Before I gave my TAM 8 talk – now known as the “Don’t Be a Dick” speech – I was more nervous than I had been before a public speaking engagement since high school. Watching the video, I’m surprised that I appeared so composed. I was sweating bullets up there, and had an emotional catch in my throat several times that wasn’t so obvious in the video.
After the video, my friend Pamela Gay was waiting off stage for me. She had given an impassioned talk about “science evangelism” literally minutes before I took the stage, and I could tell she was warmly received. I’m not speaking out of school when I say she was more than a little concerned talking at a skeptic conference; as an active Christian she knew she’d receive the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism… and she did, during the meeting and since. Having her support me after my talk meant the world to me.
As we left the auditorium and went out into the hall, someone beckoned to me. I went over, and they told me that an old friend wanted very much to talk to me. Down the corridor I saw Kitty*, indeed an old friend and someone very active in the skeptical community in general and the JREF community specifically. As I approached her, to my distress, I saw she had been crying. Concerned, I rapidly went to her, and over the next few minutes, between sobs, she told me how much my talk meant to her. She is religious, in a rather generic way (you could call her a deist, someone who believes in a non-specific god) and over the years has received quite a bit of ostracism from the community. This, despite her long and strong support for speaking up against psychics, ghost hunters, UFO believers, alt-meddlers, and the rest.
She was crying because what I said was something she had longed to hear from someone, anyone, in the skeptic community for years: that we need to be less antagonistic, and more inclusive. When we exclude someone for one belief they may have, we are losing them despite whatever other skeptical drive they might possess. And that means we all lose.
She was not alone, either. Another young woman, one I had never met before, similarly approached me and told me much the same story. She was crying as well. Eventually I heard from others who told me there were several people in the audience who were crying because they had felt so alone. Many were feeling so isolated from the skeptical community – and had experienced so many encounters with other skeptics who were rude, boorish, insulting, and dismissive – that they were seriously considering leaving the movement altogether.
I also heard from hundreds – hundreds – of people thanking me for what I said. They had seen others be jerks, or had been jerks themselves, and were contrite about it.
The support I have received has been very encouraging. The drop in the level of demeanor I had been seeing was disheartening to say the least. I’m very glad to know that so many people took this topic to heart.
And, at the very least, it has helped spark a conversation that, in my opinion, is long overdue in the skeptic community. We need to be skeptical of ourselves as much as we are of any claims made by others, and we should be reminded of that every now and again.
*Before posting this article I let Kitty see a draft of it, and she not only approved but asked me to use her name. Pamela as well.