Refuting Extremist Ideas: Worth the Time and Energy?

August 6, 2010

Usually when I come across the latest ridiculous statements by people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, my reaction is to begin deconstructing their arguments, and even start writing a public critique in an effort to combat the spread of their dangerous ideas. I have always considered countering nonsense a task of the utmost importance for anyone who thinks of him or herself as rational, intellectual, and in the position to have their voice be heard. There is all the more reason to critique nonsense when it gets out to a large audience and is widely believed. 

However, lately I have been contemplating my usual reaction. There is suddenly a voice in my head that sounds like this: “they are extremists; they are crazy; don’t waste your time; you have better things to do.” This is an odd feeling for someone who believes fully in the importance of robust debate, especially on the ideas and beliefs that most influence our society. But that is precisely my problem: how much are extremists’ ideas and beliefs influencing society? And if the answer is not very much, why bother handling them?

There are two examples I would like to use to illustrate this issue. The first example is broader and regards weighing the arguments of public figures, like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin (others one might include, but who were excluded for space: Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity). The second is narrower, yet related, and regards the question of whether biologists should debate creationists. These are different cases with some overlap, but in the end, they get back to the issue of handling opinions deemed extreme.

What do Beck and Palin say that might be worth refuting? I don’t imagine I need to really tell you, but a couple of examples might help nonetheless. Beck has called Obama a racist . Palin dubbed the health insurance reform legislation “downright evil” and falsely charged there would be “death panels.” Beck backed her latter statement (while imploring viewers to at least listen to what Palin was saying regarding the “downright evil” legislation). Beck urged people to leave churches that preach “social justice,” and equated the term with Nazism and Communism. Palin said the Founding Fathers wanted a government “based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” Again, this is just a taste of their antics. There is a collection of Glenn Beck clips here and Sarah Palin clips here , and plenty more can be found with a quick Google search.

These statements seem so ridiculous one might only want to shake his or her head, as I have begun to do. Yet upon some reflection, it seems to me there are good reasons to answer them.

Firstly, while such people might be extreme in their ideas, they are not extreme in their societal standing. That is, many people watch Glenn Beck and support Sarah Palin . This is also why one should not focus one’s critique on the person, but on their ideas (Beck and Palin are representations of the existence, power, and popularity of such ideas). By refuting their arguments, one is refuting the arguments of those who think Palin and Beck make sense, which is millions of Americans. Remember that Palin was recently a U.S. vice presidential candidate. It would seem that such an extremist holding political office, or at least being close to it, should wake us from our slumber and spur us to seriously challenge their beliefs.

But can we really change the minds of extremists? Perhaps not. Still — and this is the second reason — there is a large portion of the country (and the world) that is in the middle, that is somewhat undecided about the soundness of Beck’s or Palin’s arguments. They can be moved. There is also a large group of people who already agree that Beck and Palin are largely wrong, but who don’t really care about their wrongheadedness. These people can also be moved. Indeed, it would seem most reasonable to attempt to refute extremist ideas precisely because most Americans are in these middle positions. At the least, one might be able to prevent people in this middle from sliding toward extremism. If rationalists refrain from presenting their side, moderate Americans might be swayed to the extreme, thus making the problem much worse. This does not mean that rationalists should bother refuting everything Beck or Palin say. For instance, just the other day Beck called a Michelle Obama’s dress selection “an outrage,” a statement for which even Bill O’Reilly called him nuts. This doesn’t seem the sort of thing we should really care about. But, Beck charging that Obama is a racist is a claim of a different sort.

Now recall the situation with evolutionists and creationists. Some of my arguments about Beck and Palin would seemingly apply here, even though this is a more specific issue. Richard Dawkins has said evolutionists should not debate creationists in a public event setting because this gives creationists a legitimacy and standing they do not deserve. Others have stated that debate is not a good setting for quality discussion. I believe both of these arguments, if taken as blanket statements, have it wrong.

Firstly, creationism is an enormous problem in the U.S., where perhaps half the nation accepts it as truth. Someone needs to counter creationist arguments or they get to run free without critique. Second, as stated before, the arguments rationalists put forth in a given situation might be digested and accepted by the “sway” market. Third, of course, one cannot expect a single debate cause a creationist to reverse position, but it could be a step in that direction. Fourth, given the in-person character of debates (as opposed to impersonal writings) there is an opportunity to begin to break down biases. I refer to something Massimo once told me: after debating a creationist, a number of creationists approached him, not to tell him they had changed their minds, or that he was going to hell. Instead, they relayed shock that an evolutionist — and an atheist — could be a nice, normal person! It would seem that even if an evolutionist knew before heading into a debate that the audience members were nearly all creationists, this would still provide reason to accept the invitation (1).

Let’s now consider the issue of debates not being particularly conducive to reasoned discussions. True, debates are more about rhetoric than substance. While I believe there is something positive to say about rhetoric, it is undeniable that debates have more to do with rhetoric than with substance. But none of the common avenues through which people are exposed to differing opinions — TV, radio, the blogosphere — are particularly conducive to reasoned discourse. To be sure, Dawkins has said he would avoid formally debating creationists not just in public events, but in all avenues, including TV. But this still seems like a blanket statement that is difficult to defend. Should one stop refuting Beck and Palin’s arguments merely because the available venues are not always desirable? That would let beliefs of
f the hook because of a dislike for the process. Instead, maybe the answer is this: there should not be an all-out stance against debate, but rather a recognition that certain avenues should be more or less favored compared to others; similarly, certain evolutionary biologists, and more broadly, intellectuals, should cede to others who are more experienced at debate or rhetorically more skilled. In short, we ought to come to some degree of acceptance about the way things are, and also realize that some people are better equipped for some tasks.

Of course, in both situations — Beck and Palin, and evolutionists vs. creationists — one could ask, why me? Why should I refute those ideas? Won’t someone else, like Media Matters or Michael Shermer, handle it? Well, there is the issue of how well others might handle the job. We all have different approaches and different areas of expertise, and so each person might register a different yet instructive reaction (or even a better reaction). Further, someone else might do it, but who will that person be able to reach? When someone publishes an essay on The Huffington Post, I might read it, but many of my family and friends will not. But, there is a greater chance they will read a piece I wrote, purely because it is by me. Some of my family members are creationists who I do not expect to sway (they already know I’m not a terrible or mean person), but at least I can present my reasonable arguments to the family and friends who are in that on-the-fence group, and perhaps win some support from non-creationists.

I want Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck — or, rather, their ideas — to go away as much as any other rational person does. But I believe the only way to have them go away is to continue critiquing their beliefs as they put them in the public square. There is reason to lament such a task. But if we are citizens concerned about the quality of our society, and we value that we live in an open democracy that allows all of us access to public debate, perhaps we ought not want it any other way.

1. One could also argue that evolutionists should also spend time teaching people on their side, to make them more apt to rebut creationist claims. This would amount to a counter argument to the idea that “preaching to the converted” is a waste of time. But that is another essay.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.