Free Exercise

Apr 11th, 2006 7:42 pm | By

Well, this ‘Christians suing for right to be intolerant‘ thing is certainly a place where free speech rights (and the ‘free exercise’ clause and reason and religion and quite a few other things) get interesting, or difficult, or both.

Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant. Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation. Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she’s demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy. With her lawsuit, the 22-year-old student joins a growing campaign to force public schools, state colleges and private workplaces to eliminate policies protecting gays and lesbians from harassment…The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical, frames the movement as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. “Christians,” he said, “are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian.”

One problem with Malhotra’s claim is that it’s very disputable whether her Christian ‘faith’ does compel her to speak out against homosexuality. Other Christians don’t experience that compulsion, so that raises the question, is it really the Christian ‘faith’ that does the compelling, or is it something else that feels to Malhotra like her Christian ‘faith’ because she’s never thought to disaggregate her ‘faith’ from her ethical and moral views? And if so is this failure to disaggregate merely a way of dressing up nasty hatreds and yuk-factorism as something admirable and spirichual? My guess would be yes, that is what it is – but then that could just be part of my habit of religion-bashing.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans “free exercise” of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation. In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled. That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle. The verses, clearly visible from the hall, harassed gay employees and made it difficult for the company to meet its goal of attracting a diverse workforce, the judge ruled. In the public schools, an Ohio middle school student last year won the right to wear a T-shirt that proclaimed: “Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder!” But a teen-ager in Kentucky lost in federal court when he tried to exempt himself from a school program on gay tolerance on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs.

The ground rules shift depending on the situation. Don’t they though. That’s why these discussions of free speech and cartoons and Irving and Ellis and whatever the latest item is, are always with us.

Disputation and Obedience

Apr 10th, 2006 8:24 pm | By

Todd Gitlin asks a searching question:

Sects are always in need of heretics to blame, expel and punish. First, fervor takes hold, then rigidity. Righteousness dictates uniformity. Dissent seems dangerous, even treasonous. The spirit hardens: You’re either with us or with the evildoers…Why is the left so determined to eat its own? Sometimes it can be explained as the fervor of fighters determined to root out impurities.

Indeed – and the fervor of fighters determined to root out impurities is a very scary thing. And before I get all righteous, I should note that I probably have a tendency that way myself. Perhaps a strong one. There are quite a few ‘impurities’ that I want, if not to root out, at least to avoid. But then – one of them would be the fervor of people who want to root out impurities and enforce orthodoxy and sanctity and conventional wisdom – so I’m confused. Am I a Puritan or an Impuritan or what?

Well, we all have commitments; I suppose one can have commitments and still not be a furious extirpator of impurities. B&W is obviously for some things and against others; if it weren’t it wouldn’t be B&W, it would be just some random collection of material. B&W has always been about something, so naturally there will be a certain amount of orthodoxy about it – but I hope it falls short of heretic-punishing and evildoer-pointing-at. Though who knows – a former fan of B&W tells me he’s gone off it because he doesn’t like my ‘religion-bashing.’ So clearly that’s one heretic right there.

At least as often, though, the sect becomes inflamed not because it has won but because it has lost. Out of weakness, it imagines treason. As it dwindles, it devotes more of its energies to the urge to purge. It loses patience with arguments about ideas. It is already dead certain of how the world works and needs obedience, not disputation. It develops a taste for scurrilous charges and loyalty oaths. To its own dissenters it says not, “Consider this point,” but, “How dare you?”

And that’s where we get off the train – when there is no patience for arguments about ideas; when obedience replaces disputation. Obedience and submission are not what’s wanted, and the replacement of ‘Consider this point’ with ‘How dare you’ is just the tactic I quarrel with several times a day. ‘How dare you’ is another word for Taboo which is another word for unconditional respect, and they all stink; they all stink of smelly little orthodoxy.

I write this not to complain, but to note and bemoan a widespread disrespect for serious disputation. There’s a lot of this disrespect going around, all over the political spectrum. The confusion of manliness with belligerence does not help. The sound-bite culture does not help. The mixture of insinuation, sneering and yelling practiced by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews and Michael Moore does not help. A president who tells a reporter, “I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation,” and acts on this premise, does not help. Nor does it help when the Bush White House muzzles government scientists who dare report what virtually all their colleagues think about climate change. In claiming that abstention is the best method of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and that intelligent design deserves to be considered science, the administration enshrines mindlessness rather than rational thought as a governing principle. The sectarian mind is at home everywhere – left, right, you name it. On every front, passion plunges ahead while reason takes its time, cleaning up the mess.

Well, I said B&W was about something, and that’s pretty much what it’s about. One impurity I would like to see a lot less of is this widespread disrespect for serious disputation, and this preference for passion over reason. It just muddies things up.

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

Apr 9th, 2006 10:11 pm | By

There’s an interesting discussion about free speech between Eve Garrard and Shalom Lappin at Normblog. Not, this time, via Irving and lying but via Frank Ellis and racist opinions. I had a thought about that earlier discussion with Norm and Eve, and have been meaning to scribble a note on that thought.

The thought was sparked by something Appiah said in a note (note 66 on page 337) in The Ethics of Identity.

The US has a singularly expansive free-expression regime, and yet even here, freedom of expression is tightly corseted, and legitimately so. The First Amendment does not protect a contract killer’s verbal contract; it does not protect a fraudulent or defamatory claim…

Bingo. Just what I said. There is no freedom of speech right to make fraudulent claims; that means deliberate falsification of evidence is not protected free speech. I went on thinking about this, because I still agree with Norm and Eve (and Lipstadt and Evans and lots of people) that (ideally, and leaving aside Austria’s particular situation) Irving shouldn’t go to prison for three years for falsifying evidence. So I decided that what we have here is a different right. If we want to put it in US terms (which we don’t, particularly, it’s just that it might clarify), what we have here is not a First Amendment issue but an Eighth Amendment issue. What we’re worried about here is not a putative right to lie but a disproportionality of punishment. (The Eighth Amendment reads in its entirety: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.)

In fact I don’t really particularly think Irving should (necessarily, ideally, in theory, etc) be punished at all, but I do think he should be prevented. That is, since his falsifications are now well documented, thanks to his bullying rashness in suing Lipstadt, I think they ought to be no more protected than claims that cigarettes promote health. That of course is not to say that I think the state should vet scholarly work for accuracy, or that it should get involved at all, but it is to say that I don’t think Irving does have or should have a legal right to tell lies – and that was the issue we couldn’t agree on.

Eve says this, in reply to Lappin’s* “There is, I think, a clear analogy here between the Ellis case and that of a racist candidate for a jury in the trial of a black defendent.”

I have very mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, your jury example is very convincing, but on the other hand I think that setting a precedent of punishing people for the implications of their views, on the grounds that holding the views is bound to make them act in accordance with those implications, is a bit worrying.

It is worrying, for the reasons that both agree on (intimidation of speech and proper academic functioning), but I would say that what’s at issue (Ellis’s suspension) is not actually punishment, but prevention. Leeds, it seems, suspended him in order to prevent him from having certain effects (which Lappin discusses), not in order to punish him. I think that makes a fairly important difference. Not much of a difference to people in that situation who are suspended and prevented, but a difference to the motivation and intention of the agents.

Another point, about something Lappin goes on to say:

But with the racist juror we are not prepared to take this chance. We regard his or her expressed opinions as sufficient grounds for disqualification from the role of impartial judge in a case involving someone directly affected by the potential juror’s racist attitudes. It is hard to see how we can avoid the same conclusion in the case of a university lecturer entrusted with power over students and colleagues.

I’m not entirely sure of my facts, here, but I don’t think that’s actually true – I don’t think ‘we’ exclude racists from juries, I think it’s one side or the other in the trial that does. I think that it is one side of an adversarial process that does that excluding, while the other side would much prefer to keep the racist. (In pre-Civil Rights Mississippi and other places that wasn’t even an issue, because blacks weren’t even eligible for jury duty [under what form of law or custom I don’t know]; for instance the jury who tried the murderers of Emmet Till was all white men who cheerfully acquitted them.) At any rate, it makes something of a difference to the argument, I think, because jurors are generally excluded not on the basis of fairness but on the basis of tactics. Tactics can just as easily prompt a desire for unfairness, bias, preconceptions. Juries are a rather disquieting subject, actually…

*I’ve just noticed I use first name for one, last name for the other. That’s because I’ve swapped quite a few emails with Eve, so I sort of ‘know’ her; it’s not absent-minded sexism, like those people who talk about Dickens and Hardy and Charlotte and Jane.

Looks Like Carelessness

Apr 8th, 2006 8:39 pm | By

Okay, this morning I found out that I’m a complete fool, that I’ve wasted my life, that I’ve been walking around with blinders on, that I’ve done what amounts to going to a five-star French restaurant and eating a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich on Wonder bread, or going to the Grand Canyon or the Monterey Peninsula or the Lake District or the Bernese Oberland or the fjords or Umbria and spending the whole time indoors doing crossword puzzles.

I haven’t read Proust.

Think of it. I could have been run over by a skateboard at any moment and died without ever reading Proust. I’m a fool, I tell you, a fool, a fool, a fool! This kind of thing shouldn’t be allowed. A well-governed state ought to prevent it. Someone should have told me – and by ‘told’ I don’t mean just mentioned it in passing, I mean grabbed me by the throat and shaken until I swore to drop everything and begin. I did that to myself with Shakespeare back in the late ’80s, and a good thing too. I also did it with a good many other people, but somehow I didn’t get to Proust. Until this morning. I was re-reading* a section of Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought, which gives extended quotations from Proust which I liked so much I went and found the first volume of the three-volume version, which I’ve had for awhile, in preparation for that vague day when I would get around to it. Found it and found the right page and read and

and was struck all of a heap. Why didn’t you tell me?! You bastards! You’ve all read Proust, right? I know you have. Of course you have; you’re all more sensible than I am, and you’ve read Proust, and yet you didn’t bother to make sure that I had. Well really! Some friends you are.

I knew, though, actually. Hitchens was going on about it last summer, at the Hay festival and other places he talked about the new book (Love, Poverty and War), and the fact that Proust is someone you need to be somewhat old to appreciate but that once you are, you’re staggered. I should have gotten busy then. I did think of it. And in fact people have done the grabbing by the throat thing. People have sat me down, and put a hand on each shoulder, and looked fiercely into my face, and said very slowly and distinctly, you have to read Proust. But I just pushed their hands off and jumped up and ran outside to play with my hoop. I’m a fool.

I’ve never read anything like it. It’s the most amazing stuff…

Here’s part of one bit that Nussbaum quoted and that I typed out earlier today…

If we thought that the eyes of such a girl were merely two glittering
sequins of mica, we should not be athirst to know her and to unite her life
to ours. But we sense that what shines in those reflecting discs is not due
solely to their material composition; that it is, unknown to us, the dark
shadows of ideas that that person cherishes about the people and places she
knows [..] and above all that it is she, with her desires, her sympathies,
her revulsions, her obscure and incessant will. I knew that I should never
possess this young cyclist if I did not possess also what was in her eyes.
And it was consequently her whole life that filled me with desire; a
sorrowful desire because I felt that it was not to be fulfilled, but
exhilarating because, what had hitherto been my life having ceased of a
sudden to be my whole life, being no more now than a small part of the space
stretching out before me which I was burning to cover and which was composed
of the lives of these girls, it offered me that prolongation, that possible
multiplication of oneself which is happiness.

Isn’t that amazing?

I get to read more. Life is good.

*So, in fact, I had been told, since I’d read that section before.

The Naming of States

Apr 8th, 2006 8:06 pm | By

Norm has a new poll, this one on favourite names of US states. I gave him a dig in the ribs yesterday for stacking the deck by comparing Colorado and Tennessee with Surrey and Essex – and he promptly conceded that stacking was exactly what he had done to the deck. But still, he’s right of course – US state names are a joy. I mentally run through some of my favourites myself at odd moments. (Mind you – Bourgogne, Umbria, Cataluña – the US isn’t the only place with some good names. Saskatchewan. Connemarra. Okay I’ll stop.)

So I’ve picked my five. I’m not spoiling anything by giving them now, because Norm compiles stats, so we don’t know whose favourites are which, and I’m sure you long to know which are mine. So I’ll tell you. These are names, remember, nothing to do with the quality of the states themselves.

Missouri. Delaware. Florida. Mississippi. Montana.


Apr 8th, 2006 7:54 pm | By

This speaks to me.

In a globalised, consumerist society, identity seems much less something we inherit and increasingly something we can choose, shape or discard…On the one hand, we have an urge to affirm our own individuality and differentiate ourselves from some of the more suffocating aspects of our traditional identities. On the other, this is offset by a continuing human need to belong, to remain anchored in something collective.

That’s that alternation or ambivalence between attachment and autonomy again. We want both, and since they’re pretty fundamentally opposed, we often find ourselves tossed back and forth between them. ‘I love you go away’ syndrome. There’s no place like home when can I leave. I feel so secure, I’m suffocating.

If ties to party, class, faith and nation can no longer be relied upon to generate the foundations of a cohesive society, it is also not clear that the flexible, consumerist approach to identity is an adequate replacement…We already know a great deal about why our encounter culture is so valuable. The American sociologist Mark Granovetter captured it well when he spoke of “the strength of weak ties.”…Having the right mix of strong and weak ties is an essential component of people’s quality of life, no matter where they lie on the income scale…Granovetter’s work has greatly influenced subsequent research on social capital – the social ties, bonds, values and loyalties that we hold in common and which help knit our society together…Further evidence of the value of encounter culture comes from social psychology. Fifty years since it was first expounded by Gordon Allport, the so-called “contact hypothesis” has shown that under the right conditions, increasing the level of contact between different groups is enough to generate more favourable relationships between them…We need to recognise the vast swathes of potential encounter culture that exists within the arts, sport and culture.

Read the whole thing, as the saying goes.

It Takes a Sentence

Apr 6th, 2006 7:49 pm | By

There’s a lot of kack in this piece on religion in the New Statesman. This particular sentence especially caught my eye, for sheer quantity of kack in one sentence.

“So far, the response of the government has been mostly correct: dismissing the crude secularism of the French ban on the hijab, allowing for the establishment of Muslim schools and working closely with the leaders of the Muslim community.”

One, the word ‘correct’, as if political decisions were as clear-cut as arithmetic. Two, that much-recycled bit of obfuscation: the French ban on the hijab is not a French ban on the hijab, it’s a French ban on the hijab (and other conspicuous religious symbols and garments) in state schools. It is stacking the deck in one’s own favour to call a state school uniform code a ‘ban’ without qualification. Three, ‘the leaders.’ In what sense are they leaders? Are they elected? Are they accountable? Are they self-appointed leaders? Four, ‘the Muslim community.’ Is there such a thing? Five, the combination, ‘the leaders of the Muslim community,’ which more than doubles the effect of making it sound as if all Muslims think as a block and as a block appoint leaders. The whole sentence is a throbbing example of the kind of covert thought-herding that communitarians go in for. Pure operant conditioning. Pure kack.

Explaining and Understanding

Apr 6th, 2006 7:21 pm | By

I posted a comment on Dennett’s reply to Ruse and Bunting this morning – and since the idea I was commenting on is (I think) a fairly pervasive one, and related to this whole question of ‘shut up about your atheism, they might hear you,’ I thought I might as well post it here too. The first para, in italics, is someone else commenting.

on the subject of Dawkins getting up ones nose, it would be all well and good if he was just another academic. He does however hold a position called ‘The Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University’ (according to wikipedia) which means he has the task of communicating his subject to us, the unwashed masses. If people feel he’s getting up your nose, then he’s not doing this right is he.

But having the task of communicating his subject to us is not quite the same thing as not getting up anyone’s nose. It may be that communicating a particular subject is of the very essence of getting up people’s noses – or at least some people’s noses. That’s just how it is, surely. It’s not possible or reasonable to assume that increased understanding of anything will automatically or necessarily pleasing to absolutely everyone. Increased understanding of anything may lead to feelings of displeasure and consequent hostility. In short, understanding is one thing, and liking is another. So it’s just not necessarily true that Dawkins isn’t doing his job right if he irritates some people (we know he doesn’t irritate all people, since he has a good many admirers).

And I think that his arguing that science and religion are in fact not as compatible as ‘let’s all get along’ people like to claim they are, is part of explaining science. The reasons he gives for thinking they are not compatible (in the first part of ‘The Root of All Evil?’ for instance) make part of an explanation of what science is. The fact that science is always in principle revisable and that religion is not is an important difference between them, and understanding that is, surely, part of understanding science.

That’s what I said at Comment is Free. It has since occurred to me that the whole thought is also part of the understanding of science. The understanding that there is a difference between understanding and being pleased is part of the understanding of science, and perhaps the reason science is not compatible with religion. Science by definition doesn’t adjust its findings to make them more pleasing – to make them less likely to get up anyone’s nose; if it does that, it’s not science. Arguably that’s one of the first things one has to get a firm grip on in order to have an Understanding of Science: that it is not and cannot be a popularity contest. Other systems of thought can be, but science can’t.

Mind you – to be fair – the commenter probably meant merely that irritating people can make it difficult to communicate with them, which is a reasonable point. But it also relates to the whole question of tactics, and I think it’s fair to point out that Dawkins is not being perverse in thinking that explaining how science and religion are incompatible is part of increasing public understanding of science.

Cultural Relativism and its Enemies

Apr 6th, 2006 1:26 am | By

Phyllis Chesler and Maryam Namazie are (you should pardon the expression) singing out of the same hymnbook.


Chesler’s experiences in Afghanistan have helped shape her thoughts about the failure of feminism to engage with what she sees as the oppression of women in Islamic countries…looking at mainstream feminism in the west – in the universities, in the media, among academics and the socalled intelligentsia – there is a moral failure, a moral bankruptcy, a refusal to take on, in particular, Muslim gender apartheid. So you have many contemporary feminists who say, ‘We have to be multiculturally relativist. We cannot uphold a single, or absolute, standard of human rights. And, therefore, we can’t condemn Islamic culture, because their countries have been previously colonised. By us.’


For her commitment to a Marxism that values human rights above paper selling she has become the bane of those ‘right-thinking, left-leaning people’ who Nick Cohen in the Observer claims have backed away from her because she is just as willing to tackle their tolerance of oppression as the oppressors themselves…Her stance on cultural relativism is equally uncompromising, which she has lambasted as ‘this era’s fascism.’ ‘It promotes tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings. Human beings are worthy of the highest respect, but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance. There are some who believe in fascism, white supremacy, the inferiority of women. Must they be respected?’


Western feminism’s failure to confront the problems raised by Islam, Chesler believes, is a result of the creation of a hierarchy of sins, “an intellectual culture in which racism trumps gender concerns”…The result, she argues, is that “instead of telling the truth about Islam and demanding that the Muslim world observes certain standards, you have westerners beating their breasts and saying, ‘We can’t judge you, we can’t expose you, we can’t challenge you.’ And here in the west you have a dangerous misuse of western concepts such as religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity so that one kind of hate speech is seen as something that must be rigorously protected…Chesler will not accept the Islamophobe label. She claims it is a blanket term used to silence those who portray Islam accurately…


She flags up a range of practices that reveal a nefarious dimension to cultural relativism…’Cultural relativism serves these crimes. It legitimizes and maintains savagery. It says that people’s rights are dependent on their nationality, religion, and culture. It says that the human rights of someone born in Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan are different from those of someone born in the United States, Canada or Sweden.’…She ridicules those cultural relativists who seek to conceal their tolerance for oppression by arguing that universal human rights are a western concept. ‘How come when it comes to using the telephone or a car, the mullah does not say it is western and incompatible with an Islamist society?’…Namazie also sees political Islam attempting to impose restrictions on the rights of women in Western societies…’Here the Islamists are generally more ‘civilised’…[T]hey demand the ‘right’ to veil for women and children in France when in the Middle East they impose compulsory veiling by throwing acid in the faces of those who refuse and resist. In Britain, they cry racism and Islamophobia against anyone who speaks out against Islam and its political movement, whilst in Iran and its likes they hang ‘apostates’ and ‘Kafirs’ from trees and cranes…In Europe, they call for tolerance and respect of their beliefs, when it is they who have issued fatwas and death threats against anyone who they deem disrespectful and intolerable.

That should keep Islamophobia watch busy for a day or two.

All-purpose Tool Going Cheap

Apr 5th, 2006 5:31 pm | By

It’s good to know that whatever happens, whatever the conditions, whether it rains or sizzles, at midnight and at noon, whether things are going well or badly, in peace and war, in poverty and plenty, whether there are too few women or too many, the result is always the same – women are treated like dirt. Women are grabbed, pushed around, sold and bought, beaten and killed, raped and enslaved, exploited and used, thrown away and swapped around. Women are treated like livestock, like farm machinery, like incubators, like any old possession except worse because they have to be broken and forced and violently bent to the will of other people. Incubators and ploughs don’t argue, but women – well, you never know. However hard you’ve hit them, for however long, you just never know when they’re going to open their mouths.

They have a good system going in India, don’t they. First step: devalue women; second step: create a dowry system and then keep making it more and more exorbitant, so that every female born means her parents will have to spend more money than they have for her dowry; third step, selective abortion of females; fourth step, drastic decline in the female population and imbalance between females and males so that males have a much harder time finding mates. And bob’s your uncle! You’ve set up a new hell on earth for women. Kaloo kalay.

Anwari Khatoon came visiting a relative in the northern Indian state of Haryana eight months ago, but ended up getting married against her will to a local man with six children from a previous marriage. A man from her village in eastern Jharkhand state had accompanied the 22-year-old woman on her journey to Haryana. When she arrived in the village, Anwari found the man and her relative pressuring her to marry the man with six children, a middle-aged truck driver. Her new husband paid 10,000 rupees ($220) to the man who brought her to the village. “Can a young, single girl get married to a father of six willingly?” asks Anwari.

Well that’s an interesting way to make a living. Accompany a woman from your village to another village, and when you get there sell her (though she isn’t actually yours to sell, but no matter) to some guy and pocket ten thousand rupees. Not bad. Money for jam. You get a nice trip to a distant village as well – what larks!

Since there aren’t enough local women to marry, Haryana’s men pay touts to bring women for them to marry and to work on their farms. Social activists reckon most of these women end up being used as sex slaves and then resold to other men in what looks like a flourishing market in trafficking of women…Social activists say Haryana exemplifies the vicious cycle of exploitation of women and represents a society which does not respect women.

Yeah, that sounds right. Paying kidnappers to bring women for them ‘to marry and to work on their farms’ does sound like a sign of a society which does not respect women. It’s pretty clear what those women are for – sex, and farm work. It’s quite a good deal, isn’t it – a twofer. You pay ten thousand rupees and you get a thing you can poke whenever you want to, and when you’re not poking her, she’ll work on your farm. What a tool! It puts the Veg-O-Matic to shame. Talk about design – it’s just the right length, it’s about the right temperature, it has two legs with a hole between, and it has arms and hands that can do farm work. Cheap at the price! Too bad it has a part that can talk, of course, but a good punch will usually fix that.


Apr 5th, 2006 12:02 am | By

However, despite Sutherland’s inexplicable resort to Islamophobiawatch as a source, it was pleasing to see Daniel Dennett reply to Bunting and Brown. I replied to them myself here and here but I was just filling in the time until Dennett got around to it.

I find it amusing that two Brits – Madeleine Bunting and Michael Ruse – have fallen for a version of one of the most famous scams in American folklore. When Brer Rabbit gets caught by the fox, he pleads with him: “Oh, please, please, Brer Fox, whatever you do, don’t throw me in that awful briar patch!” – where he ends up safe and sound after the fox does just that. When the American propagandist William Dembski writes tauntingly to Richard Dawkins, telling him to keep up the good work on behalf of intelligent design, Bunting and Ruse fall for it!

Yes, well, Bunting isn’t famous for staying upright for these things – but what caused Ruse’s pratfall, is an interesting and puzzling question.

A few evolutionists, such as Ruse and Eugenie Scott, the director of the national centre for science education, favour the tactic of insisting that evolutionary biology doesn’t deny the existence of a divine creator…Many others, such as Dawkins and myself, fear that the evasiveness of this gambit fuels suspicion and so contributes to ongoing confusion in the US.

And anyway this whole notion that tactics and gambits and evasion are a good idea (or, in Ruse’s apparent view, more like mandatory) depends on the idea that whatever the tactic is supposed to further is more important than whatever the tactic puts second or last. But maybe it isn’t. Teaching science instead of religion in science class is very important, but it’s not automatically or self-evidently more important than, say, telling the truth, or resisting the general idea that atheism is shameful and something to be hidden or apologized for.

Bunting says: “All protagonists in a debate have a moral responsibility to ensure that the hot air they are expending generates light, not just heat.” I agree, but Bunting goes on: “It’s a point that escapes Dawkins” – and I wonder how she cannot see that it is not Dawkins but Ruse, whom she justly describes as reckless, whose hot air ought to be allowed to vent harmlessly in the shadows, not featured in a major newspaper. I tried to do just that with my private reply, “I doubt you mean all the things you say”, to Ruse’s email. Bunting calls this “an opaque one line”. Could she not see that I was trying to bring Michael to his senses in private, before he made an ass of himself in public?

No, clearly she couldn’t – because she was too busy making common cause with the brave atheist-challenger. She couldn’t be bothered to read carefully – hence the failure to remain upright. Splat. And note what Dennet said there, twice – ‘private’. You may remember (probably not, but you may) that I have always said ‘as far as I know’ he didn’t give Ruse permission to send their correspondence to Dembski – but that ‘in private’ seems like a pretty clear sign that he didn’t give permission and wouldn’t have if he’d been asked. Not that I had any doubt on the subject, but I didn’t want to claim to know when I didn’t.

It didn’t work, but I’m glad I tried. I wish she, and Andrew Brown (When evolutionists attack, March 6), had followed my example, but I suppose that once Ruse went public, the spectacle of him calling Dawkins and me names was irresistible. It is not just the protagonists who have a moral responsibility; those who report on them have a moral responsibility to direct the public’s attention to real issues, and to avoid being complicit in publicity stunts by the likes of Dembski. If Bunting and Brown get emails from Dembski saying “Keep up the good work!”, they should search their souls.

A hit, a very palpable hit.

Watch It

Apr 4th, 2006 8:50 pm | By

John Sutherland is a little worried that Phyllis Chesler may have an Islamophobia problem. He cites a very weighty and authoritative source to back this up:

The blog Islamophobia Watch suggested that this signalled “the point of total dementia”.

The blog Islamophobia Watch? Has he read it much? It equates any criticism of or dissent from Islam at all with ‘Islamophobia’ and (of course) it equates ‘Islamophobia’ with hatred of Muslims which it equates with or simply considers identical to racism – so, criticism of Islam (including of course by people from Iran, Pakistan, and other ‘brown’ countries) amounts to racism. That’s stupid, and it works to stifle criticism and dissent, and it works to stifle them in advance of consideration of the substance of the criticism or dissent – it stifles them sight unseen, as racism. This is not intelligent or thoughtful stuff, and it seems peculiar that someone as clever as Sutherland would refer to it in that breezily uncritical way.


Apr 3rd, 2006 11:11 pm | By

Consider monism. The Ethics of Identity page 143-4.

Many theorists – among them William Galston, John Gray, Bhikhu Parekh, and Uday Singh Meta – hold the great enemy to be monism, and, in particular, the philosophical monism they associate with the classic texts of liberalism, not excluding Mill himself. The monist tradition that Parekh has painstakingly traced, in his Rethinking Multiculturalism, starts with Plato and haunts us still; it is characterized by a belief in the universality of human nature…Raz is faulted for his bigoted insistence on autonomy; Kymlicka is faulted for the requirement that national minorities must, at least in some measure, respect liberal principles of individual liberty. The trail of the monist serpent is over them all.

But the trail of the monist serpent is over a lot of things, including a lot of identity-thought. We’re never just one thing – and the things we are are never just identity. The categories we label ‘identity’ always have some sort of content or meaning (which is why they’re not just identities – if they were, they wouldn’t be, because who wants an empty identity?). The categories have some kind of aboutness, and they are always, because of this aboutness, multiple and in competition or conversation with others. We have more than one interest, more than one thought, more than one idea, more than one desire, even more than one project, so we can’t sum ourselves up in one word. We are women or men, American or Indian, Muslim or atheist – but we’re also poet, runner, walker, friend, knitter, hang-glider, cook, wit (Appiah says that’s not an available identity now, but I’m not so sure), gardener, movie buff, expert on sitcoms, musician, birder – and so on. We’re plaid, or paisley, not red or blue.

And identity is both internal and external, which complicates it further. In that sense one could say that nearly everything, or everything that matters to us, is an identity claim of sorts. Take truth for instance. Truth matters to me – because it matters outside me. I take it to matter in the world, and therefore it matters to me: I don’t want to be the kind of person who assents to a lie. Internal and external are all mixed up in that thought. What we think matters in the world, what we think is good or bad, feeds into how we think of ourselves, and how we want to think of ourselves. Truth or compassion matter to us, we care about them, we think they matter – but that is because we do think they do matter externally, independent of us. The two are hooked up.

So – identity matters, but it’s not a pure thing or a single thing or a clear unmixed uncontaminated limpid crystalline thing. It’s something like the back of a rug, with all the knots sticking out.

The Raven Itself is Hoarse

Apr 3rd, 2006 6:59 pm | By

Well there I was thinking the restored update thing was going just swimmingly, and then I had a horrible experience yesterday evening when I sent the third one. I got emails back saying it didn’t work: people clicked on the links and got nothing. All my hair stood on end, the glass shivered in the windows, the milk turned sour in the fridge, and the barometer fell. So I howled, and flung myself back and forth in a passion, and threw things, and then I sent a new update to myself and tested it and then sent it to the list, with an apology. But it’s very annoying. I have no idea why it didn’t work, and don’t like having it mysteriously pointlessly arbitrarily malfunction on me. I don’t like irritating the people on the mailing list by sending them big dud updates that don’t work.

On the other hand, I like the side benefit of the group that it gives links to similar groups, which in turn (I finally realized when I finally bothered to look at one) link to B&W. It’s – erm – kind of like a Community. An Identity Group. I feel all warm and cozy and secure, and I’ll just wander around murmuring ‘there’s no place like home’ for the rest of my life and never think foolish thoughts about freedom or escape or adventure ever again. No but seriously, I do quite like that feature. I like Massimo Pigliucci’s work, for one thing.

And I’ve had a lot of emails from people saying they’re glad the update is back and they think highly of B&W, so as long as I can manage not to send out a dud update every week (or in fact ever again), it still seems to be worth it.

Fumblings in the Dark

Apr 3rd, 2006 6:03 pm | By

A thought for the day or two.

Sam Harris doing a spot of the ever-popular ‘religion-bashing’:

It is worth noting that no one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist.

Ben Goldacre getting cross with pseudoscientific burbling:

I’m waiting to be very impressed by any kid who can stimulate his carotid arteries inside his ribcage, but it’s going to involve dissection with the sharp scissors that only mummy can use…Children listen to what you tell them: that’s the point of being a child, that’s the reason why you don’t come out fully-formed, speaking English with a favourite album…I’ve just kicked the Brain Gym Teacher’s Edition around the room for two minutes and I’m feeling minty fresh.

Ben Goldacre a week later getting cross with mindless reactions to his strictures on pseudoscientific burbling:

Nothing prepared me for the outpouring of jaw-dropping stupidity that vomited forth from teachers when I wrote about Brain Gym last week. To recap: Brain Gym is an incredibly popular technique, in at least hundreds of British state schools, promoted all over government websites, and with a scientific explanatory framework that is barkingly out to lunch…So I attacked the stupid underlying science of Brain Gym – I even said I actively agree with exercise breaks – and in return I got a whole load of angry, abusive emails from teachers defending exercise breaks.

And for dessert, one that Chris Whiley sent me last month:

From Diderot, lifted from Philipp Blom’s ‘Encyclopedie’; “Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly’. This stranger is a theologian.”

Blow out your candle, stimulate your carotid arteries by massaging your rib cage, and have a nice day.

Freedom or Unity

Apr 1st, 2006 8:49 pm | By

Some more from The Ethics of Identity. Appiah cites on page 124 a term (via Kymlicka via Margalit and Raz) ‘decayed cultures’:

If what we have is a troubled period of cultural transition, though, it isn’t obvious that such conditions diminish our liberty or autonomy – our ability to choose among a wider range of options. Indeed, as John Tomasi suggests, a greater degree of personal autonomy may be afforded by a less rigid “choosing context,” where there are fewer constraints on what counts as an acceptable life plan than there would be in a more stable cultural community.

That’s pretty much what drives my interest in this whole subject, I think – the idea (and the possibility, the possible fact) that the more stable and rooted and unchanging a culture or identity is, the less liberty and autonomy there is, and the more constraints there are on what counts as an acceptable life plan. Now…I can certainly see that the value of liberty and autonomy and a wider range of options does not automatically or self-evidently trump the value of stability and rootedness, of security and familiarity. But then neither does the value of stability and rootedness self-evidently trump the value of liberty and autonomy. The rhetoric of community and identity too often seems to assume that it does.

And even if the value of liberty doesn’t automatically trump the value of stability, it does seem to be an empirical fact that once people get a taste of freedom and choice and the possibility of a range of options, they tend to like them, and to be upset when they are taken away. Literature and history are full of stories of people escaping from tyrannical parents, masters, owners, bosses, small towns; there are relatively few stories of people escaping from freedom to go back to tyranny. I don’t think that’s just some random fact; I think it reflects human desires and longings.

I think the deeply obscured, masked, disguised fact about the longing for community and stability that communitarians and communalists urge on us is that what is longed for is the confinement and limitation of other people – but not of the self. In other words, it may be that community and tradition and stable cultural communities appeal a great deal more to people who are in a position of power over other people in such communities than they do to the underlings. Brahmins like the old ways better than dalits do. It was slaveowners who were nostalgic for The Old South, it wasn’t slaves. I think that’s worth at least keeping in mind when we muse on community and identity.

Liberals tend to be sympathetic to a Millian notion of experimentation and social progress; the prospect of freezing existing prejudices and inequities and bigotries – the edict that “whatever is, is right” – is hardly a palatable one.

Page 125, we’re on now.

Raz, in a 1994 essay on multiculturalism, seems to be upholding something unexceptionable when he states, “It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group.”…Much depends on how you construe this requirement. Was Rimbaud – scandalizing tout le monde before he went hopscotching through Africa – fully integrated into a cultural group? What about the Sudanese Islamic scholar Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed for heresy in 1985 because of his opposition to traditional sharia? Some people, it appears, actively resist being fully integrated into a group, so that they may gain some measure of distance from its reflexive assumptions; to them, “integration” can sound like regulation, even restraint – especially to liberals who, by tradition, favor Freiheit over Einheit.

Exactly. I’m one of those – I favor Freiheit over Einheit. And the thing about that is, freedom leaves you free to choose unity (though only for yourself, not for your slaves), but unity doesn’t necessarily leave you free to choose freedom. So if there is a forced choice between the two, it seems considerably fairer to go with Huck and Jim than to try to find our way back to Tara.

Rigid Boxes

Apr 1st, 2006 2:56 am | By

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading a lot of good sense in Anthony Appiah’s book, and here’s some related good sense from Amartya Sen. The identity two-step.

What we ought to take very seriously is the way Islamic identity, in this sort of depiction, is assumed to drown, if only implicitly, all other affiliations, priorities, and pursuits that a Muslim person may have. A person belongs to many different groups, of which a religious affiliation is only one…[T]o give an automatic priority to the Islamic identity of a Muslim person in order to understand his or her role in the civil society, or in the literary world, or in creative work in arts and science, can result in profound misunderstanding.

Or to the Catholic identity of a Catholic person or the Hindu identity of a Hindu person, and so on. But it’s such a common move. We could call it the Bunting move. (But that would be unkind. Only she’s been so chatty lately.)

The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world. The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorization of human beings, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence.

Could not possibly agree more. So why is it such a common move, one wonders. Habit? Partly. People seem to be in the habit of thinking that’s a ‘progressive’ and kind and sympathetic way of looking at things. It’s time to break that habit, folks.

In fact, of course, the people of the world can be classified according to many other partitions, each of which has some—often far-reaching—relevance in our lives: nationalities, locations, classes, occupations, social status, languages, politics, and many others. While religious categories have received much airing in recent years, they cannot be presumed to obliterate other distinctions, and even less can they be seen as the only relevant system of classifying people across the globe. In partitioning the population of the world into those belonging to “the Islamic world,” “the Western world,” “the Hindu world,” “the Buddhist world,” the divisive power of classificatory priority is implicitly used to place people firmly inside a unique set of rigid boxes. Other divisions (say, between the rich and the poor, between members of different classes and occupations, between people of different politics, between distinct nationalities and residential locations, between language groups, etc.) are all submerged by this allegedly primal way of seeing the differences between people.

Those rigid boxes – how I hate those rigid boxes. How I hate the way we all keep being shoved into them.

To focus just on the grand religious classification is not only to miss other significant concerns and ideas that move people. It also has the effect of generally magnifying the voice of religious authority. The Muslim clerics, for example, are then treated as the ex officio spokesmen for the so-called Islamic world, even though a great many people who happen to be Muslim by religion have profound differences with what is proposed by one mullah or another.

Oh, just read the article. It’s one of those ones where I want to quote great chunks, and that’s copyright violation, and you can just read it anyway. It’s great stuff.

Reza Moradi Update

Apr 1st, 2006 2:54 am | By

Maryam has an update today.

Thanks to all those who have asked about Reza Moradi and how they can help. We are now in the process of finding a solicitor and organising a campaign in his defence. We’ll need loads of help then. If you want to know a little bit more about what happened, see the upcoming TV International English programme (broadcast Sunday) where I interview him and also show my speech at the March 25 demo for free expression. We’ll keep everyone posted on any new developments as soon as possible.

Here is a photo of two cops in conversation with Moradi. He looks exactly how I would feel and look in such a situation. One can almost see the words ‘what the hell are you hassling me for, I haven’t done anything wrong!’ floating in the air.

A blogger gives pictures and eyewitness accounts here. There’s what appears to be a picture of the guy who complained to the police about Moradi doing just that while Maryam speaks to the crowd. A sinister moment with a baffling and infuriating aftermath. There’s no law against the cartoons, there’s no law against the demonstration, but the Crown Prosecution service is looking into Moradi’s ‘case’ all the same. Why bother having any laws at all, if you can just be prosecuted any old time for ‘offending’ people? At that rate, it’s a miracle I’m not a lifer!

Free Will and Identity

Mar 31st, 2006 3:21 am | By

That Sen interview in the Bangladeshi paper.

Sen remains a strong exponent of free will as expressed in terms of freedom of choice, even if influenced by circumstances and constrained by what’s permissible and what one is capable of. By way of identity, for instance, he chooses to assert the identity of an economist or a philosopher (among other things) depending on what is relevant for that particular discussion. “These are choices, among others, open to me, as are similarly relevant choices for anyone else.” As are the positions he takes on issues of politics, parties, ideologies and so on. “When choices exist, and not to recognise they exist is an epistemic mistake and also a root of irresponsibility – if we attribute our choices to others.”

It’s the kind of epistemic mistake that can distort whole large territories of thought – such as assuming that people of certain kinds have no choice about what will matter to them most; such as assuming for instance that for all Muslims, being a Muslim is what matters most, and that there is no choice about it. That’s a strange thing to assume. We all know plenty of tepid-to-cool and nominal Catholics and Protestants and plenty of secular and atheist Jews; why assume that all Muslims are as if another species and unable to make similar choices? Why assume that all Muslims are ‘devout’ Muslims? Because to do otherwise seems assimilationist and oppressive and Eurocentric? Probably, but the overcorrection is pretty oppressive too.

If Sen’s book makes a proposition to the individual reader, it’s with a similar sense of clarity: choose your identity of your own free will. But it also says something to the current world order, as it were: don’t slap single-identity labels on people. As Sen elaborates, he may think it very important in some specific context to assert the identity of an economist, a professor and of somebody left-of-centre…but anyone trying to predict his choices on the basis of any one single description to the exclusion of others would be making an error. Further, “Nor is every moral argument an identity-based idea.” And trying to squeeze him into any of those discrete boxes would thus be futile, both because there are many identities a person has and also because a person is not guided only by identity. But even civilisations are being put into boxes these days, with scientific rationality itself coming to be portrayed as something of an “immaculate Western conception”, to use a term from the book.

A person is not guided only by identity – that’s such a crucial idea to hang onto, I think. Without it we’re just – stuck; we don’t get to change or expand or experiment or escape or learn or explore novelty.

To be continued.

More on Reza Moradi

Mar 29th, 2006 12:11 am | By

Harry’s Place reports that Reza Moradi is being (will be, I think) prosecuted for holding a Motoon poster. I don’t know if that’s based on what Maryam said in a bracket in her speech or whether it’s new information, but ‘Pangloss’ from the New Humanist says in the second comment, “Funny, have just been speaking to Maryam about this. Yes, he has been charged. As regards the bloke who complained – I haven’t a clue who he is, but the WPI have their suspicions.” He has been charged – with what? With carrying a cartoon with a poster on it. Commenters at Harry’s figure he’ll be charged with something under the public order act. I remember my shock when I found out – quite recently it was – that there is such a thing as the public order act. It came up here around the time of the guy who told a cop his horse was gay, and a woman was questioned by the police for saying on the radio that gays shouldn’t adopt children – that was only a few months ago. And then dear Sacranie was questioned for saying on the radio that gays shouldn’t do anything at all because disease bad ew – which serves him right in one way, but is still outrageous; and now this. Bad stuff.

Later – at 4:00 p.m. – Pangloss said:

What irritates me about this is the fact that this guy (who may or may not be an agent of a certain state which would have an interest in making life uncomfortable for the WPI)can actively seek out offence, and then have his complaint taken seriously by the police. I attended both the al-Muhajiroun and Hizb cartoon protests. Didn’t occur to me to tell the police that I found them offensive, but hey, maybe I should have.

Oh, great. And Moradi is being prosecuted as a result! David of mediawatchwatch said at 12:37:

I was a steward at the march and I was standing right in front of the bloke in the pictures. I heard and saw him make his complaint to the policewoman. Our head steward intervened and offered to personally protect the man, but the complainer was adamant. He also did a fair bit of video-ing of the speakers and crowd.

As I said on Sunday – start embroidering those ‘Free Reza Moradi’ banners. Start penning those notes to the Home Office.