Notes and Comment Blog

Those small towns in conservative areas

Jul 25th, 2007 2:12 pm | By

Sastra said several interesting things in a comment on Leaving Amherst.

I seldom comment, but read Butterflies & Wheels regularly, and I’m terribly grateful that Ophelia is not only as interesting and provocative as she is, but is a ‘she’ as well. I’ve noticed a distinct “gentleman’s agreement” among the women I know that we really should not disagree. What I call “Thanksgiving Table Diplomacy” promoted around the calendar – avoid controversy and pass the potatoes, bringing up all the lovely things we have in common. “It’s more important to be nice than ‘right.'” Women are supposed to be supportive and reassuring. No debate; no disagreement; no honest discussion of contrary views, unless it is to “celebrate our diversity.” That’s a sign of spiritual maturity, evidently. Even in a discussion group.

Yeah – I know the kind of thing. I blame the ‘Women’s Ways of Knowing’ crowd (as well as anyone else I feel like blaming). This is one reason I am so stroppy (or so interesting and provocative as Sastra put it). I have to be stroppy, I have to compensate for all those women who make themselves into marshmallows!

As the only secular humanist among neo-pagans, New Agers, and Spiritual Seekers, it’s hard. They love to jabber about their beliefs, and back them up with heavy combinations of pseudoscience and postmodernist “all paths to truth are valid” — all paths, except, evidently, rational skepticism, which is apparently the egotistical, narrow, mean one.

I know – being the only fan of reason among woolly thinkers is hard. We learned quite a lot about that from the students at the seminar.

I am a bit of a convention junkie, and have gone to a fair amount of Council for Secular Humanism events. I have yet to do one of the CFI summer sessions, though, and when I found out OB and JS were on the program I was ready to bite myself in frustration. I can’t afford it yet! So you have to do it again!!! I have all your books!!!! Please — even if it’s a Boy’s Club (I was there for the grand opening of the new building, impressive as all get out).

A Boys’ Club is certainly not all it is – and it clearly is a lifeline and a source of hope for a lot of people in small conservative towns in the Bible Belt. Maybe we will do it again – if we’re asked.

I don’t work in an occult bookstore. But it seems as if all the liberal adult women in my area who read, think, and enjoy interesting discussions on topics other than their kids and their busy schedules are “spiritual but not religious” — and this is the catalyst for most of the “deeper” discussions…I live in a small town in a conservative area of the Midwest. I take what I can get.

Many of the students were in exactly that situation, if you swap ‘the South’ or ‘Texas’ for ‘the Midwest,’ and that fact produced a shift in Jeremy’s thinking. We have a running disagreement over the whole subject of what he calls ‘religion-bashing’; it always ends up in the same place: he tells me he just can’t empathize because it’s not like that in the UK; he can intellectually grasp why religion seems threatening in the US but he can’t feel it. I tend to find this slightly exasperating, because I don’t quite see why grasping it intellectually isn’t enough; but anyway he is now able to empathize somewhat more because of his experience over the two and a half weeks at CfI. He got friendly with several people from small towns in conservative areas, and he got a much better sense of how terrible it can be. And at the welcoming dinner that opened the second module – the one at which he was supposed to give opening remarks, the one we were so late for because of lingering too long in Seneca Falls – all the participants were asked to stand up and say a little about themselves; there were several new people who gave rather impassioned accounts of conservative small town life. When it was time for JS to say his few words he said he was feeling rather sheepish – about his long-standing inability to empathize. He meant it, too – he found the whole thing quite moving. So did I, so did Julian; I think so did everyone.

Can’t we all just…? No, we can’t.

Jul 24th, 2007 12:51 pm | By

Jonathan Derbyshire points out a problem with anti-foundationalism for people who have moral and/or political commitments. First he quotes John Holbo in a post I would have commented on then if I’d had time –

The real problem is that Rorty’s torn between a ‘Pyrhhonist’…anti-foundational epistemology and a progressive politics, in which he would like to demand lots of social changes, for the sake of social justice. His reformist reach exceeds his justificatory good conscience. He really thinks he’s right, but doesn’t think he can give his opponents rational grounds that they are compelled to accept.

Then he adds:

In other words, Rorty’s philosophical views prevent him from justifying or defending his progressive politics – and that’s politically problematic. So it’s not just that political liberalism needn’t line up with philosophical pragmatism or anti-foundationalism: if our fundamental liberal values don’t rest on certain substantive moral commitments – if, in other words, we’re prohibited from regarding those values as true – then are they really values at all?

To put it another way: if we don’t think we can give our opponents rational grounds that they are compelled to accept, then we have a problem, and the very first thing we need to do is recognize it rather than trying to conceal it or minimize it. I’m not sure myself that we can give our opponents rational grounds that they are compelled to accept, but I see that as worrying rather than cheery, and in either case I think it’s disastrous to pretend that there is no difficulty. But that’s what anti-foundationalists often do. They pretend that ‘we can all agree’ on certain basics and that that’s enough really. But in fact we can’t agree even on certain basics, and it’s a terrible idea to pretend that we can, because then we lose track of the fact that there really are people (lots of them) who truly don’t share our commitments to human rights or equality or women’s rights or whatever it may be.

Leaving Amherst

Jul 23rd, 2007 1:44 pm | By

I’m back. Jetlagged, tired, and back.

I listened to that Point of Inquiry interview this morning and it wasn’t too bad. At the time I thought I was doing more futile muttering than turned out to be the case. As I was leaving the studio (which is in a room at the Center) I was called into the office across the hall by Norm Allen, the reviews editor of Free Inquiry; he wanted me to do a review of Infidel. They seem to like me at that place. Very wise of them.

I tell you what though: it is a boys’ club. I’m sorry to say that, but it is. (You know it is, you CfI people, if any of you are reading this. Look up the hall, look down the hall; look up and down the other hall; you know what you see. Consider, and repent.) That’s probably not entirely its fault though: on average women seem not to be as interested in this kind of thing as men are. I find that highly irritating, and also all the more reason for me to remain very interested, and to redouble my efforts to annoy everyone within hearing on the subject. If there are fewer women, then the women there are have to be all the more noisy and obstreperous.

We took a picture of Jeremy showing off his biceps yesterday, and we’ll post it here eventually. We explored Buffalo on Saturday, walking some 700 miles in the process; he took a picture of me in Delaware Park, hot and sweaty and pleased with myself; we’ll post that eventually too.

I’ll get back to less lame or footling or frivolous posting soon, but give me a minute to get over the jetlag and to catch up on sleep.

More lame travel blog

Jul 18th, 2007 8:27 pm | By

You’ve been clamoring and longing for more news from Amherst New York (except for the one of you who has been clamoring and longing for less, of course), so here is some. (Anyone who finds the whole idea lame: here’s a bit of advice: don’t read it.)

I’m in the back hall of the Center for Inquiry (or Centre for Enquiry, if you prefer – Jeremy remarked as we passed the sign outside that it was odd for such a place to spell its own name wrong not once but twice), surrounded by Russian students talking to each other, typing on one of the Center’s spare computers that are available for guests. There is no internet in the guesthouse (no broadband, no WiFi, no anything) which is not always absolutely convenient, such as when Jeremy is working on his next lecture and wants to look things up and find useful video clips, or when he wants me to find and print some relevant quotations from B&W’s Quotations. Dear CfI could do a little better in the, um, organization and equipment department; but never mind.

Jeremy’s lectures are going down very well on the whole, despite the fact that what he is basically doing is undermining or challenging pretty much everything Paul Kurtz has ever said. Well it’s this humanist thing you see – we’re atheists, we’re secularists, but we’re not humanists. People got quite uneasy with determinism yesterday – but that’s how these things fall out.

Joe Hoffmann gave a lovely opening address this morning, which I asked if I could publish here the moment he’d finished saying it, and he said I could, so you have that to look forward to. He’s a very amusing guy, Joe is.

There are a lot of groundhogs here. I’m not used to larger mammals – larger than squirrels. Well I’m used to dogs and cats, but I mean running around on their own authority. It’s fun to see groundhogs. I saw a snake yesterday – I followed it through the grass for awhile, until it vanished under a shrub. I like seeing snakes, and would like to see them more often. I don’t get out much, you know – out in the sense of traveling – so I like to be in a new place, even if it is a slightly Martian one with a bad case of suburban hyperexpansion.

You remember I said about Jeremy the fashion icon? It’s even worse than that – he struts, and he shows off his biceps while lecturing. It’s really quite shockingly immature and embarrassing. He also kept smelling the T shirt he’d worn when lecturing on Saturday – he couldn’t believe what it smelled like and kept going back to confirm; he went on doing that for two days. He wanted me to say that here. Yes I know all this is lame, but I don’t have time to do real posts while I’m here, so I do absurd ones instead. I haven’t posted half the ridiculous things about Jeremy that he’s suggested I should.

Julian’s not as absurd – but he’s quite absurd. He does a broad American accent, and he sings little snatches of song complete with sound effects and similar. He keeps trying to do a Joe Hoffmann imitation which is entirely hopeless, it sounds nothing like him, but he does a good Tony Blair. He went to Toronto then came back here then went back to the UK. I saw Toronto far far far in the distance on Sunday, across Lake Ontario from a town called Niagara-on-the-Lake. It voss pretty.

I gotta go. The building is locking up.

Adventures in Amherst

Jul 14th, 2007 12:09 pm | By

I don’t usually do this, of course, but time is limited, as you know, so I’m just going to adapt a comment I left at Talking Philosophy. Someone had replied to Julian’s remark about being unable to blog much while here with the observation that they have the Internet in Buffalo…

They probably do have the internets in Buffalo, but we’re not exactly in Buffalo (Julian is a little shaky on geography*), we’re in Amherst, which is a suburb of Buffalo. Man is it a suburb. It’s the most suburban suburb I’ve ever seen. It’s like a Platonic suburb. All the roads are four-lane highways (at least) with a speed limit of 45 mph (at the slowest). Even the dang campus of the University (SUNY Buffalo, north campus) is full of 45 mph freeways – which seems very bizarre, to me, used as I am to the campus of the University of Washington where the speed limit is 15 mph. The shops are all chains, and so are the ‘restaurants.’ Still – joy is available – yesterday evening Jeremy and I took the now-familiar long walk up one mini-freeway (which goes under a real freeway, which roars so loudly overhead that we have to stop talking until we reach the other side) and along the one that has all the chain shops and eateries – he wanted a bit of electronic equipment, and he spied a Macy’s so we tried that but it seemed to be all clothes so that was no good and I was just saying why don’t we ask someone instead of walking around in here forever when we got to the far side which opened onto – you’ll never guess – a mall. Jeremy was in instant bliss. ‘I’m in heaven!’ he exclaimed rapturously. He likes malls.

Here’s something you don’t know about Jeremy, and neither did I. He’s a clothes horse. He’s a fashion idol. It’s just T shirts and jeans, but it’s a particular kind of T shirt and jeans. Very amusing.

Anyway, internet is patchy at the Center and non-existent at the guesthouse where we’re living, so we really can’t do much internets stuff.


Julian did his lectures last week, Jeremy is doing his this week and next; I did the keynote address at the beginning. The three of us rented a car and drove to the Finger Lakes on Thursday; it was great fun, especially since we had the rare perfect weather for it – bright, clear, sharp, ideal for gazing at long blue lakes with rolling country around them. The last bit was slightly hairy, because we dawdled too long in Seneca Falls (the Stoical birthplace of US feminism) and we had to be back by 6:30 because Jeremy was scheduled to give Opening Remarks at the dinner that launched the second set of lectures. Jeremy doesn’t drive and Julian hasn’t driven a huge amount, especially on US freeways, so I drove, and I went 10 to 20 miles faster than I had in the morning, but the time still kept sliding away and our ETA kept changing – 6:00, Jeremy will still have time for a shower; oh dear, 6:10, Jeremy will have to swipe his armpits and let it go at that; uh oh, 6:20, we’re just plain going to be late, but they’ll be eating, the remarks come after the dinner, it’s okay – and then I took the wrong exit, and mass despair took over. But in the event Julian skillfully navigated us through some squalid bit of outer Buffalo and we weren’t late after all and Jeremy smelled like a rose (well not really) and all was well.

He’s been working on his lecture for today, with me kibbitzing (Julian’s in Toronto, and he’s going back to the UK tomorrow); he may use some of the thought experiments he’s done here; we’re talking about Jonathan Haidt on disgust and purity and so on. It should be a very interesting afternoon.

Reporting in

Jul 11th, 2007 5:12 pm | By

So this is the end of the first module (as they call it). Julian got a (partial) standing ovation – most embarrassing. We went out for a celebratory (or good-bye [to Julian and to Charles Echelbarger]) with Ibn Warraq and Joe Hoffmann and others. Jeremy wondered if he could ask skeptical questions about skeptics and humanists, and the consensus seemed to be that he could and should, though everyone for miles around urged him to be sweet about it. Two women came up at the end and said ‘We have some questions for you’ and I figured it was a delegation from Homeland Secuurity or Animal Control or similar, but it was just a survey about how wonderful everything was or wasn’t. It seemed odd that it took two people, but never mind.

My ‘keynote address’ went better than you might expect considering that it was me giving it, that is to say, it went well, and I didn’t fall down or cry or throw up or anything. Jeremy took pictures of me doing it. Perhaps he’ll stick them on here some time. We’ll see.

Just a note

Jul 8th, 2007 6:32 pm | By

I’m here. (Where? Here. Where I said I’d be. At the Center for Inquiry, in Amherst, outside Buffalo, New York.) Jeremy’s here, Julian’s here, Joe Hoffman is here, Paul Kurtz (of course) is here, Tom Flynn, Nathan Bupp, and others. It’s good fun. I’ll tell you more later.

A little peace and quiet

Jul 4th, 2007 11:26 am | By

B&W is going to fall silent or near-silent for awhile – until July 23d to be precise. I’m off to this Beyond Belief thing. I’d love to maintain B&W in the meantime but spyware ate my laptop two years ago, so I can’t, although Jeremy has kindly offered to let me use his when he’s not, so maybe I will be able to do a little.

So long!

Good news for a change

Jul 3rd, 2007 7:23 pm | By

So I flick to the World Service at 7 and hear that Alan Johnston was released an hour ago . Various people around here cheered rather noisily. I may have been one of them.

Barely had they told us that than he was on the line to tell us about it. It was horrible, ‘as you may imagine’ – in solitary confinement all that time with people who at intervals talked of killing him. He said at the very end they beat him – as they took him to the car to free him, apparently, they had to pound on him. It wasn’t nice.

And as he points out, he’s not the only one.

But anyway – he’s out. Yay.

Jesting bishops

Jul 3rd, 2007 9:38 am | By

Funny god these bishops believe in. Arbitrary, whimsical, cryptic, absent-minded, brutal, sloppy, and stupidly vicious. We’d better hope it doesn’t exist. Oblivion is vastly preferable to being bossed around by a petty shit like that for eternity. Funny that the bishops seem to find it attractive. (But not really funny at all of course, since it’s merely a projection of their own petty shitness.)

One diocesan bishop has even claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless…[Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle] expressed his sympathy for those who have been hit by the weather, but said that the problem with “environmental judgment is that it is indiscriminate”.

Why yes, it is; clever of the bish to spot that, but therefore perhaps not all that clever to attribute it to a deity he probably wants people to love as well as fear. Typical enough, of the incoherence of church ‘teaching,’ but not all that clever all the same. Also a tad scientifically illiterate – he doesn’t mean ‘environmental judgment’ of course; the technical term is meteorological judgment.

Welcome to Dar ul-Harb

Jul 2nd, 2007 12:11 pm | By

Hassan Butt explains.

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the ‘Blair’s bombs’ line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology…And as with previous terror attacks, people are again articulating the line that violence carried out by Muslims is all to do with foreign policy. For example, yesterday on Radio 4’s Today programme, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said: ‘What all our intelligence shows about the opinions of disaffected young Muslims is the main driving force is not Afghanistan, it is mainly Iraq.’

He did: here (fast forward ten minutes). He also said, to Ed Husain, ‘You’re absolutely right in what you say about the Wahhabi strand; the way you then demonize a whole load of genuinely representative Muslims is completely wrong.’ But Ed Husain wasn’t doing any such thing, as he kept trying to get Livingstone to see: he was distinguishing between Muslims and Islamists, while Ken was lumping them together.

Hassan Butt explains some more.

[T]hough many British extremists are angered by the deaths of fellow Muslim across the world, what drove me and many of my peers to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain, our own homeland and abroad, was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world…The centuries-old reasoning of Islamic jurists also extends to the world stage where the rules of interaction between Dar ul-Islam (the Land of Islam) and Dar ul-Kufr (the Land of Unbelief) have been set down to cover almost every matter of trade, peace and war. What radicals and extremists do is to take these premises two steps further. Their first step has been to reason that since there is no Islamic state in existence, the whole world must be Dar ul-Kufr. Step two: since Islam must declare war on unbelief, they have declared war upon the whole world.

So when it looks as if the goal is not to extort some concession or change of policy but just to kill as many people as possible – it looks that way because that is how it is. We are all part of Dar ul-Kufr, and we all need to be killed.

I believe that the issue of terrorism can be easily demystified if Muslims and non-Muslims start openly to discuss the ideas that fuel terrorism. (The Muslim community in Britain must slap itself awake from this state of denial and realise there is no shame in admitting the extremism within our families, communities and worldwide co-religionists.)

Yeah. Let’s do that.

Ed Husain has a very good article in today’s Evening Standard; Allen sent me a copy and also posted a useful chunk of it on the Letters page.

Being a big‑tent liberal is laudable; but to fail to discern the difference between Islam, the religious tradition, and Islamism, the extremist political ideology hell‑bent on destroying the West, is a disaster for us all. By confusing regular religious Muslims with fanatical ideologues, Ken blurs the lines between right and wrong, and allows radicalism to flourish within sections of London’s Muslim communities…While living in Saudi Arabia two years ago, I remember watching in horror television images of Ken walking around with Yusuf al‑Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, whose publicly stated attitude is that suicide bombers are martyrs. Yet it was Ken who said that “of all the Muslim thinkers in the world today, al‑Qaradawl is the most positive force for change”. By promoting these extremists, and their supporters, Ken gives them legitimacy. He helps set in motion the conveyor belt to terrorism.

Listen up, Ken.

The two cultures and how they met

Jul 1st, 2007 10:49 am | By

A beautiful piece (thanks to Allen Esterson for sending me the link). Studded with gems.

[Natalie] Angier’s book is called The Canon, and subtitled ‘A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science’. It is not a long book and it contains, as the title suggests, a breathless Baedeker of the fundamental scientific knowledge Angier believes is the minimum requirement of an educated person…The result is the kind of science book you wish someone had placed in front of you at school – full of aphorisms that help everything fall into place. For geology: ‘This is what our world is about: there is heat inside and it wants to get out.’ For physics: ‘Almost everything we’ve come to understand about the universe we have learned by studying light.’…’Entropy,’ Angier writes, ‘is like a taxi passing you on a rainy night with its NOT IN SERVICE lights ablaze, or a chair in a museum with a rope draped from arm to arm, or a teenager.’ Entropy, unusable energy, leads to the law that states that everything in time must wear out, become chaotic, die. ‘The darkest readings of the Second Law suggest that even the universe has a morphine drip in its vein,’ Angier suggests, ‘a slow smothering of all spangle, all spiral, all possibility.’ No wonder CP Snow thought we should know about it.

One wants to rush straight out the door to find the nearest copy of that book, doesn’t one.

‘Science is rather a state of mind,’ Angier argues and, as such, it should inform everything. ‘It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing for granted.’ It would be hard to argue that this state of mind was advancing across the globe…Numbers of students still studying science at 18 are falling in Britain and America, perhaps because we are becoming generally less motivated to address difficulty. As a culture, we allow ourselves too many excuses. ‘Western parents are quite comfortable saying their children have a predilection for art or for writing or whatever, and allow them just to pursue that. In the Asian education system, if you are not good at something, it’s because you are lazy and you just have to work harder at it. Just because things are hard does not mean they are not worth doing.’

I did that. When I was in school, I did exactly that – I just decided early on that I was a literary type, and that settled the matter. A very stupid way to think. I was determinedly stupid in that way for years and years. I wish I could go back in time and kick myself really hard.

That idea of difficulty, I suggest, cannot really be helped in the States in particular, when all of the presidential candidates of one party stand up in televised debate and say they believe in ‘intelligent design’ and suggest that the world could well have been created by a bearded God a few thousand years ago. Angier laughs, somewhat bleakly. ‘I see all that as a macho kind of posturing. It’s like, I can believe the impossible: look, I can lift a tree! It is a Republican initiation ritual, like having a hook pulled through your cheek and not flinching.’ But no, she concedes, it doesn’t help much.

That’s good – believing the impossible as a kind of macho posturing; I like that.

[John] Brockman perceived a third way. ‘Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists,’ he suggested. ‘Scientists are communicating directly with the general public….Third Culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavour to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.’ Brockman’s cross-fertilising club, the most rarefied of chatrooms, has its premises on his website Eavesdropping is fun. Ian McEwan, one of the few novelists who has contributed to Edge’s ongoing debates, suggests that the project is not so far removed from the ‘old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other’s concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists’.

Why one of the few novelists? Because most novelists go on thinking of themselves as literary types and refusing to take any interest in the other stuff. Chumps.

I wonder why there are still so few literary contributors to Edge, which has remained a predominantly scientific and philosophical forum. Is there not some evidence there that the divide persists? Brockman explains how Edge evolved out of a group called the Reality Club that held actual meetings with scientists, artists, architects, musicians. Ten of the leading novelists in America were invited to participate. Not one accepted.

Stupid. If someone invited me to participate in an actual meeting like that I’d be there so fast the chairs wouldn’t be set up yet. And that refusal is probably why most novels bore me rigid these days; why I give up on them after a few pages. I’ve gotten truly deeply bored with minute descriptions of daily life, and all literary novels are stuffed and clogged with details of Jennifer’s Mood As She Sorts The Socks. Life is short, there’s a lot to learn, and I just don’t care about Jennifer’s mood, I think she should get over herself and go learn some geology or something.

James Watson ends on a hilarious note.

‘I recently went to my staircase at Clare College, Cambridge and there were women there!’ he said, with an enormous measure of retrospective sexual frustration. ‘There have been a lot of convincing studies recently about the loss of productivity in the Western male. It may be that entertainment culture now is so engaging that it keeps people satisfied. We didn’t have that. Science was much more fun than listening to the radio. When you are 16 or 17 and in that inherently semi-lonely period when you are deciding whether to be an intellectual, many now don’t bother.’ Watson raised an eyebrow, fixed me again with a look. ‘What you have instead are characters out of Nick Hornby’s very funny books, who channel their intellect in pop culture. The hopeless male.’

You know, if you combined Nick Hornby and Ian McEwan, you’d really have something.

More on disgust

Jul 1st, 2007 9:45 am | By

More on that Jonathan Haidt interview. Tamler Sommers asked him:

Let’s take a more concrete question. Gay marriage. You brought this up in your talk at Dartmouth…You say that conservatives in America employ all four of the modules, whereas liberals only employ two. You said that liberals have an impoverished moral worldview, and that conservatives somehow have a richer moral life…You said that we as liberals have pared down our moral foundations to two modules, fairness and do-no-harm—whereas perfectly intelligent conservatives have all four modules…So if you take gay marriage…and you have people who have the intuition that gay marriage is really wrong, it’s impure Because they have that purity module that liberals lack. Do you want to say that in that culture that gay marriage is really wrong?

Haidt gives a highly unsatisfactory answer.

[C]onservative morality looks not just at effects on individuals, but at the state of the social order. The fact that acts that violate certain parts of the Bible are tolerated is disturbing to conservatives even though they can’t point to any direct harm. So I do understand the source of their opposition to it.

That’s incoherent. The state of the social order is one thing and violation of certain parts of the Bible is another, so why does he understand the source of conservatives’ opposition? And why does he understand it and why does he make a virtue of understanding it (so that understanding seems to shade into sympathy) ‘even though they can’t point to any direct harm’? The inability to point to direct (or, I might add, real, or genuine, or concrete, or specifiable) harm is not some trivial side matter, it’s the whole problem. If you can’t point to any real harm in X, then why do you want to forbid X? If you can’t point to any real harm in X, then you have to come up with a really good alternative reason for forbidding X, or else reasonable people will think you’re just trying to enact your ingrained dislikes into law, and that you shouldn’t do that.

Yet Haidt seems to be putting in a good word for exactly that.

And this is a difficult case, where it can’t work out well for everyone. Somebody has to give. If we were in a Muslim country, or a Catholic country where much of social and moral life was regulated in accordance with the purity and hierarchy codes, then it would be very reasonable to ban gay marriage. But we are not in such a country. We are in a country where the consensus is that we grant rights to self-determination unless a limiting reason can be found.

But why does that mean ‘it can’t work out well for everyone’? Why does Haidt think not banning gay marriage constitutes ‘not working out well’ for the people who want to ban it? They have a bogus, meritless, unreasonable, intrusive, meddling desire; they don’t lose anything by not getting their desire, because they wouldn’t gain anything by getting their desire, because the marriage of Dan and Stan is nothing to do with them. It’s absolutely ridiculous to say that allowing Jen and Pen to marry amounts to things not working out well for a bunch of strangers who want to tell everyone how to live. You might as well say my reading a book that someone in Nebraska doesn’t like the sound of means things have not worked out well for that person in Nebraska. That person in Nebraska should think about other things.

If I have a mission in life, it is to convince people that everyone is morally motivated—everyone except for psychopaths. Everyone else is morally motivated…One of the most psychologically stupid things anyone ever said is that the 9/11 terrorists did this because they hate our freedom. That’s just idiotic. Nobody says: “They’re free over there. I hate that. I want to kill them.”

They do though. He’s just wrong about that, I’m afraid. I know what he means – I thought that was a stupid thing to say too, and I still do, because it’s simplistic and misleading; but as a matter of empirical fact it’s just not true that nobody says ‘They’re free over there. I hate that.’ Many people – men – do hate and do say they hate the way women are free over here. Women’s freedom is the first thing they do away with when they win the gun battles, and it is explicitly the freedom that they hate. There are people – men – to whom the freedom of women is absolute anathema. If Haidt doesn’t know that, he should find it out; it’s important.

BLVR: So what would the consequences be of everyone understanding that the other side is morally motivated? I guess we could just get down to the nuts and bolts of the issue at hand.

JH: We would become much more tolerant, and some compromise might be possible, for example, on gay marriage. Even though personally I would like to see it legalized everywhere, I think it would be a nice compromise if each state could decide whether to legalize it, and nobody was forced one way or the other by the Supreme Court.

That’s the same misunderstanding as the one about things not going well for everyone, but it’s worse. Allowing gay marriage is not forcing people who don’t like it – it’s not allowing them to force other people, which is a different thing. People who want to impose their ideas of purity and sanctity on everyone are trying to force; people who refuse to bow to their wishes are not. It’s strange and rather sinister that Haidt sees both sides as trying to force the other.

Beheading isn’t a haircut, either

Jul 1st, 2007 9:40 am | By

Why does the Guardian call female genital mutilation ‘circumcision’? It uses the word six times in this very short piece – even while admitting that it ‘involves the removal of the clitoris, and is also called female genital mutilation.’ Removal of the penis isn’t called circumcision, so why should removal of the clitoris be called that?! Because the Guardian is tho thenthitive, because the Guardian is staffed entirely by cultural anthropologists, because the Guardian thinks men matter and women don’t, or what? What is up with this relentless passion to euphemize things that should not be euphemized? Auschwitz should not be called a Polish spa, My Lai should not be called a prank, the Rwanda genocide should not be called a backyard barbecue gone wrong, and chopping off a girl’s clitoris, slicing away her labia, and then sewing them closed should not be called ‘circumcision.’

Farish Noor tells it

Jun 29th, 2007 12:57 pm | By

Our friend mirax sent the link to this splendid article by Farish Noor

I was on a BBC radio programme recently, in conversation with a certain Minister of a certain Religious Affairs Department of a certain Muslim country…But what irked me was the refrain of the Minister in question, who again and again repeated the same line: “A billion Muslims all over the world are outraged by this knighthood being conferred on Rushdie, who has insulted Islam and Muslims”.

Not exactly, Noor points out.

These were not spontaneous acts of public outrage but rather planned and orchestrated demonstrations calculated to have maximum mediatic effect. And what an effect it has had.

The reactivation of the demonised image of Rushdie has become a common tactic for Islamist movements worldwide, and it also helps that an overwhelming majority of the angered crowd have not even read his book The Satanic Verses, or any of his other works like Shame and Midnight’s Children for that matter! Now how does this expression of uninformed anger serve to improve the image of Islam and Muslims, one wonders?

Just what I keep wondering! I know it doesn’t work that way with Murkans – expressions of uninformed anger from Murkans never improve the image of Murkans. There seems little reason to think it works that way with any other identifiable group. (Elitists perhaps? Perhaps expression of uninformed anger improves the image of elitists? Shows they’re not such snobs after all? But then why are they elitists? No, it won’t work.)

When I hear the name Rushdie mentioned, I think of the same Salman Rushdie who was writing in the 1980s at the time when Britain was under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, she of the foreigner-hating-ways. For many a young Asian academic and student then, Rushdie was our spokesman, our voice of reason, whose powerful commentaries, op-ed pieces, public lectures, etc. warned of the dangers of racialised communitarianism in Britain. He was the spokesman for the downtrodden, the poor marginalised migrants, the minority communities of Britain…It was Rushdie who foregrounded and promoted the writing of Asian authors as English authors, so that their works would not be marginalised and relegated to the margins as ‘exotic’ literature from the Orient. Thanks in part of the efforts of Rushdie and others of his generation, literature from the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia has entered the mainstream…So in the opinion of this author at least Salman Rushdie deserves the knighthood he has been awarded, not only for his services as a writer, but also as a social critic, activist and public intellectual who gave many of us – foreigners in Europe then – a place and a voice. Good on you, Salman – We’re proud of you bro.


Yuk is not enough

Jun 29th, 2007 12:21 pm | By

I found this quite unconvincing, so unconvincing that I looked for more on Jonathan Haidt, and found what I turned up unconvincing too. And not just unconvincing, but also unfortunate.

“Psychologist Jonathan Haidt wants to help liberal types like me understand why some people condemn homosexual relationships as immoral.” Imagine someone saying ‘Gay marriage will destroy society, because homosexuality is an abomination to God and will undermine marriage.’ Liberals think that’s a bad reason.

But Haidt, who works at the University of Virginia and specializes in issues of morality, says the conservative viewpoint isn’t just theta waves – it’s based on a moral compass that points in dimensions liberals simply don’t perceive.

I don’t think so. I think it’s based on a moral compass that is wrong. It’s not a failure to perceive, it’s a disagreement. In particular we disagree over god, and over what is or is not an abomination to any putative god, and over whether gay marriage will undermine marriage. There’s no sensory lack there; there’s disagreement, which is a different thing.

In Western societies, secular and liberal-minded people base their moral beliefs on fairness and the avoidance of harm…Most people set their moral compasses based on their sense of disgust. This is an additional moral dimension, which [Haidt] calls purity/sanctity.

You bet. Lots of people fret a good deal about purity and sanctity. We realize that – and we think it’s a mistake, usually a terrible mistake.

And Haidt and Rozin both say that widespread disdain for fundamentalists is misplaced. The moral compass of the religious right factors in that additional dimension of sanctity/purity, which is driven by disgust as well as religious teachings.

But that doesn’t make disagreement (or ‘disdain,’ if you insist on prejudicing the argument) misplaced. We understand that the moral compass of the religious right factors in disgust, and that’s exactly what we object to; they shouldn’t be disgusted, the disgust is irrational; and they certainly shouldn’t try to enforce their own disgust as a matter of law. If I want to eat slugs for lunch, what is that to them?!

Haidt says he was inspired by the University of Chicago’s Leon Kass, who headed President Bush’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005. In an earlier essay, called “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Kass wrote that feelings of disgust come from “an emotional expression of a deep wisdom. . . . Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

Well there’s your problem right there: don’t ever be inspired by Leon Kass. He talks terrible nonsense about instinctive revulsion that can’t be argued. Well yeah, like for people of other races, or women, or people with disabilities, or people of the wrong religion.

University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan disagrees with Kass’ use of intuition…”People used to think it was revolting when two people of different races got married,” Caplan says. Letting your sense of disgust guide your views on gay marriage, he adds, “is just bigotry and bias dressed up with the clothes of wisdom.”

Just so.

Haidt goes into more detail in an interview.

Haidt has devoted his career to the study of moral judgment and decision-making; his results are revealing and perhaps a bit unflattering. We tend to think of ourselves as arriving at our moral judgments after painstaking rational deliberation, or at least some kind of deliberation anyhow. According to Haidt’s model—which he calls “the social intuitionist model”—the process is just the reverse. We judge and then we reason. What, then, is the point of reasoning if the judgment has already been made? To convince other people (and also ourselves) that we’re right.

Well, we already knew that of course; we’ve read our Hume and our Damasio; we’ve taken the Taboo test (which was inspired by Haidt’s work); we know we react first and think afterwards. But I don’t agree with the last sentence, at least not unless it’s worded differently. What’s the point of thinking about our first emotional judgment? To try to figure out whether it’s right or not! To second-guess it; to think; to consider; to ask if we’re just shooting from the hip.

It’s an interesting interview – full of places where one thinks ‘No, not exactly,’ but interesting. But some of what he says…

What I want to say is that there are at least four foundations of our moral sense, but there are many coherent moral systems that can be built on these four foundations. But not just anything can be built on these four foundations. So I believe that an evolutionary approach specifying the foundation of our moral sense can allow us to appreciate Hindu and Muslim cultures where women are veiled and seem to us to lead restricted lives.

But I don’t want to appreciate Hindu and Muslim cultures where women seem to lead restricted lives. I think if they seem to lead restricted lives, they do lead restricted lives, and I know enough about the subject to know that when their lives expand, they tend to be overjoyed; therefore I have no desire to appreciate cultures where they don’t even have that option, where they can’t even sample expansion to see if they like it.

Liberals use intuitions about suffering (aversion to) and intuitions about reciprocity, fairness, and equality. But there are two other foundations—there are intuitions about hierarchy, respect, duty… that’s one cluster. And intuitions about purity and pollution, which generate further intuitions about chastity and modesty. Most human cultures use all four of these bases to ground their moral worldviews. We in the West, in modern times especially, have to some extent discarded the last two. We have built our morality entirely on issues about harm (the first pillar), and rights, and justice (the second). Our morality is coherent. We can critique people who do things that violate it within our group. We can’t critique cultures that use all four moralities.

Oh yes we can.

No, we’re not jealous

Jun 28th, 2007 10:05 am | By

Not correct.

Having lost their own belief in progress and liberation, secular intellectuals are irked by their encounters with people who, on whatever basis, retain a vision of the good society and a commitment to realising it.

No; that’s wrong; that could hardly be wronger. That neatly gets the matter exactly backwards. It is because I have not lost my belief in (the desirability of) progress and liberation, because in fact that belief has considerably strengthened and sharpened as I’ve learned more about its pervasive enemies, I am, not irked, but repelled and horrified by my encounters with people who retain a vision of the bad society and a commitment to realising it.

They clearly feel rebuked by the undaunted practice of those who have not given up.

No. That’s not it. It’s not that they’re so dedicated and people like me are so indifferent. No – it’s that they want the wrong things, and they want them for people like me (atheist secular feminist women who cling to their own freedom and autonomy with bared teeth). I haven’t given up, and I don’t feel abashed or rebuked by the undaunted practice of misogynist theocrats.

Real men don’t eat quiche or coddle women

Jun 26th, 2007 10:31 am | By

So what matters to the rage boys? Putting women in their place, that’s what. Their place is either slavishly obedient, or dead; those are the choices; and it’s Rage Boy who gets to decide which rules women are required to obey.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said Islamist terror groups were behind one murder, as well as a case where a woman was threatened and is in hiding…Nazir Afzal, the CPS’s national lead on honour crime, told BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme the threats to kill a woman known as Miss B, who is now in hiding, came from her family but originated in an Egyptian terrorist group. He said: “They told her husband that if he didn’t put his wife in her place then they would do it themselves.”

Because they don’t want any sissy rage boys in their outfit, the kind who are too wimpy and girly to be willing to murder their wives. What kind of Rage Boy Brotherhood would that be?! Who is frightened of rage boys who won’t even murder their own wives? Get real.

Mr Afzal said honour violence was not confined to fathers and grandfathers, but was carried out by younger relations too….”They get their identity and their ethnicity from these traditions. We know they are bizarre and outdated but they get their identity from those traditions and they feel very strongly that how you treat your women is a demonstration of your commitment to radicalism and extremist thought.”

Oh do they – how inspiring. What an interesting idea of ‘radicalism.’ There was a whiff of that in the sixties, too, but then that whiff is what blew into second-wave feminism; men who wanted to hang onto any idea of ‘radicalism’ dropped the whole ‘barefoot chick in the background’ routine pretty fast.

However, Reefat Draboo of the Muslim Council of Britain told the BBC she disagreed with Mr Afzal’s comments.

And the BBC asked someone from the MCB what she thought why, exactly? The BBC talked to someone at the MCB and no one else why? The BBC felt it had to ‘balance’ what Afzal said with what someone else said so it asked – the MCB and no one else, why? Because it always does? Because it’s so lazy it can’t be bothered to find a different organization or a more informed view? Draboo’s comment is supremely irrelevant, because ‘honour’ murder doesn’t have to be condoned by Islam for Islamist terror groups to approve of it. Why couldn’t the BBC get its feet underneath itself long enough to find someone with something of value to say? Because if it asks the MCB then Rage Boy may get a little peeved but he won’t go into full red alert fury mode? Or is it because it makes people at the BBC feel kind of vaguely sympathetic and diverse and right on to turn to the MCB all the time. Do they all have their heads wrapped in thick bales of attic insulation there or what?

Ask not why Rage Boy is in such a snit

Jun 26th, 2007 10:00 am | By

Is it a fatwah? Is it a copy of the Quran allegedly down the gurgler at Guantanamo? Is it some cartoon in Denmark? Time for Rage Boy to step in and for his visage to impress the rest of the world with the depth and strength of Islamist emotion.

Hitchens is talking about much the same thing as I was talking about a couple of days ago – this business of the depth and strength and profundity and vehemence of emotion, and the work it does – the way it impresses some people in the rest of the world and prompts them to reason backwards from the intensity of the emotion to the magnitude of the crime committed by the person or persons who ’caused’ the emotion. Look at Rage Boy: his staring eyes, his gaping mouth; he is clearly upset to the very depths of his soul; let us frown heavily on the source of Rage Boy’s rage, be it novel or cartoon or free woman walking abroad on the public highway.

The acceptance of an honor by a distinguished ex-Muslim writer, who exercised his freedom to abandon his faith and thus courts a death sentence for apostasy in any case, came shortly after the remaining minarets of the Askariya shrine in Samarra were brought down in shards…But what does “Rage Boy” have to say about this appalling desecration of a Muslim holy place? What resolutions were introduced into the “parliament” of Pakistan, denouncing such shameful profanity? You already know the answer to those questions.

Well…you see…er…Rushdie was living in London at the time! That’s it. He’s an apostate, and an Orientalist, and a leave-homer, and a neocon. Yes he is, don’t try to deny it! He’s a neocon, he is, he is! The people who blew up the Askariya shrine, say what you like about them but at least they’re not neocons. So of course Rage Boy’s reaction is not a bit disproportionate or just plain barking up the wrong tree, it’s a reasoned political analysis translated into a loud scream, and hence to be respected.

We may have to put up with the Rage Boys of the world, but we ought not to do their work for them, and we must not cry before we have been hurt. In front of me is a copy of this week’s Economist, which states that Rushdie’s 1989 death warrant was “punishment for the book’s unflattering depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.” There is no direct depiction of the prophet in this work of fiction, and the reverie about his many wives occurs in the dream of a madman. Nobody in Ayatollah Khomeini’s circle could possibly have read the book for him before he issued a fatwah, which made it dangerous to possess. Yet on that occasion, the bookstore chains of America pulled The Satanic Verses from their shelves, just as Borders shamefully pulled Free Inquiry (a magazine for which I write*) after it reproduced the Danish cartoons. Rage Boy keenly looks forward to anger, while we worriedly anticipate trouble, and fret about etiquette, and prepare the next retreat. If taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean living at the pleasure of Rage Boy, and that I am not prepared to do.

No, nor am I. If I’m going to consult anyone about how to live, it won’t be Rage Boy or anyone like him.

*So do I!

‘This is a man who’

Jun 24th, 2007 2:33 pm | By

I finally got around to watching ‘Question Time’ and Shirley Williams doing her party piece. The man in the audience asked the first question: is the knighthood given to Rushdie an insult to Muslims? SW was the first to answer: ‘I think it’s a mistake,’ she said. Then she went on. ‘This is a man who has offended Muslims in a very powerful way,’ she said in an unmistakable tone of indignation, then pointing out, absurdly, that he’d been protected for years at great expense to the taxpayer. Then she said it wasn’t Blair’s doing, it was the committee, and they should have etc etc etc. That’s when Hitchens said, quite rightly, ‘That’s a contemptible answer.’ Well so it damn well is.

‘This is a man who’ – in a tone of controlled anger. Excuse me? Excuse me? This is a man who wrote a novel, in part of which he expressed some ironic views about the p. M. What is wrong with that? What possessed Shirley Williams to say that as if he’d committed sodomy on Princess Beatrice’s pet rabbit? Would she say that about an academic – as it might be a well-known philosopher, such as her former husband – who wrote something critical about the p. M.? I certainly hope not, but perhaps she would. But what is her operating assumption there? That it is forbidden to write something critical about the p. M.? Well if so, that’s an end to scholarship of many kinds – comparative religion, history, politics, and quite a few related fields. Then perhaps she thinks it’s forbidden only for novelists? But if so, why? On what grounds? And where is that rule written down? Why haven’t all potential novelists (which would be all of us) been told?

Perhaps she thinks, as some cowering people said in 1989, that he ought to have known, or he must have known, or he did know. But if he ought or must have or did – again, so what? So.the.fuck.what? What follows from that? So does Irshad Manji know, so did and does Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so do Maryam Namazie and Homa Arjomand, so does Ibn Warraq, so does the Council of ex-Muslims, so does Gina Khan, so does Necla Kelik, so do a great many people; and they bravely don’t let that stop them. What is Shirley Williams saying – that they ought to? That they ought to know that Muslim men (much more men than women) will be offended and therefore shut up? Does she really think anything so contemptible? Or has she just not thought it through.

What people apparently do with these ‘offended’ claims is reverse engineer: they reason backwards: they look at the magnitude of the ‘offence’ and then assign guilt accordingly – but that’s wrong. If that rule held no one would ever criticize or dispute or tease anything because of the risk of ‘offence’ out of all proportion to the intent and to the harm done. Instead what people should be doing is coldly examining the merit of the putative grievance, independent of the quantity of fuss made.

Human arrangements, practices, customs, habits, institutions have to be open to discussion – family and marriage included, George S to the contrary notwithstanding. ‘This is a man who’ is not an appropriate response to such activities. (As George S notes in his very next post.)