.

    As an upate: and as a tribute (frankly) to my ideal person today who could handle this shit – HEY!!!!! YEAH, THAT’S RIGHT, THEY’RE ALL AROUND.

  24. sorry, didn’t mean to leave that last sentence intact when i posted on skepchic. please ignore that last bit. i’m just angry and sad. um, i’m really angry and sad. words don’t actually describe my state of mind right now, so please forgive me for crazy postings. I’m Angry, that someone i loved thought that it was necessary to end their life, and I’m even more sad and even more bothered and irritated that someone thought that my friend’s memorial site, in an attempt to try to make sense of it, thought that it was an appropriate forum to discuss their vaccination/cavity filling/other conspiracy theory type ideas. When I look on it now, I realize that someone had the decency to delete the list previously left by Amanda (who left those unbelievably disrespectful ideas up there). Thank god. I’m so glad someone had the presence of mind to delete it, because it was beyond offensive, and didn’t make sense.
    that’s fine. conspiracy-theory it up. i don’t care. but please, think critically when it comes to our mutual friends, and where we’d want that memory to end up.

  25. Sorry. I’m not making a lot of sense. I know that . I’m just really, really, confused and broken up by all of this. My whole world just suddenly crumbled upon me. Nothing makes any sense…. nothing. but i do know one thing: people sure as hell should not be blaming this on some vague, hippie-ish, modern medicine problem… That just adds my anger to the whole situation, and trust me, there’s enough confusion/anger about this whole thing, to last quite some time.

  26. darwinfan, the reason people do that is because it is a protective mechanism. They get to blame what ever bad happens on stuff that is within their control (chemtrails not so much). Their world is an arbitrary and scary place that makes no sense to anyone (including themselves). They can’t understand or control reality, so they make up stuff that they can control. What she is really saying is that she is afraid this could happen to her or to her children, so she has made up all these magical spells, that by following them it won’t happen to her.

  27. @darwinfan: Sorry. I’m not making a lot of sense.


    No, you aren’t, but that’s okay. I’m really sorry to hear that you are going through something like this.

    Suicide is very hard on the survivors, even the ones who believe in crazy conspiracy theories. People are just looking to lay blame at a time like this. So…

    I don’t know. Give the hippy some slack. She’s crazy, but probably she’s hurting too. And give yourself some slack too.

  28. “…harrass me about my lack of belief…seek me out for advice on life and other things.”-PopeCoyote

    This same thing happens to me at work, when people have a math problem, banking issue, spelling correction, trivia question, car trouble…etc. it’s always “go ask Mike-he’s so smart” Yet when they find out I don’t believe in a god it’s how can he be so stupid?! But to answer the question think you should always say something even if it’s just a “well I don’t agree with that” simple statement no need to expand.
    P.S. I’m not actually that smart, I just work wth a lot of dummies

  29. I’m not as well read on science stuff as many of you Skepchick readers, so my response to science-related stupidity often wouldn’t be as persuasive as I’d like. That’s one reason I often just let the stupid pass by.

    Another reason is simply that sometimes I’m not feeling up to it. Sometimes the stupid comes when I’m too tired to give a good response, or I’m preoccupied with other things. Sorry, but I just can’t be bothered with these things sometimes.

    But if something is so offensive or dangerous that it simply requires a response, I find often the best thing to do is give a quick “You might wanna check your facts on that” kind of response. Don’t argue with a fool, but let the fool know that he/she is missing some key considerations.

  30. Always!

    But seriously, my punk-rocking past has taught me never to shy away from confrontations. That said, I can be surprisingly (at least I surprise myself) nice. As long as a person exhibits some kind of a desire to learn and listen, I will be polite even in the face of gross ignorance. Ignorance is curable, and politeness is certainly a major ingredient of the prescribed regime. On the other hand, arrogant incompetent conviction of one’s rightness (exhibited by many creationists, for example) deserves nothing except for a brutal slapdown, since one is not doing it to change their mind (they usually don’t have one) but to counteract their lies in public fora and situations.

  31. Way to go Kimbo!

    Discrete Daniel said:

    The times when I remained quiet filled me with regret for not speaking out against ignorance. The times I spoke out left me feeling abusive and petty for picking on someone’s ignorance.

    Me too! The trick is, as you said, to work your way into exposing their ignorance. OMG it’s so hard!!

    Dave W, you’re a genius!

    Daedalus2u… thanks for reminding me/us of this. It’s a very important point. People want to make their own “theories” about the world because it makes them feel like they are in control, rather than getting a real education.
    ` That is very important to me and what I write, and I actually needed to hear that just now. (Cooking up a screenplay for a skeptic movie.)

  32. What about responding with a question? It works really well for me just to turn the comment into a question, as in, “You think God made Hurricane Katrina happen on purpose?” Or, “You think the Freemasons are secretly controlling the world?” With a puzzled look and head tipped to side, as if you heard them wrong and want to give them a chance to clarify. Whatever their response is, you can always come back with a re-phrasing question; the lack of inherent logic usually becomes clear; and they can see it themselves.

    If you feel a little more testy, you can go with the logical-conclusion question: “So I hear you saying God drowned babies and dogs and old women on purpose: How does that work out to be a good deity again?”

    Or, “You think the Freemasons are Jewish-led group that orchestrated 9.11 AND the Iraq War? [my neighbor dropped this one at a party] Does that make Israel, bin Laden and Bush allies?”

    But every situation is different, like many people said, and sometimes you’re too stressed and grumpy, the other person’s too volatile, or the crowd is too hostile, to take that step. No point in confronting if the cost is going to be high.

  33. Aha! Brilliant! I suppose that, with enough practice, one could actually pull that off without sounding like a smartass. :D
    ` And thus… you can then go ahead and expose their ignorance….

  34. I rather liked Darrens’ comment that in the Bible, God always issued a call for His people to scram before he destroyed the sinning city . No one said anything about divine retribution on New Orleans until afterwards. I think Pat Robertson(tm) actually started that rumor on his show.

    There is a point, though, where it starts to get dangerous, as was pointed out above about the “blood libel” against Jews. That’s only one example, and history is full of cases where horrible atrocities were committed because someone(s) started spreading libels about a group.

    Comments like the one the “christian” woman made are incredibly ignorant, both in a moral sense as well as in a theological sense. I wonder what she would say if a city with a huge christian population (one that she approved of) got creamed by a hurricane or earthquake? Would that not also be divine retribution? (It would certainly be ironic – How many people were thinking about divine retribution when Texas got nailed repeatedly by hurricanes recently? Divine retribution on GWB?)

    Gabrielbrawley and PopeCoyote have a good point that you need to pick your battles, because you can’t fight them all. There is also the possibility of Phyrric victory.*

    “You can’t be serious” sometimes puts some of these folks to flight, too. I wonder if some of them suddenly realize just how foolish they sound coming out with something like “The moon landings were faked.” One of my favorite answers to that is, “The Soviets could easily follow the missions on radar. If they were faked, don’t you think they would have immediately exposed it as a massive propaganda coup?” ;-)

    As an airline professional and a licensed pilot, I just LOVE the “chemtrails” urban legend. It’s absolutely hilarious to think that all of those thousands of airline flights could be doing that. How could anyone possibly keep a secret like that from coming out?

    Sometimes, I simply can’t help but to laugh in their faces. I’m sorry, but some of them are as loony as Exidor was on Mork and Mindy (at least they aren’t arguing with a crowd of alter-egos while trying to come through a door)!

    * A victory so expensive that it is almost as bad as losing the battle. “Another such victory and we are lost.”

    @DaveW: The Kiwi’s have an S.I.S? WTF for? Are they afraid of a canoe invasion from Micronesia?

  35. @QuestionAuthority: That’s always been my response to the moon hoaxers. I also point out that the Soviet scientists analyzed the rocks that were brought back and came to the conclusion that they are not from Earth.

  36. I’ve never been able to keep my mouth shut so I end up always commenting on stupid things I hear. I try to use a soft tone and present my views as educational rather than confrontational. I ask a lot of questions that usually stump the person making the crazy claims.

    I don’t know if it changes any minds but it does get them to think before they say just anything in front of me.

  37. As several of you have pointed out, it’s highly context dependent, but I rarely worry that the person will think I’m being “mean,” or rude or close-minded.

    I thought Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins were close-minded at first. But the more I thought about what they were saying, the more I realized they were right and my beliefs were not just silly, but dangerous.

    If you have to be considered rude in order to get the discussion, and more importantly, the thinking going, then so be it.

    Of course, I’m much more tight lipped around clients…

  38. I think the way to approach this is to make them defend their statement. A question all the lines of “That’s interesting. Why do you believe that? Or what evidence do you have to support that?” Etc. First there is a phrase which could be taken as a compliment “that’s interesting” but ultimately you have forced them to support their claim. Of course, next comes the difficult task of parrying their statements.

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