Free Speech for Evil, Hateful, Repulsive Nutjobs? You Betcha!

Fred_phelps_5Never, in the worst of my worst nightmares, did I think I would ever have to write anything at all defending Fred Phelps.

But it looks like I do.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Fred_phelps_2Quick precis, for those who don’t know the story: You know Fred Phelps? The evil, hateful, repulsive nutjob who pickets the funerals of prominent gay people, with signs saying things like “God Hates Fags”? Who lately has been picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war, on the grounds that their deaths are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality? (I told you — evil, hateful, repulsive nutjob.)

MoneyHe — or more accurately, his church — was recently ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages, in a civil suit filed by the father of a soldier whose funeral Phelps picketed. The suit was won on the grounds that the picket constituted “invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.”

And I’m finding myself very disturbed by this.

IceDon’t get me wrong. I am feeling a certain amount of visceral Schadenfreude about the decision. I won’t deny that. As Molly Ivins once said, “Mama may have raised a mean child, but she didn’t raise no hypocrites.” But as much as I personally enjoy seeing the bastard suffer, I am far more disturbed by the extremely chilling effect that this decision could have for freedom of political speech and expression.

For all of us.

And that’s a whole lot more important to me than my personal Schadenfreude.

Fred_phelps_1According to the reports I’ve read, this was not an Operation Rescue type of deal. There was no disruption of the service, no getting three inches from the mourners’ faces to scream at them. The plaintiff himself said at the trial that he didn’t even see the protesters or their signs at the funeral. They kept their hateful, repugnant protest a reasonable distance away. So the invasion of privacy thing seems to be pretty much bullshit. It’s the “intent to inflict emotional distress” that’s the real core here.

And when it comes to political and religious speech, I think the infliction of emotional distress is — and should be — a guaranteed, First Amendment-protected right.

ScreamTake a look at my Atheists and Anger piece. And take a look at the deluge of comments. 749 comments as of this writing, and still climbing. Almost half from people who were very emotionally distressed indeed by the piece. I knew when I wrote it that the piece would inflict emotional distress on a lot of people (although I didn’t quite expect the deluge)… and I wrote it anyway.

I want to be able to write like that again without being sued.

Not a perfect example, I’ll admit. People come to my blog voluntarily (although some of them seem to have forgotten that fact), so it could be argued that I didn’t inflict anything.

ChurchSo let’s use a different example. I want the right to picket church services with a sign saying, “How’s Your Invisible Friend Today?” To picket the opening of a new steak restaurant with signs that vividly describe slaughterhouse conditions. To picket George W. Bush’s eventual funeral singing, “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead.” I probably wouldn’t do any of those things, since I’d consider them in bad taste; but I think I should have the right to do them.

And if this ruling stands, I might not.

FirstamendmentFree speech is a human right, one of the central foundations that this country was built on. And that’s not just true when the speech in question goes the way we want it. The First Amendment does not exist to protect popular speech. It exists to protect unpopular speech. That’s the whole point. We don’t need Constitutional protection for our right to publish apple pie recipes or pictures of cute puppies. We need Constitutional protection for our right to say things that make people flee in horror… from “God Hates Fags” to “Gay Is Beautiful,” from “Stop the War” to “Bomb Them Into The Stone Age,” from “God Wants Our Soldiers To Die” to “God Does Not Exist.”

Bill_oreillyAnd the more I think about this case, the more I think it’s bad strategically as well as ethically. And for much the same reason. I think this case can and will be used by the Right to argue that queers are demanding “special rights.” “Sure, they want First Amendment protections for themselves,” they’ll say. “But they sure are quick to get off their First Amendment high horse when it’s someone they don’t like!”

And they’ll be right to do so.

I mean, I think that. I’m saying that right now. And I’m queer.

Constitution_preambleIf you want to make an argument that this ruling doesn’t violate the First Amendment, then I’d be very open to hearing it. I’m the first to admit that I’m not a legal or Constitutional scholar, and it’s possible that a reasonable case could be made that the Phelps protests are not protected speech under the First Amendment.

Fred_phelpsBut I’ve seen too many arguments on this topic that say, “Free speech isn’t an absolute right, there are limits, look at libel laws, fraud laws, etc.”… without making any argument for why this particular case should be one of those limitations. Other than just, “The speech is hateful.” So far, nothing I have read on this particular case suggests any interpretation other than, “the plaintiffs are getting $11 million because they were upset by the content of Phelps’s speech.”

Deeply upset, and rightfully so. I get that. But again, that is exactly the sort of situation that the First Amendment is meant to protect.

FirstamendmenttshirtAnd I’ve seen too many arguments on this case that essentially say, “First Amendment, Shmirst Amendment — I wanna see this bastard go down.” I would respectfully like to suggest that that is one lousy argument. The First Amendment is not to be casually tossed aside when it happens to protect a repulsive creep who we want to see fry.

Fred_phelps_7A lot of progressives, people who are normally all over the First Amendment/free speech thing, are unusually willing, even eager, to drop their love of the Amendment in this particular case. And I understand the impulse. This particular case — this particular person, this particular group — makes people profoundly angry and upset. It makes me profoundly angry and upset. There’s a part of me that would love for some Constitutional scholar to come up with some legal loophole in the First Amendment, just so I can feel good about watching this bastard go down in flames.

But once again — that’s the whole point. The First Amendment to protect speech that makes people profoundly angry and upset.

StatueoflibertySee, this case is not just about a delicate legal nitpick. It’s not just about practical political strategy. It’s not even just about the pragmatic, enlightened self-interest desire to protect other people’s First Amendment rights so our own will be protected. This case is about the basic ethical principle of free speech. And it’s about whether we care enough about that principle to defend it, even when it hurts. It’s about whether people have the legal right to say what they want, no matter how vile or upsetting we find it… simply because they do.

Fred_phelps_3So do we really have to defend this guy? Do we really have to stand up and say, “Yes, Fred Phelps has the right to go to funerals and carry signs saying ‘God hates fags’ and “Thank God for dead soldiers’?”

Yes. We do.

We have to stand up and defend anyone who’s trying to communicate an unpopular message that profoundly upsets people. That includes a lot of horrible, evil people with repulsive ideas. But that’s the whole point of the First Amendment. It doesn’t exist to protect popular speech. It doesn’t exist to protect Cute Overload. It exists to protect speech that makes us want to vomit.


True Love Waits
 And The Rest Of Us Get On With Our Sex Lives: The Blowfish Blog

Wedding_and_engagement_ringI have a new piece up on the Blowfish blog — True Love Waits… And The Rest Of Us Get On With Our Sex Lives — about the not-so-joyful joys of waiting until you get married to have sex. The jumping-off point is a letter I saw on Scarleteen (the sex ed for teenagers website), about a couple who had decided for religious reasons not to have sex until after they got married… and found themselves stuck in a marriage with a seriously disappointing, incompatible sex life. Here’s the teaser:

There are so many directions I could go with this. I could talk about the ridiculous over-emphasis our society places on marriage: the absurdly high expectations we place on it, the idealistic glow we place around it, the assumption that it will magically transform everything, including and especially sex. (And that’s speaking as someone who is herself married — ritually, if not legally — and who does think that her marriage has changed both the relationship and the sex for the better.)

And of course, I could get on my atheist high horse, and talk about the fucked-up effect religion so often has on sexual happiness. That would certainly be a fruitful direction. Of all the dreadful sources of sexual misinformation and general bad sex advice in the world, religion has to take the cake — because it can’t be argued with. It isn’t based on evidence, it’s based on scripture and religious authority and personal faith… and it’s therefore singularly resistant to change, to adaptation in response to evidence or data. About sex, or anything else.

But I want to go in a different direction here.

I want to express my gratitude for the fact that I — and most of us — don’t live in that world anymore.

To find out why exactly the whole “waiting for marriage” thing makes me kind of sad — and why exactly I’m grateful for the sexual world I live in — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Blind Watchmaker Makes a Watch: A Nifty Video About Evolution

This is beyond neat.

This gets at both the precision and the beauty of the theory of evolution in a way that’s completely clear, and really fun to watch. (If you’re a nerd like me, anyway.)

It’s an animated video demolishing the “watchmaker” argument for creationism.

Watch_1If you’re not familiar with the “watchmaker” argument, it goes roughly like this: The awesome complexity of the human body proves that it had to have had a designer. It could not have evolved naturally, any more than the parts of a watch will evolve naturally into a watch. (Or, as the more modern version of the argument goes: The complexity of the human body evolving by “chance” or at “random” is as likely as a bunch of machine parts in a hurricane assembling themselves into a 747. “Chance” and “random” in quotation marks, because natural selection isn’t random chance… that’s the whole point.)

The main problem with this argument is this: Of course watches and 747s don’t evolve naturally. They’re not alive. They don’t mutate, and they don’t reproduce.

Clock_partsSo cdk007 (who has a bunch of other evolution videos on YouTube) created a computer program putting a bunch of clock parts together that could combine, mutate, and reproduce; put them in an environment where the ones that kept time the best were more likely to survive; and ran the program. Several times, with an assortment of different parameters such as rate of mutation and number of teeth on the gears, to make sure his parameters hadn’t been accidentally fine-tuned.

And got clocks.

Functioning, accurate clocks.

Several times over.

Transitional_fossilsWhat I really like about this video — apart from just, you know, everything — is how neatly it demolishes the “transitional forms” argument against evolution. You know: “Where are all the transitional forms? Why are there these sudden jumps in the fossil record?” Of course there are transitional forms in the fossil record — lots and lots and lots of them — but there are also some sudden (well, “sudden” by geological standards) jumps. This video makes it very clear, in a vivid, visual way, exactly how and why that happens in a completely natural system of natural selection. If a mutation comes along that’s a very big improvement, it’s going to spread very quickly indeed — so quickly that it probably won’t be captured in the fossil record. Note in this video the rapid transition between the Age of Pendulums and the Age of True Clocks.

BTW, you don’t need sound for this video. There’s a very nice song in the background by Coldplay, but the actual content is all visual. (Not that I’m saying you SHOULD watch it at work…)

Video after the jump, since putting videos before the jump screws up my archives.

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“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be

4rainbow_3“I think the soul is something like a rainbow. It is not a thing in itself, it is a relationship between physical things. The most important of these things is the body, and under all conditions we understand by evidence are possible, the soul dies with the body and sometimes expires before the body.”

This was said by Eric, in a comment in the Daylight Atheism post Emptying the Haunted Air. It struck me very strongly as both beautiful and true, and it crystallized a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately re: consciousness and selfhood. So I wanted to quote it and talk about it a little.

First, I should explain what Eric means about the rainbow. I’ll just quote him again:

Rainbow_2“Without science we might have mistakenly believed a rainbow is a thing just independently out there. It is not. A rainbow is a *relationship* between an observer, a light source, and water vapor.”

In other words, a rainbow isn’t an object or substance. Not in the same way that, say, the sun or rain are.

Yet it exists. Sure, it’s essentially a relationship between light and water and an observer — but that doesn’t make it not real. It’s not an object or a substance, but it is real. It’s an actual phenomenon, one that can be observed and studied.

And the same could be said for consciousness, and selfhood. (What Eric calls the soul; although I don’t like to call it that, since the word has strong metaphysical implications that I don’t like.)

Brain_2I think a lot of people are troubled by the idea of consciousness as “merely” a product of the brain. I certainly was during my woo phase. And not just because I was frightened at the idea of the permanence of death, and desperate for some hope that my consciousness and selfhood might somehow be immortal. It troubled me because it seemed so reductionist, so mechanistic. It seemed to reduce the ineffable amazingness of human existence to a set of biochemical stimulus-response machines. Lumps of meat in a massive Skinner box; dogs salivating at the sound of Pavlov’s bell.

In other words, it made it seem not real.

Phantoms_in_the_brainWhenever I heard or read the idea that consciousness and selfhood were constructs of how the brain worked, it made them seem fake. Illusions, self-deceptions. Stories we told ourselves in order to live.

But now I don’t think that’s true.

NeuronmatrixThe rainbow is essentially a relationship between light and water vapor and an observer. But that doesn’t make it not real. And if consciousness and selfhood are essentially a relationship between the billions and billions of neurons in our brains — and between those neurons and the rest of our bodies, and arguably between our bodies and the rest of the world — that doesn’t make them not real, either. It doesn’t mean that consciousness and selfhood are fake, or illusory, or self-deceptive. They are real constructs of our brains and the rest of our bodies, every bit as real as emotions and ideas and sensations.

Now, while the constructed nature of consciousness and selfhood doesn’t mean that they’re false, it does mean that they’re transitory.

And that, we’re just going to have to suck up.

Alzheimers_disease__mriBecause the evidence is overwhelming that consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain. Everything we know tells us that physical changes to the brain chemistry and/or structure — even very small changes — can make radical changes to our consciousness and selfhood. Illness, injury, drugs (recreational or medicinal)
 all of these can drastically alter consciousness and self, even eradicate them altogether, temporarily or permanently. Talk to a stroke victim, a person with Alzheimer’s, a depressed person on medication, a club kid on Ecstasy, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. And of course, the greatest physical change of all — death — seems, from all the evidence we have, to completely eradicate consciousness and selfhood, very permanently indeed.

Gravestone(Don’t talk to me about near-death experiences. I’ve gone over that at length elsewhere in this blog. Near-death experiences are simply another form of altered consciousness, and if they do sometimes produce an unusual state of mind, it’s no more unexpected than the unusual state of mind produced by sleep deprivation or LSD. Near-death experiences may tell us something about what happens to the mind when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a couple of minutes. They tell us absolutely nothing about what happens to the mind when the brain permanently rots in a grave for years until it crumbles into dust and nothingness.)

JudgementThe evidence is overwhelming, and it’s increasing every day: Consciousness and selfhood are not independent objects or substances. There’s no metaphysical energy, no aura, no invisible self leaving your body on death to ascend to Heaven or burn in Hell or move on to inhabit another body. Consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain and the rest of the body. They change when the body changes, and they disappear when the body dies.

But that doesn’t make them not real.

It doesn’t make them illusions or self-deceptions.

And it doesn’t make them meaningless.

The Usefulness of Anger: No. 864,726

ScreamIn case anyone was still wondering about the usefulness of anger in the atheist movement — or any social movement — I direct you to new blogger Lee of the Stone.

Who was inspired to start her blog by my Atheists and Anger post.

I got (and am still getting) an awful lot of amazing feedback on the Anger piece. But of all of them, this is the one that’s made me the happiest.

She started a blog because of me.

I’m kind of speechless.

And it’s a very good blog. A new one, obviously, since it started about a week ago, but it already has a nice body of smart, interesting, well-written stuff. I encourage y’all to visit — I definitely will be.

Carnival of the Godless #78: Haunted House Edition

CarnivalSo you thought you’d take an innocent visit to the Carnival of the Godless? See the godless sights, ride the godless rides, make yourself pleasantly sick on godless cotton candy?

Your visit is about to take a ghastly turn. Hand in your tickets, step through these gates, and abandon all hope. You are about to enter…


Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Hell_houseThose right-wing haunted houses, with the blood-stained abortions and the same-sex weddings performed by Satan — they have nothing on us. I scoff at them. Ha, I say, and yet again: Ha. We have atheist nightmares far worse than Ray Comfort’s bananas.

Pregnant women, people with heart conditions, and children under four feet tall: please step this way to the simple list format version of the Carnival. No bad imitations of Vincent Price will emerge there to haunt your dreams.

Those of you with the constitution and courage to face the House of Horrors… come this way.

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A Feminist Pioneer in the Digging Industries: My Past Life Diagnosis

Very silly meme up on Pharyngula, one that tells you who you were in your most recent past life based on the day you were born. Several of the Pharyngula commenters got to be prostitutes born in 750, but I got stuck with this:


I don’t know how you feel about it, but you were female in your last earthly incarnation.You were born somewhere in the territory of modern USA North-West around the year 1850. Your profession was that of a digger, undertaker.
Your brief psychological profile in your past life:
Person with huge energy, good in planning and supervising. If you were just garbage-man, you were chief garbage-man.
The lesson that your last past life brought to your present incarnation:
You are bound to learn to understand other people and to meet all difficulties of life with a joyful heart. You should help others by bringing them a spirit of joy.
Do you remember now?

So let me get this straight:

I was a female gravedigger or ditchdigger born in the Pacific Northwest in 1850.

Hm. Didn’t think there were too many of those back then. Even now, I believe the grave- and ditch-digging industries are fairly male-dominated.

It does suggest an enticing second career, though.

But then we have this:

“You should help others by bringing them a spirit of joy.”

Wouldn’t that fit better with the prostitutes born in 750?

I’m just sayin’, is all.

Shameless Blogger Self-Promotion Day!

Computer_keyboardI’m going to be spending most of my blogging time for the next couple of days frantically getting the Carnival of the Godless ready. I’ll have time for a cat blog, maybe, and that’s probably about it until Sunday when I’m hosting the Carnival. (If you want to submit a godless blog post, you have until midnight on Friday.)

So let’s play Shameless Blogger Self-Promotion Day! If you’re a blogger, here’s your chance to do the naughty, and shamelessly promote your blog in the comments. Tell us about your blog, and give a link or two to a recent post or two that you’re particularly proud of.

No commercial content, advertising, sales, marketing, etc. However, if you’re an artist or activist or something, and you don’t have a blog but you have a Website, please feel free to link to that instead. There are a bunch of new people visiting the blog lately, and I’d like to find out more about who you are — and I’d like the new folks to meet the old ones. So go nuts in the comments, and I’ll see you on Sunday with the Carnival!