Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Life Imitates Pembroke...or Something Like That

by Joe Miller

I wrote a bit last week about freedom of speech here at UNCP. I haven't, to date, said anything much about the farce turned tragedy that is the fundamentalist Islamic response to the publication of "blasphemous" cartoons by newspaper. The truth is that while I thought about posting on it earlier, I'm really not sure what there is to say that I didn't just cover in the earlier post. Indeed, everything that needs saying has been said by others already. Patri Friedman points out the hypocrisy of Europeans who champion free speech when doing so offends Muslims but who make things such as Holocaust denial a crime. Andrew Sullivan argues quite extensively that real freedom of speech requires that people be permitted to say awful and offensive things. That's just how liberalism works.

As for the violence that has resulted, well, really, what is there to say? My post on protesting creationists already argued that protesting ideas is pretty dumb. If your ideas really can't stand up to any sort of outside criticism, then perhaps it's time for you to reconsider your ideas. When your protests turn to actual violence? Well, at that point you're just not playing the reason game any longer. Killing people over ideas is wrong (see Vietnam or 9/11). Killing people for saying things that you don't like is pretty abhorrent.

So what prompted me to post on this topic anyway? Well, frankly, after I read this post from Keith Burgess-Jackson, I was annoyed. Money quote:
Many leftists don't know what to make of the Muslim violence. To condemn it would be to take a stand, and that seems so, well, grown-up and old-fashioned...To take a stand would require careful thought and moral backbone, neither of which is conspicuous by its presence among leftists.
So besides finding this sort of unsubstantiated name-calling and invective-hurling to be rather unseemly coming from a fellow-philosopher (and of course ironic coming from someone who started a whole website dedicated to pointing out that another philosopher runs a blog that consists of unsubstantiated name-calling and invective-hurling), I mostly found it irritating because it meant that, having now been double-dog-dared to write a post condemning Muslim violence in the face of free speech, I'd have to take out an hour of my time and actually put some words down on a page.

Here it is, then. Violence is wrong unless used in response to aggressive violence. Liberalism is good, period. There may be some better system of government out there, but no one has discovered what that is yet. If your culture rejects liberalism, then so much the worse for your culture. If your culture is mired in a medieval mindset that insists that you and you alone have a lock on truth and that violence is an acceptable response to those whose beliefs differ, then you are wrong. Period. Relativism be damned. We tried that sort of thing in the West for a long time. Guess what? It didn't work. Liberalism is better. Sorry that Westerners found it first. We also split the atom first and discovered the structure of DNA first. That doesn't make nuclear physics or genetics "Western sciences". It just means that the we got to the Truth first. It's not that the West is somehow inherently better. It's just that once we stopped stoning people for adultery, checking Burqas for adequate coverage, and plotting to drive the Jews into the sea, we had a lot of extra time on our hands.

Unfortunately, this is probably pointless. I'm not really a leftist, at least as I understand the right's use of that term, so I doubt that Professor Burgess-Jackson would think that this post counts. Indeed, I find it irritating that the left has been so deeply infested with the whole capitalism-is-awful-look-at-these-charmingly- different-cultures-oops-they-blew-up-a-building-but-I'm-sure- that's-just-in-response-to-awful-capitalism meme. Whatever happened to the Kennedy liberals (Jack and Bobby that is)? You know, the liberals who were willing to stand up and say, "We believe in these values and while you might reject them, you can reject them only so far before we say 'enough'"?

So, again, maybe pointless, but regardless, I feel better. And what is a blog for if not for some combination of ego-stroking and cheap therapy? Plus, if Dr. Geller happens to read this post, it'll make up for a whole multitude of other sins.


Anonymous Mark Amerman said...

"I'm not really a leftist, at least as I understand the right's
use of that term, so I doubt that Professor Burgess-Jackson
would think that this post counts."

Well, exactly. As I was reading your post I was about
to make a comment to that effect only to see that you
perceive it yourself.

12:43 AM  
Anonymous Steven Stewart said...

"I'm not really a leftist, at least as I understand the right's use of that term..."
Dr. Miller, I think that you are a leftist, so were you being facetious with your claim quoted above? When one delineates the qualities of members belonging to the left and to the right, you clearly fall in the left ideology -- quite left, though admittedly not an extremist. In a practical sense, lefism is synonymous with liberalism, and it is understood as such by the general masses. It is also widely regarded as the antithesis of rightist (or right-wing) ideologies and conservatism. So please enlighten me further to your understanding of the right's use of that term. Thank you.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...


as i understand it, 'leftist' and 'liberal' are not really synonyms, though they are often used as such by the right. 'leftists' are generally, i think, considered to be those who are heavily influenced by post-modernist or marxist ideology. so the stereotype of the leftist would be that he/she is a reflexive critic of capitalism, someone who worries about cultural, economic, or political hegemony, a borderline cultural relativst, etc. folks like edward said, cornel west, stanley fish and richard rorty would seem to fall under the leftist label.

that position constrasts with liberalism, or at least with the modernist, enlightenment liberalism of kant or mill, who endorse certain universal moral truths and who claim that those truths are binding on everyone regardless of culture. i fall quite squarely in this camp along with folks like john rawls or ronald dworkin.

the modern democratic party consists of a mixture of leftists and liberals. the leftists get all the attention, largely because they are the ones making all the wacky and obviously false claims.

my beef with the right is not that they pick on leftists. many leftists deserve to be picked on. nor is my beef even with the fact that the right picks on the moonbat leftists while ignoring the wingnut rightists (paging James Dobson and Pat Robertson). Rather, the real irritation is that the right picks out the looniest wing of the democratic party and then attempts to tar everyone on the left with the nuttiness of the worst of its elements. to be fair, the left is often guilty of asserting that everyone on the right is a christian fundamentalist, and i dislike that just as much. there are some very smart people who are politically to the right, (warning: snarky comment ahead) there just aren't many of them in elective office.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Have to agree with Joe. (damn)
Though he is farther to the left than I am (me being one of those "fairly" smart poitically to the right people(not in elected office)), he doesn't belong in the leftist category.
On to the cartoons:
When a five year old throws a temper tantrum because he can't have gummi bears for dinner, is the solution to feed him gummi bears or make him sit at the table until he eats his dinner. To teach the extremist Muslims how to live in the modern world, one has to set the rules for social interaction (free speech, free thought, rights of women, etc.)and enforce them. This goes back to the appeasement paper just written by Steven. It doesn't work. example: it is also offensive to Muslims to eat pork, does this mean the rest of the world has to give up bacon? or do fundamentalists just have to deal with it? Also, the excuse for not portraying the image of Mohammed is that it may lead to image worship...I don't think derogatory cartoons would have that effect do you?
Then there is the whole hypocrisy thing: Muslim cartoons of Rabbis eating babies, etc.

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Wow, yeah. I've been doing what I could to ignore the whole cartoon issue for as long as I could. I would like to make a quick statement though.
I'd like to let all the folks that believe that the Internet is some new world that is nothing like the 'real world' should sit up and take notice. This whole "Free Speech Showdown" that is going on is almost identical to the moronic arguments that take place on blogs and message boards all across the internet. People talking past one another, people making blanket statements about things they know nearly nothing about... you get the picture.

I'm starting to think that idealism -in both the German sense with a big "I" and the ideological sense- are, almost, nothing but trouble.

Joe, I think you've got a pretty good handle on the whole thing. As for the fellow philosophers who cherry-pick when they are going to resort to reason... just remember: "Winning an argument on the Internet is just like winning the Special Olympics... you're still retarded."

ps... blogspot SuXorZ

12:04 PM  
Blogger Andreas Broscheid said...

I almost completely agree with your post, particularly the first sentences -- there isn't much to add to the debate, we are just staring at the scenery with our mouths open, scared. But I think vaccillation is understandable: We can join the fight, buy Danish and print the cartoons (and draw more), knowing that we're better than the hords of intolerants who burn embassies etc. But this does not solve the conflict -- we have to either win or back down, and it's not clear how to do one or the other.

The right, not only the left, vaccillates -- just see how conservatives in the US (W!) and Europe (Angie!) criticize the cartoons.

I think they actually may have a point, if you draw a distinction between legal and ethical standards: Legally the cartoonists, Andrew Sullivan, et al. are absolutely correct: The right to free expression is a legal right that has to be defended, and it can be justified on a variety of bases -- natural law, its function in a democracy, etc. (you notice that I'm not a philosopher, so I extract myself quickly from those justifications). Ethically (and correct me if I don't use the term in the correct sense), however, there is an understanding that we may not unnecessarily insult others. (This rule actually seeps into legal prohibitions -- fighting words are not necessarily constitutionally protected, e.g.)

Legally, the cartoonists may be right, ethically, they may be wrong. But the latter depends on an evaluation whether they are actually offensive (note that some of the clearly offensive cartoons involved in the affair had never been published) and whether the substantive argument made by the cartoons has to be made in an offensive manner. These questions cannot and should not be solved by law, but they should be the center of the public debate.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...


Good points. I tried, though less articulately, to make just that sort of distinction in my post on the biology protest. I think that it's worth asking whether or not Jyllands-Posten should have published the cartoons or whether they should have perhaps asked for different cartoons. It strikes me that the editors likely would not have run cartoons showing rabbis eating babies, to use Rick's example. Nonetheless, as consistent liberals (in the broad sense), we have to defend free speech however distasteful or inappropriate we might find it.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Andreas Broscheid said...

I (partly?) agree. We have to defend -- tooth and nail -- the *right* to publish the cartoon of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank (to choose another example that probably violates German law...). But at the same time, we have to relentlessly criticize -- and demonstrate against -- those who have the cheek to publish it. You can't have one without the other.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I agree. We should not go out of our way to insult Muslims. No more pictures of women in newspapers who are not wearing burkhas! No advertisements for alcohol or ham! No more allowing Jews to exist! No more calling suicide bombers terrorists! And don't, for any reason, associate any of these things with Islam!
(a little sarcasm)

9:25 AM  

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