Pharyngula

How being a dick probably saved my life

I see that the don’t-be-a-dick tone debate is still going on — I’ve been totally unimpressed with the arguments from the side of nice, not because I disagree with the idea that positive approaches work, but because they ignore the complexity of the problem and don’t offer any solutions but only complaints (what are they going to do, break the fingers and gag anyone they judge as ‘harming the cause’?) I side with Richard Dawkins’ comment on the issue. We don’t need to be trivially abusive, but on subjects we care about deeply, we should express ourselves with passion.

You know I’ve had this recent scary cardiac episode, and as it turns out, I think my own dickish personality probably (not certainly, since we’re dealing with odds here) helped me. There was one moment when I literally had two paths to take, and I chose what I think was the best and most rational one.

This whole hospitalization mess started a few weeks ago, when I was on my daily walk, and I’d gone a little farther and longer than I usually do. I was on my way home, and I felt a dull ache in my chest — nothing severe, nothing acute, just a soreness that spread into my left arm. And I stopped on the sidewalk, and looked ahead, where I was only a couple of blocks from home, and I looked to my right, where the hospital was located only a couple of blocks away. And the ache immediately receded, and I had a little internal debate between the nice angel on my left shoulder, and the dickish devil on my right.

And the angel said, “Oh, look, it’s just a little soreness and it’s going away already. Go home, have a cup of tea, lie down for a bit, and then you can get back to work, no worries. You’ll feel fine.”

And the devil replied with the potent one-two punch of reason and abuse: “You teach human physiology, you moron — you know this is one of the warning signs of heart disease. You’d have to be incredibly stupid to ignore this and hope it goes away…until a heart attack comes along to blow your heart up. Jerk. This isn’t even a choice.”

I thought about it a bit and realized that the remote prospect of dying (it was a very mild ache, and I had no feeling of imminent doom) was nowhere near as persuasive as the thought that I’d feel like an idiot if the iron spike of an infarct did nail my left ventricle at some time in the future, and I’d neglected a portent and hadn’t done the best thing for my health. So I turned right, even though I also felt a bit of a whiner for showing up at a hospital with such a small complaint.

Denial is so tempting: the appeal of choosing ignorance to avoid hard consequences was something I felt strongly — it would have been so nice to go home and pretend there were no problems, and I probably would have been just fine, on the surface. But the heart disease would have continued to progress, and a problem deferred would have become a problem amplified.

That is the virtue of dickishness. It provides the social and psychological penalties that counter the draw of complacency. It’s so easy to go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy, and it’s even easier to demonize the cranky Cassandras and make them the problem, because they make people uncomfortable.

But if bad ideas don’t have immediate consequences to the placid mob, and if everyone is being Mr and Mrs Nice Folk and reassuring everyone that they’re still good people no matter what foolishness they might believe in, where is the motivation to change? A skeptic who thinks their mission is to provide only positive messages and lead everyone along with affirmations and friendliness is going to be an ineffective skeptic.