Monday, January 30, 2012

Targeting and bullying

Well... maybe sometimes mockery does work. Grizwald Grim's earlier post was pretty damn stupid, but his latest post, Atheism in 2012: Double Standards & Hypocrisy is not stupid. He's still wrong, of course, but he's expressing a definite position on a controversial issue.

Grim is not certain, so let me clarify that I definitely do self-identify as an atheist (the big red A in the sidebar is a clue), and I self-identify as a New Atheist, because I have a lot in common with people such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

I cannot improve on Grim's presentation of his primary argument:
As the obvious common thread when referring to a group as atheist is their common lack of belief in a deity, the article is likely to lead one to believe that the inclusive group is being targeted because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

As the cartoon series in question is (barely debatable) obvious mockery of the behavior and attitudes of the religious as observed by the cartoonist, and the cartoon uses characters from those religions to express that mockery - it's evident that the mockery is targeted on the basis of religious beliefs.

I'm of the mind that it's a double standard to target a group because of their religious beliefs and then rage against those that would target others because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

I do not object to people targeting my beliefs because I am an atheist. I have never seen any atheist blog arguing that atheism should be immune to criticism, mockery, or ridicule for any reason, much less for the reason that the author has targeted atheism. For example, the Barmaid directly concurs: "I don't want my fundamental beliefs protected from attack or ridicule, thanks." I don't know of any atheist, or any New Atheist, who would disagree with this unequivocal statement.

Target away. Attack as best you can. Ridicule as much as you please. Criticize to your heart's content. Bring it on. As long as you stick directly and indirectly to words and ideas, take your best shot.

We do not object to targeting. We do not object to mockery, ridicule, or criticism. We do, however, object to threatened or actual physical coercion to suppress any speech (outside well-established legal boundaries, e.g. incitement, "fighting words", etc.). When an institution is in a position of authority over an individual, sanctions are inherently coercive. When an individual makes a credible threat of violence, or when an individual actually acts violently, that's coercion. And we object to coercion to suppress any speech, not just when the speech is targeted towards one particular group or another.

And atheists do not use coercion to suppress others speech. We do not threaten or use violence. We do not threaten or use official sanctions. The closest you'll find to atheists, secularists, or scientists using any kind of official sanctions is denying tenure or promotion to scientists promoting Intelligent Design, and in every case you'll find the denial of tenure or promotion was based not on the person's views, but on objective measures of their scientific competence.

Of course, atheist organizations do prioritize objecting to real offenses specifically against atheists. That's what special-interest organizations are for. Atheists do not expect NAACP or NOW to prioritize the interests of white male atheists. Prioritization is not just a matter of expediency; it also stems from the same philosophical roots as the judicial standing that only an actual (alleged) victim of a tort has standing to sue. Once the victim chooses to sue, the matter is up for social decision, but the victim is specially privileged over whether or not to put the matter in the social arena. But just because atheist organizations prioritize offenses against atheists does not mean that we object just because the perpetrator chose atheists as a specific target.

Grim happily modifies his earlier stance. He seems to retract his contradictory position that he supports the right to free expression on the one hand but will not protect it on the other, he instead explicitly supports an exception to the right of free expression, presumably enforced through legitimate legal means:
I accept the limited right of freedom of expression and will vehemently defend anyone's right to expression that doesn't infringe on other rights. Cross that line, start using it to infringe on the right of freedom of religion, and my support stops at the line.
Grim argues that mockery crosses that line:
Frequency and recurrence of such mockery starts to look like a campaign to to dehumanize a people because of their religion. If the campaign remains intact and escalates above mockery, you're well on your way to persecution on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack there of).
A position and an argument. Full marks!

But in today's context, mockery does not infringe on freedom of religion. One important feature of modern life is the social, political, and legal privilege afforded to religious belief. This social privilege, labeling a belief as "religious" exempts it from not only mockery and ridicule but also rational criticism, prompts much of the New Atheist agenda. In a truly secular society, where labeling a belief as "religious" would not afford it any special status, mockery might well be inappropriate. But so long as the religious wield real power on the basis of their religion, mockery is a legitimate social response.

Secondly, criticizing a belief does not dehumanize people, because beliefs are not ineluctable. To criticize an ineluctable characteristic such as race, sex, national origin, or physical "disability", tends to dehumanize a person because no person can ever change his or her race, sex, etc. But a person can change his beliefs, and the whole point of having a society, the Libertarian fantasy of "rugged individualists" notwithstanding, is to influence and change each others' beliefs. If your beliefs are indefensible, change them.

It's almost impossible to draw the line between mockery and legitimate criticism. I don't mean that there might be some gray area — that's true of almost every distinction — I mean that it's hard to come up with a definition that does not exclude any criticism. The response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is a case in point. This book, which to my eyes is calm, reasoned, and nuanced, has been denounced as the worst sort of illegitimate, disrespectful mockery, and not just by religious believers. And as any reader of academic literature knows, the most savage insults can be couched in the most rarefied academic language. A ban on "mockery" seems like the essence of the slippery slope: it's not that there's some gray area, it's that it's all gray area.

Atheists do not object to offenses against atheists just because someone has specifically chosen an atheist to offend. Atheists and atheist organizations prioritize offenses against atheists because that's what special-interest organizations routinely do in a society, and because atheists have the most standing to object to offenses against atheists. We do not consider mockery or ridicule to be offenses; we consider, rather, the use of coercion, violence, threats, and official sanctions, to silence our well-established right of free expression to constitute offenses. Some atheists use mockery in no small part because of the social privilege of religious belief; mockery is a well-established political tool for opposing the dominant majority. Finally, it seems impossible to exempt mockery and ridicule from our notions of protected free speech. Grizwald Grim might find our tools objectionable, and he's free to object, but his arguments for silencing us simply fail.


  1. Larry:
    re: And atheists do not use coercion to suppress others speech. We do not threaten or use violence. We do not threaten or use official sanctions.

    Do you not acknowledge the possibility that the reason for this is your relative minority? Pop over and see the latest comment on the bully thread by Stuff for evidence. If you add enough humans to a group, you'll end up with stupid people in that group. If you give that group enough power, you'll find the stupid members of that group issuing death threats to members of other groups. It's human nature. PROMOTING and DEFENDING mockery based on group membership is the first step down that path. "Oh hey, we have enough Atheists now, we can start talking crap. Maybe in another 10 years, we can start lynching believers!"

    The 'innocence' and 'harmlessness' of promoting the dehuman.. you know, maybe that's not the right word. What's the word when you systematically imply another group is inferior to yours, that they are less human than you and your group?

    re: as long as religious wield real power on the basis of their religion, mockery is a legitimate social response.

    Throwing rocks at castles - allow me to paste from my discussion with Amos:
    The religious establishment is a castle. You, I, and a few others are standing outside the castle wishing it was a pile of rubble. You try to throw a rock at the castle and I say, "Dude, don't throw rocks at the castle, are you daft?"

    You reply: "But the castle deserves to have rocks thrown at it. Everyone throws rocks at other things, even the people in the castle? Not throwing rocks at it is showing the castle undeserved respect."

    "But Amos," I explain, "it's a castle, and that's a rock. If we want to bring it down we'll need an army, and there are more people in there than out here. Let's play nice, go inside, and convince as many people in there as we can to come out here with us."

    Re: Secondly, criticizing a belief does not dehumanize people,
    Mocking a group that is grouped on the basis of a religious belief is not criticizing the religious belief, it's attributing the actions and behaviors of the worst of the group to all members of the group - criticizing the people, not the belief.

    Re: Tools
    I honestly don't find your tools objectionable at all. I object to you hitting people with them, and I think it's counterproductive to the goal of making the world a place where the religious wield real power on the basis of religion. So wrong AND stupid, but mostly stupid -whereas the death threats are more wrong than stupid.

    1. Correction, last paragraph:
      I think it's counterproductive to the goal of making the world a place where the religious *no longer* wield real power on the basis of religion.

  2. With your permission, Griz, I'd like to clean up the formatting a bit and post it on the main page of the blog.


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