Notes and Comment Blog

Bright with excitement

Feb 17th, 2014 5:16 pm | By

Atheist Ireland is collecting accounts from parents about religious discrimination and indoctrination in schools.

The second story in that post is terrifying.

Both my boys have autism, one of them being an Aspie. They both attended Catholic schools, as state schools did not have places for them, and it has been interesting to see how religion affects their reasoning.

The worst case scenario was when our eldest boy was told the story of the Resurrection at Easter in his first year at school. He’s rather more compliant than his Asperger’s brother, which is always a worry on so many levels. This is the gist of the conversation that we were faced with that evening with an overly-trusting 5 year old.

Him: (Bright with excitement) I am going to kill myself.
Us: What! Why?
Him: So I can see my granddad again. (Reference to my father who died when our son was a week shy of his 3rd birthday.) But don’t worry, I will come back in three days.
Us: But where did you hear this?
Him: In school today. Jesus died and came back to life after three days.
Us: Well, yes, but according to that story, Jesus came back because he was God’s son.
Him: But the priest said we are all God’s children.

Jeeeeeeeeeezus. People with autism don’t tell lies because they don’t get the concept. That means they don’t get fiction or fantasy or myth. It means that child couldn’t grasp that what the priest said was not true. Not that he didn’t believe it when his parents told him but that he couldn’t understand it. They spent three horrible hours trying to get it across to him.

As I said: terrifying.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Wearing “Stand with Sam” pins

Feb 17th, 2014 4:49 pm | By

A good thing happened at the University of Missouri on Saturday. (My sister-in-law the historian taught there for a few years.)

Hundreds of students formed a human wall around the basketball stadium at the University of Missouri on Saturday because the Westboro Baptist Church had pledged to protest gay football player Michael Sam.

After Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam came out last week last week, anti-LGBT members of the Westboro church vowed to show up at Missouri’s game against Tennessee. But a group of students wearing “Stand with Sam” pins made the extremist group’s demonstration impossible by surrounding the stadium.

Good. Non-violent, even cuddly – and it got the job done.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Feb 17th, 2014 4:10 pm | By

Elyse posted a picture of her dog on Facebook and it’s one of my favorite pictures ever. I asked her if I could post it and SHE SAID I COULD.

Photo: I have a black dog. I cannot find her.

Do you not love that?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

This woman-centric hand-wringing

Feb 17th, 2014 11:18 am | By

And now to consider the deep injustice of the way women dominate all the bimbo roles in popular culture.

If you have spent time on the Internet, you’re probably tired of hearing how we need more Strong Female Characters. For some reason, people don’t seem to realize that sexism no longer exists today and both sexes are treated with complete equality, especially in the entertainment industry. If anything, men are the ones being discriminated against.

Seriously, think about all those roles that women selfishly hog up (e.g., passive victims requiring rescue, femmes fatales, joyless nags) that are off-limits to even the most talented male actors. It’s time to stop this woman-centric hand-wringing on how to make female characters better and focus on helping the real victims of Hollywood sexism by asking: How can we make male characters worse?

Right? Where are all the Real ManCaveHusbands of Beverly Hills reality shows?

Cracked offers some suggested examples for your amusement.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Epidermal instructions

Feb 17th, 2014 8:53 am | By

According to CBS News, Hillary Clinton has given women some advice.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a new project called “No Ceilings” with her daughter, Chelsea, and Melinda Gates. During a talk at New York University, Clinton told the students that women in the public eye need to form a thick skin.

I don’t think that’s the best advice, at least not unless it’s worded very carefully. A personal, individual thick skin is no doubt very useful, but a social thick skin is a terrible idea. A social thick skin just treats the status quo, in which women in the public eye are subject to torrents of abuse just because they are women in the public eye. That’s no good. We don’t want to deal with that by telling people to suck it up, just as we don’t want to deal with racism or homophobia or xenophobia that way. We want to deal with it by improving the culture so that it stops happening.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A personal disagreement translated into a blasphemy accusation

Feb 17th, 2014 8:39 am | By

Michael Nugent has more about the release of Ben Baz, aka Abdel Aziz Mohamed Albaz, on his blog.

Ben Baz is a 28 year old Egyptian atheist, with a degree in commerce, who was working in Kuwait, and blogging about secularism and religion, when he was arrested over a year ago on charges of blasphemy. His friends highlighted his arrest, and said they suspected that a personal disagreement with his work sponsor, about work matters, may have been translated into a blasphemy accusation. This type of abuse of an already unjust law is common in Islamic countries.

This is a link to his blog, in Arabic, where he writes about the relationship of religion, the State and secularism.

An important subject to write about in Arabic. Also risky.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Another one gets out

Feb 17th, 2014 8:30 am | By

This guy? BenBaz Aziz?

Who is BenBaz?

Watch our video:

Abdul Aziz Mohamed El Baz, aka BenBaz, Egyptian, living & working in Kuwait, Born on 1985 in Kuwait. Aziz holds a Bachelor Degree in commerce Division of the English language and worked as an accountant until his arrest.

What happened to BenBaz?

BenBaz has been thrown in jail by the Kuwaiti Government since December 31, 2012. On February 7, 2012, he was sentenced by the same Kuwaiti Government for one year in jail plus forced labor, plus a fine, plus deportation from Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti Government charged BenBaz with contempt of religions & attempting to spread atheism, they have sentenced BenBaz for peacefully writing his views in a blog where he explained the benefits of secular values.

Why was BenBaz arrested?

The Mirrors of the Gulf Company owner, where BenBaz worked, reported BenBaz to Kuwaiti Authorities as a blasphemer.

He’s now free.

That’s a year of his life spent locked up, but it’s good that he’s now free.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

They shared an intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness

Feb 16th, 2014 5:18 pm | By

An academic – an atheist – who teaches religion at a university is finding the job less rewarding than it used to be, because the students have come over all dogmatic.

When I first started teaching in my current institution, a decade or so ago, I was impressed by the diversity of students in lectures. Lots were believers of one sort or another, but many others would describe themselves as atheists and agnostics.

Whatever they thought about religion, they shared an intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness that made teaching the best part of my job: they enjoyed being challenged in their assumptions, and they loved exploring the ways religions have shaped and been shaped by cultural, social and political shifts.

Most noticeable of all, students rarely expressed a need to proclaim or defend their own faith perspectives in lectures.

But that was then.

at my institution, the fee-paying culture has given rise to a predominantly white, economically-privileged, middle class student body, in which any diversity of religious or non-religious students has been overpowered by a particularly influential form of evangelical Christianity. It is a belief system that is uncomfortable with the academic study of religion, and which will often explicitly resist it.

Students’ membership of this society is flattening the dynamics of lectures. Buying into the current claim that Christians suffer persecution in the UK, many appear compelled to resist the academic critique of the traditions and texts they hold dear. Recently, a group of students in a lecture refused to undertake the work set because they didn’t want to apply postmodern perspectives to what for them was a sacred text.

A female colleague was accused of being “stupid” and “lacking authority” by those who believe a woman has no right to teach others about religious texts.

Other colleagues have been marked out as heretics in lectures. Of the students who remain outside this group – identifying as atheist, agnostic, Catholic or Jewish – a number have confided they feel intimidated or silenced by the louder, assertively evangelical students in the class.

I’m amazed. It sounds more like the US than the UK.

H/t Chris Lawson



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Telling a woman to shut up

Feb 16th, 2014 4:40 pm | By

Mary Beard has a long piece in the LRB about public speaking as definitional of manhood, and women’s exclusion from it as a result.

I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of theOdyssey…The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs​2.

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.

Another thing that’s interesting about it is that it had to be said. It’s interesting that Penelope wasn’t already confined to her quarters; that she dared to go downstairs in her own house, and wander into the great hall which was full of men. But perhaps it’s not interesting after all, if it’s there only to give Telemakhos the opportunity to boss her around.

What interests me is the relationship between that classic Homeric moment of silencing a woman and some of the ways women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture, and in our own politics from the front bench to the shop floor. It’s a well-known deafness that’s nicely parodied in the old Punch cartoon: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’​3 I want to look too at how it might relate to the abuse that many women who do speak out are subjected to even now, and one of the questions at the back of my mind is the connection between publicly speaking out in support of a female logo on a banknote, Twitter threats of rape and decapitation, and Telemachus’ put-down of Penelope.

I think about that kind of thing all the time. I always have.

Telemachus’ outburst was just the first example in a long line of largely successful attempts stretching throughout Greek and Roman antiquity, not only to exclude women from public speech but also to parade that exclusion.

Just what I was thinking: Penelope was allowed to leave her quarters just so that Young Lochinvar could order her back into them. It was a chance to parade the exclusion.

Henry James was a great hater of women’s public voices.

Under American women’s influence, he insisted, language risks becoming a ‘generalised mumble or jumble, a tongueless slobber or snarl or whine’; it will sound like ‘the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog’…‘In the names of our homes, our children, of our future, our national honour,’ James said again, ‘don’t let us have women like that!’

Of course, we don’t talk in those bald terms now. Or not quite? For it seems to me that many aspects of this traditional package of views about the unsuitability of women for public speaking in general – a package going back in its essentials over two millennia – still underlies some of our own assumptions about, and awkwardness with, the female voice in public. Take the language we still use to describe the sound of women’s speech, which isn’t all that far from James or our pontificating Romans. In making a public case, in fighting their corner, in speaking out, what are women said to be? ‘Strident’; they ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine’. When, after one particular vile bout of internet comments on my genitalia, I tweeted (rather pluckily, I thought) that it was all a bit ‘gob-smacking’, this was reported by one commentator in a mainstream British magazine in these terms: ‘The misogyny is truly “gob-smacking”, she whined.’

We do talk in those bald terms now, and balder ones. Much balder, as Beard knows, having been the target of them.

Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It’s an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them. Contrast the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it; they don’t hear muthos.

It doesn’t help that so many women, especially women in professions that involve the voice, like acting and singing and broadcast journalism, talk in exaggeratedly babyish voices. It’s a fashion, and I wish it would stop being a fashion.

And, across the board, we still see tremendous resistance to female encroachment onto traditional male discursive territory, whether it’s the abuse hurled at Jacqui Oatley for having the nerve to stray from the netball court to become the first woman commentator on Match of the Day, or what can be meted out to women who appear on Question Time, where the range of topics discussed is usually fairly mainstream ‘male political’. It may not be a surprise that the same commentator who accused me of ‘whining’ claims to run a ‘small light-hearted’ competition for the ‘most stupid woman to appear on Question Time’. More interesting is another cultural connection this reveals: that unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she’s stupid. ‘Sorry, love, you just don’t understand.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called ‘an ignorant moron’.

These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones); but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history. And when we are thinking about the under-representation of women in national politics, their relative muteness in the public sphere, we have to think beyond what the prime minister and his chums got up to in the Bullingdon Club, beyond the bad behaviour and blokeish culture of Westminster, beyond even family-friendly hours and childcare provision (important as those are). We have to focus on the even more fundamental issues of how we have learned to hear the contributions of women or – going back to the cartoon for a moment – on what I’d like to call the ‘Miss Triggs question’. Not just, how does she get a word in edgeways? But how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her.

Indeed. But that idea is maligned as “radical feminism” – which is accurate in one sense but wildly inaccurate in another, and misleading besides.

But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about. For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves…[A] significant subsection is directed at silencing the woman – ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain. Or it promises to remove the capacity of the woman to speak. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ was one tweet I got. ‘Headlessfemalepig’ was the Twitter name chosen by someone threatening an American journalist. ‘You should have your tongue ripped out’ was tweeted to another journalist. In its crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk…Ironically the well-meaning solution often recommended when women are on the receiving end of this stuff turns out to bring about the very result the abusers want: namely, their silence. ‘Don’t call the abusers out. Don’t give them any attention; that’s what they want. Just keep mum,’ you’re told, which amounts to leaving the bullies in unchallenged occupation of the playground.

As I remember saying over and over and over again about a year ago, in response to “advice” to just get off the internet if I don’t like verbal abuse.

What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it. We need to work that out before we figure out how we modern Penelopes might answer back to our own Telemachuses…

We’re working on it, I think.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

And on the ninth bite, God summoned him home

Feb 16th, 2014 3:39 pm | By

An incident in Kentucky.

A Kentucky pastor who co-starred in the TV showSnake Salvation has died of a snakebite.

Emergency personnel received a call Saturday night that someone at a church, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, had suffered a snakebite, Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe said in a statement. He said an ambulance crew went to the church, but the Rev. Jamie Coots had left. The crew went to Coots’ home and found him suffering from a bite to the hand.

“After a brief examination and discussion of the possible dangers if the wound was not treated, treatment — and transport to the hospital — was refused,” Sharpe said.

So he died.

Well I tell you what – it was God’s plan. It’s a test of faith. If you can see God not save the pastor who got bitten by a rattlesnake, and still have faith, then you have faith indeed.

Coots and the show’s co-star, the Rev. Andrew Hamblin, believe in a passage from theGospel of Mark that suggests a poisonous snakebite won’t harm them if they are anointed by God’s power:

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Well of course they believe it. It’s in the book, isn’t it? So why wouldn’t they believe it? If it’s in the book, you believe it. That’s simple enough surely.

Cody Winn, another preacher at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, said he was right next to Coots when he got bit during the Saturday evening service, according toWBIR-TV in Knoxville, Tenn.

Huh. Bitten. The word is “bitten” – past participle of bite. They bit, he got bitten.

Coots’ son, Cody, said his dad had been bit eight times before, but never had such a severe reaction.

He said he thought the bite his dad received Saturday would be just like all the others.

“We’re going to go home, he’s going to lay on the couch, he’s going to hurt, he’s going to pray for a while and he’s going to get better. That’s what happened every other time, except this time was just so quick and it was crazy, it was really crazy,” said Cody Coots.

Not really crazy if you know a little about cause and effect, or about rattlesnakes.

The Snake Salvation Facebook fan page featured a “Rest in Peace” cover photo on Sunday. A Day Of Support and Remembering of Pastor Coots was announced for Tuesday.

“I am so sorry for the family’s loss,” Janet Ellison posted. “He died doing what he felt led to do by God. Heaven gained a true warrior tonight!”

Lucky heaven.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A letter!

Feb 16th, 2014 11:25 am | By

I got a mysterious piece of mail yesterday. It was exciting. A real letter in the real mail; an envelope with my name and address hand-written, in writing that I didn’t recognize, with a nearby return address that belongs to no one I know. It’s from a neighborhood a mile or two west of here, but farther away than that sounds because it’s a peninsula with a valley between the two, so it’s complicated to reach by car and totally forbidding on foot. Who oh who could be writing to me from Magnolia? Could it be a threat? Abuse? A rant? Or could it be a friendly surprise?

It was exciting, but then I threw it aside when I got in, and forgot about it until this morning. Then I opened it. There was a little hand-written letter inside! You don’t see that every day. On lined notebook paper, the kind with holes on the left margin.

It was addressed to Dear Neighbor, and it says since she was unable to reach me at home (well thank god for that) she was sending me this very encouraging tract.

Yes, that’s the little secret I’ve been concealing from you: there was a tract inside too. I looked at the back of it. Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It’s from their library. It’s titled How do you view the future?

My favorite part is the section on epistemology:


Yes, for at least two reasons:

• God has the ability to fulfill the promise. In the Bible, Jehovah God alone is called “the Almighty,” for he has unlimited power. (Revelation 15:3) So he is fully able to keep his promise to change our world for the better. As the Bible says, “with God all things are possible.”—Matthew 19:26.

• God has the desire to fulfill the promise. For example, Jehovah has a longing to restore life to people who have died.—Job 14:14, 15.

Ahhhhhhh. Compelling reasons indeed.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Feb 16th, 2014 10:08 am | By

Dave Muscato has an interesting post about the reactions he’s seen from straight men to the news of Ellen Page coming out. (I had to think for a second to remember who Ellen Page is.) It’s not a sign that she’s more available, it’s a sign that she’s less available. So he goes on to wonder what’s up with that. Why are “I’m not interested” and “I’m gay” taken as a challenge while “I have a boyfriend” is more of a discouragement?

Well obviously one reason is that the boyfriend might be a puncher. But a slightly more complicated reason, I think, is that there’s a massive amount of cultural training that “I’m not interested” is the first part of a good story.

It’s one of the core plots, isn’t it? Kitty doesn’t love Levin, she loves Vronsky. Lizzie doesn’t love Mr Darcy, she has a mild crush on Wickham and a liking for Colonel Fitzwilliam but she actively dislikes Mr Darcy. Edmund doesn’t love Fanny (except in a brotherly way), he loves Mary Crawford. Beatrice and Benedict find each other irritating – or pretend to. David doesn’t love Susan, in fact she gets on his nerves with everything she does and says.

So “I’m not interested” could mean exactly that and be permanent, or it could be just how things are at this particular moment but subject to change.

In other words it could be a challenge. It could have the plot-shape of all challenges: quests, rescue missions, escapes, educations, battles. There is something to do. Will the protagonist(s) do it? There’s your story.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

But are women not human?

Feb 15th, 2014 6:14 pm | By

An interview with Rita Banerji of 50 Million Women Missing.

5.What was the motivating factor behind the 50 Million Missing Campaign?

I’d say: outrage. I’m an Indian woman, and my country tells me “We’ve eliminated your kind by the millions, like flies! You are not human. You are nothing!” 20% of women have been exterminated from the population. And people need to know – this is unprecedented in human history. It is not normal for any society! No other human group has been subject to this kind of systemic and targeted extermination. China is the other country that has female gendercide. But what makes India worse than China, is first the apathy of the Indian government. The Chinese government takes this far more seriously. And secondly, in China it is largely sex-selection. In India the violence is perpetuated in all kinds of ways, for girls and women of all ages: starvation, physical battering, rape, honor-killings, dowry murder, witch lynchings. If this was happening to a human group in India because of their religion or their ethnicity, we would have the media and all civil rights sections in India up in arms – like for Kashmir or for the Gujarat massacre. We’d have global human rights groups demanding international action. But are women not human? Why does our genocide not evoke the same response?

I wish I knew.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

If women want to live like human beings

Feb 15th, 2014 3:10 pm | By

Seen at Secularism, Philosophy and Culture on Facebook -

Doesn’t Taslima look angelic?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The suppression of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay

Feb 15th, 2014 1:24 pm | By

Oh good god. I didn’t even know about this one until I saw a mention of it yesterday. It was more than two years ago, and it’s the same damn thing.

Oxford University Press is under growing pressure to explain its role in suppressing A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” as the renowned indologist Sheldon Pollock and a number of other leading academics on Saturday joined the mounting outrage over its decision to stop publishing and selling the essay in India following protests from a right-wing group.

In a strongly-worded joint letter to Nigel Portwood, Chief Executive, OUP, U.K., they conveyed their “shock and dismay” at OUP India’s action which, they said, was compounded by its abject apology in court to a group which had claimed that the essay hurt Hindu sensitivities.

“In addition, OUP India has, it appears, subsequently withdrawn from the market Ramanujan’s Collected Essays, in which 300 Ramayanas also appears, and has assured Delhi University that it will not keep the book in print, a pledge that enabled the university’s Vice-Chancellor to overrule his own committee who had argued for retaining Ramanujan’s essay on the syllabus of the History department,” the letter says, referring to the controversy over Delhi University’s decision to drop the essay from its syllabus under pressure from Hindutva groups.

Besides Prof. Pollock, Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Columbia University, the letter is signed, among others, by American Indologists Wendy Doniger and David Shulman; and historians Muzaffar Alam and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Prof. Pollock said the signatories also included former colleagues or students of Ramanujan. Among them were authors who had published with OUP.

I see no sign that OUP undid the suppression.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Petition to reform of Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code

Feb 15th, 2014 1:09 pm | By

You can sign a petition to members of both houses of the Indian parliament and the Honorable Law Minister to fix that godawful law that keeps getting books shut down.

We the undersigned are appalled by the recent settlement reached between Dina Nath Batra for the Shiksha Bachao Andolan and Penguin Books India, to cease the publication of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin USA 2009; Penguin India 2010), and to withdraw and destroy remaining copies of the book on Indian territory.

This case is only the latest in a long series of outrages against freedom of expression. Academic, intellectual and artistic expression of any kind is becoming increasingly hazardous in India. What has happened to Professor Doniger and many other scholars before her can happen to any one of us at any time. Indian laws and legislation governing the freedom of expression not only fail to protect us from harassment and intimidation, but in fact prevent us from doing our work in a respectful, fair and democratic environment.

More worrying, the laws dealing with insult and injury to the sentiments of groups and communities (organized around religion, caste or any other form of identity) are routinely used to curb the freedom of expression, both within the legal justice system and in public discourse more generally.

In our view, the way to respond to ideas one dislikes is not to censor them but to produce better ones. Such was the practice of India’s great intellectual traditions in the past. Litigation like this, undertaken in the name of defending those traditions, in fact profoundly demeans them.

We make the following demands:

1. That there be a reform of Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code—governing intellectual and artistic freedoms and the right to self-expression, as well as protecting against insult and injury to communities, and the incitement of communal hatred. We ask that lawmakers, jurists and the legal bureaucracy include necessary provisions in these laws to protect works of serious academic and artistic merit from motivated, malicious and frivolous litigation.

2.  That Penguin Random House at the highest levels of management and decision-making continue to contest the Legal Demand # 254/LN/0310 up to the higher courts, so that a good precedent upholding freedom of expression is established, and in future publishing houses, including Penguin India, are able to publish works and support their authors without the threatening prospect of litigation, fear and censure.

We believe that writers, scholars, artists, and publishers the world over will stand in solidarity with the author Wendy Doniger. To endorse our demands, append your signature to this statement. We intend to send our petition along with all the signatures collected to the appropriate authorities in the Government of India.

Ananya Vajpeyi, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi

Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University, New York

Partha Chatterjee, Columbia University, New York

Laurie Patton, Duke University, North Carolina

Romila Thapar, Jawaharlal Nehru University (Retd.), New Delhi

David Shulman, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

Readers, too. We readers stand in solidarity with Wendy Doniger.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Their self-congratulatory image of brave “speakers of truth to power”

Feb 15th, 2014 11:56 am | By

Nick Cohen points out the very important difference between saying you are not showing a cartoon character named Mo out of respect, and saying you are not showing a cartoon character named Mo because you are afraid to.

When the BBC interviewed the artist behind Jesus and Mo, its editors told him privately they could not show his drawing of Jesus saying “Hey” and Mo saying “How ya’ doin’?” because jihadis might murder the corporation’s correspondents in Pakistan.

That’s a reason, but what a pity they didn’t say that during the interview. What a pity Jeremy Paxman did the very opposite, and insinuated that the cartoonist had done a bad wrong thing in drawing such a cartoon at all. What a lousy crappy rotten thing to do, Jeremy Paxman.

Fear may not be a noble reason for censoring, but it can be an honest one if you admit its existence. If I worked at the BBC and my colleagues told me that showing a bland cartoon might endanger lives in Pakistan, I wouldn’t broadcast it. If I worked at Channel 4 or edited a national newspaper, I wouldn’t put my colleagues’ safety at risk either. But I would also tell the viewers or readers that I was censoring out of fear: not respect or cultural sensitivity but pure fear. I would make it clear to them that freedom and secularism were in danger in Britain. I would say that the people who provoked the fear deserved no more true respect than a gangster did.

Instead of what the BBC and Channel 4 did, which was to make it seem as if the cartoonist and Maajid Nawaz are in the wrong, and the people threatening them are in the right. It’s dishonest and contemptible.

Not one editor has dared admit that he or she is afraid. The editor of Newsnight did not mention threats to his colleagues’ lives when he talked to the Independent about the Nawaz case. Rather he implied that he was a responsible journalist, while his critics, rather than, say, potential terrorists, were macho maniacs. “A lot of the people disappointed with us for not using it really wanted a demonstration of liberal virility rather than more informative journalism,” he said.

Cognitive dissonance anyone? It can’t be that the wonderful people at Newsnight hid the cartoon out of fear, therefore it must be that their critics wanted “a demonstration of liberal virility.”

If you admit to being afraid, you are acknowledging the scale of suppression. And it is only when you acknowledge that suppression exists that you can begin a campaign to challenge it. As it is, editors and senior journalists in the British media are not prepared to destroy their self-congratulatory image of brave “speakers of truth to power” by saying they are scared. The results are pernicious whichever way you cut them.

Quite: cognitive dissonance playing out as sheer vanity.

The liberal mainstream has abandoned liberal Muslims.

What is Maajid Nawaz meant to think? He says on a public platform that a bland cartoon is not offensive. He has rejected  Koranic literalism, endorsed tolerance, and done everything the mainstream wants an integrated Muslim to do. And look at how the mainstream treats him. It agrees with his persecutors by ruling that the image is so shocking no national newspaper or broadcaster can show it. Meanwhile editors’ failure to level with their audience and admit that they are censoring because of a fear of violence, has the added malign consequence of diminishing the real threat that Nawaz and others face.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

You can’t argue with sadism

Feb 15th, 2014 11:09 am | By

Chris Mooney reports at Slate on a new study that finds (or confirms) that internet trolls really are everyday sadists.

(There’s an irony in that, since a few years ago he was a big fan of a troll who was active on his blog and elsewhere – “Tom Johnson” who was actually Wally Smith. But maybe he’s learned since then. I’ve learned some things since then.)

The research, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

It is hard to underplay the results: The study found correlations, sometimes quite significant, between these traits and trolling behavior. What’s more, it also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet.

Imagine my complete lack of surprise.

Overall, the authors found that the relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” they wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

That helps to explain the difference between people who argue with others online, sometimes rudely and aggressively, and people who persecute others online. The former do it because they’re interested in the argument and the latter do it because they like the persecution. This in turn explains why the former type does not fixate on a few people and refuse to let go, while the latter type does. The arguers argue and move on; the persecutors persecute the same people for an open-ended length of time.

The study comes as websites, particularly at major media outlets, are increasingly weighing steps to rein in trollish behavior. Last year Popular Science did away with its comments sections completely, citing research on the deleterious effects of trolling, and YouTube also took measures to rein in trolling.

That sums up my policy on commenters very neatly. I don’t allow trolling.

But study author Buckels actually isn’t sure that fix is a realistic one. “Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users),” she said by email.

Ah but it’s not punishment. That’s how they see it, or pretend and claim to see it (cf the first item in the Tetrad: Machiavellianism), but that’s just more trolling. It’s not punishment, it’s just not wanting them on your blog. Why should anyone want Machiavellian narcissistic psychopathic sadists on her blog?

The larger point is, this just demonstrates (what we already knew) that blather about “peace talks” and “sitting down to settle our differences” is just that: blather. It’s stupid at the foundation level, because the trolling is not fundamentally about genuine “differences” or “issues” or “grievances”; it’s about persecuting people for pleasure. That’s all there is to it. It’s not complicated, it’s not interesting, it’s not subject to diplomacy or management. It’s just everyday sadists doing what they like to do. You can’t argue them out of liking to do it.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post by Diane Ní Cheallacháin: Catholic schools and othering

Feb 15th, 2014 9:52 am | By

Diane reported this horrible practice in a comment at Atheist Ireland on Facebook. It’s one I hadn’t heard of before – a creative and sadistic way to make children feel the sharp pain of exclusion from bliss for not being part of the religious in-crowd. I’m sharing it with her permission.

Jayzus at the amount of time spent arguing with the local primary school to no avail re parties for those who ‘sang at yesterdays’ communion, mass’ etc. when the ‘school’ specifically stated it doesn’t discriminate: explain to me why X goes home in tears because s/he was excluded from the party because of not being Catholic Enough. It’s also blatantly hollow to encourage/reward children with treats to gain religious brownie points. Shouldn’t the reward be implicit by having the One True Religion? (I was calm, honestly, and this is FB so an abbreviated version of events.)

That wasn’t appreciated by the principal. *cue mumble mumble back-pedalling drivel* 

Having a solicitor willing to help resulted in “well, if you want a pupil to be admitted to Y school later, best not to have a record of ‘incidents’” i.e. keep yer gob shut. Using a child as a ping-pong ball is wrong from both ends of the spectrum but it was gawdawful to see the four children- not catholic- being ostracized after class lessons about Inclusion. Allowing the pupils to skip RE is one thing; to punish them for it later is feckin horrendous.

End of almighty rant.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Collecting reactions

Feb 14th, 2014 4:44 pm | By

A fabulously useful resource from South Asia Citizens Web: a list of responses to Penguin’s withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book in India, with many quoted in full.

The Indian Express February 12

Prominent sections of the establishment in India have long abdicated their commitment to a defence of the written word, forsaking the liberal strategy of allowing a text to be contested legally — and legally alone — on whatever grouse, and instead even abetting intimidation as a tool for bringing censorship. It is to India’s shame that it was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Since then, through the vandalisation that hounded a scholarly biography of Shivaji out of circulation, the message has been clear.

The recent withdrawal by Oxford University Press and Delhi University of an essay by A.K. Ramanujan was a capitulation to expressions of intolerance by rightwing Hindutva groups similar to those aflutter about Doniger’s analysis.

The message they send is that contested analyses and narratives will not be challenged in debate, but debate on anything that agitated groups perceive to be unaligned to their puritanical, artificially compact worldview will be suffocated. They have got their way.

I did not know that about the essay and OUP. Wtf?

The Times of India February 13

Hindutva’s ideologues have led often violent movements to ban works of art and academia — like MF Husain’s paintings and James Laine’s book on Shivaji.

What is surprising is Doniger’s publishers, Penguin India, buckling and agreeing to pulp her book. This reflects the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors, with governments, politicians and courts seldom standing in their way. If the law is trying to protect religious sentiment, the irony is that it is Doniger’s work — not Batra’s — that celebrates Hinduism. She appears to make the case that sex was treated by Hinduism as a natural, beautiful part of life, not to be treated with guilt and shame as Semitic religions may demand. This can hardly be construed as an attack on Hinduism. But by attacking Doniger’s work for discussing sensuality in Hindu life, her opponents display a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament. Persistent attacks like these, and supineness of authorities, raise the question whether democracy — and India’s future as a nation-state — can survive without freedom of expression.

For an answer, look to Pakistan. Indian laws which forbid offence to any religion mimic Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, and Hindutva is perhaps the only force in the world driven by Pakistan envy today. If we go down the path of hurt sentiments and incentivising professional offence takers, we will soon have no defence left against the radicalism tearing Pakistan apart.

Imagine wanting to be like Pakistan.

The Hindu February 13

Penguin was unarguably in a position to fight a longer legal battle in defence of Wendy Doniger’s right to be read, and by implication the right of every Indian to choose what she wants to read. That the publisher allowed itself to be browbeaten into submission by a little-known outfit that saw no contradiction in its own sweeping slander of the author — among other things, the petitioner called her “sex hungry” — is a comment on the illiberalism incrementally taking India in its sweep. To an extent this was unavoidable because the churn in Indian politics was inevitably leading to a heightened awareness about community identities and group rights. However, sensibilities have become so susceptible to hurt that virtually anything written can be contested and asked to be withdrawn. The intolerance, visible especially on the social media, is towards anything seen as modern and forward-looking, with the unofficial censors assuming the right to attack and abuse at will. This twin intimidation — of censorship combined with licence — has flourished all the more in a political environment increasingly supportive of moral policing and guilty of an almost kneejerk willingness to ban books. The Maharashtra government banned Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, under pressure from vandals who attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in protest. More recently, cartoon depictions of B.R. Ambedkar had to be withdrawn from NCERT text-books. A quarter century after The Satanic Verses, the written word seems to be more and more under threat.

Daily News and Analysis February 13

The treatment meted out to Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen must top any list of shame, from their books being banned to their being personally hounded. They provide august company for the likes of James Laine — run afoul of Marathi chauvinists not once but twice in the past decade for his books on Chhatrapati Shivaji, with both works being banned — and Joseph Lelyveld whose book on Mahatma Gandhi was banned in Gujarat in 2011. The best that can be said for the state is that it is equal opportunity in its cravenness, willing to back obscurantists of all stripes. If it quailed at the prospect of angering hardline Muslim elements with Rushdie, Nasreen and R V Bhasin, it has accommodated Christian outrage when it comes to the Da Vinci Code and the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism who took outrage at Ramanujan and Doniger. February 12 by Salil Tripathi

…in the next edition of her book, [Doniger] might scrutinize more what happened to some followers of Hinduism that they abandoned the faith’s proclaimed tenets of tolerance, and embraced the intolerant strains of other faiths, compared to which their own faith, they claimed, was superior. Or at least different from the monotheistic religions where notions like blasphemy were tossed around to silence opponents. That is a political question, and the ease with which the Indian state acquiesced to the loud mobs that shout “we are offended!” has only made it easier for obscure groups to turn to courts. And these courts, all too willingly, admit petitions drawn from Victorian-era sections of the penal code, such as 153A and 295A, which give a licence to anyone to complain that his or her feelings are hurt, that communal harmony may get disrupted, that hatred is being incited.

But no book razed a mosque; no books entered a railway station or five-star hotels and killed people; no book blew up crowded bazaars; no book looked the other way when crowds extracted revenge on other communities over real or imagined wrongs. People did that; and those people have rarely been brought to courts to face charges. Instead, the author is asked to narrow her imagination, or to swallow his words. This is the infantilization of India.

And there’s a lot more. An excellent resource. Thank you, SACW.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)