Sunday, April 26, 2009

Elevator Pitches and Treppenwitz

I went to my first Bay Area Skeptics meeting last night, and not surprisingly had a great time. I even met the guy whose fault it was, by effective promotion, that I didn't get to see Michael Shermer at Ohlone College (I didn't buy a ticket in advance and it was sold out) - but I got to see Shermer at the California Academy of Science this past Thursday so it worked out.

Among the conversation topics last night was treppenwitz - you know when you suddenly think of a great a comeback, an hour after the argument? In German that's called treppenwitz, literally "staircase wit" (as you're walking away from the argument). For example (and don't worry, I'm not digressing into politics) I was put on the spot for a quick definition of my own political philosophy, libertarianism - a request that is wholly appropriate at a gathering of skeptics, and one that I was told was also made to fellow libertarian Michael Shermer at dinner on Thursday night. I reflected in that moment that a) one's political philosophy not easily boiling down to a bumper sticker is not necessarily an indictment of that philosophy but that b) you should have your "elevator pitch" ready, you can at least say something usefully in the spirit of the philosophy without distorting it. This leaves your audience with the impression that you and your philosophy have your stuff together.

Later in the evening of course I'd boiled it down but by then everyone had gone their separate ways (though I was in my car when I came upon the best way to summarize it, not the staircase). I've been brought up similarly short in the past by people demanding the same for atheism's contribution to morality, and there was a particularly egregious case of treppenwitz because a couple years after the discussion I blogged that not living your life according to a Bronze Age Powerpoint slide isn't necessarily a bad thing. But this is exactly why you need to think of an elevator pitch for why atheism/skepticism/humanism is a better way to live your life, individually, than religious faith.

As fate would have it, I had a second opportunity the same evening when I cashed out at the bar and told the bartender that I had been there with the skeptics. He brought out the old canard that skeptics were just being close-minded in a different way, and what I said to him, perhaps less eloquently than it's distilled here, was: unless you believe in everything, which nobody does, you need a way to decide which things to believe and which not to. Skepticism is about being clear and honest with yourself and others on what your rules are for doing that.

No comments: