Glimmers of secular hope

There has been a great fracas recently within atheist/secularist circles as ‘Horseman’ Sam Harris has been subjected to repeated critique* as the avatar of a disturbing trend within atheist circles: using “reason” to mask anti-Muslim sentiment in politically pallatable language. I have noted this tendency previously:

I don’t think anyone could confuse me with someone who is pro-Islam. As much as I find all religions repugnant, the face of Islam we see today is one of repressive fanaticism that stifles human progress. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of fanaticism in Christianity as well, to say nothing of Hindu and Buddhist repression happening in India and other parts of Asia. Whether it is due to anti-Muslim bias and the collision of Islam and secularism in Europe, or a reflection of the true excess of Islamic regimes, the news consistently carries stories of Muslim-dominated countries carrying out horrible acts with the excuses of Qur’anic license on their lips. I will not relent or shrink from criticizing this inhuman (or perhaps all-too-human) display of authoritarianism with claimed divine mandate.

That being said, there is a backlash against Muslims that is not based on their beliefs per se, but about our attitude about the danger that Muslims (and Islam) pose to the world. This attitude is not informed by evidence, but fueled by paranoia and misinformation. It qualifies, by every comparative standard that I can think of, as just as worthy of criticism as racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, take your pick.

My concern is that atheists find it far too tempting to single out Islam for particular opprobium because the stories we hear about Islamist-dominated countries are so dramatic. We conclude from the drama that Islam per se is a particularly twisted ideology, above and beyond the ideology of, say, Christianity. My counter-claim to this assertion is that Christianity contains essentially all of the same commandments and prohibitions and exhortations that Islam does, but time and the rise of secular society have rendered it, in the aggregate, less overtly oppressive than the current incarnation of Islam (again, in the aggregate). [Read more...]

Mere speech

There is a long predigree in liberal public discourse about the dangers of punishing hate speech. The oft-quoted aphorism goes something like “the antidote to hate speech is more speech”*. The basic idea is that in a marketplace of ideas, bad ideas will be forced out by good ones, and thus the solution to hate speech is to marginalize hateful voices by speaking up vigorously in the defense of those who need it. This has been, proponents of this view claim, the way our society has moved overt and hateful racism from the mainstream to the margins: good people decided it was time to push racist voices out of the mainstream, and nobody had to pass a law making it a crime to be racist.

The truth, of course, is far more complicated than that. This account moves the agency of black people to the back of the bus (yeah, I went there) and makes the provisional successes of civil rights groups in eradicating racism the work of the goodwill of the majority rather than the work of organized people who fought against the system. It also ignores the fact that, even to this day, racist language might be gone, but the racism it described has just found more palatable words to convey the same message it always has. Finally, it ignores the role that craven politics and opportunism played in whatever cultural shift has genuinely happened.

That being said, the point remains: it is not necessary to criminalize hate speech to reduce it. The argument then (often) follows that we should therefore not criminalize it, because of some non-specific harm that may come to some white person down the road who will be mistakenly blamed for saying something that hurts a brown person’s feelings. Or something. I have, in recent years, moved away from the “absolute free speech” position I held for many years, and it’s partially because of stories like this: [Read more...]

Reporting from the Ministry of Irony

One of my deepest not-at-all-guilty pleasures is irony. If I were a more supernaturally-inclined person, I would point to events like this as evidence that there must be a supreme being:

British Columbia’s largest oil spill response vessel got stuck on a sandbar en route to a federal news conference where Monday about strengthening Canada’s oil spill defences.

The shipping-industry-funded company in charge of the vessel confirmed it ran aground briefly on an uncharted sandbar off Sand Heads at the mouth of the Fraser River en route from its Esquimalt base to the Coal Harbour news conference. But it denied the ship had a “close quarters situation” with a B.C. ferry near Active Pass earlier Monday – as claimed by the Coast Guard’s marine communications union.

In a news release Wednesday, Canadian Auto Workers Local 2182 spokesman Allan Hughes said the vessel’s slow trip to the conference underscored how ill-prepared B.C. is for an oil spill.

It really does strain credulity to imagine that such a thing could happen by accident. If one were specifically trying to illustrate the real environmental dangers posed by shipping bitumen through environmentally sensitive areas, there could be no more perfect example than this. The only thing that could have possibly been ‘better’ is if the ship leaked some oil, but then you’re trading the deliciousness of the irony for the real possibility of ecological damage.

The poignancy of this accident is made all the better by the fact that there is a cross-border debate currently happening about the viability of shipping Tar Sands bitumen to the United States, and an international fight over whether we should send that same bitumen to China over the opposition of aboriginal groups, through whose territory proposed pipelines would have to run. The accident, while minor, vividly underscores the real (and, in my mind, unacceptable) risks of transporting bitumen from an area that is already an environmental disaster.

Of course, as always, such issues should be routed through the Undersecretary for Whimsy and Caprice:

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New Required Reading: How a Wound Heals

Did you watch the Oscars? I didn’t. I don’t have cable, and to be honest even when I did the Oscars seemed like a complete waste of time. Other people like them though, so my Twitter feed was absolutely SLAMMED with #Oscars tweets, which is how I learned that satirical news-site The Onion decided it would be hilarious to call 9 year-old actor Quvenzhané Wallis a “cunt”. Yeah. Funny, right?

Now, The Onion executive went on to apologize for the tweet (to the collective outrage of a chorus of dudebros who think that publicly and misogynistically dehumanizing a 9 year-old is a ‘zero bad’ kind of situation), but the damage was done. The attempt, as far as I can tell, was to satirize the flood of people whose only joy in life seems to be publicly hating on Hollywood actresses, no matter how innocent of any wrongdoing they may be. The problem is that… well, it’s not really my place to explain it. Here’s the absolute best discussion that I’ve seen anywhere: [Read more...]

South of what, exactly?

One of the chief arguments pressed into service in defence of so-called “casual” racism – that is, racism that occurs as part of popular culture without any awareness of racist content on the part of the majority – is that in the absence of intent, acts are not racist. While we here know this to be largely a fiction born of self-flattery, it is surprisingly persuasive and popular. It’s not exactly a difficult puzzle to solve – if you have not had to deal with the consequences of racism in your own life, you’re unlikely to have much appreciation for the myriad ways in which it manifests itself and exerts its influence.

The close cousin of the intent argument is the “well that’s not what it means to me” argument. When someone uses racist imagery in this same “casual” way, either out of apathy or ignorance, the typical response is for the person to say that ze simply doesn’t see it as being racist. This is often the case for things like blackface or cultural appropriation from First Nations – it’s not racist, it’s like, totally meant as a compliment! Or it’s completely blind to the culture from which it’s taken. I’m honestly not sure which is worse.

What I do know is that some explanations are more bafflingly clueless and indefensible than others: [Read more...]

Schadenfreude: Sun News edition

Those of you who have either been reading this blog for several years or who regularly follow my Twitter feed and have caught one of my unhinged rants on the subject, I am decidedly not a fan of Canada’s Sun News Network. While (full disclosure) I would not be a fan of any ‘right wing’ news outlet, there are gradations of obnoxiousness and professionalism that allows me a wide level of tolerance for ideas that do not necessarily reflect my own (Margaret Wente, columnist for The Globe and Mail sits just on the periphery of what I can stand before I begin cursing at my computer monitor). I recognize (and laud) that a commitment to freedom of speech specifically licenses views that I disagree with, and I recognize the importance of heterodoxy in a modern democratic state.

The need for divergent views, however, must be balanced with a respect for truth and a commitment to scrupulous standards of fairness. There is no value in claiming validity for positions that are based in distortions of fact or outright lies. In news circles, this ethos is known as “journalistic integrity” – the idea that news outlets have a duty to provide readers with analysis that as closely approximates objective truth as possible. Now I am nowhere near so naive that I fail to recognize that different outlets have editorial biases – that’s media criticism 101. However, there are standards of good reporting that require all editors to suppress their own personal beliefs in service of giving their audience proper information. [Read more...]

Abuse of power; power of abuse

One of the weird facets of having male, able-bodied, and a great deal of middle-class privilege (that really does border on white privilege at times, my skin colour notwithstanding) is that there are a number of evidently-common phenomena that I have simply never witnessed. I have never known someone to be raped*, I have never seen harassment more obnoxious than cat-calls or a honked horn, and as near as I can tell I have never been on the receiving end of serious discrimination either at the hands of an employer or the police. Left with only my own personal experience as a yardstick for reality, it would be trivially easy for me to fall into the seductive trap of assuming that the world is a fair place and the concerns of anti-abuse groups are very occasional and dramatic exceptions to a general trend of figurative rainbows and puppies.

But because I have made the decision to not only listen to those who have experienced those things, but to engage with their ideas and compare them to the few occasions where I have had to deal with being subjected to discrimination, I have learned to let the weight of my skepticism rest more heavily on those who say there’s no problem than those who say there is one. One recent example of a major transition I have made is my attitude toward police. I have seen too many stories of egregious and unpunished crimes committed by police all over the world to believe that these are isolated incidents that are not reflective of a larger and more disturbing trend. Despite my universally positive personal interactions with Vancouver Police (I have repeatedly noted the positive way they handled both the Occupy Vancouver presence and the post-hockey riots), in the absence of robust and meaningful civilian oversight I am obligated to view all officers with suspicion. [Read more...]

B.C.’s premier speaks about her faith

And into the charged atmosphere that is Canada’s current grappling with the theocratic urges of its federal government comes this statement by British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark:

During her informal 50-minute talk before the ethnically mixed audience, Clark discussed what it means to be a lifelong Anglican, her support for “faith-based” social services, her views on same-sex marriage, her commitment to “kindness” and her approach to the Bible.

“For me it’s been kind of an interesting experience to realize, for the first time in my life, that perhaps being a Christian is something that I should not talk about. But I reject that,” the premier said. Saying B.C. has more “declared atheists” than any province in Canada, Clark nevertheless said for her “the most important thing is to go to church every week and be reminded, by someone whom I respect, to be kind … to be compassionate.”

Now, it should be noted that Premier Clark went out of her way to acknowledge that atheists are not less charitable by disposition, and that she raises them only to contrast secular urges to give with the fact that her giving is inspired directly from her Christian beliefs. In so doing, Clark is walking the well-trodden road of the religious moderate – ‘well it works for me, and religion is all about kindness and compassion and puppies and rainbows’. While it provokes naught but eye-rolling from anti-theists like myself, it is likely to resonate with the people of British Columbia who are a rather mushy lot.

This, however, should be a giant red flag: [Read more...]

Canadian government funds anti-gay group to work in Uganda

If you don’t watch the Rachel Maddow Show, you really should. She is unparalleled in her journalistic excellence, and her self-deprecating wit is matched only by her insightfulness. If you’ve watched The Newsroom and longed for a hard-hitting newsman like Will McAvoy, the good news is that Rachel Maddow has been doing exactly what Sorkin fantasizes about, and has been doing so for years.

One of the most heart-wrenching episodes of her show I’ve ever seen takes the form of an interview with Uganda’s David Bahati. Having painstakingly detailed the extent to which Uganda’s anti-gay legislative fervor finds its ideological home in the American conservative movement, Maddow interviews Bahati as one of the chief architects and facilitators of a Uganda bill that would make homosexuality a capital crime. The palpable subtext of the interview is that Maddow is herself gay, and somehow manages to keep her rage in check long enough to expertly interview a clearly-outmatched Bahati.

Canada has decided to insert itself into the anti-gay quagmire that is Uganda’s political infrastructure by sending in exactly who you would want as ambassadors of Canadian values: [Read more...]

Driving us apart

Long-time cromrades may remember that I took part (mostly as a spectator) in Occupy Vancouver last year. The general theme of the Occupy movement was an invitation to examine the state of inequalities and inequities in our supposedly fair and meritocratic capitalist system. The thesis advanced by Occupy is that this system was not in fact fair, and that regardless of party affiliation, the political system was set up to benefit the elite at the expense of the majority.

Of course, one of the major criticisms of Occupy was that it was almost entirely caught up with examining the problems from a purely political standpoint, and showed little interest in examining the other root causes of social inequality – racism, sexism, classism, and various other prejudices that have put the fairness of the system to the lie for generations. It was only when those problems began to visit themselves on the people who didn’t ‘deserve it’ that is was suddenly an issue in need of a national response.

That being said, Occupy did push income inequality to the forefront of political consciousness. Which is why a story like this gets reported now: [Read more...]