Guest blogger Sastra:
When I log into Pharyngula, as a matter of habit I usually glance at the little Recent Comment bar on the side, to see who has just responded to what. It helps to show which threads are particularly lively at the moment. Every now and then there’s someone responding to an “old” post – one that’s been otherwise inactive for days, weeks, months, or, in very rare cases, years. Given the recent major fuss caused by “Crackergate,” we can still notice the occasional newcomer weighing in on the contents of PZ’s kitchen garbage can. Presumably they’ve followed one of the many links still hanging around out there. The cracker threads are not quite ready to die.
I don’t think the issue and its moral ramifications (or the interest in them) are quite finished and over yet, either, so – here ya go — I’m going to bring it up again. Those who are sick and tired of the topic may lightly skip to the next post.
I have, like most (though not all) of the regular Pharyngulites, been – by and large – supportive of PZ’s action, and the rationale behind it. However, I think it’s simplistic to see this as a simple issue, which is easy to explain or defend. There are some good, hard, and reasonable points on the other side, as well as arguments which sound reasonable, but are only superficially plausible. But, judging by the continued reactions, our replies and responses are not always getting through, and we can’t just assume it’s because the other guys aren’t listening. I don’t know — maybe a new approach might help.
So I thought it might be interesting then to take another stab at trying to explain the why behind it, by coming at it from a different perspective.
Context is crucial, and, as most of us have noticed, PZ’s critics often leave out the context, the whole Cook/Donahue thing that started it off. They seem to have this image of PZ standing up in class one day, poking a hole in the cracker, and thence declaring that there is no God after all – just like in the infamous “atheist professor and the chalk” story, but without the happy ending where God interferes and keeps the chalk from breaking, or, in this case, I guess, makes the wafer start bleeding. A few of the atheists appear to be framing it this way as well, as a refutation of the existence of God (approvingly, or disapprovingly.) No, it’s not that. At least, that’s not how I see it.
One of the most common methods of trying to convince someone they’ve made a moral error is through analogy: how would YOU feel in a similar situation, one that was only slightly altered to fit into your own feelings and prejudices? If you would not want it done to you, then you should not do it to others. This is usually a pretty reasonable approach which most people intuitively relate to. Unless you can put yourself in someone else’s place, you’re not going to understand why their reasons are reasonable, for you as well as them. And, of course, Pharyngula has seen more than its share of analogies from the Catholic side – some of them downright bizarre (cough*cough*Rooke*cough) and some of them simply inapplicable. Many of them miss the point by leaving out the context.
So I’m going to try out a new analogy – a hypothetical — which both focuses on the context, and takes the situation out of the comfort zone of the typical Pharyngulite. No, it’s not the same situation in many respects – there are significant differences – but it’s a similar situation with altered variables; in this case, a different sacred cow, and a different offended group. I’m curious as to whether the people here think it works, and agree with my conclusion. It would be especially interesting to see if anyone who was and is offended by the desecration now sees a commonality where they didn’t see it before.
What if it had been this way:
A devout Christian student at a public university named Winslow Cork goes to an on-campus meeting of the Gay-Lesbian Support Group. He accepts the rainbow pin they give him, and then, when they ask him to tell his story, he announces that he is a Christian, and he is going to support them by warning them that homosexuality is a sin, and that those who don’t repent will burn in hell. He contemptuously turns the pin upside down, puts it on, and leaves.
Reaction is swift – and intense. This particular gay support group doesn’t just call him a snot and yell at him to never come back. They swing into action. Cork’s name is publicized, and he is accused of being a bigot, and worse. His actions are compared to the murder of Matthew Shepard, and what the Nazis did. The argument is that people who are often victimized have been attacked, and therefore it should be treated as a serious attack. The campus gay rights activists demand that Cork be charged with a hate crime, and expelled from the university. After all, he violated the sanctuary of those who are understandably sensitive to such violations. Cork is inundated with hate mail, starts getting death threats, and returns the rainbow pin, hoping things will calm down.
Instead, a nationally syndicated gay rights columnist joins in, and, rather than expressing horror over the death threats, only escalates the matter. This kid and his disrespectful, hate-filled religious viewpoint should not be expressed in an America where all citizens respect each other. Religion should be a purely private matter, kept behind closed doors. Speaking out and hurting the feelings of those who prefer the same sex by telling them they’re damned to hell is un-American. It violates their rights. This incident will be used to send a message, and hopefully get the law involved.
In another university, a humanities professor named XY Nyers reads about this, and is appalled. He’s a Christian, and is furious at the over-reaction. Enough is enough. There is no right to not be offended by religion. Whether Cork should have gone into that room or not, informing gay people that the Bible condemns them should not be considered criminal hate speech, or treated like an act of violence. This point needs be made, and forcefully. He then vows on his popular website to film himself reading Leviticus out loud while he breaks apart a Gay-Lesbian Support Group rainbow pin – and he does it.
Cue more hysterical reaction from the same faction of the gay rights crowd. This professor clearly should not be teaching – how could he possibly be fair to his gay students? He needs to respect others, no matter what their sexual orientation – and that means keeping his offensive opinions private, both in class and in his personal life. There are death threats and brow-beating and people asking why, WHY this professor would do this? It’s gratuitously insulting, and only makes him look like a kook, and Christians look like bigots. He knew damn well it would hurt others, and piss people off, and result in death threats. Is pissing that many people off to make his point worthwhile?
I say yes. In this case, under these circumstances, it would be worth it. And I am an atheist who is in favor of gay rights, and want people to be sensitive and respectful to different sexual orientations. But I deliberately chose a protagonist and story I have less sympathy for, to illustrate that it’s not simply about rooting for a “side.” You have to take context into account.
If I didn’t think the over-reaction to Cork’s rudeness was unjustified, and if I could not support, understand, and even respect Prof. Nyers’ actions IN CONTEXT — then I would not be doing the same for PZ Myers. And if I accept that Myers can still be a fair and respectful teacher, then I would accept the same with Nyers. Absent other evidence, and given the situation, there is no reason to think otherwise.
And it should apply both ways.
As I see it, the fundamental matter is not simply a clash of “world views.” Professor Myers and Professor Nyers could theoretically both be Unitarians, with beliefs unknown – and still do the same thing, and still be right to do so. It should not be about which side is getting their ox gored, or who is getting their panties in a twist. The real issue at stake isn’t crackers, or gay rights, or religion, or the importance of showing ‘respect.’
It’s about the importance of not always showing kid-glove respect, and of keeping our sense of proportion, and knowing the difference between someone attacking what you do or believe, and someone attacking you. And I think that’s worthwhile, from every vantage point.