Perhaps a more attractive droid?

There is a particular paradox with my post this morning that I didn’t really go out of my way to point out. That paradox has to do with finding a case that we (as free speech advocates) can sell to the public as an argument for unrestricted free speech rights. Its self-contradictory nature comes from the fact that in a liberal society that respects the rule of law, there aren’t a lot of examples of unpopular speech that the public can really get behind. The most common form of unpopular speech is based in hatred and intolerance, and you can’t really rally too many people behind that message.

But perhaps, with a bit of work, we can convince people of the merit in this:

A Dutch court acquitted right-wing politician Geert Wilders of hate speech and discrimination Thursday, ruling that his anti-Islam statements, while offensive to many Muslims, fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate. Judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders’s claims that Islam is violent by nature, and his calls to halt Muslim immigration and ban the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, must be seen in a wider context of debate over immigration policy. The Amsterdam court said his public statement could not be directly linked to increased discrimination against Dutch Muslims.

I will do myself the favour of stating unequivocally that I don’t like Geert Wilders, and will explain briefly why that is.

I do not buy the argument that the forces of Islamism are plotting a gradual takeover of Western society. It’s a fear-driven conspiracy theory carefully stoked in the xenophobic parts that inhabit all of us. It is convenient to our story-telling brains to dichotomize world events into “forces of good” and “forces of evil”. Hell, even I’m guilty of it (kind of… I trust my readers are aware of the sarcastic irony behind my categorization).

The reality is more like a variety of several ideologies, each competing for finite political real estate. The Islamist ideology is indeed fighting for supremacy, but not at the expense of Christianity. Islamism isn’t trying to “take over” any more than communism is trying to “take over” – all ideologies are fighting for dominance. This is where Wilders is wrong – he contrasts Islamic domination with Christian domination, when neither of these ideologies is truly dominant. While modern-day Europe owes a great deal to traditions laid down under true Christian ideological domination, most of the freedoms we enjoy today were despite Christian dominance (or rather, in the face of it) rather than because of it.

That being said, the world would be a much better place under the current situation of formerly-Christian secularism rather than an Islamic theocracy. Islam is, as written, much more hostile to the idea of religious pluralism than Christianity – I am happy to grant that. But the fight is not between an Islamic state and a Christian one – it’s between an absolutist state and a pluralistic one. Christian theocracy frightens me just as much as Islamic theocracy. Insofar as Wilders opposes an absolutist state, I am 100% with him. Where he and I differ has to do with his inability to divorce the ideas of Islam and absolutism. The two concepts are overlapping, but only mildly more so than are Christianity and absolutism.

Now, that covers basically where my position differs from Wilders’. The purpose of this post is to point out that what he said was a critique of an ideology, not the people who hold it. Mr. Wilders has gone out of his way several times to make this distinction – it is the religion of Islam he is criticizing as barbaric and dangerous. To the extent that individuals belonging to a religious group follow its strictures to varying degrees (and each insisting that theirs is the ‘true’ way), individual Muslims may or may not represent threats to secular society, just as individual liberals may or not represent threats to capitalism, for example. The courts have ruled precisely along these lines – criticism of ideas does not constitute hate speech, even if those ideas are religious or belong to a minority group.

It is precisely because this case lies on the balance of opposing concerns – distrust of religious extremism and distaste for intolerance – that it can be such a useful case to bring the free speech argument into the public sphere. You don’t have to like Geert Wilders to recognize that categorizing criticism of fanaticism as “hate speech” has very dangerous consequences that will do more to undermine secular society than all the forces of Islamism ever could.

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Free speech advocates: this is not the droid you’re looking for

I am in something of an unusual position, being an outspoken crusader both for human rights and for free speech. It crops up in my discussions of hate speech as a free speech issue again and again. The reason why I say my position is somewhat unique is that usually those who defend absolute speech rights ally themselves on the side of anti-gay, racist and/or sexist bigots. Their position tends to be “I shouldn’t be punished for saying hateful things.” My position is a bit more nuanced – I think that the definition of ‘hate’ is imprecise, and that while we should take note of it, it is far too tempting for the state to abuse the power to criminalize unpopular speech.

A recent court case has free speech advocates salivating like starving wolves in front of a fresh kill:

A comedian who was fined by the BC Human Rights Tribunal after a confrontation with a lesbian couple at a Vancouver restaurant is appealing the decision, arguing the province’s human rights legislation shouldn’t apply to stand-up comics. The tribunal ruled in favour of Lorna Pardy, a gay woman who testified that Guy Earle shouted gay slurs and other insults at her and her girlfriend from both on and off the stage during a comedy show in 2007. Earle and the restaurant were ordered to pay a total of $22,500 in compensation.

Human Rights Tribunals are the bane of the bigoted set. They are intended to find a way to balance respect for human rights with civil liberties, and are empowered to levy fines against people found guilty of discriminating, propagating hatred, or otherwise violating people’s charter rights in ways that aren’t expressly criminal. While they are an imperfect tool, they represent an attempt to uphold the rights of individuals to live free of persecution and hatred.

The reason why my fellow unrestricted speech advocates are so hot about this particular case is because on the surface, it reads like the story of a comedian who made some off-colour comments about lesbians in the context of a comedy performance, and who was subsequently brought up on charges by some overly-sensitive bleeding heart liberal lesbos in the audience who can’t take a joke. ‘Political correctness gone mad!’ has been the cry. ‘How can we allow these Tribunals to bulldoze over the rights of performers to make jokes? Can we only tell knock-knock jokes from now on?’

Hey guys, ‘Knock, knock”

Who’s there?

A maniac that went on a hatred-fueled tirade against two women in the audience that went well beyond the boundaries of his act. A maniac that went on to bodily assault those women when they tried to stand up for themselves. A maniac that completely lost his cool and continued to berate them after his stage show had finished.

Yeah, not so funny a joke now, is it?

If the case had merely been an echo of Michael Richards’ racist tirade against black people, or Tracey Morgan’s recent statement where he said he would stab his son to death if he (the son) came out as gay, then I’d be decrying this decision right along with the rest of my fellow speech defenders. This isn’t that, though. This is the case of a guy who wasn’t content to simply humiliate a pair of women who he claimed were heckling him (this is disputed by the women, who say he began harassing them for the arch-crime of kissing each other), but went on a rampage against them even after he was off stage.

My fellow speechies are holding Mr. Earle up as an example of the overreach of the Tribunal process, but if anything it shows that there are times where clearly some kind of intervention is needed. What occurred at the restaurant was far beyond what one would consider reasonable fare for a comedy show, where the abuse begins and ends on stage. Guy Earle is not the victim of an oversensitive system that bends to every errant whine from a minority group – he’s the perpetrator of a shocking and unacceptable verbal assault that crossed the line from joke to serious when he put down the microphone.

I am not sure what mental deficiency it is that makes my colleagues unable to understand nuance and irony, but it has them hitching their wagon to a horse that isn’t so much dead as it is running in the opposite direction they want to go. If the battle is indeed to bring the free speech argument into the public consciousness – to sell the idea of unrestricted free speech rights to the marketplace of ideas then they’ve picked a real stinker of a human being to make their/our case on.

That being said, if this were a simple free speech issue, I’d side with Mr. Earle in a heartbeat, no matter how despicable a human being I might think he is. What he said on stage may have been defensible speech, but the extent to which he allowed it to go is indefensible conduct. Speech, no matter how hateful, is crucial to the conduct of our society – parasites like Guy Earle undermine the very idea of free speech.

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Anything goes when it comes to ‘hos, ’cause…

Pimpin’ ain’t easy:

Charges against a man accused of being a pimp have been thrown out after an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that a police officer involved in the case fabricated evidence and lied on the stand. The problem involving Const. George Wang only came to light after Courtney Salmon’s lawyer finally found contradictory information in the notes of other officers involved in the case. Salmon had faced pimping charges before, but they didn’t stick.

But it is made infinitely easier when you are being prosecuted by incompetent and crooked police officers. I lived in Peel region for several years, and I have nothing but negative things to say about them. Contrasted against the professionalism that I associate (in most circumstances, with a few egregious exceptions) with the Vancouver Police Department, I found Peel to be staffed almost exclusively by bullies and mindless thugs who were more interested in pushing around and terrorizing young people than with living up to their oath.

And while the title (a reference to a classic track from Big Daddy Kane *trigger warning for sexism and homophobia*) is meant to be amusing, there is nothing particularly funny about pimping. Despite the fact that it has taken on some kind of positive connotation in common language, it’s an occupation that essentially relies on the exploitation and physical/psychological abuse of young women. It’s a detestable thing, and anyone caught doing it should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

However, what the police chose to do instead was to ignore due process and fabricate evidence. As a result, the case against Mr. Salmon (who is probably guilty) has to be thrown out, at the cost of not only the time and efforts of those involved in the prosecution but the Peel Police themselves. As I pointed out in his morning’s post, when police abuse their powers they undermine their own credibility, which is their most effective law enforcement tool.

“Our whole system of justice is based on faith in police investigating, and presenting their case fairly and truthfully … the community should have grave concerns that the police are not only fabricating evidence, but coming to court and lying about it.” Penman wants the officers involved investigated and punished, but they remain on the job. A spokesperson for the Peel Police Service said they have not been disciplined, despite the judge’s findings.

The tools that run Peel law enforcement are not effective at all, and people are starting to notice:

Defence lawyers who regularly try cases in the area call it the latest example of a troubling and cozy relationship between the police service and the local prosecutor’s office, which has yet to wipe away the decades-old stain of a high-profile wrongful conviction.

With 1,855 officers, the Peel force ranks behind only those of Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. It watches over a sprawling melting pot of new immigrants. “Peel is a petri dish of massive growth and bad planning,” said defence counsel Robert Rotenberg. “They are playing catch up, going from being a small town to being a big city.” In the latest ruling, a judge found that Peel Regional police officers stripped a suspect naked to show him who was boss, and provided false testimony to conceal their misconduct.

Boy am I glad I don’t live there anymore.

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Law and Disorder

Occasionally, events conspire to force me to subtly shift the focus of this blog. What started as a forum specifically for issues relating to race, free speech and religion has since expanded to include feminism, LGBT, law, politics, psychology, and secularism. To this litany of overlapping topics I am about to add a new one: crime.

As you may know if you pay attention to those sorts of things, Vancouver recently had a riot that followed a hockey game. Windows were smashed, people were stabbed, cars were lit on fire – it was a real shit show. It is inaccurate to label them as ‘hockey riots’ though, because they had nothing to do with the result of the hockey game. People came to the downtown area from surrounding municipalities with the sole purpose of causing damage – they brought rocks, gasoline, and masks to hide their identities from cameras.

Of course, such an event necessarily included response by law enforcement, who have been taking quite a bit of criticism for failing to react faster, or more thoroughly, or taking whatever steps were necessary to prevent widespread violence:

Vancouver police are defending the number of officers on the street during last week’s riot, saying it was about the same during the gold-medal hockey game in the 2010 Olympics. “It is true that about 5,000 officers were brought in from other jurisdictions for the Olympic Games, but those officers were for deployment by the Integrated Security Unit inside venues from Richmond to Whistler.

The Vancouver Police Department policed the streets of Vancouver, with some assistance from the ISU in the final days,” said a statement issued by police on Thursday. The force is continuing to refuse to release its tally of feet on the street, saying even if it did, it wouldn’t matter anyway because there will always be debate over how many officers would have been enough.

This more or less agrees with my take on the situation. When you have a crowd of 30,000 people involved in a massive orgy of destruction, there’s very little that having more police there can do. This particular paragraph resonated strongly with me:

“The fact still remains that the number of police on the street the night of June 15, correct or not, quelled a violent crowd of 30,000 people in three hours without major injuries or a single complaint of excessive force or unlawful arrest. Our goal once the riot began was to protect lives, end it as quickly as possible.”

This is the role that police are supposed to perform: protect lives and property (in that order of priority), and to respect the constitutional rights of even those that are committing crimes. The response from the VPD was measured and lawful, and as a result they are enjoying a great deal of public support (the criticisms and questions notwithstanding).

Either police chief Jim Chu is particularly forward-thinking and enlightened, or his policy just happens to coincide with those kinds of principles. At any rate, the VPD’s behaviour seems to reflect an understanding of the fact that the most powerful tool that the police wield is the respect and trust of the people  they are sworn to serve and protect. Respect for the law and those that uphold it is not something that can be legislated or purchased at the point of a gun.

When police behave well, they reap the benefit of not having to work as hard. The immediate response of the people of Vancouver following the riots was to submit photographs and videos to the police department, in the hopes that the police would be able to ferret out those that attacked the city. That is what respect and trust buys you. The other side of this is what happens when people don’t trust you:

Newly released G8/G20 summit documents reveal the RCMP and various Ontario police forces spent several months infiltrating anti-war, anti-globalization and anarchist groups with the use of undercover officers ahead of last June’s summits in Huntsville and Toronto.

<snip>

“A large number of the people charged with conspiracy were arrested prior to anything happening on that Saturday demonstration,” [Laurentian sociology and history professor Gary] Kinsman told CBC News, saying he himself was among the peaceful demonstrators at last year’s Toronto summit. “So the evidence collected from the people who infiltrated the activist groups was basically used to criminalize the organizers, prior to anything actually taking place.”

Using police power to criminalize dissent itself, rather than actual breaking of the law, increases scrutiny and suspicion of police officers. The RCMP and Ontario police’s borderline-illegal (of course, if the police do it, it’s not illegal) behaviour during the G20 summit in Toronto is a prime example of when police overreaching undermines their own credibility. People lose trust in the institution, and begin to demand answers. And, as sure as night follows day, incidents of police corruption are never isolated.

I disagree with anarchist groups, I disagree with anticapitalist groups, I disagree with antiglobalization groups. However, provided they are not breaking laws or conspiring to break laws (which is itself against the law, so maybe that phrase is redundant), I think they have the right to exist. After all, if the measuring stick against which we decide which groups are allowed to exist is whether or not I personally agree with them, then we can just go ahead and disband the Republican North Party right now.

When we allow police officers to infiltrate groups because they don’t like them and arrest people with no evidence of a committed crime, we open the door to criminalizing any political dissent. We have absolutist states in the world where political dissent is illegal – trust me, you don’t want to live in them.

Burnaby: Oh… well then neither can we, apparently

Well clearly I spoke too soon:

A group that opposed a Burnaby school policy intended to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students is urging parents to pull their children from classroom lessons that offend their morals. The Parents’ Voice is distributing a form letter for members to complete and send to their schools requesting “alternative delivery” of lessons “that may in any way undermine our moral convictions with regards to non-heterosexual inclinations and/or behaviours.”

I was speaking with a friend recently about the idea of “death throes”. She asked me if I thought we were seeing a swing toward hyper-religiosity in light of developments in the United States and a mirror of that movement here in Canada. I posited that it seemed to me to be more of a desperation move (a “Hail Mary pass” if you’ll forgive the pun) of an ideology that has been left behind. Society has seen the flaws in religion, and is beginning to move past it. The religious establishment is getting busy trying to re-establish its relevance, but it’s too late for that. It’s a tantrum thrown by a child after she’s lost a game – all the tears and screams in the world can’t change the past.

This reaction from this parental group is just another such tantrum – ‘give my kid dissenting information, will you? Well I’ll show you!’ Pulling kids out of classes only hurts the kids – they’ll still learn about pro-gay attitudes from interactions with their peers. They will learn that there are other ways of looking at the world besides your stone-age mythology, and they’ll start to ask questions. Unless you’re going to erect a wall around your child and refuse to let any dissenting information in (a la Fox news), then you’re fighting a battle that isn’t just losing – it’s already lost.

The Parents’ Voice insists schools have a legal obligation to accommodate cultural, religious or ethical differences, and says Burnaby acknowledged that obligation earlier this year when it approved a policy allowing students to opt out of animal dissections in science classes.

I remember when there was a flap about frog dissection in my biology class back in high school. Kids were indeed allowed to opt out and learn anatomy another way. You know what happened to those kids? They didn’t learn the stuff properly.

Besides, there is one very important issue that is being overlooked here. Nobody is saying to the parents “you’re not allowed to tell your son or daughter that gay people are abominations and should not be accepted.” You can teach your kids whatever hateful bullshit you want in the privacy of your home. However, you don’t have the right to demand that the rest of us play your insulation game. Just as parents will be wrong about math, language, history, and science, they will be wrong about ethics. The schools have an obligation to teach, to the best of their ability, the truth. If your world view is hostile to the truth that LGBT people are not disordered or sinful, then that’s your problem.

Funnily, it’s usually parents of this mindset that trumpet the idea of “teach both sides” when it comes to things like evolution and the origins of the universe (as though there were only two sides, and that those two sides have equal evidence supporting them). It’s funny to see how hostile they are to having “both sides” taught when it’s something they disagree with.

Enjoy your tantrum, Burnaby. It’ll be the last time anyone pays attention to you.

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Germany: We can’t be

Then again, sometimes there are stories that completely shatter my faith in humanity:

A row with uncomfortable echoes of the past is gripping the world of Germany’s student duelling societies after a club admitted a non-European member. Duellers in Munich objected to the fact a Mannheim club had allowed a member with an Asian background to join, despite his service in the German army.

Yep… that’s happening. Apparently the member in question is German enough to serve Germany in the armed forces, but not German enough to dress up in a silly costume and wave a sword around. The reaction of the club? Well I think we could all have predicted this one:

The clubs’ national association insisted they were not racist.

“We’re not racist, honest! We just don’t like darkies being in our clubs!” The story reads like the plot of a bad Disney movie (Erinner Das Titan maybe?), and just gets more ridiculous the further in you go:

Such societies are usually male and involve dressing up in traditional 19th Century outfits, as well as drinking and fighting with swords. Real swords are used and the men who join often sport a scar on their cheeks to show they have fought a real duel.

There was a feeling from the more conservative elements in Bavaria that, according to internal documents, members with “non-European facial and bodily characteristics” did not qualify as Germans and so could not join what the objectors see as a bastion of true German identity, our correspondent says.

It’s funny, many of the rampant anti-immigrant sentiment currently running through Europe hinges around the idea that immigrants won’t “assimilate”. That people whose ancestry hails from another part of the world (by the way, Germany – your ancestry is from Africa, so maybe you should put down the swords and pick up a drum) will refuse to adopt the customs and mores of the majority group. Since immigrants won’t take on native ideas, we should keep them out! Except here’s a guy who is trying to do just that – take part in a custom that is about as German as it gets, and he’s being forced out by the same majority group.

These kinds of attitudes come from a mindset in which culture is a static thing that cannot and should not change. This is a faulty view of the world – all currently-existing cultures are departures from ones that came before. Those elements of cultures that are valuable are retained (co-operation, family cohesion, respect for individual rights), and those that are not necessary for survival can be sloughed off (exclusion of outsiders, absolute power of the patriarch, tyranny of the majority). There can be debate over the merit of the individual component values, but it is ludicrous to suggest that any change to traditions is a destruction of those values.

The fact that this kind of story merits any discussion at all, let alone the tide of public opinion against the egregious racism on display by these clubs (or at least their conservative elements), is evidence of the fact of this cultural evolution. Time was, not long ago, it was considered entirely reasonable to exclude members of certain racial groups from “private clubs”. This practice still occurs, mind you, but only in those places where the light of modernity hasn’t quite penetrated the curtain of stupidity.

As with the story this morning, these kinds of attitudes will be consigned to the dustbin of history, and be seen as simply an odd curiosity of our ancestry.

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Burnaby: We can be human beings

Every now and then, a story comes along that restores some of my faith in humanity:

The Burnaby school board approved a controversial anti-homophobia policy on Tuesday evening. Trustee Ron Burton said it is comparable to an anti-racism policy implemented several years ago. “It was quite prevalent in the schools — racist slurs were everywhere,” Burton said. “[The anti-racism policy] gave teachers the ability to correct that behaviour, to say, ‘That’s inappropriate’ and make it a teaching moment when it happens. We’re hoping the same thing will happen with homophobic slurs — and educate kids in general.”

He pointed to the 2001 killing of Aaron Webster, a gay man who was beaten to death by a group of former Burnaby students because of his sexual orientation. “Perhaps if we had this policy in place [then], they wouldn’t be in jail now and that man would be alive,” Burton said.

Anti-gay bullying is a serious problem, particularly because it happens at an age where kids are particularly susceptible to the taunts and disapproval of their peers. I’ve spoken about this before, but the argument bears repeating. Gay kids get particularly singled out not just by individual bullies, but by society at large. “Gay” is a slang term that means blanket condemnation of LGBT people, and it gets tossed around with seeming unthinking ease. Add to that the fact that anti-gay attitudes are passed off as “traditional family values” – as though families with gay people don’t have values of their own. Kids are made to feel ashamed of themselves for no good reason, and then bullied on top of that.

There is a common objection that usually accompanies stories like this: all bullying is bad; why should we give gay kids special treatment when straight kids are being bullied too? I sometimes wonder when I hear these objections if the speaker has put any thought into that statement, or if it’s simply a knee-jerk reaction fueled by anti-gay sentiment. Nobody is saying “straight kids aren’t important” or “we are not interested in stopping bullying in general unless you’re gay”. It’s recognizing that there is a unique problem in a subset of a population that requires particular attention.

To draw an analogy, the objection is about as reasonable as saying “why should we raise money to feed starving people? Some people have heart disease – everyone’s got problems! We should just focus on solving all bad things, rather than giving starving people special attention!” It’s a ridiculous position that assumes a sort of zero-sum game, where targeting a solution to one community takes something away from another. Anti-gay bullying is a subset of bullying in general, and because the consequences are more dire and immediate, and because that particular subset has been ignored for so long, we can devote some extra attention to it, which ultimately reduces general bullying.

Of course, the part that I like the most about this story is the following:

A group called the Parents’ Voice had gathered thousands of signatures for a petition against the policy, saying it violates parental and religious rights. The group accused the district of trying to camouflage a discriminatory policy by calling it an anti-bullying measure.

If your religion requires you to bully gay kids, then your religion is fucked up and you need to change it. I’m not sure where parents got the idea that they have the right to teach their kids to hate other people, and the rest of the world has to respect that. If your beliefs are stupid, then you’re going to find that the rest of the world is going to be against you (with a few caveats if you live in Alberta). Just as it isn’t a violation of “parental and religious rights” to tell kids that black people aren’t the result of an ancient curse and deserve the same respect as white people, it’s not a violation of those same imagined rights to tell them “some people are gay, and that’s not an abomination or a sin – it’s just the way some people are.”

But despite the objections from the lunatic asylum, the board did the right thing and moved their policy into the later part of the 20th century. Those who are demanding the right to propagate their small-minded bigotry against gay people through their children are losing a battle against the tide of history. While it’s not happening fast enough for my tastes, soon all that will be left of these “traditional family values” will be an unpleasant memory of howling hordes of ignorant, backward people, and we will look back and say “how could anyone actually believe that?”

If you’re frightened by that last sentence, you should be.

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Normalizing belief (pt. III) – who are we talking to?

When I initially started this line of argumentation 4 weeks ago, I hadn’t planned on making it a 3-parter, but such is life I suppose.

In the first part of this series, I asked you to engage in a thought experiment in which a population with a distribution of strength/types of belief in a god/gods are exposed to a strong argument against belief. My assertion was that a strong dissonant position would push the overall population away from belief and toward disbelief, even if there were no ‘strong’ believers convinced to change their position:

In the follow-up, I refuted 3 general objections to using confrontation in argument. The first is that people who cling more tightly to their belief if you aren’t nice to them aren’t in the market for a persuasive approach grounded in logic anyway, so trying to convince them is a wasted effort. Second, to postulate that confrontation is “counter-productive” assumes that more people move away from nonbelief when confronted than toward it, when it is more likely that people will simply remain where they are on the continuum of belief if they hear an argument they don’t like. Third, people seldom change their minds on a position in one stroke – it usually happens over time, and confrontation helps plant seeds of dissonance that can blossom into full-blown doubt.

There is a 4th refutation that I want to discuss, and because it is the most important (in my opinion), I would like to dedicate an entire post to it. The accommodationist position neglects an important segment of the audience – those who are de facto atheists but who do not see themselves that way, or who think it is better to “live and let live” rather than oppose religious ideas. I have my own private suspicions as to why that might be the case (mostly revolving around the fact that the “Diplomats” tend to be the “live and let live” types themselves), but regardless of the reasons why, this camp is largely ignored by the “Diplomat” approach.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on why I am not content to just let people believe whatever nonsense they want, and to illustrate how differences in understanding can lead to disastrous consequences. To summarize for those of you that haven’t been here that long, it is important to vigorously oppose bad ideas (of which religion is one), especially when following those ideas can lead individuals and societies into dangerous territory, and especially when there are those people zealously promoting those bad ideas. Having a shared way of understanding the universe and being willing to toss aside bad ideas can allow us to live harmoniously alongside our fellow human beings, whereas a “live and let live” approach simply silos people into tolerant but disagreeing camps.

I can remember the point at which I was pushed from being a “live and let live” type into a “we have to do something” type – it was when I watched the closing monologue of Bill Maher’s Religulous. Bill lays out a cogent argument for why it is not sufficient simply to leave well enough alone – religion is fueling destruction and widespread suffering among millions (if not billions) of our fellow creatures – it is no virtue to stand aside in the name of “tolerance” in the face of such suffering. That was the deciding factor for me, and I haven’t looked back since.

It is precisely for this reason that confrontational and assertive argument is necessary. While playing nice with the believers is all well and good if you want to make friends, if you are in the business of reducing the harm that religion causes then not only must we convince people to move away from belief, but to press those who merely do not believe to begin to voice their objections. Fence-sitters can be moved off their perch by showing them “look, not only is it absurd but it’s harmful”. “Diplomacy” fails to address this argument, stopping short of calling a spade a spade, and landing in the morass of “religion is okay, but fundamentalism is dangerous”.

There is also something to be said for the reinforcement and encouragement of those that are already in your camp. Insult and mockery can be a “pep talk” for other atheists that are perhaps too shy to speak up on their own. It can be incredibly comforting to those that are surrounded by believers to hear their innermost thoughts expressed in a way that vindicates their own godlessness. “Diplomats” don’t speak to this group, but it is important to do just that.

This also overlaps with the idea of being “counterproductive”, and touches deeply on why I hate that word so much. If we can use our rhetoric to motivate more people to speak openly, this can have a cumulative effect. A chorus of voices are created that are articulating an anti-religious position, which creates strong normative pressure on the status quo. This is where our argument begins to take on the strength of non-rational forms of argumentation, because we add a component of popularity to the underlying core of rationality. As religious belief is no longer seen as the norm, but rather simply one alternative to no belief, faith loses its status as an idea that is above criticism.

It is for this reason that I am incredibly irritated when atheists begin telling each other that they’re “doing it wrong”. It is crucial to the advancement of any position that a variety of approaches are available. Some people feel most comfortable finding common ground with their opponents, then exploring where the differences are. That is a useful and valid approach, but it is not the only one, nor should it be considered the “best”. Others find it easiest to express themselves in strong language, reveling in conflict and clever mockery. This too is a valid way of articulating a position, and can have an audience outside of simply those who oppose us. Why would we undercut ourselves and take away a valid form of debate?

There are no good reasons.

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Movie Friday: Surviving ex-gay ministries

A commenter asked yesterday what was wrong with so-called “ex-gay ministries”. For those of you that don’t know, these are programs that are set up to ‘re-train’ homosexual men and women, to convince them that their sexual orientation is either a weakness of the mind, or the influence of Satan, or both. Words cannot express how contemptuous I am of the rank and foul arrogance required to tell someone that their sexual identity is evil. Then again, this kind of moralizing arrogance comes naturally when one considers oneself a direct emissary of the creator of the universe.

Ex-gay ministries are founded on the lie that sexual orientation is a choice, and that accepting Jesus will cleanse you of the sin of being “abnormal”. Of course, accepting Jesus is entirely orthogonal to being gay – there are many gay Christians (a fact that baffles me, but then again there are black Christians and female Christians too, so humanity clearly has a blind spot for its own hypocrisy). However, desperate people who have been convinced that they are disordered due to a lack of faith will grasp at all kinds of desperate straws to regain YahwAlladdha’s favour. They will completely abandon their rationality, frantic to prove their worth in their invisible tyrant’s eyes. And what does the religious establishment do with desperate people?

It fucks them:

Yep, it’s pretty much exactly as you’d expect. Jayden was molested by someone claiming to be able to ‘fix’ his homosexuality. The problem with this mindset is that it’s built on a series of falsehoods. First, it claims that homosexuality is evil or ‘unnatural’ – in that homosexuality in and of itself is no more harmful to people than heterosexuality, and we see examples of homosexuality often in the natural world, this first claim is a lie. Second, these ministries claim that one can simply ‘reprogram’ gay men by introducing them to ‘manly’ activities – I guess the number of gay men in the Marines and other Armed Forces just aren’t manly enough…

 

Hmm... okay maybe they have a point

The third and final lie that makes up the foundation of “ex-gay” ministries is that accepting Jesus will cure you of your homosexuality. This is the cop-out lie that all religious faith enjoys – if it fails, you can blame the victim because their faith “wasn’t strong enough”. No matter what happens, their asses are covered – if they appear to succeed then it’s because of the program, and if they fail it’s because of the individual in the program. Imagine if we explained away government programs or modern medicine in this way.

Oh, and did I mention that when people are blamed for something they can’t control, and told that their feelings are evil, even though they’ve never hurt anybody… they sometimes hurt themselves?

Of course the commenter then asked me where I got the gall to force my morals on everyone, so maybe I should have just laughed it off. Some lies need to be confronted, exposed, and destroyed. Ex-gay ministries are among them.

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Well, they burned it. Everyone still alive?

 

This morning I warned you all of a dire plot by a group of fanatics in the Netherlands to do something profoundly silly:

But of course, banning a book doesn’t prevent people from reading it. Especially in this day of instantaneous transfer of information, burning a book is simply raising a flag that says “We are ignorant” and “We are out of touch with reality” at the same time. If people in the Netherlands wanted to find a copy of [Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes], they could simply go to Amazon or any number of other online bookstores. Banning the book is therefore futile. Burning the book may have some kind of psychological satisfaction for the protesting group, but it is an outmoded and meaningless gesture.

Well, undaunted by rational thought or… y’know… bothering to read the book, these Jell-o heads have decided to forge ahead with their agenda of public stupidity:

The activists vowed to burn copies of the book, published in Dutch as Het Negerboek, in an Amsterdam park unless its name was changed.

However, group member Perez Jong Loy said Wednesday that they did not burn the entire work because it’s not the novel’s content they find offensive, only the title. “We are upset by the title of your book because the name you gave, it’s insulting to the black community. It’s an insult,” he told CBC News.

Never mind the fact, of course, that Hill is a member of the black community, and is a prolific defender of black people. Never mind that his books have reached millions of readers across the world, and have thereby advanced the discussion of race and the history of slavery. Never mind that the title of the book is a direct reference to a historical document, and was intentionally chosen to reflect that fact. Never mind that burning a book (even just the cover) only serves to increase its popularity. Never mind that in the age of digital media, burning a book is about as meaningful as vandalizing the card catalogue in a library or fighting to close an adult movie store – people will find a way to read the book no matter what you do.

No, let’s ignore reality and reason, and instead make a big show of how angry and stupid we are. That’ll show ‘em!

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