Notes and Comment Blog


Truth in Advertising

Aug 26th, 2006 5:15 pm | By

I’m getting very curious about this advertising question. A couple of commenters on Inquiry have disagreed with my characterization of advertising as having the goal of selling a product as opposed to finding (or disseminating) the truth. I’m becoming increasingly interested in finding out what is controversial about this. Am I just wrong? Have I got my facts wrong? Am I confused? Here I’ve thought all this time, even from earliest childhood, innocently gazing at rice krispies elves and bald giants in T shirts, that the purpose of advertisements was to get people to pay money for the objects the ads were talking or singing or dancing or enacting little playlets about, whether it be spearmint gum or a cleaning product or a sexually exciting automobile. Did I somehow get the wrong end of the stick? Were all those mini-dramas and songs and limpid sylvan landscapes not intended to inspire us to spend money on the cereals and beers and cigarettes in question, but rather to inquire into or convey the truth about said products?

I gotta tell you, I don’t think so. I have to say, I’ve been reliably informed on more than one occasion that the purpose of such entertainments and didactic offerings was and is, indeed, to move the viewer to buy the object of attention. I think I can offer abundant evidence that that is indeed the purpose of advertising. But – but one can always be wrong; I could be wrong; perhaps all my informants were wrong; perhaps it’s all a misunderstanding. Perhaps advertising is in fact a branch of education, and I’ve simply never grasped that. You have your schools, and your universities, and libraries, and museums, and then you have advertising, and they’re all doing the same thing, for the same reasons, with the same motivations, using the same methods and adhering to the same norms. Or perhaps advertising is a branch of research and inquiry; perhaps it’s a giant long-term multi-generational social science experiment that was started in the middle of the 18th century and is nowhere near complete yet. I never realized that.

I don’t think so though. I don’t think advertising is there to educate us, or to do disinterested research. But commenters keep disputing me. For instance: “Actually, being horribly pedantic and all, there is no reason why advertising should not be about truth telling even if it is also about persuasion, it really all depends on the ethical standards of the advertiser, the two things are not mutually exclusive.”

I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think it’s true that “there is no reason why advertising should not be about truth telling.” That is not the same thing as saying that advertising can’t possibly ever tell the truth, although I would argue that advertising can’t really ever be “about” truth telling, because it is in fact “about” something quite different. But the “no reason” thing first. It’s just not true to say there’s no reason to claim that advertising and truth telling are mutually exclusive: there is a reason, a perfectly sensible and widely recognized reason: advertising has an agenda, an axe to grind, a bias, which is different from truth telling and could very well interfere with the motivation to tell the truth. That’s obvious enough isn’t it? Here’s a thought experiment in case it’s not. You’re an advertiser: your new account is this cookie: you taste it: it tastes like shit. Is that what you decide to say in the ad? “Buy new raisin Weezelbronks, they taste like shit!” Put it more objectively: you do marketing research: you give the cookie to lots of people to try: they all say it tastes like shit. Is that what you put in the ad? “Buy new raisin Weezelbronks, everybody says they taste like shit!” Granted, most cookie makers would try to improve the cookie before selling it. But what about cigarettes then? Do cigarette ads say nothing but: “Smoke these, they’re addictive, they’ll make you smell bad, they’re expensive, and they’re highly toxic!”

Now just apply the basic principle to any product and any ad for it and you’ll see what I’m driving at. Advertising is not in fact “about” truth telling, it is “about” selling a product, and the two are not invariably mutually exclusive, but they certainly are in tension. Advertisers have no inherent motivation to tell the complete truth about the product unless they have the rare perfect product with no harmful side effects.

But I’m told I have “a very jaundiced view of corporate ethics” because I make this claim. But I don’t buy it (so to speak). I don’t think that is a jaundiced view, and it’s also not a personal one; it’s simply an observation about the inherent function of advertising. Unless, as I say, I’m completely wrong and confused and misinformed about what that function is. New information sought and welcomed.



Lotta People

Aug 26th, 2006 2:10 am | By

I don’t like this.

Americans remained critical of the influence of both the right and the left on religion. Sixty-nine percent agreed that liberals have “gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government” — an increase of 3 percentage points, which is not statistically significant. At the same time, 49 percent agreed that conservative Christians have “gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country,” also a 3 percentage point increase.

Sixty-nine percent think ‘libbruls’ have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government? Well…it’s presumably Pew’s question, and Pew who phrased it that way, so it may be that sixty-nine percent of Murkans wouldn’t have actually volunteered that crack-brained opinion. Maybe it would have been only sixty-five percent or so who would actually formulate the opinion themselves. But all the same, that’s a pretty staggering figure. Sometimes I’m afraid to leave the house.



Why dost thou lash that whore?

Aug 26th, 2006 2:06 am | By

So…let’s see how religion and piety inspire people to be kind to their fellow humans.

President Pervez Musharraf has opened a new and especially bitter confrontation with radical Islam by trying to rewrite Pakistan’s controversial rape laws. These place an almost impossible burden of proof on women by compelling them to produce four “pious” male witnesses to prove rape or risk being convicted of adultery and face 100 lashes or death by stoning.

So…these laws make it impossible for a woman to charge anyone with rape. Why, one wonders? What did Allah have in mind with that? That…women are such liars and sluts that they deserve to be raped except on the rare occasions when there are four pious males in the room when a fifth gets a crazy impulse to rape a woman? Is that it? Well, apparently.

A powerful militant Muslim lobby regards this code as sacred and based on Koranic texts and sharia law…Gen Musharraf’s allies in parliament sparked the fury of the militant opposition by introducing a Women Protection Bill. This would remove the requirement for four male witnesses to prove rape and set 16 as the age of consent for sex with girls. When this measure came before parliament, Islamic radicals responded by tearing up copies of the bill and storming out. “This bill is against the Holy Koran,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the militant opposition. “We reject it and will try to block it in any possible manner.” Other MPs chanted “death to Musharraf” and “Allah is great.”

Do they ever think, these militant types? If so, what do they think about? Do they ever think about why Allah who is great would makes such a law? Do they ever wonder why they want men who rape women to have impunity? Are they so confident that all women are whores and liars (their own daughters, sisters, mothers?) that they deserve to be raped with impunity, and stoned or lashed to death if they charge someone with rape and can’t persuade the four pious witnesses to testify?

I don’t know, but I wonder.



Leaders, Take a Break

Aug 26th, 2006 1:34 am | By

Ehsan Masood talks sense.

One of the problems we face in the search for better community relations is our insistence on sticking to the idea of the “community leader.” In a modern democracy, the idea that there is such a thing as a community leader and that he has the ability to prevent extremism among “his people” continues to be an important plank of government policy. But it needs rethinking. Each time there is news of Muslim terrorism, ministers invite television cameras to film a cavalcade of mostly male Muslims who appear to have been summoned to explain themselves to government ministers.

I wish he’d said a little more about the ‘mostly male’ part. But no matter.

[G]overnment should understand that command and control through third parties might be how you run an empire of sceptical Muslim subjects, but it isn’t a smart way to build a sense of belonging among sceptical Muslim citizens. Among other things, it allows Muslims to see themselves as separate from the rest of the society – which all too many would be happy to do. The community leader, too, has to recognise that his job of trying to represent his community to those in authority is over. It will be hard, because some of them enjoy being snapped standing next to the prime minister or foreign secretary. But Muslim citizens can look after themselves…

And many of them simply don’t want to be ‘represented’ by self-appointed (all male) leaders anyway.



Up to a Point

Aug 25th, 2006 7:20 pm | By

Norm has more on the paradox. He also had more a few days ago, answering my mutterings on the subject. To jump to the end first, he explains further what he had in mind.

So why my suggestion of a tension or paradox in the first place? I suppose because I think some liberals disguise from themselves that there are substantive moral commitments underpinning the ‘neutral’ political framework that they favour. Neutral in many ways it is, but only up to a point.

Ah. Is that it. Right – well then I won’t try to resolve the paradox any more, because I entirely agree with that, and bit that bullet long ago. (I scribbled four pages in my notebook on the subject yesterday morning and kept returning to and emphasizing the phrase ‘up to a point’ [and didn’t see Norm’s comment until today], so we’re on the same page here.) Yeah – if there’s one thing I don’t do it’s disguise from myself that there are substantive moral commitments underpinning the ‘neutral’ political framework I favour. I’m sharply aware of that; the awareness is basic to the ‘Cultural Relativism’ In Focus among other things. Hence the insistence on ‘up to a point’ – that point is where neutrality or pluralism or tolerance or liberty or multiculturalism or cultural relativism bump up against, for instance, subordination of women, or persecution of homosexuals or ‘apostates’ or ‘blasphemers’ or other outgroups merely for being outgroups. I definitely have substantive moral commitments that trump commitments to tolerance or libertarianism. They even trump, for instance, my commitment to democracy, especially democracy understood as simple majoritarianism; I don’t care how big a majority wants to oppress women or atheists or queers or Jews: I want a strong bill of rights to trump that majority will.

So to return to Norm’s original point – “Call this framework ‘pluralist liberalism’. Is it not itself premissed, then, upon principles for which universal validity is claimed by its adherents?” – I would say yes, it is, and furthermore that it applies only up to a point – which is perhaps another thing that some liberals disguise from themselves. In fact there are perhaps three of those (I’m starting to write a Spanish Inquistion sketch here). Substantive moral commitments, the fact that pluralism is believed in only up to a point, and the related fact that democracy is believed in up to a point. They’re all related. The vocabulary (the hurrah vocabulary) of tolerance, pluralism, multiculturalism, diversity, and democracy, are very often flung around as if they were all quite unqualified, unlimited in their application, when the truth of course is that none of them are. Hardly anyone actually believes in tolerance of everything, pluralism in all matters, democracy no matter what the majority decides – yet people often talk as if they do believe exactly that. It’s worth reminding each other of the point up to which.



Suffer the Little Children

Aug 25th, 2006 2:07 am | By

I wanted to add just a couple of quick things about the Scruton piece on irony and Islam. I like to nail these things down, man.

One, I think Scruton was using the “gratuitous” to have it both ways: placating people who think jokes about “people’s beliefs” should be taboo while still arguing that non-gratuitous jokes are not taboo.

Now of course it is wrong to give gratuitous offence to people of other faiths; it is right to respect people’s beliefs, when these beliefs pose no threat to civil order…

“Gratuitous” is a very flexible word that way. Many people were absolutely certain that Rushdie’s humour in The Satanic Verses was utterly gratuitous, and many people were just as certain that it wasn’t; and so with other jokes, other movies, other plays, other novels, other performances at the Edinburgh fringe, and so on. Scruton may have been doing a spot of CYA there.

And then the bit about suffering –

Ordinary Christians, who suffer a daily diet of ridicule and skepticism, cannot help feeling that Muslims protest too much, and that the wounds, which they ostentatiously display to the world, are largely self-inflicted.

Suffer can easily mean two things there, and actually the less obvious meaning fits better. Suffer means not just endure pain, but simply endure: put up with, take, allow to happen. You can suffer something to happen without being pained by it and without its being painful. I think what he means there is primarily Christians daily put up with ridicule, without making a big fuss about it – rather than, Christians are daily tormented by ridicule. And yet, as I said, it’s tricksy, because it means both, and most people will probably read it the more usual way. But then again maybe it’s not really tricksy, since the two meanings overlap.

There; I’m glad we got that straight.



Inquiry

Aug 24th, 2006 8:00 pm | By

A N Wilson disputes Roger Scruton’s account of the reasons for his lack of universal popularity.

In the chapter “How I Became a Conservative”, Scruton meditates on the consequences of his political-cum-emotional decision. “…It became a matter of honour among English-speaking intellectuals…to write, if possible, damning and contemptuous reviews of my books, and to block my chances of promotion…” This analysis of what it is about Scruton which irritates overlooks the fact that he must know, in today’s climate, the likely effect of such regular Scruton standbys as a defence of foxhunting with hounds and a defence of social hierarchies, even of snobbery itself. There are plenty of right-wingers who, in various branches of intellectual life in England, have received good reviews for their books, and also been offered prestigious jobs…If Scruton is rather more marginalized than once he was, it perhaps has more to do with the error of judgement he made some years ago, when he accepted a back-hander from a tobacco firm, for the loose but undeclared general purpose of defending the tobacco lobby in his journalism…[F]or a man whose calling and raison d’être is that difficult business – not just telling the truth but finding out what the truth would be like if we told it – it was a huge blow to be exposed as the lickspittle of tobacco giants. If your job is inquiry, you cannot accept money for providing the answers before the question has been examined.

Well there you go. Exactly. And as a matter of fact, if your job is inquiry, you can’t accept anything for providing the answers before the question has been examined, because it’s the one thing you can’t do given that conditional. Inquiry, if it is to be inquiry, rules out providing the answers before the question has been examined. If you provide the answers before the question has been examined then what you’re doing is not inquiry, it’s some other thing. We say this somewhere in chapter 8 of Why Truth Matters. In fact (she says, having looked) it’s in the final extract we provide on the website.

And real inquiry presupposes that truth matters. That it is true that there is a truth of the matter we’re investigating, even if it turns out that we can’t find it. Maybe the next generation can, or two or three or ten after that, or maybe just someone more skilled than we are. But we have to think there is something to find in order for inquiry to be genuine inquiry and not just an arbitrary game that doesn’t go anywhere. We like games, but we also like genuine inquiry. That’s why truth matters.

There. That’s how it is. You can have inquiry, or you can have something else, but you can’t have both in one. You can’t have inquiry that isn’t inquiry, so you can’t have inquiry that cheats. If it cheats it immediately turns into something else, as if a magician had transformed it.

Jerry S and I argued about this a little after he did the Little Atoms interview a few weeks ago, after he’d told the great radio-listening public that actually he doesn’t think truth does matter, so, like, you know, never mind. We argued a little but I think he ended up admitting that I was quite right in what I said. Well okay not that exactly but I think he grudgingly agreed to my characterization of what he said. The case he made on Little Atoms was that truth doesn’t always matter, for instance between individuals. Well of course not, I said sharply, but then we never said it did; we were talking about disciplinary inquiry and truth, not truth in every nook and cranny of life. I think he raised some feeble objection to the effect that not all disciplines are engaged in inquiry or truth-seeking, but again I brushed that ruthlessly aside as a red herring. We weren’t talking about pottery or art appreciation, for Christ’s sake, we were talking about inquiry. I think at that point he gave in and agreed I was right, or perhaps he changed the subject; one of those. But anyway, I stick to that. We’re talking about truth in truth-seeking contexts in WTM, we’re not saying everyone should run around telling each other how nasty those shoes are and how sinister everyone looks in that shirt.

But we are saying, at least I am and I think JS is too, that philosophers should not pocket money from tobacco lobbyists in exchange for ‘defending the tobacco lobby in [their] journalism’. Actually I don’t think anyone should do that, for moral reasons as well as epistemic ones; but for philosophers, the epistemic reason is pretty compelling all by itself.



Isn’t There an Exam or Something?

Aug 23rd, 2006 8:01 pm | By

The Bush attention deficit is attracting some unfavourable comment again. It’s a bit late now, but there you go.

Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post for one.

George W. Bush, the most resolutely incurious and inflexible of presidents, was reported last week to have been surprised at seeing Iraqi citizens — who ought to be grateful beneficiaries of the American occupation, I mean “liberation” — demonstrating in support of Hezbollah and against Israel. Surprise would be a start, since it would mean the Decider was admitting novel facts to his settled base of knowledge and reacting to them. Alas, it seems the door to the presidential mind is still locked tight…Even conservatives have begun openly assessing the president’s intellect, especially its impermeability to new information…The president was asked yesterday whether the failure of the U.S.-backed “unity” government to stem the orgy of sectarian carnage disappoints him, and he said that no, it didn’t. How, I wonder, is that possible?…[D]o 3,438 deaths really just roll off his back after he’s had his workout and a nice bike ride?

Well…frankly, yes; at least, as far as anyone can tell from out here. He doesn’t pay attention, he doesn’t let in new information, and he doesn’t care. That’s been obvious all along, and now that it’s much too late even some Republicans are noticing. (Actually some Republicans noticed quite awhile ago. I know rock-ribbed Republicans who voted for Kerry, because they’d noticed.)

Fred Kaplan in Slate also notices.

Among the many flabbergasting answers that President Bush gave at his press conference on Monday, this one – about Democrats who propose pulling out of Iraq – triggered the steepest jaw drop: “I would never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me. This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live.” George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world is like … well, it’s like George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world.

Not to mention the part about not questioning the patriotism (or loyalty) of people who disagree with him. That’s a real thigh-slapper.

[Bush:] “What’s very interesting about the violence in Lebanon and the violence in Iraq and the violence in Gaza is this: These are all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy.”…The key reality that Bush fails to grasp is that terrorism and democracy are not opposites. They can, and sometimes do, coexist. One is not a cure for the other.

Well, Bush, like a lot of people, seems to mean by ‘democracy’ just ‘being like us’ or ‘doing things the good way.’ So naturally he does think it’s the opposite of terrorism. It would be better if a man in such a powerful position had a somewhat more informed idea of the word, but he doesn’t seem to.

As for Iraq, it’s no news that Bush has no strategy. What did come as news – and, really, a bit of a shocker – is that he doesn’t seem to know what “strategy” means. Asked if it might be time for a new strategy in Iraq, given the unceasing rise in casualties and chaos, Bush replied, “The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and dreams, which is a democratic society. That’s the strategy…The reporter followed up, “Sir, that’s not really the question. The strategy – ” Bush interrupted, “Sounded like the question to me.”…”[H]elping Iraqis achieve a democratic society” may be a strategic objective, but it’s not a strategy – any more than “ending poverty” or “going to the moon” is a strategy…Could it be that he doesn’t grasp the distinction between an “objective” and a “strategy,” and so doesn’t see that there might be alternatives? Might our situation be that grim?

Oh, yes. Easily. He doesn’t grasp most distinctions – he’s not that kinda guy. Again, that’s been obvious all along. He’s The Decider, sadly, but he’s not a thinker. He doesn’t have the right skills for the job. That ought to have prevented him from ever even making it into the primaries, but unhappily our system doesn’t work that way. I think that’s bottomlessly unfortunate.



Irony Meet Gratuitous Offence

Aug 23rd, 2006 7:26 pm | By

Aren’t philosophers supposed to avoid contradictions? Or do I have that wrong.

Now of course it is wrong to give gratuitous offence to people of other faiths; it is right to respect people’s beliefs, when these beliefs pose no threat to civil order…

I disagree with that, to the extent that it’s meant to apply to public discourse as opposed to private conversation; but accept it for the sake of argument. But then –

Whenever I consider this matter I am struck by a singular fact about the Christian religion, a fact noticed by Kierkegaard and Hegel but rarely commented upon today, which is that it is informed by a spirit of irony…Such irony is a long way from the humorless incantations of the Koran. Yet it is from a posture of irony that every real negotiation, every offer of peace, every acceptance of the other, begins. The way forward, it seems to me, is to encourage the re-emergence of an ironical Islam, of the kind you find in the philosophy of Averroës, in Persian poetry and in “The Thousand and One Nights.” We should also encourage those ethnic and religious jokes which did so much to defuse tension in the days before political correctness. And maybe, one day, the rigid face of some puritanical mullah will crack open in a hesitant smile, and negotiations can at last begin.

Well which is it?

I hope it’s the second; I go with the second; but it doesn’t mesh seamlessly with the first. Actually the first simply seems to contradict the second, and quite thoroughly. Did Scruton just lose track of his own thought in the course of the article?



Sorting

Aug 22nd, 2006 5:13 pm | By

I’m a little perturbed and repelled by this idea (expressed in comments on Difficult Daughters) that the murder of a girl is ‘worse’ than the murder of a woman. Actually, I think I’m more than a little perturbed and repelled by it. And no one but me has even taken issue with it yet, so perhaps that indicates it’s conventional wisdom, even a truism. But I think it’s all wrong, and not only wrong but sinister. I’m perturbed not only by the specifics of the ranking but by the idea that ranking of murder is a valid and sensible way of thinking about it. But why would it be? Why should it be? Why don’t we all have an egalitarian reaction which says that qualities and attributes are fundamentally and radically beside the point when it comes to murder, that there is no better or worse, that nobody wants to be murdered (masochists excepted) and that’s that. What is this impulse to say that murder of children is worse? It seems to me to border on saying that the murder of cute people is worse than the murder of uncute people, which borders on saying the murder of pretty people is worse than the murder of ugly people.

Now, mass media do in fact say exactly that, albeit implicitly. The weird obsessive coverage of Jon-Benet Ramsay is one glaring example, and there are plenty of others. But why do rational people want to follow their lead? Why does anyone want to try to argue that some murders are worse than others? I can see why in certain very extreme circumstances, so extreme as to be very rare in the rich world, people might be forced to try to decide how to rank the worth of various people for the sake of triage. If death is inevitable for some members of a group because the water and food are limited, then calculations are one way to decide who is saved – but it’s well known (isn’t it?) that they’re a damn horrible way, which is why people often decide to draw straws instead. Sophie’s choice was not a choice she wanted to make.

There seems to be an idea that it’s a natural and instinctive thought that the murder or death of a child is ‘worse’ (in what sense? I don’t quite know, but the meaning seems to be taken for granted) than the murder of an adult. But I don’t think it is. I think that’s basically a sentimental idea, which is probably a product of the 19th century, of Dickens and Stowe and their fans and epigones. Dickens at some point realized that the death of a child could be milked for emotional reactions, and milk he did. You don’t find that kind of sentimentalism about children before Dickens. Even the cult of sensibility was mostly a sensibility about other things – about adult griefs and sorrows, on the whole. But Dickens had a winning formula, and Hollywood carried on his work; Little Nell and Little Eva have been haunting us for a long time now. But tear-jerking tricks of popular novelists aren’t necessarily the best possible guides to moral reasoning.

And I don’t buy it. As I said in the comments, I can see that the death or murder of a child is more poignant than that of an adult, for obvious reasons (innocence, defencelessness, helplessness, trust etc) but poignant is not the same thing as worse. It is true that one variable can be easily quantified: age translates directly into amount of potential life taken away. Okay; so if you’re in the village in a famine with stocks dwindling fast and no relief on the way, or in the lifeboat with one bottle of water, then one way to decide who starves is to say it’s the people with the least time left to lose. But that doesn’t translate directly into saying that the murder of a child is worse than that of an adult. And there are other criteria that (if one wants to take such criteria into account, which I don’t) cut the other way. You could easily argue that the murder of an adult is much worse than the murder of a child because an adult has a far clearer idea of what’s at stake, and because an adult probably has goals and plans and dreams that she wants to try to fulfill, and because adults are much more likely to have adult friends who value them, and because adults have probably invested a lot of time and effort in training or education that is just wasted if they are murdered, and because adults may have dependents who need them, which children don’t.

But I don’t want to make that calculation, because I don’t want to claim that the murder of one kind of person is worse than the murder of another kind. Because I don’t think it is. I think claiming that amounts to saying that some lives are intrinsically (not circumstantially, in the sense of having dependents or making a contribution) worth more than others. And frankly I think there’s something deeply icky and regressive in the idea that children are, intrinsically, as children, worth more than adults. I think that’s sentimental and sinister – as if people deteriorate by growing up; as if innocence were necessarily better than experience; as if ignorance were better than learning and potential better than actuality. It depresses me to think that anyone believes Hina Saleem’s murder would actually be worse if she’d been twelve instead of twenty one – as if she’d done something corrupting and tainting and compromised by growing up.

I hadn’t thought of this until I started typing, but Hannah Arendt talks about this whole issue in Eichmann in Jerusalem. She is scathing about the way the Jewish councils helped the Nazis by (among other things) coming up with various privileged categories of people who should be saved, and she’s adamant that they shouldn’t have done it.

What was morally so disastrous in the acceptance of these privileged catagories was that everyone who demanded to have an ‘exception’ made in his case implicitly recognized the rule…Even after the end of the war, Kastner was proud of his success in saving ‘prominent Jews,’ a category officially introduced by the Nazis in 1942, as though in his view, too, it went without saying that a famous Jew had more right to stay alive than an ordinary one; to take upon himself such ‘responsibilities’ – to help the Nazis in their efforts to pick out ‘famous’ people from the anonymous mass, for this is what it amounted to – ‘required more courage than to face death.’

We just don’t need to do that. We don’t need to collaborate with murderers by saying that the murder of one kind of person is worse than the murder of some other kind. We’re under no obligation to sort people into the more and less murder-worthy; so let’s not.



You Can’t Say That

Aug 22nd, 2006 12:00 am | By

Uh oh.

A criminal investigation has been started by Scotland Yard into an advertisement from the Gay Police Association (GPA) that blamed religion for a 74 per cent increase in homophobic crime…Detective Chief Inspector Gerry Campbell, who leads the domestic violence and hate crime unit, disclosed the investigation in a letter to Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP. He wrote: “The original advertisement has been recorded as a religiously aggravated hate crime incident following a crime allegation by a member of the public.”

The original advertisement is a hate crime (incident). That’s interesting. Where I come from it’s things like murders and assaults that are hate crimes, not just ads. But that’s okay, maybe I come from a silly place. But – isn’t this what everyone said? Not everyone, but everyone who thought this here religious hatred bill was not such a hot idea? Atkinson and Rushdie and people like that there? That it would be used to punish and prevent criticism of religion? And didn’t everyone who thought the religious hatred bill was indeed a hot idea say that no no, no no no no no, it wouldn’t do that, good heavens no, it wouldn’t impede or suppress legitimate criticism of religion at all, no no, it wouldn’t have a chilling effect on humour or satire or mockery or polemic about religion, it would be used strictly to prevent – um – the kind of thing that needed to be prevented, and nothing else. Trust them. It would. Honest. So – now you get someone making an allegation of crime and Scotland Yard wheels majestically into action? But – what exactly is the crime here? Expressing an opinion about the connection between Biblical literalist religion and homophobia? That’s a crime? Well jeez, welcome to 1589, enjoy your stay.

Widdecombe, a Christian who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1993, was angered by the advertisement. “It seems a deliberate attempt to stir up hate against Christians,” she said. By using that famous line of worship, In The Name of the Father, the association is effectively alleging that Christians are solely responsible for hate crime. “The implication of this advertisement is that Christians stir up assault and abuse against homosexuals. This is not true, as Christians are specifically taught not to hate; not just to refrain from acts or expressions of hatred, but not to give in to hate itself.”

That is an absurd thing to say. Really profoundly absurd. Some Christians are specifically taught not to hate, but she must know (and if she doesn’t she ought to; it’s her duty as an MP, especially one who talks to newspapers about this subject) that not all Christians are taught any such thing. If she really thinks that no Christians anywhere are taught to hate homosexuals, she’s living in a dream world. (Perhaps she means that Christians who pay attention to what Jesus actually said are taught not to hate. But that’s not true either. It’s true of what Jesus says in some parts of the gospels, but it’s not true of what he says in other parts.)

Bernard McEldowney, the deputy chairman of the association, which is an independent body, said: “We wanted to focus on what we regard as a problem of faith-based homophobia, not just Christianity. “But when most people think about religion they think of the Bible which is why we agreed to illustrate the advert pictorially with a Bible. In hindsight maybe we should not have used the Bible but we wanted to highlight serious homophobic incidents on the grounds and justification of religious belief.”

Well you can’t, because saying things like that is a crime. Amen.



Liberal Internationalism

Aug 21st, 2006 1:38 am | By

Catching up with le blog Bérubé again, and found something relevant to thoughts about universalism and human rights and pluralism and discussion.

We have not yet devised the political means to realize this utopian vision, and perhaps we never will: utopia, to date, is a place we know only by way of speculative fiction. But over the years, as we’ve developed family/clan relations, city-states, empires, kingdoms, caliphates, constitutional monarchies, theocracies, military dictatorships, communist autocracies and liberal democracies, we’ve come to learn that liberal democracies stand the best chance of realizing some approximation of that ideal, and – just as importantly – the best chance of changing their collective minds, so to speak, about how to approximate the ideal as they go along. Because they allow for plural, disparate, multiply competing political constituencies and modes of advancing political argument, liberal democracies seem best suited to realizing the kind of social self-reflexivity necessary for any significant political—or personal—change of understanding with regard to human rights.

That’s from Michael’s new book; he adds now:

But universalism with regard to rights and liberal internationalism with regard to foreign policy will perform a very useful function for any useful left: they will absolutely prevent you from expressing even the slightest degree of “solidarity” with Hezbollah, or the Iraqi resistance, or Slobodan Milosevic, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, simply on the grounds that they are opposing the Hegemon, the Empire.

Yeah. And then he adds a bit more after a discussion of Chomsky:

I would be so much happier if Chomsky were to take a moment to criticize the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic. I think that would be just great. Because, in my humble opinion, the left should have no part in such an enterprise, any more than we would take part in the International Committee to Defend Augusto Pinochet.
Or the International Committee to Defend Henry Kissinger.
Or the International Committee to Promote the Triumph of the Iraqi Maquis.
Or the International Committee to Point Out that Osama Bin Laden is Higher on the Moral Scale than Bush/Cheney.
Or the International Committee to Assert That We Are All Hezbollah Now.

Yeah.



How to Resolve the Paradox

Aug 21st, 2006 1:03 am | By

Norm said something interesting today.

A framework for public life based on accepting that there is no single ‘road to salvation’, or – put otherwise – no single overriding moral truth, or that there is no way to be completely certain about whatever moral truth there may be, would seem to be the only alternative to permanent warfare between people of different belief systems (and that applies, of course, not only to religious belief systems). Call this framework ‘pluralist liberalism’. Is it not itself premissed, then, upon principles for which universal validity is claimed by its adherents? Some would say no, but I’ve never seen a persuasive argument for that. Liberalism makes a claim of its own to moral truth, but it’s a moral truth permitting those who believe in competing moral truths to live together, provided they don’t try to impose these on one another by violence. Which means that liberalism has to exclude the attempts of antithetical belief systems to monopolize the public domain for themselves. If there is an air of paradox about this, I don’t know how to resolve it.

Well…one way might be by saying there is a difference between a single road to salvation – which is, for instance, the kind of thing David Horowitz and Jamie Glazov kept trying to pin on Norm and Nick and the whole of the left in that misbegotten interview in Front Page a month or two ago – they kept insisting that the left as a whole believed in utopianism – like this:

But if you are on the Left, are you not part of an ideology that holds that human redemption, accompanied by human equality and a classless society, is possible and that it can be engendered through social engineering?

No. Next question. Or rather, back to what I was saying when I interrupted myself – that sentence isn’t even finished, which is a disgrace. Ahem: by saying there is a difference between a single road to salvation, and a framework based on accepting that there isn’t one (or, pluralist liberalism). By saying that universal validity isn’t exactly the same thing as a single road to salvation or a single – single, mark – overriding moral truth. By saying that a single road to salvation, a single overriding moral truth, and certainty about whatever moral truth there might be, are all on one side of this divide, all fit into one definitional box, while a framework based on accepting that there is no such thing, and plural liberalism, and claims of universal validity, are on the other. Perhaps it’s the secular aspect that separates them. Roads to salvation and single overriding moral truths tend to be theistic, and handed down by authority, and thus immune to questioning and reason; a framework that says there is no such thing isn’t. All the words Norm chose for the first half of the equation smack of taboo, of hands off, of don’t touch, of the holy of holies; the words he chose for the second half smack of the human and the discussable. The first half can be delivered by fiat; the second half relies on reasons. The first can’t be explained; the second can.

That’s how I would resolve the paradox. I would say that universal validity is not the same thing as a single overriding moral truth, because it’s a human thing not a goddy thing.

How would you resolve it?



Difficult Daughters

Aug 20th, 2006 7:28 pm | By

Another pesky disobedient unsubmissive daughter eliminated.

In the garden, buried under a metre of soil and with her jeans and blouse soaked in blood, was the body of the missing girl. Her throat had been slit.

(Why is the Independent calling her a girl? She was twenty-one. Do men of that age get called boys? No. So why is the Indy calling Hina Saleem a girl? Especially in this context? Some strange unconscious desire to trivialize her or make it seem that she really belonged to her father in some way? Or just dumb as a post habitual belief that women really are childish?)

At the beginning of July, she was said to have refused her father’s insistent demand that she return with her mother and sisters to the city of Gujarat in Pakistan, where she was born, to get married. Police believe that her father, a brother-in-law, Mohammed Tariq, and another man, Mahmood Zahid, tried to persuade her one last time. The female members of the family had already departed. It is thought that Hina was told: “Either you come back with us to Pakistan or you’re not going anywhere.”

So now she’s not going anywhere.

Italy’s Interior Minister points out the obvious but still necessary:

The case of the Pakistani woman murdered by her father says a lot about the aims of citizenship, because it is clear that it is not enough to require adhesion to the values of the Italian Constitution. Adhesion to fundamental rights is also necessary, such as the fact that women are to be respected according to rules which I consider universal.

The Indy finds a retort:

In the midst of the rising tide of indignation, some small voices have made the point that not long ago Italy would have understood Mohammed Saleem’s feelings better. The law offering the possibility of clemency in cases of “honour crimes” – still far from rare in the south – was only repealed in 1981.

Yes – and? What of it? What follows from that sly observation? The Indy doesn’t say, it leaves it to us to determine.



Flowery Shakespeare

Aug 19th, 2006 10:34 pm | By

John Sutherland on Shakespeare stuff. Harold Bloom, for instance. I like early Bloom, but I really hated his Shakespeare book.

…the Falstaffian Harold Bloom with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). Before the Bard, Bloom argues, we were only semi-human. We didn’t know how to express those feelings that separate us from the brutes (so much for Dante and Chaucer).

Not to mention Homer, Euripides, Seneca, Montaigne, and quite a few other people. But one can go too far in the deflationary direction too.

Stanley Wells is the acknowledged dean of the reviser school….[Shxpr] was a “working man of the theatre” – arguably (but not in every respect) superior to Dekker, Middleton, Jonson et al, and no different in kind…If you brought Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare to the present in H.G. Wells’ time machine and asked him “what are you doing, Will?” he would never have said “inventing the human, dear fellow”. He would have said: “turning an honest penny. And, by the way, can I interest you in buying a few tons of malt which I’ve just bought on spec?”

He wouldn’t have said either (as Sutherland is pointing out). The inventing the human thing is very silly, but so is the turning an honest penny thing. If he had been merely turning an honest penny and nothing more, there are thousands of lines he would have written quite differently. The plays are riddled with vocabulary, images, thoughts, effects, speeches, fireworks, that he didn’t need just to get bums on seats or feet in the pit. They are full and overflowing with excess. It is quite possible that he could have made even more money if he had written more simply: then he probably could have written more plays. He wouldn’t have written ‘Troilus and Cressida’ at all; ‘Hamlet’ would have been half the length; ‘Lear’ would have had the happy ending Nahum Tate gave it; the Sonnets wouldn’t exist; and so on. Yes he liked making money, but that’s not all he liked.



Distortion

Aug 19th, 2006 10:04 pm | By

This is a rather uninformative piece about yet another Islamic group, this one called Tablighi Jamaat, which is ‘believed by western intelligence agencies to be used as a fertile recruiting ground by extremists.’ It looks as if the reporter, not surprisingly, wasn’t able to find out much. But one thing he did find out he doesn’t really seem to have noticed; at least, he doesn’t comment on it. It jumps right out at me.

Thousands of young Muslim men are attending meetings in east London every week run by a fundamentalist Islamic movement…On Thursday evening, the Guardian witnessed around 3,000 men from as far afield as Great Yarmouth and the Isle of Wight stream through the backstreets of Stratford to the meeting. There, at the gates of a seemingly derelict industrial site, men in fluorescent jackets waved those who are known to the Tablighi Jamaat hierarchy under a security barrier…Seconds later, the main man stood next to his red van in Islamic dress and a smart blue waistcoat as hundreds of men, many carrying suitcases and sleeping bags, filed past him…The English-speaking room heaved as a sea of faces, white, black and Asian, spilled into the hallway. Most were teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s dressed in Islamic dress, caps and beards. Some came in suits and ties, others in jeans and hoodies. There were old men too, who weaved slowly through to the front of the room, and a few young boys.

Well there’s part of your problem right there. Frankly it’s very difficult not to think that a lot of this just boils down to stupid guy stuff. To men segregating themselves and then egging each other on to do stupider and stupider guy stuff. It’s so difficult that I won’t even bother to try.

The Times also tells us a little about Tablighi Jamaat.

Some suspects, including Mr Sarwar, 25, joined Tablighi Jamaat, an international missionary sect encouraging followers to live like the Prophet, growing beards and praying five times a day. Volunteers are sent around Britain from mosque to mosque, bringing only a sleeping bag and provisions. By day they tour Muslim communities, knocking on doors to discuss faith with the men of the house and inviting them to evening gatherings.

To discuss ‘faith’ with the men of the house. See? Women aren’t even on the map, aren’t on the radar, aren’t anything to do with anything. They’re just furniture, cattle, household appliances. Well, that’s part of your problem right there.



More on Thinking v Faith

Aug 17th, 2006 7:40 pm | By

Stephen Law said the same things (as Anthony Grayling said, and as I said about that survey) back in June. They’re not very startling things to say, in fact they’re the good old bleeding obvious, but they’re not very fashionable at the moment, and they tend to get lost in all the droning about faith this and faith that.

“The liberal approach,” he says, “is entirely consistent with drilling and the instilling of good habits.” Indeed, thinking critically, challenging political or religious orthodoxies, is a highly disciplined intellectual activity…Many secular parents try to get their children into faith schools because they believe the discipline and order is better in a Christian environment. Law argues that this is a fallacy. In fact, many faith schools flourish by being selective. The authoritarian intellectual climate leaves children bereft of the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to deal with the modern world.

See that’s the problem. Even if it’s true that religious schools do better at discipline and order, that’s discipline and order bought at a very high price. If, for instance, that ‘discipline and order’ is achieved partly or wholly by means of intellectual authoritarianism, well, then it’s a case of getting the tools in order and then calling the job done. ‘Discipline and order’ in school aren’t the actual goal of education, they’re only a tool for the purpose of education. If discipline and order were the goal, it would be simpler just to gag the students and put them in irons for the day and let it go at that. The goal is education, including the use of a flexible mind. A mind that has been trained to accept assertions delivered by authorities as a matter of faith is not a flexible or a useful mind.

On one level, Law’s objective is simple – to insist on the value of clear and rational thinking. He says schools need to “teach young people to question underlying assumptions, diagnose faulty reasoning, weigh up evidence, listen to other people’s points of view”. It all sounds uncontroversial. But Law is convinced that basic Enlightenment values are under serious threat from the new authoritarians of New Labour and America’s Republican right. Blair’s faith schools, and conservative educationalists, are taking us back to the bad old days when children were told to take things on trust and never question authority…Law is profoundly opposed to moral relativism, and gets annoyed when people see it as synonymous with liberalism or a by-product of liberal modes of thought. One of his objectives is to “slay the dragon of relativism”. It’s not true, Law argues, that liberals regard all beliefs as equally valid . The disciplines of critical thought, the values of rational scientific inquiry, are non-negotiable elements in the true liberal world-view. They don’t just “believe in everything and nothing”. They believe only in what is reasonable.

Well, not in practice, probably, but in principle. Anyway the point is clear enough. Authority and faith and no questions, no good; critical thought and inquiry and questions, good. Don’t take my word for it: inquire.



No Thank You

Aug 17th, 2006 4:44 pm | By

Sarah Baxter makes some pointed comments.

The peace movement lost a foe in Reagan but has gone on to find new friends in today’s Stop the War movement. Women pushing their children in buggies bearing the familiar symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched last weekend alongside banners proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now” and Muslim extremists chanting “Oh Jew, the army of Muhammad will return.” For Linda Grant, the novelist, who says that “feminism” is the one “ism” she has not given up on, it was a shocking sight: “What you’re seeing is an alliance of what used to be the far left with various Muslim groups and that poses real problems. Saturday’s march was not a peace march in the way that the Ban the Bomb marches were. Seeing young and old white women holding Hezbollah placards showed that it’s a very different anti-war movement to Greenham. Part of it feels the wrong side is winning.”

Baxter feels the same way:

As a supporter of the peace movement in the 1980s, I could never have imagined that many of the same crowd I hung out with then would today be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with militantly anti-feminist Islamic fundamentalist groups, whose views on women make western patriarchy look like a Greenham peace picnic. Nor would I have predicted that today’s feminists would be so indulgent towards Iran, a theocratic nation where it is an act of resistance to show an inch or two of female hair beneath the veil and whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not joking about his murderous intentions towards Israel and the Jews.

No, nor would I. This is not the revolution I signed up for.

But where is the parallel, equally vital debate about how to combat Islamic fundamentalism? And why don’t more peace-loving feminists regard it as a threat? Kira Cochrane, 29, is the new editor of The Guardian women’s page, the bible of the Greenham years, where so many women writers made their names by staking out positions on the peace movement. She has noticed that today’s feminists are inclined to keep quiet about the march of radical Islam. “There’s a great fear of tackling the subject because of cultural relativism. People are scared of being called racist,” Cochrane observes.

Racist or cultural imperialist or colonialist or Eurocentric or hegemonic or microfascist or postpositivist or Orientalist or universalist or naïvely pro-Enlightenment or many more items – the vocabulary of guilt-tripping is quite extensive, and quite effective.

I prefer to take Islamic fundamentalists at their word when they spout insults about Jews being the descendants of “pigs and apes” and launch their chillingly apocalyptic tirades. Why? Because they not only talk centuries-old nonsense about the place of women in society, but they also purposely oppress the female sex whenever they are given the chance. As regards their treatment of women, there is no discernible difference between their acts and their words…The Middle East is engaged in a titanic struggle between modernity and theocracy. Whatever one’s views about the Iraq war or the conflict in Lebanon, it deserves more than slogans about “We are all Hezbollah now” and fury against Bush and Blair.

They may be Hezbollah now, but I ain’t.



This Year it’s Shappi Khorsandi

Aug 17th, 2006 4:13 pm | By

The Indy tells us in a sub-head that ‘This year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe is taking place in a climate of heightened inter-faith sensitivity.’ What a revolting phrase, and what a revolting climate. What a revolting euphemism for a form of thought-control by guilt-trip.

But there are comedians there resisting the sensitivity thing. Go, comedians.

As so often, the bravest, smartest critic of Islamic fundamentalism in town is a woman the fundamentalists would love to claim as “one of ours” and enslave. Last year it was Shazia Mirza; this year it’s Shappi Khorsandi…Shappi is one of the millions of children of the Islamic revolution who – in the face of the Iranian mullahs’ theocratic repression – have become the most articulate, committed atheists in the world…While she is sympathetic to Muslims suffering from stupid social prejudice…she has lashings of righteous contempt for fundamentalists like “that 14-year-old girl who went to the High Court to fight for her right to go to school wearing her sleeping bag”.

Johann (for it is he, seeing the shows and telling us about them) ends on a cautious note: ‘But can the strain of witty atheism on offer on the Edinburgh Fringe ever douse the great fire of religion currently consuming whole continents? I hope – but certainly don’t pray – so.’



Truth in Fashion

Aug 16th, 2006 11:21 pm | By

Someone read (some of) Why Truth Matters about a month ago. Found it a bit of a drag in places, apparently.

…and now Why Truth Matters, a real headache-maker. There were some times I wondered “why am I reading this?” Passages like this one tended to blur the eyes and crease the forehead: “Although Montaigne might have found the Pyrrhonist epoche a satisfactory response to the problem of the missing criterion of truth, Rene Descartes did not. In Discourse on Method, he tells how in his youth he had been haunted by the spectre of uncertainty…”

Well…we did our best, that’s all I can say. Sometimes a little forehead-creasing is worth it. (Other times, of course, as in the case of Foucauldian nurses, it’s not.) And he apparently ended up liking it anyway, despite the eye-blurring.

‘Fascinating. A good book to get your brain thoroughly awake, and looking at the world you find yourself in. Not bedtime reading!’

Well good! Fascinating and brain-awakening and world-examining-getting; that’s my idea of high praise for a book.