Notes and Comment Blog

Social Epistemology

Mar 14th, 2005 11:31 pm | By

This is a good read. At least if you’re interested in social constructivism – and how could you not be? It’s quite reflexive – a review of a book about Steve Fuller’s social epistemology. So we have three levels here: the reviewer, the book being reviewed, and the subject of the book being reviewed, which is the work of Steve Fuller. You need to know that to understand the quotations.

The framework of the book is outlined in the Introduction and further elaborated in Chapter 1. “Kuhn’s questioning of legitimation has become a central problem for discussion in the philosophy of science. The question that arises from Kuhn’s work is: What legitimizes scientific knowledge claims if science does not have a method to yield truth?” (2) Needless to say, this is a tendentious way of putting matters: what is meant by “if science does not have a method to yield truth”? Unobjectionable if it were to indicate the mere fallibilism of knowledge claims, discussable if it were to suggest instrumentalist anti-realism towards theoretical entities, interpretations become highly problematical when they deny the applicability of epistemological standards to the cognitive efforts of scientists.

Yup, that’s a tendentious way of putting matters all right. I wonder if social constructivists ever put matters in any other way. ‘If science does not have a method to yield truth’…Feh. Yeah I could put it better but Thomas Uebel did it for me, so I’ll just go with Feh.

“If science does not have the right method, a method that would guarantee access to truth, then it does not have privileged authority.” (11) That’s like saying that unless knowledge entails certainty, any belief is as good as any other. Yet no better argument for taking the radical problematic seriously is ever given

That ‘privileged authority’ trope is very popular. As, for that matter, is the slide from fallibilism to anything goes.

Again it is hard to discern an argument in Remedios’ review of Fuller’s tu quoque responses to various critics beyond the insistence that “normatively constituted groups” lie behind the “‘oversocialized individual who is a microcosm of the entire social order to which she belongs” (18). Instead, things begin to fall into place when Remedios observes that Fuller is not interested in “traditional problems of knowledge such as justified true belief” but rather “in how texts become certified as knowledge” (ibid.) and in “the material embodiment of knowledge”(19)…[I]ssues pertaining to epistemological justification are simply dropped from the discussion. Certainly Remedios’ affirmation that Fuller pursues the normative project as a “rational knowledge policy” with the goal of the “self-conscious reorganisation and administration of scientific disciplines for democratically chosen goals” (20) and his defense of Fuller against criticisms that he fails to address epistemological concerns do not allay the worry.

Uh oh. ‘self-conscious reorganisation and administration of scientific disciplines for democratically chosen goals’ is it. Have people like Fuller never heard of little items like ‘Intelligent Design’? Do they not realize that if it were put to a vote in the US, ID would replace biology in a great many public schools? Or do they know that perfectly well and think it’s only fair? Social constructivists are scary…

Remedios is aware that “philosophers may find Fuller’s rhetoric of inquiry unsatisfactory, for they may accuse Fuller of changing the subject to sociology and leaving problems of epistemic justification unanswered.” His response in Fuller’s voice, however, is equally unsatisfactory: “traditional notions of knowledge and justification are contested notions and cannot be assumed to be valid”. (7) The paucity of this response should be readily apparent. Calling notions contested does not absolve us from the task of providing defenses of the alternatives put forward. It is no good, therefore, to dismiss demands for explanations of why the replacement of epistemological concerns with political ones should help answer the original problem.

Especially since they’re the ones doing the contesting. That move is way too easy. Hey, I contest the traditional notion that the moon is a satellite of the earth, so it’s a contested notion, therefore the traditional notion that it is a satellite of the earth cannot be assumed to be valid. Period. On my say-so alone.

There’s a lot more. Check it out.


Mar 12th, 2005 11:35 pm | By

So we see that the combination of rural isolation and fundamentalist religion is, shall we say, rough on women in more places than Pakistan and in religions other than Islam.

The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders…Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him. This approach is rooted in the Amish notion of Gelassenheit, or submission. Church members abide by their clergymen; children obey their parents; sisters mind their brothers; and wives defer to their husbands (divorce is taboo). With each act of submission, the Amish follow the lesson of Jesus when he died on the cross rather than resist his adversaries.

One can spot a built-in problem with that right away. Much of the time, especially in a life based on agriculture, the chain of submission is going to stop with one person. There isn’t going to be anyone else around for that one person to submit to – so that one person can have things his own way. He’s supposed to ‘abide by’ the clergymen, apparently, but the clergymen aren’t around all the time, and he is. So for girl children and for women, even apart from the fact that they are the target of sexual predation not the perpetrators of it, there is simply a built-in disadvantage. They have to defer to brothers, fathers, husbands. Brothers have to submit to fathers, but fathers and husbands are where it stops. So if the father has a habit of raping his daughter or daughters – that’s that. And that’s even before you get to the part about permanent forgiveness.

It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness—so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. “That’s a big thing in the Amish community,” Mary said. “You have to forgive and forgive.”

You have to forgive and forgive, while male relatives rape and rape. Uh oh.

When their trust is betrayed, women like Kathryn and Sally see themselves as having little recourse…Sally didn’t call the police because she’d been taught to defer to the men in her household, even if they were her sons, and because she belongs to a community that believes the greater threat comes from without, not within.

So…not to belabour the obvious, but one implication is that teaching women always to defer to men has drawbacks that even some non- and anti-feminists might be able to perceive.

The relatively light sentences meted out to these men stand out at a time when sex offenders are punished with increasing harshness. The fear that many pedophiliacs can’t be stopped has led Congress to lengthen sentences for child sex offenders and has persuaded some states to use involuntary civil commitment laws to keep them behind bars indefinitely. Why did these Amish, by contrast, receive only mercy?

I’ll give you one guess.

Read the nice part about Anna, whose mother told the Amish dentist to pull all her teeth out for punishment. He complied. “After he had pulled the last tooth,” Anna remembered, “my mom looked at me and said, ‘I guess you won’t be talking anymore.'” Pretty. What price forgiveness and forgiveness now eh? Apparently it’s the victims who are supposed to do all the forgiving, and the bullies who get to go on bullying – as Jane Eyre pointed out to Stoical Helen Burns at Lowood. There was a lot of forgiving to be done there, too; a lot of children taught to be exceedingly deferential, a lot of bullies coasting along on all that deference and treating the deferential people like dirt.

“They don’t believe it’s any of our business,” said Roberts, Anna’s Ohio social worker, of the Amish attitude toward child abuse investigations. But it’s the job of social workers, police, and prosecutors to make child abuse their business. The state’s duty to push past the barriers thrown up by parents and the community can’t hinge on the religion they practice. Its role becomes more essential, not less, when adults wall off children from the outside world.

Exactly. That’s one place where the phrase ‘it’s their job’ makes sense. It is their job and the state’s duty. Deference to religion allows horrors to go unchecked.

The Intense

Mar 10th, 2005 7:51 pm | By

We’ve been talking about passion, commitment, feeling, grievance, sincerity – about the whole idea that intensity of feeling is some sort of index of validity. Eve Garrard put it clearly: ‘do you think that one possible reason why Eagleton and (many) others are so impressed by the passion and commitment of suicide bombers, and think it must be in the service of justice and freedom, is some deep underlying moral subjectivism, ie the belief that moral claims just are validated by the sincerity and passion with which they’re held?’ I do think that, along with thinking that most people who hold that belief don’t hold it with full awareness. That it’s perhaps not so much a belief (properly so called) as a vague association, an absent-minded linkage. I’m not at all sure of that. I’m also not at all sure if that’s a charitable reading, or on the contrary an uncharitable reading that rests on the thought that people who believe anything so damn silly are the kind of people who don’t examine their beliefs carefully enough to have beliefs properly so-called.

At any rate, it all reminded me of what Mill said about his father.

For passionate
emotions of all sorts, and for everything which bas been said or
written in exaltation of them, he professed the greatest contempt.
He regarded them as a form of madness. “The intense” was with him a
bye-word of scornful disapprobation. He regarded as an aberration of
the moral standard of modern times, compared with that of the ancients,
the great stress laid upon feeling. Feelings, as such, he considered
to be no proper subjects of praise or blame.

Also of a remark of Hume’s in a letter.

For the purposes of life and conduct, and society, a little good sense is surely better than all this genius, and a little good humour than this extreme sensibility.

And Yeats’ familiar line ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity.’

Arguing (or at least speaking) for the other side, there is Keats’ ‘the excellence of every art is in intensity’. But then he was talking about art, not political thought.

This is also the argument between Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility – the novel, not the fillum. Marianne would be a suicide bomber. And yet – she has her good qualities. Intensity and passion do have their good qualities. But – ah well. Just ‘but,’ that’s all.

Unfinished Biz

Mar 9th, 2005 12:14 am | By

A little unfinished business. I meant to add something to that N&C about Terry Eagleton’s comment last month – and then I forgot. Now I’ve remembered again.

Like hunger strikers, suicide bombers are not necessarily in love with death. They kill themselves because they can see no other way of attaining justice; and the fact that they have to do so is part of the injustice…People like Rosa Luxemburg or Steve Biko give up what they see as precious (their lives) for an even more valuable cause. They die not because they see death as desirable in itself, but in the name of a more abundant life all round. Suicide bombers also die in the name of a better life for others; it is just that, unlike martyrs, they take others with them in the process. The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it. But both believe that a life is only worth living if it contains something worth dying for. On this theory, what makes existence meaningful is what you are prepared to relinquish it for. This used to be known as God; in modern times it is mostly known as the nation. For Islamic radicals it is both inseparably.

“Suicide bombers also die in the name of a better life for others”. That’s what I wanted to say more about. No they don’t. Not all of them. Some may, but certainly not all. Some die in the name of, or for the sake of trying to attain, a much much worse life for others. Orders of magnitude worse. Specifically, some suicide bombers die for the sake of trying to attain among other things a much, much worse life for women. All women. All women on the planet. If some suicide bombers got what they ‘martyred’ themselves for, every single woman on earth would be walled up indoors under the ownership of a man, forbidden to go outside, forbidden to work, to go to school, to learn at home, to get medical attention. Subject to beating by armed gangs of thugs if she does venture outside and accidentally allows a piece of hair or a bit of wrist to show. Subject to being buried up to the neck and killed by having large rocks thrown at her head if she is accused and convicted of adultery; subject to being convicted of adultery (and thus stoned to death) if she charges a man with rape and he is acquitted – which must happen a lot since she is required to produce witnesses of the rape in order to make the charge stick. This is the ‘better life for others’ that some suicide bombers dream of. A regime of unmitigated hatred, contempt, violence, control, confinement, and stultification for all women.

“The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it.” No, he does not. Justice and freedom? Justice and freedom? Under what perverse definition of justice and freedom? I would be charitable and suggest that Eagleton must have forgotten the suicide bombers of September 11, and the ones who blew up the two African embassies – but he mentions the people who jumped from World Trade Center to escape the fire, in the column, so he can’t have forgotten it. So does he think those suicide bombers were betting anyone’s life on a future of justice and freedom? Does he even think they thought that? They were betting other people’s lives (as well as their own) on a future of purity and submission, not one of freedom and justice. (Justice by their definition, maybe. But I earnestly hope their idea of justice is not Terry Eagleton’s.)

What’s going on here? What did Eagleton even think he was saying? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that he was confusing commitment and passion and a sense of grievance with something else. With legitimate or valid or halfway decent commitment and passion and sense of grievance. A lot of people seem to get confused about that. Seem to think that sincerity and authenticity are some kind of sign of virtue and altruism. They can tell the difference (usually) when the passion and grievance are neo-Nazi or otherwise fascist in some familar way, but they seem to lose the ability when the fascism is in some way mixed up with postcolonialism. At least, that’s my guess, although I find those two re-quoted remarks pretty baffling.

But this kind of thing is why the ruling in the Shabina Begum case is not good news, and why the right to manifest her religion cited in one article on the subject does not say it all. Because in the current context it’s more than just a manifestation of religion. Political Islam is political. Backword Dave has good comments on the subject here and here. The second one discusses Azam Kamguian’s ‘Why So Much Fuss About a Piece of Clothing?’.

It’s international women’s day. Here’s hoping we can start to figure out what a better life for others actually means, before too long.

In the Head or On the Head

Mar 8th, 2005 12:00 am | By

Harry at Harry’s Place on the Shabina Begum case.

Those who blame the judge for not making a political decision or who attack the Human Rights legislation for this ruling miss the point. It is clearly Britain’s lack of secularity, the absence of a written constitution and the religious character of our schools that have allowed such a verdict by creating the conditions in which it has been taken. But as long as we are allowing religions or beliefs to be displayed in schools then it is simply unjustified to discriminate. Those of us who would prefer schools to be free of such religious battles and identity conflicts, need to be aware that we are fighting a losing battle unless the fundamentally unsecular nature of the British constitution and its institutions are changed. Which, given the state of our major political parties, all busy enthusing about ‘faith schools’, is highly unlikely.

And Mona Eltahawy says some very good things.

I felt like screaming with anger and frustration when I heard about Shabina’s case because once again a Muslim woman is in the headlines only because of what she wears…Shabina chose to go beyond a uniform that was deemed acceptable for the other Muslims and denied herself the ability to continue attending her school. She claimed that her school’s refusal to allow her to attend classes in a jilbab was a result of post-9/11 bigotry. I assert that Lord Justice Brooke’s ruling is a classic example of liberal guilt over the ugly Islamophobia that many Muslims have faced since 9/11. Instead of standing up to a growing conservatism among some Muslims, many liberals will simply give in rather than appear prejudiced. Sadly, most of the points they give in on have to do with Muslim women. This is nothing short of the racism of lower expectations – they expect Muslims to be extreme, they expect Muslim women to be covered. The Guardian newspaper, which I reported for from the Middle East, committed a grave error in reporting Shabina’s story. It did not interview a single Muslim woman who could have told them there is more to being a Muslim than a jilbab and that such a jilbab was over and beyond what is deemed modest.

That error sounds very familiar. The BBC did a pretty limited job of interviewing people for that article I commented on the other day.

I wish Cherie Booth had defended a Muslim girl’s right to complete her education against a family who was pulling her out of school early to get married, which happens even in Britain. I wish she had defended a Muslim girl against violence at home – a suffering that is too often ignored by the Muslim community in the West because it would prefer girls and women suffer in silence than bring shame to the community by speaking out. And what does Shabina think she has achieved? She told The Guardian that the Court of Appeal verdict would “give hope and strength to other Muslim women” and that it was a victory for all Muslims “who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry”. My response to Shabina is thanks but no thanks. I wore the hijab for nine years from the age of 16 to 25 and do not feel my identity lies in a piece of cloth. I gain my hope and strength by sharing the excitement of ambitious young Muslim women like my sister Noora who loves her university studies. Noora wears the hijab but she knows that it is what is in her head, not what is on it that is more important.

Exactly. And Shabina Begum hasn’t done much to remind people of that perception, I don’t think.

Oh Yeah?

Mar 7th, 2005 11:12 pm | By

Hmm. A little jest. Well, two can play at that game…

1. Then look up aluminium. Check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it…You will learn that the suffix ‘burgh is pronounced ‘burra’ e.g. Edinburgh. You are welcome to respell Pittsburgh as ‘Pittsberg’ if you can’t cope with correct pronunciation.

16. Last but not the least, and for heaven’s sake…’s Nuclear as in clear NOT Nucular.

Yes. But then again…(see me get myself in trouble) –

It’s also tune, not chewn and not chyewwn. It’s news, not nyewws. It’s duke, not jyewk or jyewwk. If you want to pronounce them chyewwn, nyewws, and jyewwk, then you ought to spell them that way.

And it’s drawing, not drawring. If you want to pronounce it drawring, you ought to spell it that way. Furthermore, it’s not Chiner and India or Australier and New Zealand.And there’s jaguar – it’s not pronounced jag you a. Neither is Nicaragua pronounced Nick a rag you a.

I could go on – I could go on for hours – especially after I’ve been listening to Mark Lawson – but that’s enough trouble for now.

Update – to point out that it has suddenly occurred to me that I disagree with Brian Leiter, on whose site I found the extended joke, that it could have been written by John Cleese. Well, it could have been, of course – but I disagree with the implication that it seems likely or plausible, that the joke is Cleesesque. It’s not. It’s far too pedestrian and obvious for that. And not nearly funny enough.

Words Fail Me

Mar 7th, 2005 2:11 am | By

Well. What a lovely story.

Ms Bibi was catapulted to world attention after a panchayat, or tribal council, at the remote Punjabi village of Meerwala in June 2002. Her 12-year-old brother was accused of having an affair with a woman from the higher-caste Mastoi tribe. In punishment, the elders ordered that Mukhtaran be raped. As several hundred people watched, four men dragged her screaming through a cotton field. Pushing her into a mud-walled house, they assaulted her for more than an hour.

Is that pretty or what. It has all the ingredients, doesn’t it. Nothing left out. A higher-caste tribe. The elders. Punishment of A for something B is accused of doing. Rape as punishment, rape as judicial (sort of) punishment, rape as something that elders order to be done, rape as something that a tribal council of old men order to be done to a young woman. Several hundred people (some of them no doubt well known, neighbours) watch. Several hundred people watch a young woman dragged screaming through a field by four men, to be raped, on the orders of the elders of the tribal council.

“Honour” killings and punishments are usually sanctioned through the panchayat system, which has no legal standing but is still prevalent in many rural towns. Last week elders in another Punjabi village ordered that a two-year-old girl be married to a man 33 years her senior. The betrothal was in compensation for an adulterous affair committed by her uncle.

And the brother was framed anyway. In fact he was assaulted himself.

According to the prosecution, the Meerwala council ordered the gang rape of Mukhtar Mai, then 30, as punishment for the alleged illicit sexual relations of her brother Shakoor with a woman from the rival Mastoi tribe. It was later revealed that he had been molested by Mastoi men who tried to conceal it by accusing him of illicit relations with a Mastoi woman. The Mastoi demanded revenge. That was delivered when the council approved the rape of Ms. Mukhtar.

Paul Anderson in Islamabad.

The BBC’s Paul Anderson in Islamabad says most women involved in attacks against them which are designed to restore the slighted honour of a family, clan or tribe, accept their fate, believing that tribal or feudal leaders are too powerful to resist and that the police and judicial systems are stacked against them. The statement said the reason for the increasing violence against women in Pakistan was the fact that men, guilty of assaulting them, were rarely punished. Hundreds of women are killed or injured in honour attacks each year.

Nothing to add.

Don’t Forget the Face in the Tortilla

Mar 5th, 2005 11:38 pm | By

Right, that does it – a post I’ve just read at Pharyngula has goaded me into doing the post I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of days.

It’s time for a look at credulity and superstition and general soft-headedness in the Mass Media and popular culture.

Here is the Pharyngula post. About a story on MSNBC (hey if it’s partly owned by Microsoft shouldn’t it be all full of rationalist geeky types who would throw heavy rocks at anyone who suggested such a story? No? Why not?) about a ‘legendary Roman stone’ that gets soggy when a pope is about to snuff it that is currently dry therefore the stone ‘says pope will live.’

My item is yesterday’s Front Row, in which Kirstie Lang talks to a sculptor about a ‘curse’ on Carlisle which his sculpture is supposed by some Carlisle councillors to have re-activated. She says something to the effect that one has to be sympathetic, or one sees why they’re worried, or some such. Carlisle has had terrible luck lately, she says earnestly and with her usual irritating over-emphasis; rain, floods. So what? said the sculptor impatiently, you could say the same about the southwest; Devon’s had rain – Yes said Lang but they don’t have that curse.


Jesus H Christ almighty, I remarked pleasantly as I threw a chair through the window. Is that the sort of reasoning skill they teach you at BBC school?

But then to end on a cheerier note. I found this refreshing. (Man, how we clutch at straws in these woolly days.) On CSI, Grissom said about the horrible supervisor guy Eckley, ‘Eckley doesn’t have a scientific bone in his body. He decides what answers he wants and then he asks the questions to get them.’

Yeah! That’s telling ’em. The higher authorities should put Grissom in charge of the BBC and MSNBC.

Manufactured Consensus

Mar 4th, 2005 8:36 pm | By

This is typical. And irritating. Irritating in many ways.

Humera Khan of the An Nisa Society, an organisation that represents the views of women, agreed the school had failed to take into account the huge diversity of the UK’s 1.6 million Muslims. “If you consult on what is Islamic, and you for instance only talk to the Pakistani community, they will say the shalwar kameez is suitable. But other communities would have a different view that then becomes excluded,” she says.

Where to begin. How about with that ridiculous misleading essentially meaningless phrase ‘an organisation that represents the views of women’? The views of women. Does it mean all women, or some women? Notice that you can’t tell. It could mean three women, for all we know.

At any rate, it is clear enough from what Khan says that the organisation certainly does not represent the views of all women. So you know what? The article should have said that. It should have used some modifiers before the word ‘women’ – some adjectives. ‘An organisation that represents the views of’ ___ ___ women. Not just women – women of a certain kind, or with certain beliefs. So why didn’t it? Sloppiness? Absence of mind? Stupidity? Who knows. But my guess is that it was out of a (probably vague, semi-formed) intention to make Khan and An Nisa seem less sectarian, parochial, regressive than we might otherwise think them. A well-meaning woolly effort to make An Nisa sound like just some neutral set of boffins like any other. In other words, an effort to make what is at least arguably a regressive attitude to women seem more harmless and reasonable than it in fact is.

Picture the New York Times or Washington Post running an article with a quote from one Hannah Sheep of the Because Paul Said So Society, talking about consulting on what is Christian in the way of clothing for girls and women. If you talk to the Ohio community, she says, they think long skirts and bonnets are good enough, but other communities – those in Utah and Idaho, perhaps – would have a different view that then becomes excluded. Would the Times or the Post call the Because Paul Said So Society ‘an organisation that represents the views of women’? Would they tell their readers that a fundamentalist Christian organization represent the views of women? Just like that, women, without any modification to specify which women? I don’t think they would. Would the Guardian or the Independent or the BBC characterize, say, a women’s branch of Christian Voice that way? I don’t think so.

That’s where to begin. Now to go on. Why didn’t the reporters talk to anyone else? Where are the other women? Where are the women An Nisa does not represent? Why don’t they get to say anything? Why are they just ignored? Talk about different views that then become excluded! If I’m not mistaken, Humera Khan is worried about more fundamentalist, stricter, more traditional views that become excluded. Maybe I am mistaken, maybe she is worried about the other views too, the ones that go in the other direction, but you’ll notice the article doesn’t say so. You’ll notice that the article doesn’t talk to any secularists at all, or consider their views at all. You’ll notice that the article pretty much accepts it as a given that what girls wear is something properly determined by Islamic scholars.

Humera Khan says many Muslims are frustrated that the West had become apparently obsessed with how women express their faith. “The Western world has seen women’s Islamic dress as a sign of oppression. But when Islamic movements reacted against colonialism [in the 20th century] the clothing was a sign of liberation with political connotations.”

Yes but there again – there are other women from majority-Muslim parts of the world who strongly disagree with what Humera Khan says – who in fact strongly agree that ‘women’s Islamic dress’ is indeed a sign of oppression. Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian have written eloquently on the subject. But their view just gets systematically ignored – ‘excluded,’ just as Khan says. Unfortunate.

Mysterious Ways

Mar 4th, 2005 1:44 am | By

And since you mentioned skepticism – explain something to me. This Intelligent Designer we hear so much about. It’s supposed to answer those questions that atheists and biologists and similar tiresome people can’t answer. But the thing about this Intelligent Designer character is that it raises a hell of a lot of questions that don’t arise if there’s no need to explain the Intelligent Designer. Surely finding the Intelligent Designer a satisfactory answer to questions while finding Designer-free answers unsatisfactory, relies on ignoring a great barnlike stack of questions that trail in the wake of the Intelligent Designer. The most obvious one of course is Okay smartyboots then who designed the Designer? But there are others.

The one that I’ve been pondering today is what did this Designer design humans for?

Amusement? Entertainment? Company? An experiment?

Maybe company. Since the Intelligent Designer is apparently a singular noun, and since monotheism is supposed (by monotheists) to be in some way superior to polytheism – more sophisticated and mature and sort of serious – therefore clearly the Intelligent Designer is solitary. So what does it do when it’s feeling chatty? There’s no other Designer to chat with. So it designs humans?

Doesn’t seem very likely, does it. Would we really be good conversation-companions for a Designer who had the skills, time, energy, and materials to design the universe? Billions of galaxies each with billions of solar systems? I don’t know about you, but I would feel pretty awkward if I got a dinner invitation from the Designer one fine day. ‘Hi, I feel like a good old natter, drop by the house tonight and we’ll talk.’ And the Designer would feel pretty let down if I did. I just don’t think we’d be talking quite on the same level, you know what I mean?

So if that were the reason, why not design something better? Quite a lot better? There would still be plenty of room to design something inferior enough so as not to be afraid of rivals – while having some possibility of some sort of conversation. But with us? Come on. What are we going to do, talk about football or tv with someone who designs galaxies and lice and supernovae and mangoes?

Actually, why not design something better anyway. Even if the reason for designing humans is not in order to have some pals in this big wide empty cosmos. Even if it’s for some other reason, why not something better? I know, the standard answer is free will. But that assumes that the Designer is somehow engrossed in our moral nature, and the truth is, that doesn’t seem very likely either, does it? Why would it be engrossed in that? Why would it be interested at all?

Of course the old idea was that the Designer created us in its image. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense either. In fact, frankly, it doesn’t make any. The Designer – or the deity, we might as well call it, since that’s what fans of the Designer idea really mean by it, except for Anthony Flew – the deity, then, is omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent – we’re told. As with monotheism, that’s supposed to be the sophisticated mature idea of deity: not the silly quarrelsome sexy all-too-human deities of the ancient Greeks or the Hindus, but a philosophical kind of deity that is Perfect. Okay but then we’re nothing like it and it’s nothing like us. So what did it do – design in weakness, limitation, incompetence, lacks of all kinds? Faults, flaws? Why? To see what we’d do? (That’s usually part of the free will defense. The deity wanted to see what we’d do, so it left us free, and told us not to eat this one piece of fruit, and then kicked back to watch.) So it’s an experiment then. Well…why do people find that consoling or satisfactory? One does have to wonder.

The slightly more modern version of the thought is that we’re here to represent Intelligence, or Mind. But the deity already does that – why bother with us? Maybe to see what this exciting stuff, Intelligence, looks like in a lesser entity? But that seems unconvincing. The deity has perfect Intelligence, as much of it as it’s possible to have. We don’t. So – is what we have even the same kind of thing? Isn’t this one of those cases where quantity and quality are mixed up together? The deity has enough Intelligence to design the universe. Jupiter, the Milky Way, earth, atoms, quarks, eyes, mildew. We don’t. Do we really have the same thing the deity has only in a smaller amount? Like soup? The deity has an ocean, we have a quarter-teaspoon?

I wonder if they ever talk about these things at the Discovery Institute. It’s in Seattle somewhere – do you realize I don’t even know where? But if they do talk about them, what on earth do they say? Maybe just the usual guff. The deity is beyond human comprehension, it’s ineffable, we can’t describe it in human terms, we can’t begin to answer such questions, it’s impious to try, blah blah blah. But then – oh well. You see the problem.

More Skeptical Sceptics

Mar 4th, 2005 12:52 am | By

The Third Skeptics’ Circle is posted. Read, doubt, enjoy.

Duty Duty Duty

Mar 1st, 2005 10:38 pm | By

Last month Richard Posner said something similar to what Stanley Fish said, but Posner said it much more clearly.

For as a practical matter, chief executive officers do not enjoy freedom of speech. A CEO is the fiduciary of his organization, and his duty is to speak publicly only in ways that are helpful to the organization. Not that he should lie; but he must avoid discussing matters as to which his honestly stated views would harm the organization. (Judges also lack complete freedom of speech; as I mentioned in our introductory blog posting, I am not permitted to comment publicly on any pending or impending court case.) Summers must think that his remarks did harm the university, as otherwise he would not have apologized—for he apologized not for what he said, but for saying it.

That’s a bit different from what Fish said – especially in the part about ‘As a faculty member you should not give your president high marks because’ etcetera, which seems to assume that faculty members are going to give a university president ‘marks’ on exactly the same basis that a search committee is. But why would they do that? And is there any reason to think they would do that? Posner doesn’t make that bizarre assumption.

A university president might make provocative remarks because he wanted to change his university in some way, for example by encouraging greater intellectual diversity, or because he wanted to signal strength, independence, intransigence, or other qualities that he thought would increase his authority, or even because he wanted to intimidate certain faculty by seeming to be a “wild man.” But that explanation is not available to Summers, because of the apology.

Fish pretty much overlooked that possibility – that the wild man act could have been part of Summers’ perceived ‘job.’ Anyway, the CEO problem remains. It’s quite interesting. It’s similar to that much-repeated truism, that a corporation’s only responsibility is to maximise shareholders’ profits – a truism that has some very worrying implications for everyone other than that corporations’ shareholders (and even for them if they work for the corporation, or consume its products, or breathe the air in its vicinity). I didn’t really know that CEOs were explicitly required to ‘avoid discussing matters as to which his honestly stated views would harm the organization.’ I suppose I’ve always assumed they would be highly likely to avoid doing that, on account of wanting to maximise their own profits and all, but I didn’t think of it as being their duty. Duty. Hmm – I bet it’s not their duty in a sense that Kant would accept. But Posner isn’t Kant. But still – there is some ambiguity or vagueness hovering around all this, isn’t there? Even in Posner’s version. Clearly that avoidance can be seen as the CEO’s duty to certain people – shareholders, for instance. But can it be seen as the CEO’s duty, full stop? I wouldn’t have thought so. The CEO has duties in capacities other than the CEO capacity. As a citizen, for instance – or as a decent human being. Depending on what the organization is up to, the CEO might have a duty precisely to discuss matters on which her honestly stated views would harm the organization. A civic duty, as opposed to a fiduciary duty.

Whereas it’s another matter with the duty of a judge not to comment on pending cases. I have no problem with that (big of me, isn’t it) (never mind that, I’m just trying to figure this stuff out, here). But for one thing that’s a much more limited gag, and for another thing, it lacks the whole profit-motive, conflict of interest aspect. In short, the idea that CEOs have a duty to talk carefully seems to translate the interest of a small group into a general duty. Or to translate ‘duty’ into ‘what your employers want you to do’ – which can be what duty means, to be sure. ‘Here are your duties in this job.’ But it can also mean something much more general, and binding, and morally-based. Deontological doesn’t refer to employer expectations, surely?

Then again I suppose Posner could just be doing his ‘seeing everything from the point of view of an economist’ act. Or I could just be completely clueless. Bringing the organization into disrepute, I am.

Doing What Job?

Mar 1st, 2005 4:25 am | By

Stanley Fish has an interesting take on the Larry Summers matter. (You don’t mind if I call him Larry do you? Everyone else does. I’m not pretending I know him, it’s just that it’s easier than trying to remember whether he spells it Laurence or Lawrence. Plus it sounds so much more friendly, and knowing, and American, and as if I might be important enough to know him, which I’m not.)

It is only if Summers’ performance at the January 14th conference (where he wondered if the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and math might have a genetic basis) was intentional — it is only if he knew what he was doing — that he can be absolved of the most serious of the charges that might be brought against him. And that is not the charge that his views on the matter were uninformed and underresearched (as they certainly were), nor the charge that he has damaged the cause of women in science (which he surely has), but the charge that he wasn’t doing his job and didn’t even seem to know what it was.

Hmm. It’s not absolutely clear why the last charge would or should be more serious than the second, for intance, or who would be bringing these conditional mood charges, or whether different parties bringing these charges might have different ideas of which ones are more important. But anyway –

Larry Summers is no more free to pop off at the mouth about a vexed academic question than George Bush is free to wander around the country dropping off-the-cuff remarks about Social Security or Islam…The constraints on speaking that come along with occupying a position have nothing to do with the First Amendment (there are no free-speech issues here, as there almost never are on college campuses) and everything to do with the legitimate expectations that are part and parcel of the job you have accepted and for which you are (in this case, handsomely) paid

Wait. Yes he is – more free to pop off at the mouth. Of course he is. Larry Summers isn’t elected, he’s not answerable to the populace as a whole, he’s not accountable in the same way. We didn’t hire Larry Summers. Somebody did, but we didn’t. So these ‘legitimate expectations’ – they’re the concern of Summers’ employers, not the populace at large. Sometimes those two groups have sharply differing expectations. Think whistle-blowers, think union organizers, think Mafia underlings who go to the police.

Those expectations (and the requirements they subtend) are not philosophical, but empirical and pragmatic. They, include, first and foremost, the expectation that you will comport yourself in ways that bring credit, not obloquy, to the institution you lead. That doesn’t mean that there are things you can’t say or things you must say. Rather, it means that whatever you say, you have to be aware of the possible effects your utterance might produce, especially if those effects touch the health and reputation of the university.

So…my employer right or wrong? Is that what he’s saying? Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Which is fascinating. Suppose Summers were the CEO of a tobacco company, testifying to a Congressional subcommittee, and he raised his right hand and swore that he did not believe that nicotine was addictive. He’d be doing that, no doubt, because of his awareness of the effects his utterance would produce on the health and reputation of his company. Good for the company – but not so hot from other points of view. ‘I was just doing my job’ is a pretty discredited defense these days. Enron executives were doing their best to do their jobs as they saw them, but sadly that involved shafting large numbers of employees and investors. Golly. Maybe ‘doing your job’ isn’t really the last word in moral responsibility. Walmart managers give their workers more to do than they can finish on their shifts, with the result that they are forced to work unpaid overtime – not occasionally and by accident but systematically and routinely. That seems to be the managers’ job, from the point of view of whatever next-level managers who are telling them to do it. Does that make it a good thing to do?

As a faculty member you should not give your president high marks because he expresses views you approve or low marks because he espouses views you reject. Your evaluation of him or her (now there’s a solution to Harvard’s problem) should be made in the context of the only relevant question — not “Does what he says meet the highest standards of scholarship?” or “Is what he says politically correct or bravely politically incorrect?” (an alternative form of political correctness) or even “Is what he says true?” but “Is he, in saying it (whatever it is) carrying out the duties of his office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise?”

Ah. The interests of the enterprise. So – when employees of shipping companies dump oil into the ocean, when employees of chemical plants dump toxic sludge in rivers, when extortionists succeed in extracting large sums of money, when engineers in Detroit build ever larger more inefficient more murderous automobiles, when advertisers persuade gullible fools to buy those immense cars by telling them that otherwise everyone will think their penises are too small, when managers of poultry plants and garment factories hire immigrants and pay them less than the minimum wage because they can get away with it – the only relevant question is whether or not they’re carrying out the duties of the office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise? That’s the only relevant question? Why? Why, exactly? Fish doesn’t say. Why doesn’t he? I don’t know. I find it rather baffling.

Well, [the ability to encourage difficult questions] may be the strength of the academy, but it is not the strength sought by search committees when they interview candidates for senior administrative positions. No search committee asks, “Can we count on you to rile things up? Can we look forward to days of hostile press coverage? Can you give us a list of the constituencies you intend to offend?” Search committees do ask, “What is your experience with budgets?” and “What are your views on the place of intercollegiate athletics?” and “What will be your strategy for recruiting a world-class faculty?” and “How will you create a climate attractive to donors?”

Yeah. So what? Fish is not the search committee, so why is he doing their talking for them? Why is he talking as if their point of view is the only one? Why on earth is he talking as if their point of view is the one we should all have? As if the interests of the people the ‘enterprise’ has an effect on are entirely beside the point – not just to the search committee, but to everyone? That’s the silliest argument I’ve seen in awhile. Morris Zapp would be embarrassed.

I Believe Because They Believe and Vice Versa

Mar 1st, 2005 12:02 am | By

The Fifth Carnival of the Godless is posted. And I’ve been meaning to point out this post at Normblog for days. He points out what seem (from the available evidence, e.g. what the article reports) like rather dubious bits of reasoning in an article about the possible evolutionary basis for religion.

There is one quite convincing comment in the article though. It gestures at something I often think.

Childish belief is one thing, but religious belief is embraced by people of all ages and is by no means the preserve of the uneducated. According to Boyer, the persistence of belief into adulthood is at least in part down to a presumption. “When you’re in a belief system, it’s not that you stop asking questions, it’s that they become irrelevant. Why don’t you ask yourself about the existence of gravity? It’s because a lot of the stuff you do every day presupposes it and it seems to work, so where’s the motivation to question it?” he says. “In belief systems, you tend to enter this strange state where you start thinking there must be something to it because everybody around you is committed to it. The general question of whether it’s true is relegated.”

Exactly. We’re often told some variation on the theme ‘Millions and billions of people have believed this stuff for thousands of years, so there must be something to it.’ But that just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, doesn’t it. Everybody looks around and says to herself, ‘By golly, everybody for miles around believes this crap, so there must be something to it, so I’d better shut up about the fact that I think it’s all fairy tales.’ We don’t have a clue how many people would have believed it without the shoring-up effect of all those millions and millions, so the argument isn’t worth much, is it.

Or to put it another way, if everyone believes because everyone else believes, then it could be that everyone believes only because everyone else believes, and no one believes independently of everyone else. No one believes because she already believes and would believe even if she’d been raised by wolves. So then why should anyone believe? Eh? I mean, what kind of argument is that? ‘Well all those other people believe!’ ‘Yes, but that’s only because people like you have been telling them “All those other people believe,” and pointing in this direction.’ It’s hollow. ‘Isobel believes because you believe.’ ‘Oh dear – but I believe because Isobel believes.’ ‘Err…’


Feb 28th, 2005 6:31 pm | By

No comment department. Speaks for itself department. Christian Voice.

“It was a bad day when they let homosexuals in the Armed Forces. People there do not want to be objects of sexual attention from blokes they are sharing a trench or tent with.” He added: “It was an even worse day when they let women on the front line. They should be in the home. The man should be the leader in the family and the woman should be the daughter or wife under the authority of her father and then her husband.”

Yup. Men like you – they should be the authority. Yup.

“We would like to reach out to Muslims and tell them they cannot find salvation in a dead Prophet.”

Right, because Christians have dibs on finding salvation in dead prophets.

(Okay so I commented a little.)

An Abstract and a Party

Feb 28th, 2005 3:37 am | By

And a little humour. Philip Stott tells us about a seminal new paper on climate change.

Abstract: the much-studied ‘Forest Period’ (Fp) persisted in southern England for only the briefest of geological time, being conservatively-dated to between October 14th, 1926 and October 11th, 1928, although some scholars argue that ‘Forest’ remnants may have survived on, and around, tumuli, or small mounds [see: Margot Mythenmaker, 1958. “The utopia of ‘enchanted places’ revisited.” The Panenic Review, Vol. 56(2), [1958] 1959, pp. 3-9]…

Despite the undoubted geological brevity of the ‘Forest Period’, Kaninchen postulates that it is possible to recognise no fewer than seven (7) different climatic phases (Phases FpI to FpVII) for the ‘Forest Period’ (Fp):

(a) Phase FpI: a cool-temperate phase, when the forest was characterised by bears, small pigs (Porcellus spp.), rabbits (Leporus spp.), and donkeys, and, possibly, by the now extinct, Vusillus spp. During this phase, the weather was breezy and balmy in summer, but noted for light snow falls during the winter months, when Vusillus hunting was a major occupation;

Read on.

And then there was that party at PZ Myers’ house a couple of weeks ago. I wish I’d been there.

At academic parties, one of the common things to do is to check out the books lying around (you don’t have to tell me, I know we’re nerds), and I’d happened to have The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People out on the coffee table. Groups of people who ended up sitting on the sofa for a while would find it, chortle over it, and pass it around.

And then, I blush to say, they would find the definition for ‘scientist,’ read it, and leap to the conclusion that it had something to do with the host.

See? Now how could anyone read that at a party at my house and not break into peals of loud and knowing laughter?

So anyway. It’s good fun to make some people you don’t know break into peals of loud and knowing laughter at a party. All the more when they’re in Minnesota.

With But a Single Thought

Feb 28th, 2005 12:22 am | By

And speaking of self-fulfilling prophecies…We were speaking of them the other day in High Tension and ever since I keep bumping into them. You know how that goes, when you mention something or learn a new word and immediately afterward it’s everywhere. It’s been happening to me with that word ‘quotidian’ which I was told is a very rare, peculiar word – I keep hearing and reading it. It doesn’t seem to be all that rare. And self-fulfilling prophecy is everywhere too. There was that Robert Frank article in the NY Times a few days ago (which unfortunately has now gone into the archive and which the link generator never generated a link for, so I can’t quote from it), pointing out that first-year economics students are substantially more likely to believe that people (including economics students) are self-interested than non-economics students are. Actually ‘non-economics students’ is a hand-wave, because I don’t remember who the comparison group was. Than Xs are, it should have said. At any rate, the article was interesting, and persuasive. Many economists do seem to think that way, which makes their writing often a combination of the revelatory and the absurd. One minute one is thinking ‘Oh of course, that’s how that works,’ and the next one is thinking ‘Oh come on, that’s just not the only thing that motivates everyone!’ I’ve had that reaction in reading Frank himself, in fact. The Winner-Take-All Society and Luxury Fever. They’re very explanatory and stimulating, but they also keep leaving out huge aspects of the question, by assuming that everyone wants ‘success’ in the sense of Mo Money. But people want other things too, and sometimes even instead.

And Todd Gitlin talks about it in his Mother Jones article on David Horowitz’s campaign to get state legislatures to bean-count university faculties and their reading lists.

Academics do flock together and sometimes abuse their power. The even more intractable problem is that conformity, both the faculty’s and the students’, is self-fulfilling, lending itself to the enshrinement of the smug, the snug, and the narrow. Much of the muffling, as always, is the product of peer pressure, which is as real at liberal arts colleges as at military academies. When fundamentals go unquestioned and dissenters are intimidated, those who prevail get lazier and dumber.

Yup. But then – as Gitlin goes on to say, the answer is not to get The State (that is, the local real estate agents moonlighting as legislators) to fix the problem. The answer is to question fundamentals yourself. Not call the cops to ask fundamental questions for you, just shrug your shoulders, eat a handful of nuts or arugula for endurance, take a deep breath, and get in there and disagree with someone. Quit whining; show some backbone.

How deep is the silence? Hard to know. Much cited in conservative columns is a 2002 survey by the student newspaper at Wesleyan University, according to which a full 32 percent of the students felt “uncomfortable speaking their opinion” on the famously liberal campus. Whatever that means exactly, the pop-psych language is telling. Since when is higher education supposed to make you feel comfortable, anyway? In a largely unexamined triumph of marketplace values, college has come to be seen as a consumable product…What follows is grade inflation, epidemic cheating, scorn for a common curriculum, and an all-around supermarket attitude. Consumer choice—embrace whatever turns you on, avoid whatever turns you off—is elevated to a matter of high principle.

Exactly. It’s the ‘comfortable’ thing again. See Dictionary. You’re not supposed to feel comfortable! Plenty of time for that once you’re dead. While you’re alive you’re supposed to feel awake, alert, challenged, on the stretch.

And then there was this article about Summers and research on gender differences – which brings us around in a circle, because that was the subject of the ‘High Tension’ post. So we’re talking about the same thing here. Here:

There is a lot of tension in all this – because there are some rational, non-ostrich-like, non-fingers-in-ears, non-You Can’t Say That reasons for worry about, for instance, saying that a particular identifiable set of people may have, in however small a statistical sense, less of a given ability than another set or sets. One such reason is the self-fulfilling prophesy. The worry is that if you tell people – especially and all the more so if you tell them officially academically scientifically studies have shownically – that they are, or they belong to a group or subset of the population that is, statistically, however slightly and tail end effectly, innately less good at X, there is very often a strong tendency for the people in question to give up on X as a result. To relax their efforts, to decide it’s hopeless, to give themselves permission not to bang their heads against a wall.

And in the article:

Aronson and his colleagues have shown that many of the performance differences between men and women, and also between different races, can be erased with minor adjustments that influence test takers’ confidence. Tell a group of girls before a math exam that the test does not detect gender differences in mathematical ability and their scores increase. Tell white men before a similar exam that their scores are going to be compared to those of Asians and their scores drop simply because they think they won’t measure up. “This suggests there’s something about the testing situation itself,” Aronson says. “If there is a biological difference, then it’s one that’s awfully easy to overcome.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy is both interesting in itself, and a difficult problem for questions about policy, research, and the like. It’s not as if everyone can just shut up about everything because of the self-fulfilling propecy issue. But there may be times when everyone should. Just before math class, for instance.


Feb 23rd, 2005 8:20 pm | By

It’s always interesting, unsettling, and difficult to try to figure out if we can ground our moral and political commitments. I read a sentence about James Fitzjames Stephen’s criticism of Mill’s On the Subjection of Women this morning that caught my attention – ‘His [Stephen’s] own position was that equality was like liberty: it was not an absolute good but sometimes good and sometimes not.’ Not that that’s a startling idea, of course. It’s not a news flash that equality has not always been thought an absolute good or even a good at all, and that for instance the famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence struck most contemporary observers as downright absurd rather than self-evident. And Leslie Stephen’s brother was notoriously a hard guy, fond of saying harshly unsentimental things to dewy-eyed Victorians. No, it’s just that for whatever reason it made me ask myself if I thought it was an absolute good, or a quasi-absolute good, or at any rate a general good, and if so, if I could ground the thought, or if I just thought it because I thought it because I thought it.

Well (you won’t be surprised to hear), I do think it’s a general good, though also one that’s often in tension with other goods. (Can I get away with saying general instead of absolute?) But I would think that – I was born into a time and place in which the thought is taken for granted. So why do I think it apart from that.

Because I think it’s not good for people to think they are by birth somehow globally (not in particular attributes but all over and overall) subordinate, inferior, low. Born to obey, born to serve. Why? I find it hard to go farther than that. Because it’s limiting, narrowing, stunting. It closes off hopes, dreams, possibilities, ambitions. It makes people feel bad, i.e. inferior, and that seems to be a bad thing by definition. Not desirable, not what we want, not what we like. Do people say ‘I’m inferior and that makes me happy, I don’t want to be told that I’m not inferior’? Not that I’m aware of. They change it to ‘different,’ as in ‘Women are not inferior but different’ from anti-feminist women.

The subject links with the ‘What’s so great about nature?’ articles by Paula Bourges Waldegg and Edmund Standing we’ve published lately. Subordination is natural enough, certainly. Many animal species have elaborate hierarchies, enforced with sharp teeth and heavy bodies. Bully for them. We don’t like it. Or rather, those of us on the bottom don’t like it, and after of millions of years some of us have come to the conclusion that the bottom view is the better one, that the happiness and well-being and flourishing and ability to carry out life projects of the people on the bottom, should trump the happiness that the people on top derive from having a pool of born subordinates to use as they like. That the first is worth more than the second, and causes things to go better overall. At least we seem to have; and in some places we have, at least formally and legally; hence the arguments.


Feb 22nd, 2005 11:45 pm | By

And then there’s Nick Cohen on Ken Livingstone and his loyalty to another example of religious wisdom, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

The useful label ‘the pseudo-left’ has been knocking around the internet political blogs since 11 September, and it is high time it was brought into the mainstream media. It’s a shorthand description of the spectacle of left moving to the right, often to the far-right, and embracing obscurantists, theocrats and, in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and its Baathist ‘insurgents’, classic fascists…All that the left has opposed since the Enlightenment become acceptable, as long as the obscurantists, theocrats and fascists are anti-Americans and as long as their victims aren’t Western liberals.

Which is intensely depressing, because their victims are people like Minna and Fariba, instead.

In June 2003 Qaradawi pondered the question of how a Muslim who decided of his own free will to convert to another religion or become an atheist should be treated. Instead of saying it was none of his business what adults choose to believe, Qaradawi replied: ‘He is no more than a traitor to his religion and his people and thus deserves killing.’ Female genital mutilation was fine by him – ‘whoever finds it serving the interest of his daughters should do it, and I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world.’ A little light wife-beating could also be excused – ‘if the husband senses that feelings of disobedience and rebelliousness are rising against him in his wife, he should try his best to rectify her attitude by kind words, gentle persuasion, and reasoning with her… If this approach fails, it is permissible for him to admonish her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive areas.’

I really like that last bit. Note that the wife hasn’t even done anything, or said anything. She just has some feelings, that the husband ‘senses’ – and if he can’t persuade her out of them (and only he knows if he senses them or not, right? So even if she says she doesn’t have such feelings, if he still senses them – well…) then he needs to start hitting her. What would he be entitled to do if she had actually done something, one wonders. But never mind that. Let’s focus on the main point. The wife is not only not allowed to own her own self (women are not allowed to refuse to marry under many implementations of Islam), she’s not allowed to own her own thoughts and feelings. She’s not only enslaved (if she’s required to marry, she’s enslaved; if it’s not voluntary, it’s slavery), she has this supervisor peering into her thoughts all the time, and ‘sensing’ when she has rebellious or disobedient feelings. Well what the hell other kinds of feelings is she going to have?!? Excuse me for shouting, but really. What a setup. Forced to marry a self-appointed mind-reader who is entitled to hit you whenever you start feeling rebellious. Talk about Catch-22. You might as well chain someone onto a merry-go-round and then hit her for going round and round all the time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that he’s not just a grubby machine politician but is sincere when he declares that he is defending Qaradawi to the hilt because, ‘I have a responsibility to support the rights of all of London’s diverse communities and to maintain a dialogue with their political and religious leaders.’ He doesn’t seem to realise that this bland formulation is cover for a deeply reactionary manoeuvre which is being practised across the Western pseudo-left. First they define ‘communities’ by their religion. Then they assumed that misogynist and anti-democratic practitioners of that religion are the true leaders of their communities. The inevitable consequence is that liberals, socialists and feminists in the poor world are betrayed. They look to the Western homes of liberalism, socialism and feminism and are greeted with indifference or spite.

Exactly. Define ‘communities’ by their religion, then assume that the most misogynist practitioners available are the leaders of said community. Another Catch-22. It’s some kind of multiculti masochism, I think. The idea seems to be that if the cultural practices of the Other are too, you know, acceptable, decent, fair, then we’re not really being multiculti enough, because there’s no internal resistance to overcome. Overcoming the internal resistance has become (in some minds) the end in itself. So (the logic seems to be) if the practice doesn’t make us cringe and squirm, well, we’re getting off too lightly. We have to tolerate really hateful stuff or we’re just wimping out. I’ve heard and seen people make arguments just like that. Disdainful comments about being multicultural as long as it doesn’t bite. But the trouble is, it’s other people – the Other, in fact – who get bitten by those practices, not the uncomfortable but unscathed observers.

When Fariba Met Habib

Feb 22nd, 2005 9:26 pm | By

And speaking of religion and the religiously-inclined and the contortions they can make to save the phenomena…There is this CBC documentary about two Iranian women who survive via prostitution. Homa Arjomand sent me the link. Homa gets busier all the time, with media and speaking engagements. Let’s hope there will soon be more and more women sharing the workload.

For over a year, director Nahid Persson filmed the everyday lives of two young female prostitutes as they eked out a living in a country where the profession is banned. The filmmaker often took great risks to follow Minna and Fariba as they sought out customers-men who would often marry them briefly, so as not to violate the laws of the Koran by having extramarital sex. The two women are good friends and neighbours, who have experienced the widespread mistreatment of women and the double standards that permeate Iranian society today.

That’s nice, isn’t it? Touching. The men marry the women ‘briefly’ (briefly meaning, presumably, for fifteen minutes or so [to allow time for the amenities, and unzipping the fly]) so as not to violate the laws of the Koran against exploiting women. Oh I’m sorry, that’s not what it says, is it. Fancy that.

So is Allah fooled, I wonder? Is he mollified? Does he think this is a good system? Does he sit up there gloating happily, beaming down on darling Iran? ‘Oh look! How pure my beloved Iran is, with no extramarital sex or fooling around. That is so good and heartening and wonderful! No sex outside of marriage! Yay! Of course, the place is full of dirt-poor women being treated like toilets by their hahahaha ‘husbands’ all the same, but who cares about that?! Everybody in Iran who has genital-to-genital contact is spliced! That’s all I give a rat’s ass about!’ Is that what he says? Is that what his submissive subjects think he says? I mean, are they kidding? Or what. Oh who knows. People convince themselves that if they ‘pray’ then God will do what they ask whereas if they don’t he won’t, and at the same time that he is perfect and everywhere and kind and all-knowing, so whatever.

In the ’80s, documentary filmmaker Nahid Persson fled Iran for Sweden. When she returns 17 years later, she finds the divisions between the classes greater than ever, unemployment has skyrocketed…Putting herself at great risk, Persson manages to film Minna and Fariba’s customers…Many of the women’s customers find a way to buy sex and still comply with Muslim law: they marry with the women in what is called ‘sighe’-a temporary marriage legal in Shia Islam. ‘Sighe’ can last from two hours up to 99 years. In the documentary, both Minna and Fariba undergo ‘sighe’ with customers. Habib offers his perspective on temporary marriages: to him, ‘sighe’ is a way of helping miserable women-an act of mercy done in the name of Allah.

Oh, two hours. I was being grossly cynical in thinking they could get away with fifteen minutes. Two hours. Man, that’s some pretty heavy commitment. Pretty good marriages, are they? Do they fit the whole thing into that two hours? Shared housework, visiting the in-laws, sending Ramadan cards, cozy chats over Horlicks at midnight? Doesn’t it sound sweet. But I have a suspicion that’s not how it goes. I’m thinking that actually the guy runs off after fifteen minutes to go hang with his homies, and then comes back when the two hours are up, sticks his head in the door (or the hole in the wall) to say ‘I divorce you I divorce you I divorce you, bye, it was fun!’. I’m just guessing though. Maybe the two lovebirds are really happy together for that two hours. She teases him about always throwing his socks on the floor, he teases her about the way she dresses (you know, like a prostitute and all). Kind of a ‘Mad About You’ scenario but speeded up. Could be cute. Could have legs. Kind of Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn-slash-Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan type thing. Somebody call Hollywood.