Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.

Consulting Mr Mill

Apr 21st, 2009 11:58 am | By

G mentioned, and quoted a bit of, On Liberty yesterday. I’d been thinking of quoting it myself, and G sent me to the right bit to quote, so here is some more. From the last paragraph of Chapter 2.

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.

That’s just it, you see. Theists and fans of faith were always going to say that atheists were too noisy and ‘militant’ and dogmatic and whatever other stick came to hand. Of course they were. They weren’t going to like explicit atheism, and once the explicit atheism hit the best-seller lists, well – the result was what you might call overdetermined. Of course they would say atheists were too noisy! For the very reason that Mill suggests. Shouting that atheists are too noisy is a lot easier than arguing. So to conclude that therefore atheists really are too noisy and should be more quiet now so that…so that I’m not sure what, is to conclude too much.

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions.


In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion.

Thank you and good evening.

‘Equal’ does not mean ‘the same’…

Apr 21st, 2009 11:23 am | By

I was going to post a comment to say that things didn’t actually get all that much better but I was relieved to see that someone already had.

This isn’t necessarily a substantive change. The Afghani Constitution is written in a way that simultaneously enshrines conflicting values, leaving wiggle room to really do anything you want regarding women- or remain paralyzed in confusion. And a Western audience is particularly susceptible to not “getting” this because of the power of some of the lipservice to rights, and the common ignorance of how Islamic law actually works…“Equal” does not mean (has not meant) “identical” in an Islamic context regarding gender, especially in the realm of family and personal law. “Equal” can mean “complementary,” (*wink*) meaning, patriarchal gender roles being upheld with the full force of the State. So, basically, women are screwed.

Precisely. Equal can and very often does mean ‘complementary,’ and women are indeed screwed. The Vatican, the FLDS, conservative Baptists – all use this trick. There’s a chapter of Does God Hate Women? that’s largely about that. Pretending to give with one hand and violently snatching away with the other. Bastards.

One, two, three…twenty-four

Apr 20th, 2009 6:15 pm | By

You know how I keep saying (among other things) ‘But why are all these people calling atheists too loud too talkative too militant too out there too much too often too loud too excessive when they don’t call believers that and yet there are a lot more religious books and articles and invocations and devocations than there are of the atheist variety?’ You do know, right? So today I was at the University bookstore and I decided to do a rough quantitative study. The books on religion of course stretched to the horizon, so I made things easy for myself, I counted the space given to ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Metaphysical and Astrology’ (the two are neighbours). Three sections of shelf, four shelves each, for twelve in all. Atheist books take up less than half of one shelf. That’s a ratio of 24 to 1.

So why are we considered too noisy? Really. When even in a university bookstore the spiritual/’metaphysical’ crowd are 24 times more noisy than we are, and that’s before we even start counting the religious books.

These mysteries are byond human understanding. They are ineffable. I can’t eff ‘em, not nohow.

Out of the dark cupboard

Apr 20th, 2009 11:41 am | By

Here’s the thing…It’s illiberal on the face of it to tell people to be quiet, or even to turn down the volume, in a liberal rights-based culture that places a high value on free open frank uninhibited discussion – and one that does so not arbitrarily or as a mere matter of preference but for good reasons, which can be freely openly frankly uninhibitedly discussed. The idea and the value of free open discussion is central to liberal culture, and we all depend on it very heavily indeed, perhaps more heavily than we can realize while we continue to have it. In such a culture there is a presumption against urging people to turn down the volume. That is doubly or triply the case when the subject matter is taken by many to be 1) innocent (not criminal or harmful) and 2) enlightening. So the people who want to say ‘pipe down’ have a heavy burden of justification. The presumption isn’t on their side.

A very strong background assumption in liberal culture is that open free discussion is healthy – is generally a good thing. There are exceptions – certain kinds of discussion of race for instance may be hedged with caution (Ahmadinejad’s speech at Durban II springs to mind) – but even there, caution and hedging are not always seen as the best way to go. Obama said in his great speech on race that we could shut up about the whole subject, but we ought not to. He is the product of a liberal culture; the product of it, an educator about it, a defender of it, an ambassador for it. I think it is one of the better ideas of liberal culture, this idea that we should be able to discuss most things openly, freely, without fear or shyness.

If I’m right about that, then telling people they are discussing something too openly and freely and noisily is inherently likely to antagonize liberals (as opposed to authoritarians). If you’ve followed any of the discussions between Matthew Nisbet and Everyone Else over the past few years, you’ll know what I mean. We’re primed to think that yanking taboo subjects out of that cupboard under the stairs is a good thing, so people who tell us to put it back into the cupboard have a steep hill to climb.

Poor shivering baby

Apr 19th, 2009 11:12 am | By

I think I can do a little to clarify what Julian has in mind (because I did a little background re-reading). I think it’s more interesting than these two recent articles might suggest (just as Russell said in comments).

I re-read the end of Atheism a VSI, because I did a comment on it in January 2007 and some of the issues are the same. My attention was snagged by a passage about Don Cupitt, who ‘finds himself under fire from Christians and atheists, who both think he is actually an atheist after all and should just admit it, but I think his attempt to save something distinctive from the wreckage of religious belief is admirable…’ Ah, thought I, so perhaps via Don Cupitt I can better pin down what Julian means by ‘what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away.’ So I plucked my copy of What Philosophers Think from the shelf and found the interview with Don Cupitt and read it. He’s a non-realist about God, so one inevitably wonders well why bother then (and Julian did press him on that point) – but he did say some interesting things. The interview is in the archive, in case you have access.

‘I sometimes quote there the contrast between Sartre’s atheism and the reli gious attitude of a British philosopher like Ernest Gellner, who was certainly no theist and no religious believer. But he did tell me, “I have a religious attitude to life”. He wondered at life, he felt there was something there that deserved our respect and acknowledgement, just in the flow of life itself. He didn’t like either the Marxist or the atheist existentialist view of the individual human being as a purely sovereign positer of values and organiser of the world. One needs to have a sort of to-and-fro, a dialectic between the self and life. I have suggested that in today’s thinking the word “life” has taken on much of the religious significance that the word God used to have.’

When you strip away from religion all the excess baggage Cupitt believes needs removing, this seems to be at the core of what remains. Cupitt describes this attitude as ‘love of life, a kind of moral responsiveness to existence, no more than that, trying to get away from a rather aggressively masculine, Sartrean imperialism of the will.’

I wouldn’t call that religious, and I don’t think religion has a monopoly on it – but I can at least see what Cupitt is getting at. ‘A kind of moral responsiveness’ – that does describe something (in my view) even if I don’t agree that the something is religious.

I wondered in what sense religion could still be a source of values if we accept that all values are human-made…’We don’t just think up our values and impose them on experience. Rather our thinking is always prompted by things out there, persons who think for us. It’s no accident that celebrity endorsement and celebrity opinion is nowadays needed for English people to take any idea at all seriously. We do things by various kinds of proxies, symbols and ideas. Very few people are purely sovereign and autonomous creative thinkers in a post-Cartesian individualist way. Most of us work through myths, through other people, through values derived from religion.’

Okay – now that I get. I have said here, some time in the past, that I can see the value of the idea of God as an externalization of the idea of goodness or of being good. Thinking of God not with fear as a punisher but with love and emulation as someone who simply wants humans to be good – kind, generous, forgiving, helpful – that I can understand. All the more so of course if it’s a non-realist God.

The trouble of course is that so many believers think of God’s idea of goodness as something horribly different from kindness – but that’s another story.

‘So I want to say,’ he continues, ‘religion supplies us with poetry and myths to live by and human beings need stories to live by. Because our existence is temporal we’ve always got to construct some kind of story of our lives and that story, to my mind, needs to have a religious quality. So I don’t think any religious beliefs are literally true, but I think they’re all existentially or morally useful, or a great many of them are.’

Religion without doctrine, religion without creed, religion without belief in another, spiritual world, distinct from the world we live in – that is what Cupitt is striving for. Is religion without all these things still religion? The question bothered me more before meeting Cupitt than after. Whether you call it religion or not, Cupitt is trying to show us the precious baby sitting in the now rather dirty bath water of traditional religion. What we call it is neither here nor there; what matters is whether or not we should be saving it.

Well there you go. (That’s the final paragraph of the interview.) That’s exactly it. It’s a nice baby, but alas it’s not the only baby, and we’re not sure that the only way to get at the baby is through the dirty bath water, and so on. Julian himself doesn’t seem all that convinced. I’m not at all convinced but I can at least see what Cupitt is getting at. That’s something.

There are only three things the guys let you be

Apr 18th, 2009 5:47 pm | By

It’s a pig’s life for women in the US military.

According to several studies of the US military funded by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 30% of military women are raped while serving, 71% are sexually assaulted, and 90% are sexually harassed. The Department of Defense acknowledges the problem, estimating in its 2009 annual report on sexual assault (issued last month) that some 90% of military sexual assaults are never reported.

Well yes but don’t forget, women are privileged, the bitches.

I was the only female in my platoon of 50 to 60 men. I was also the youngest, 17. Because I was the only female, men would forget in front of me and say these terrible derogatory things about women all the time. I had to hear these things every day. I’d have to say ‘Hey!’ Then they’d look at me, all surprised, and say, ‘Oh we don’t mean you.’

Hm. I wonder if they ever referred to women as cunts. Ya think?

There are only three things the guys let you be if you’re a girl in the military – a bitch, a ho, or a dyke. You’re a bitch if you won’t sleep with them. A ho if you’ve even got one boyfriend. A dyke if they don’t like you. So you can’t win.

Oh well, those are just words, they don’t matter.

Ask the chaplain

Apr 18th, 2009 5:36 pm | By

Talk Islam obligingly posted the whole of Chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser’s email message on apostasy. He starts off by laying down some ground rules.

While I understand that will happen and that there is some benefit in them, in the main, it would be better if people were to withhold from debating such things, since they tend not to have the requisite familiarity with issues and competence to deal with them. Debating about religious matter is impermissible, in general, and people rarely observe the etiquette of disagreements.

But this is an issue that necessarily is of pressing interest to all Muslims. They have a natural desire to know if they are to be killed or not if they should ever decide to leave Islam. Therefore it is only natural that they should want to know about it, and if they learn something they don’t altogether like, to argue about it. It seems more than a little unfair to say that that is impermissible. It would be like telling Americans that it is impermissible for us to debate about capital punishment, when we could be subject to it. In the US it is not impermissible to debate about capital punishment.

The preponderant position in all of the 4 sunni madhahib (and apparently others of the remaining eight according to one contemporary `alim) is that the verdict is capital punishment. Of concern for us is that this can only occur in the domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority and can not be performed by non-state, private actors.

Of concern for us? Meaning that capital punishment for leaving Islam is not of concern if it is in the domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority? Why’s that then? Because Abdul-Basser and the people he’s talking to are all outside that domain and supervision and thus don’t have to worry about it? Well, if so, that’s rather callous. In fact it’s worse than callous: it’s complicit and callous. What it means is that Abdul-Basser is adhering to a religion that kills people who leave it when it has state power, while staying out of reach of such power himself. If he in fact is happy to be safe while still defending the religion that executes other, distant people simply for changing their religion – he’s a nasty man.

Maybe that’s not what he meant. But that is what it looks like.

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically. And Allah knows best.

Ah; well that’s consoling. As long as Allah knows best, and everybody knows what Allah wants (but do they? how? how do we know? how do they know? how does anyone know? if everybody knows why does anybody have to ask Abdul-Basser? if anyone doesn’t know then how does everyone know that someone knows and who that is and how to know who it is?) then being killed for changing your religion is no problem. That’s a relief.

The atheists had it coming

Apr 17th, 2009 5:30 pm | By

Hmm…I hope Julian isn’t permanently joining the tedious chorus of people shouting at ‘new’ atheists to shut up. It’s not a very glorious vocation.

Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it. I don’t think many of my fellow atheists would disagree.

I would – depending on what is meant by ‘what is true about it.’ I don’t think anything is true about it, if we mean factually true. If we mean something much looser by ‘true’ such as ‘having some good things to say about compassion or peace’ then I don’t think religion has anything to offer that is inherent to religion as opposed to simply widely-shared moral intuitions, so again, I don’t really think there is anything true about it (about it alone, to the exclusion of other ways of thinking). If I want wisdom about morality or justice I don’t turn to clerics. There are other sources, who are less encumbered by beliefs that need to be protected.

Why is it, then, that we are increasingly seen as shrill, bishop-bashing fanatics who are tone deaf to the spiritual?

Because people like Matthew Nisbet and Madeleine Bunting and now, alas, you, keep writing pieces that call us shrill, bishop-bashing fanatics who are tone deaf to the spiritual, that’s why. Or at least that sure as hell is part of why. It’s a drum that a number of people have been banging on with frenzied energy – Chris Hedges comes to mind – for two or three years now; obviously it’s had an effect! So it’s a little disingenuous to ask such a question while engaged in yet more of the same thing. Why is it that we are seen as shrill fanatics, Julian asks, while engaged in the 40 thousandth piece calling us shrill fanatics.

The answer, I fear, is to be found in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In short, we had it coming.

Really – for what crime? For not being quiet enough? For not being evasive enough?

Last week, in these pages, Madeleine Bunting spoke for many when she complained about the “foghorn volume” and “evangelical fervour” of the New Atheists, with their “contempt for religion”…Atheists who criticised the details of Bunting’s argument missed the point. What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature.

He says, doing his bit to re-enforce it that little bit more.

You can’t publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

You also can’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) set about scolding books with titles like The God Delusion and God is Not Great when you are on record as not having read them, and you also shouldn’t scold people for titles (The Root of all Evil?) that other people chose for them and that they are on record as detesting. That’s unfair, frankly. We mentioned this to Julian last time…

Perhaps a period of New Atheist exuberance was necessary. At least it got people thinking, although I fear it has confirmed every negative stereotype about it. We now need to turn down the volume and engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away.

But there again – not having read the books, how can Julian know that the volume is up? How can he know that the ‘new’ atheist books don’t engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion?

PZ is also skeptical, and so is Jason Rosenhouse.

A paradigm

Apr 17th, 2009 12:36 pm | By

No no, I’m not starting it up again, I just want to offer a little illustration of what I’ve been saying, which is that the (putative) fact that ‘cunt’ does not refer to women and is not an insulting epithet for women in the UK does not mean that that description holds everywhere. I consulted Google blog search, and one of the first items was a rather truculent San Francisco blog

This Just In: Jeanene Garofalo is a CUNT

Ugly, bitter, has-been Jeanene Garofalo spews more racist hatred on Olbermann.

Bitch still thinks she’s funny. But I guess we can remove the “still” – seeing that she was never funny.

What motivates a person like Garofalo to scream “racist” at anyone who dares object to her God Obama?

I trust I don’t have to convince anyone that that post conveys more than a whiff of misogyny?

I certainly hope I don’t.

The hegemonic modern human rights discourse

Apr 16th, 2009 6:23 pm | By

Harvard has an ‘Islamic chaplain’. Lucky Harvard.

Harvard Islamic chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser ’96 has recently come under fire for controversial statements in which he allegedly endorsed death as a punishment for Islamic apostates. In a private e-mail to a student last week, Abdul-Basser wrote that there was “great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment [for apostates]) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand.”

Oooooookay, isn’t that interesting. One shouldn’t dismiss out of hand the idea that apostates from Islam should be executed, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse. So Harvard has a chaplain who not only quasi-approves (or perhaps fully approves, who knows) death for apostasy, it has one who is disdainful (in a Theoretical kind of way) of human rights. Harvard has a chaplain who not only thinks that perhaps it is ‘wisdom’ to kill people for leaving a religion, but also thinks killing people for leaving a religion is better than human rights. He doesn’t think, then, that people have or should have a human right to leave a religion without being killed for doing so. Harvard has a chaplain of this description. Isn’t that fascinating.

It’s good, under the circumstances, to see that students have no fear about speaking up.

“I believe he doesn’t belong as the official chaplain,” said one Islamic student, who asked that he not be named to avoid conflicts with Muslim religious authorities…“[His remarks] are the first step towards inciting intolerance and inciting people towards violence,” said a Muslim Harvard student, who requested that he not be named for fear of harming his relationship with the Islamic community…A Muslim student at MIT, who also asked to remain anonymous to preserve his relationship with the Islamic community, said the chaplain’s remarks wrongly suggested that only Westerners and Westernized Muslims who did not fully understand Islam would find the killing of apostates objectionable.

Spot on, Muslim student at MIT; that’s exactly what the chaplain’s remarks suggest, insultingly enough. But how sad it is that these students want to preserve their relationship with a ‘community’ that they think might disagree with them about this. How sad that their ‘community’ might agree with Abdul-Basser, and might shun the students for not agreeing with him. How depressing it all is.

Alors, ça suffit maintenant

Apr 15th, 2009 5:16 pm | By

One or two more items, by way of mopping up. (And just in case there is any doubt on the matter, as apparently there was for at least one commenter: no I don’t think the importance of the subject is in proportion to the time I’ve spent on it; no the fact that I’ve done several posts on it doesn’t mean that I think words are more important than, say, marrying a child of 8 to a man 52 years her senior. I’m just interested; and there is a lot of disagreement and a lot of testimony. I’m interested in language – this is not a big surprise, surely; one of the first things I did with B&W was to start the Fashionable Dictionary. I write about what interests me, in the full faith and confidence that if any reader or readers find a particular post boring, they will know they don’t have to read it. There’s no exam, there’s no exit question, nobody has to read any of this.)

Jeremy told me an anecdote last week. He (you may or may not know) is from London, now lives in Toronto.

“I was at soccer, and some guy on the opposing team was acting the tough guy, and I said something like – “You couldn’t hurt pussy, mate”, which to a UK person kind of makes sense (it just means you couldn’t hurt a small furry animal – though I think I picked it up from my father, so it isn’t something that many people say).

Anyway, there were gasps all around, and someone on my own team said:

“What did you just say!?”

Of course, I’d just said something that (a) was just very bizarre – suggesting a penchant for sexual violence or something; and (b) probably a violation of numerous taboos. Luckily, people guessed that in the UK it didn’t mean what it means here, so I escaped with my life. But it was a close thing!”

So apparently in Toronto it’s risky to assume it means kitty-cat.

But then you move farther east…He told me this yesterday:

“Strange thing. I mentioned this stuff to a Canadian woman tonight (born here), she said that hearing ‘pussy’, even as an insult, she would only really think of cats. She’s aware of the female genital meaning, of course, but denied it would be what came to mind.

When I expressed surprise, she claimed that there’s a difference between the way in which people in the Maritime provinces – where she was brought up – understand this stuff and people in the rest of Canada. It’s less Americanized (so she said).”

Another friend of mine, who has emigrated the other way – from California to Surrey – made this point, after discussing the oddity of ‘how gay’:

“I’m away or I’d look up some quotes about how words ‘chime’, they carry overtones of meaning because they mean more than one thing. In essence, if you know multiple meanings of ‘gay’, then you cannot mention one without invoking the overtones of the other.”

That’s a crucial point, I think. After this discussion I might not go so far as to say you can’t (if only because I’m so sick of Adam yelling at me), but I would at least say that you should realize the possibility is always there.

That’s not even very controversial, is it? Aren’t there quite a few words (like tea-bagging!) that have overtones one doesn’t always want to invoke? Don’t we all know that? Don’t we hesitate over certain words? I think we do, and I don’t think this is particularly different.

And then there’s some just plain stupidity. From the comments:

Look, I can call another bloke a twat just as I can call a girl a prick and neither have any more significant meaning when the terms are reversed. I think you’re just being a massive prude with this whole sexist epithet thing.

It’s got nothing to do with prudery – that’s just a category mistake. It’s not about swearing, it’s not about obscenity, it’s not about blasphemy, it’s not about genitalia as such, it’s about epithets; name-calling; pejoratives. That’s a different subject.

And then just to top it all off we get a guy wondering if women are really all that badly treated – and then I lose my temper. Yes – women are all that badly treated. I’m not, of course, but I’m fortunate; women in Uganda and Pakistan and DR Congo and Nicaragua and Saudi Arabia and a lot of other places are not. Do me a favour: don’t play ‘comparative oppression’ with me. I’m not in the mood.

Welcome to austerity

Apr 15th, 2009 11:59 am | By

Saudi Arabia has seen the error of its ways. Or perhaps not.

Saudi Arabia says it plans to start regulating the marriage of young girls, amid controversy over a union between a 60-year-old man and a girl of eight. A court in Unaiza upheld the marriage on condition the groom does not have sex with her until she reaches puberty.

Oh good; because the only problem with marrying a child of 8 to a man of 60 is of course that she won’t much want him to fuck her, yet. There is no other problem. No problem with ending her schooling, no problem with her having to live with (and under the rule of) a man more than seven times older than she is, a man old enough to be her great-great-grandfather, a man she didn’t know and didn’t ask to marry, a man with whom she can be assumed to have absolutely nothing in common. No problem with consigning her to what amounts to a long prison sentence when she is too young to have committed a crime by any sane legal definition. No problem with deciding her life before she is anywhere near old enough to think about it herself. No problem with turning her into a wife when she is all of two years older than Sasha Obama and should be playing with a puppy rather than obeying some horrible old bastard who thinks himself entitled to marry a child.

Saudi Arabia implements an austere form of Sunni Islam that bans free association between the sexes and gives fathers the right to wed their children to whomever they deem fit.

That’s a stupid word for it – ‘austere.’ Typical BBC mealy-mouthing. What’s austere got to do with it? Where does austerity come in? It’s not austere, it’s harsh and punitive and degrading and cruel. What is ‘austere’ about making a small child marry an adult seven times her age? What is the luxury or hedonism or voluptuousness that that is the antidote to? The wallowing sybaritic indulgence of going on being a child, and going to school, and not being married to some old goat? Is that it? If so, what about the old goat then? Is he being ‘austere’ by marrying a child too young to cross the street by herself? That doesn’t sound like austerity to me. Greedy, ruthless, piggish, hard as nails, yes; austere, no.

Empty signs

Apr 13th, 2009 12:22 pm | By

I wrote to the women’s studies list yesterday to ask for thoughts on sexist epithets, especially pussy and cunt. Here is a sampling from replies.

“Recently, I was standing at the bus stop with a young man who was singing along to rap music. Suddenly, he yelled “Bitch!” and I almost ran for cover. But he was just singing along to the music. Can anyone wonder why young women are treated so badly when the music kids listen to describes them as bitches, evil, and mean?”

“I’m not sure who your informants are but I can absolutely disabuse you of their misinformation. “Cunt” is seen as one of the worst possible expletives that can be used. “Twat” is aged and falling out of fashion currently. “Pussy” has a little ambiguity as (now very old) comedies occassionaly play on the dual usages as a colloquial for cat and for genitalia. I’d be surprised to see any evidence that the meaning of these words isn’t known – what evidence do your informants proffer for that view?

In my opinion is it explicitly sexist but for slightly different reasons – its implication is that the worst possible thing is to be penetrated and that penetration is a sign of weakness in that instance. It relies on a belief that penetration is synonymous with strength and masculinity and to be penetrable is a sign of weakness. It also (certainly in the UK) is often used in the trope which asserts that female genitalia are dirty and smelly.” [That one is from someone at Oxford, so she's not clueless about UK usage.]

“I had a discussion about “pussy” in my psych of women class recently, and the students insisted that when Jon Stewart and others use the word they mean “weak as a kitten.” Of course, that is sexist, especially when men apply it to each other to suggest they are not macho enough. But I think they are wrong in their understanding.”

Katha Pollitt refused to believe that the British are ignorant of the word ‘cunt.’ Well I sympathize, I can’t believe it either, and yet people insist – not quite exactly that they’re ignorant of the meaning, but that that’s no longer what the word means. In particular John Meredith in comments on Knowing what words mean.

“‘Slag’ is, nearly always, a sexist term…It means a woman who is disgusting by dint of having more sex than is approved. It is sexist because it can only be applied to women and evinces disgust simply because she is a woman and behaves like one. But ‘cunt’ which can really only be applied to men, just means (in its sweary sense) ‘bastard’ and does not imply any hostility towards women as women, so is not sexist. It is an empty sign, really, that just indicates ‘I feel extreme hostility towards you to the degree that I will use a taboo word for you’. The word itself could be one of dozens used pretty much interchangeably.”

I find that completely incomprehensible, and hard to believe. Just for one thing, why is the word taboo if it’s an empty sign? What is it that makes the word taboo if it is just an empty sign? What are the dozens of other words that could be used interchangeably? I don’t think there’s even one, let alone dozens. As far as I know, cunt is right at the top of the heap of Bad Words to call someone, and it is there because it is the most vicious hate-filled word for the female genitalia, while ‘pussy’ is a little less vicious and ‘twat’ is comparatively mild.

But there’s also a thread on Shiraz Socialist:

The word “cunt” is a highly effective insult precisely because of its shock value – nothing is more guaranteed to upset the secretary of the local WI than such a word. It’s no more endemically “oppressive” than any other word, the point is the context in which it is used. As Rosie said, it’s simply nonsense to claim that most people who use the word these days are referring to female genitalia, any more than when they call someone “posh” they are referring to Port Out Starboard Home. When they use the word “cunt”, they just mean that they really really disapprove of or dislike the individual to whom they’re referring. Like the word, dislike it, use it or don’t – I should care. But don’t invent a hierarchy of oppression amongst swear-words which is simply a false excuse for some left-wing version of parochial moralism.

I don’t buy it. If the word has shock value, then the shock value comes from somewhere. If the shock value comes from somewhere, where does it come from? I submit that it comes from the fact that it is a word that 1) equates women to their genitals and 2) expresses hatred for both. If that’s not where the shock value comes from, then where does it come from?

More later.

Here kitty kitty kitty kitty

Apr 11th, 2009 6:14 pm | By

Out of curiosity, since Jean told us Jon Stewart did a segment playing off the word ‘pussy,’ I googled his name and ‘pussy’ – and got a lot of hits, most of them not about that segment. They don’t support the ‘pussy just means kittycat’ view.

For instance:

You already know my feelings on Stewart, particularly after that notorious appearance on Crossfire – but you’re being much to kind to call him a wimp, I’ve always felt that he’s a big pussy, period.

Wimp is too nice, you see; Stewart is worse than that; he’s a big pussy.

For another example:

Thank you to the team at Josh Marshall’s liberal TPM blog for putting together this lovely clip of Cramer desperately stomping around various NBC studios, finding any and all operational cameras, and yelling at them about how Jon Stewart is a sack of shit. In one of these episodes, Joe Scarborough gets in on the act! They talk about how Jon Stewart is dishonest, mean, personal, a cherry-picker, an idiot, and a pussy.

I detect a pattern; do you? It looks to me as if tough-guy liberal-hating right-wing types love the word and fling it around like confetti because it means everything they hate about liberals – which is that liberals are weak, cowardly, sentimental, cowardly, manipulative, cowardly, and just all around generally like women. Which fits exactly with that comment about Mo, and doesn’t sound at all like cats or like sweet fluffy cuddly animals.

Trickery at sea

Apr 11th, 2009 5:43 pm | By

An interesting bit of moral idiocy:

[T]he Somali pirate commander warned against any forcible intervention. “I’m afraid this matter is likely to create disaster because it is taking too long and we are getting information that the Americans are planning rescue tricks like the French commandos did,” Abdi Garad said.

Tricks. That’s good, isn’t it? People attempting to rescue a guy being forcibly held by heavily armed thieves are accused by the thieves of planning ‘tricks.’ The pirates inform all parties a week in advance that they will be seizing their ships and threatening their lives, do they? All open and aboveboard? All strictly according to Hoyle?


How do you know?

Apr 11th, 2009 5:35 pm | By

Russell Blackford makes an important point:

[I]t’s become increasingly apparent to me, partly from the Voices of Disbelief exercise, that many people in the bioethics community are fed up with the never-ending resistance from religionists to rational bioethics. Some of them are asking what credentials religion has anyway. Religious leaders are, of course, able to put their arguments in public, like anyone else. But they cannot expect anyone to defer to them if they rely on controversial religious claims…I suggest that religious leaders should be free to put their arguments, but if the arguments depend on doctrines such as ensoulment, the views of God, the sanctity of the natural order, and so on, these popes and priests should not expect to wield any influence. Those are not the sorts of worldly concerns that should influence government policy. But there’s a further twist. If religious leaders insist that it’s legitimate to put an argument such as “stem cell research should be stopped because my deity says so”, they are going to be met, inevitably, with questions about whether this is even true. How do you know that that’s what your deity says? Why should we believe you? How do we know that your deity even exists? The more that religious leaders rely on arguments based on essentially religious claims, the more those religious claims will themselves be challenged.

Preeecisely. How do you know that that’s what your deity says and why should we believe you? I see no reason at all to think you do know, and plenty of reason to think you don’t. I don’t believe you, and I think I have lots of good reasons for not believing you, and I think you have no good reasons for expecting me to believe you, or for believing that you know, yourself.

And this is why the ‘new’ atheists are so new, or so old but assertive, or so gentle but explicit. It is because we keep being told things that there is no good reason to believe are true – and now in addition we keep being berated and shouted at and pushed into the mud for saying as much. This gets irritating, so we say the magic word – shazam – and become shiny new atheists.

Look at A N Wilson again, for instance.

‘Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?’ [Polly Toynbee] asked in a puerile article…

Puerile? But which is more puerile – to believe in a god-son-of-god who took our sins upon himself to save our souls, or to point out that there is no reason to believe that? Wilson (after a lapse) believes that, yet he calls Toynbee puerile for not believing it. That’s backward. He makes a boast of having been convinced of the truth of ‘the Easter story’ without evidence – yet he calls people who decline to believe fanciful-sounding stories without evidence all sorts of hard names. That’s backward.

If so many religious leaders had not become so aggressive in trying to impose their views on the rest of us – i.e., beyond their congregations – the phenomenon being called the New Atheism might well not have happened, but popes and priests can’t have it both ways. If they’re going to bring their claims of authority, truth, and traditional wisdom to the public sphere, as they have been doing, then they must expect their credentials to be challenged.

Both ways of course is exactly how they want to have it, but they can’t, not unless they get a global blasphemy law complete with death penalty and no right of appeal. Meanwhile, we’ll keep talking.

A N Wilson and Jesus thrash the evil secularists

Apr 11th, 2009 1:16 pm | By

I don’t read the Daily Mail; I know its reputation, so I avoid even sampling it, because I get enough aggressive stupidity right here at home; but I made an exception for A N Wilson on evil secularism, and I’m quite startled by its frank vulgarity. He’s not a moron, Wilson, at least I thought he wasn’t, but this stuff…

This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio. It also lends weight to the fervour of the anti-God fanatics, such as the writer Christopher Hitchens and the geneticist Richard Dawkins, who think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion. The vast majority of media pundits and intelligentsia in Britain are unbelievers, many of them quite fervent in their hatred of religion itself. The Guardian’s fanatical feminist-in-chief, Polly Toynbee, is one of the most dismissive of religion and Christianity in particular. She is president of the British Humanist Association, an associate of the National Secular Society and openly scornful of the millions of Britons who will quietly proclaim their faith in Church tomorrow.

That’s a lot of dreck packed into a small space. Hitchens and Dawkins don’t (of course) think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion. Why shouldn’t people be ‘fervent’ in their hatred of religion? Religion is a human institution; we’re allowed to hate human institutions. What’s a ‘fanatical feminist-in-chief’? And then it all comes to a crescendo with the bathetic appeal to the poor victimized millions of Britons who will quietly proclaim their faith, not harming a mouse yet beaten about the head and shoulders by all these slavering geneticists and feminists.

Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block: cutting-edge novelists such as Martin Amis…

So…it’s wicked to be liberal? And clever? And a novelist? It’s good to defy people who are all three of those by asserting a belief in a magical story? Especially when one is a novelist oneself? I don’t quite follow.

Ah, say the rationalists. But no one can possibly rise again after death, for that is beyond the realm of scientific possibility. And it is true to say that no one can ever prove – nor, indeed, disprove – the existence of an after-life or God, or answer the conundrums of honest doubters (how does a loving God allow an earthquake in Italy?) Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic.

Ah – so now he stoops to sneering at logic itself. Pesky old liberal fanatical sneering cutting-edge Hampstead chattering logic. Logic is for pussies!

Of course, only hard evidence will satisfy the secularists, but over time and after repeated readings of the story, I’ve been convinced without it.

And then gone on to pitch a huge fit at people who commit the crime of refusing to be convinced without it, thus demonstrating the arrogance of atheists and the deep humility of believers. Or something.

Lie down with daily mails and get up with fleas.

That is not what this public debate is about

Apr 11th, 2009 1:08 pm | By

Stop the presses – a Catholic archbishop is a Catholic archbishop. He disagrees with Tony Blair about homosexuality. Stone the crows.

Mr Blair is a very fine politician and he has got very well-tuned political senses. But I am afraid the way the Catholic Church thinks is rather different to that and I think I will take my guide from Pope Benedict actually.

Well yes, we know. The way the Catholic church thinks is rather different: it ignores new ideas and knowledge about what is best for human beings, what does and does not harm people, what is and is not fair in human terms, and the like, and instead it consults its prejudices, attributes them to an unavailable supernatural being called ‘God,’ and declares them authoritative and beyond question. Yes that is different; it’s also ass backwards and wrong. Taking one’s ‘guide’ from pope Benedict is a terrible idea, because pope Ben’s thinking has all the flaws that go with the prejudice-attribution-unavailable deity-beyond question complex.

He also defended the Pope’s recent remarks about condoms made last month en route to his first Papal visit to Africa…Archbishop Nichols said: “What he actually talked about was the need to humanise sexuality and I think to some extent he was speaking up in protection of African women.” Asked if he would advise a “married, faithful, Catholic couple” not to use condoms where one had HIV/Aids, the Archbishop said: “That is a very sensitive point and there are different views on that.” Pressed to give his view, he said: “That is not what this public debate is about…that is the point I would rather pursue, that we really do have to raise people’s expectations of themselves.”

In other words, first he defended the pope’s ‘remarks’ about condoms that amount to telling people to commit slow agonizing suicide, then refused to answer a perfectly serious sensible question about the real-life outcome of such ‘remarks.’ In other words, he acted with the grotesque, shocking, abhorrent irresponsibility with which the Catholic church as an institution does act on this subject. It’s contemptible. It’s disgusting. It’s immoral. He should be ashamed of himself, and he should act to repair the damage immediately. Of course he won’t, but he should. They have no shame, these monsters.

Among the bottom-feeders

Apr 10th, 2009 5:17 pm | By

I had another look at that post David Thompson did last July, and noticed a couple of things. Ironically (or not) I wanted to address that post in a substantive way at the time, and was just about to, but then the torrent of sexist abuse killed any interest in engaging, so I never got to it. This is, by the way, one reason epithets are not such a great thing: discussions that collapse into stupid name-calling do not generally also manage to discuss ideas in a substantive way. That’s probably because discussions that collapse into stupid name-calling tend to repel intelligent people and attract stupid ones, which makes substantive discussion kind of difficult. There is something quite risible about DT’s continued sober, reasonable, slightly pompous tone interspersed with all that schoolyardy jeering, as if DT simply hadn’t noticed that his thread had fallen into a pool of crap.

So anyway. The post started with the stupidity of one Julie Bindel, who apparently makes sweeping claims about men, and went on by way of ‘a riposte of sorts to such adamant idiocy, and to broader claims of “male privilege”’ to quote items from various bloggers’ ‘Female Privilege Checklist’. Such a thing could be interesting – there are of course benefits to being female, and drawbacks to being male, and they’re interesting to think about and discuss. Some of these were unexceptionable – but others were absurd. This one for instance:

If I become pregnant, I and I alone choose whether to terminate the pregnancy or have the baby. As a result, I can be reasonably certain that I will never be held financially responsible for a child I didn’t want to have…

You have got to be kidding. Women are held financially responsible for children they didn’t want or choose to have all the time. Of course women as a class can’t be reasonably certain they will never be held financially responsible for a child or children they didn’t want to have. Women get talked or coerced into sex, they get talked or coerced into unprotected sex, they get talked or coerced into having children that they themselves don’t want to have, and they are by no means certain in any of those cases that they won’t subsequently be abandoned and left with all the financial responsibility. Women also sometimes get landed with the responsibility for grandchildren. In addition to that, not all women do have the power to choose whether to terminate the pregnancy or have the baby; lots of women are forbidden and prevented by their husbands or partners, or the church or mosque, or both – not to mention all the women who live in places where abortion is not available (which includes great swathes of the US) and those who live where it is illegal and harshly punished. In addition to that, of course, women sometimes get pregnant without wanting to but have the child all the same because they don’t want to have an abortion, so merely having the legal right to abortion (which the majority of women in the world don’t have) certainly does not translate to being reasonably certain one will never have (or be held financially responsible for) a child one doesn’t want to have. It’s incredibly shallow and ignorant to suppose that it does. It’s also smug and self-pitying.

Another for instance:

Because I am not expected to be my family’s primary breadwinner, I have the luxury of prioritising factors other than salary when choosing a career path.

Again – you’ve got to be kidding. That just ignores all single mothers, not all of whom are single of their own volition. If you think they’re not expected to be their family’s primary breadwinner, you’ve never heard of ‘welfare reform.’ Of course they damn well are.

I did make a start at pointing this out at the time, but then as I said gave up when the epithet-flingers turned up in force.

Part of what’s odd about this is that DT, much as I disagree with him about many things, is no fool. I was deeply puzzled at the time, and I still am, that the tone of the subsequent discussion didn’t (apparently) give him any qualms.

Ain’t people mysterious.

A few days in the low countries

Apr 10th, 2009 5:00 pm | By

This discussion gets more and more peculiar and interesting as it goes on. There is a whiff of disingenuousness about much of it – a peculiar air of outraged innocence about something that many people take to be a very overt insult. The thing that’s peculiar about that is that usually when we are told we have accidentally said something insulting – we blush and stammer and hasten to explain that we didn’t mean it that way. We don’t insist on going on using the word in the way we (but not other people) understand it. Yet this apparently doesn’t apply to epithets about women. That’s interesting.

Suppose you know a little Dutch, and you’re in Haarlem visiting friends, and you pick up a word that you take to mean something like ‘chump’ or ‘buffoon’ and you start to use it yourself. Then a friend takes you aside and gently informs you that actually the word is a vulgar racial epithet and you have horrified several very nice people by flinging it around so breezily. Would you argue? Would you say ‘well it can also just mean “buffoon” and I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss.’ Maybe you would, but I doubt it. I think the usual impulse (except among deliberately obnoxious people, the Fred Phelpses of the world) is to err on the side of caution when it comes to words that can easily be taken amiss. But when it comes to epithets for women…it appears that lots of people are quite happy to just go right on cunting and twatting away.

It’s almost as if hostility to women is okay. Hostility to other races and other nationalities* not okay, but hostility to women kind of hip. Would never call someone nigger or spic or wog, but call people cunts and twats without a second thought.

If it’s true that there’s a different standard, why would that be, do you suppose?

*Except perhaps American…