Posts Tagged ‘free speech’

I haven’t live-tweeted a consciousness-stream of pseudo-philosophical bollocks from the bath in a while. But I did read this article while taking a soak yesterday, and although I kept my pseudo-philosophical bollocks to myself at the time, it irritated me enough to come back to.

Richard Dawkins is being sued for $58 million. The plaintiff claims to be “the only individual on earth in the history of man that has scientifically disproven Evolution”, and reckons that comments Dawkins made in 1989 were a clear and insulting reference to a book this guy published in 2013.

Furthermore, he wants Dawkins to publicly apologize and destroy “by fire or shredding” every publication that includes the statement. So every copy of a New York Times from 1989.

Which is obviously ludicrous, but that’s not even a slightly interesting observation. Creationism is ludicrous, but it’s not utterly incomprehensible. It’s not usually that hard to understand basically what’s going on in the head of someone who believes God created the universe not that long ago. They’re still living in the real world in various important ways, which this guy suing Richard Dawkins emphatically is not.

I mean, look at what he’s saying. Think about how far removed you’d have to be from reality as we know it, to embark on a lawsuit like this. The list of things you have to mistakenly believe – the mountain of basic ideas about how the world works you’d have to fail to understand – in order to act as though a sweeping generalisation made in 1989 was a personal attack on you and your book published in 2013, and that demanding all copies of a decades-old magazine be rounded up and eliminated is a form of redress that could ever possibly be either meaningful or productive – is more than I can get my head around.

This person’s relationship with reality, as far as I can tell, is beyond anything I can conceive of as part of the human experience. I’m not going to start making diagnoses of mental illness over the internet, but you can understand why I’d be tempted.

And this guy’s approach to the world is just as alien to creationists. He is not representative of anyone. He is not further evidence that those kooky god-botherers are all nuts. Most of the folk who agree with him entirely on the matter of evolutionary theory are totally on your side about what a bizarre way this is to try to sue somebody. You remember how your everyday creationists aren’t playing anything like the same game as this guy, right? Most Americans are creationists. Most Americans are not this guy. We’d notice if 60% of a global superpower was this off the page.

But what bugged the hell out of me about this story was something Dawkins’ lawyers said. Now obviously I have no legal qualifications or understanding of anything, and I’ve no idea about the specific details of this case. I’m entirely ignorant of the extent to which it’s important to frame an argument this way or how much they consulted with Dawkins over the precise wording of how they described his intentions. No doubt there are many good reasons that the highly paid experts in their field didn’t act quite how I would have done.

But here’s what Dawkins said in 1989 that’s caused this belated kerfuffle:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

And here’s how these words have been explained by his legal defenders:

It is hyperbole meant to make a point. It does not rise to a level beyond what is decent and tolerable in a civilized society.

They deny elsewhere that he was stating a “fact”, and seem to explain his assertion in terms of rhetoric, as if he’d been obviously exaggerating just to make a stronger point.

But… isn’t it clear that Dawkins meant exactly what he said? The scientific conclusion about the obvious fact of evolution is clear, to the extent that anyone who claims to deny or reject it must be doing so through one of the obvious faults he lists.

This seems to hold up to me. To take his options in a different order, if someone doesn’t accept evolution…

…perhaps they’re evil, and lying about it for some nefarious purpose…

– they might be “insane” for some value of such, and simply be unable to build up a coherent picture of the universe which can contain even obvious truths, due to some badly faulty wiring…

– they might be stupid, which is no doubt the case for many folk who fail to grasp a relatively straightforward concept, or who have some obvious blocks or prejudices that stop them from getting it…

– or, maybe, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that last one’s really the crux of this. “Ignorant” may sound like just an insult, and if you just bristle at it and don’t examine further, you may read Dawkins’s claim as amounting to “only dumb-asses don’t agree with me”. But if you understand it to be pointing out that people who reject evolution simply lack knowledge or understanding, which is all “ignorant” really means, doesn’t that accurately describe them pretty well? How many creationists have you seen convincingly pass an ideological Turing test, and demonstrate that they actually know what it is they’re sure they don’t believe in?

This isn’t to say that providing the information they lack will fix their ignorance – if only anything about human psychology were so straight-forward – but I genuinely think Dawkins had covered all the bases with his original statement, and that it should be read as a literal statement of fact. A statement of fact with room for clarification, certainly, about the use of “ignorant”, and how noting somebody’s lack of knowledge can be a sympathetic judgment, not a harsh and dismissive one. But absolutely a statement of fact.

Maybe there’s some legally useful value to claiming it as “hyperbole”, and to deny that a sizeable demographic were being labelled ignorant or stupid by Dawkins’s comments. Maybe a crucial legal point that will affect how quickly the case can be dismissed rides on it being read that way. But I think it misses a fundamental point about just how settled the science of evolution is. And it’s a real indictment of the state of free speech law, if a frivolous $58 million case can really depend on such an interpretation.


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Hey, it’s Friday night, the weekend is here, and it’s time to paaaaaar-tay, if by paaaaaar-tay you mean find myself largely agreeing with a Christian voice article.

Seriously, I think their objections to the conviction of a street preacher for “delivering homophobic sermons” last year are basically spot on. And while this guy doesn’t sound like someone I’d generally find myself siding with, having the government take action to curtail your free speech in what seems like a pretty clear-cut case of unjust state censorship is the kind of thing that can quickly bring me on board as your ally.

I’m not going to join Stephen Green in praying that the judge in this case will repent and find Jesus, but I am going to keep looking out for chances to defend my principles at the expense of my personal biases. Threatening someone with jail time for speaking his mind in public should feel no less palatable just because I disagree with his message.

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Oh, go on, then. I’ll see if I can muster an opinion about the AtheismPlus Block Bot.

This is a thing you can attach to your Twitter account, which will block certain other people for you automatically. Specifically, the people on this list, compiled by an authorised set of official “blockers”, who are presumed to be useful judges of character when it comes to who’s worth paying attention to on Twitter.

It’s entirely opt-in, obviously. It’s a service that’s available, if you want to pre-emptively avoid some amount of hostility on Twitter. If you know and identify with the community behind it, and trust that your ideas of who’s worth avoiding are likely to synchronise well with theirs, then this will keep those undesirable elements out of your timeline before you ever even have to learn that they exist.

This has the potential to be an absolutely horrible way of engaging with the world.

The blockbot’s most basic aim may be a valuable one: it’s there to help people protect themselves from psychic pain. There are certain attitudes and beliefs with which it can be distressing to even come into contact, and from which it’s quite understandable for someone to wish to shelter themselves.

For instance, someone might have a history of personal experiences which mean that rape jokes serve to greatly emotionally upset them. Consequently, they may wish to steer determinedly clear of anyone who’s made such comments in the past, for fear of encountering further, similar distressing episodes in the future.

(It should, but rarely does, go without saying that this is all entirely possible without infringing on anybody’s freedom of speech. They’re only blocked to you; nobody’s being inhibited from continuing to engage with the world at large.)

Now, I get that psychic pain isn’t fun. I experience it to some small degree from a great deal of online or public discourse, prompted by such things as Republican politicians talking about almost anything, or much of the discussion around “elevatorgate”, or being reminded that Katie Hopkins exists.

But that’s actually a good example of why I try not to shut out all such conversation before it can even reach my sensitive ears. I’ve talked about my reaction to Katie Hopkins before – in particular, about how my own mental discomfort is not in direct one-to-one correspondence with other people being evil and nasty and wrong. Sometimes the stuff you find yourself tending to flinch away from is actually really important for you to take a closer look at, and examine why you have such a strong reaction to it.

It may, in fact, be a very simple answer, much as you first suspected. It may be that certain people on the internet are being deliberately hurtful and insulting, in a way that I find grossly upsetting and offensive. I’m certainly not saying nobody should ever block anyone, or that everyone’s points are always worth listening to. But sometimes there are more interesting things to learn than just “this other person is terrible”. And learning interesting things is something us skeptics are meant to be interested in.

There’s a difference between using the blockbot and, say, deciding that anyone who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old has nothing useful to add to a conversation about evolution. The latter is true, and frankly in that case their opinions can be safely ignored. But this is because their untrue claims have been thoroughly and rationally disposed of, to as great an extent as could possibly be necessary, in a context removed from anyone’s immediate emotional reaction to what they’re saying.

With the blockbot, there’s not a lot of such due diligence going on. It’s a much thinner basis – a single disagreeable tweet, often – on which it’s decided that some individuals have nothing whatever to contribute to any further discussion, on any subject.

It may be going too far to suggest that blockbot users are failing in some sort of moral obligation to pay attention to the rest of the world. They’re not necessarily just shutting themselves off in their own bubble of consistent agreement and line-toeing. But they are giving up a certain intellectual moral high ground. It’s part of an approach to debate which reacts to particular differing viewpoints more viscerally and automatically than would be required by the truly “open-minded” approach that’s generally skeptically espoused.

And it tacitly reinforces the idea that anyone who differs from you on certain intellectual points can’t be part of your group and must be somehow bad. It normalises and delegates the decision of who is other and should be shunned.

This is all starting to sound a bit dramatic. I don’t want to be all that harsh on it. We all choose our filters through which to see the world, and if this is something which you want to have as a part of yours, then knock yourself out. I just think that trying to engage openly and honestly with the people the blockbot targets is exactly what we so often ask of people who see us as offensive and barely human. It’s worth trying to apply it with some consistency ourselves.

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A couple of things following on from yesterday’s post:

Alan Henness noticed an interesting shifting quality of the police reporting on the poppy-burning incident. Essentially, there’s a certain amount of confusion over whether the offense in question was mostly concerned with the arson itself, or the accompanying abusive caption which allegedly accompanied the picture.

According to some reports, the phrase “How about that you squadey cunts” was attached to the photo, and it may have been this which attracted the complaint(s) and gave ground for the arrest. I had read about this yesterday, but decided not to make it a significant point. As far as I can tell, it’s just more discussion about the rape victim’s attire. Yes, it’s a rude and insulting thing to say. I don’t doubt it would cause someone somewhere offence to read those words, and my first thought would be that anyone capable of uttering a phrase like that is likely an obnoxious twat. None of which makes a blind bit of difference to the lunacy of his being arrested over it.

Anyway, a little later Andy linked to another infuriating story about the white poppy. I mentioned the white poppy symbol briefly in my last post. It’s been around almost as long as its red counterpart, and was intended to have a more pacifist emphasis. With the red, some people in this country think it places too much emphasis on British soldiers, to the exclusion of combatants from other countries, and tacitly supports a militaristic mindset. If you want to remember everyone who’s died in war, with the intent of reinforcing ideas such as “Wow, let’s never do any of that again for any reason”, then maybe the white poppy’s for you.

It’s a low-key thing, offered as an alternative or complement to the ubiquitous popular choice. And, according to a candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in Luton, it’s offensive and it desecrates the past.

Seriously, this is exactly what I was talking about yesterday when I mentioned the social compulsion that sometimes exists around the red poppy. In some people’s eyes, if you don’t do things our way, then you’re wrong, an outsider, and your actions are deplorable. If you dare to remember the past and honour the fallen in an unapproved fashion, then you deserve to be harangued and have any public expression of your feelings restricted.

The man who’d been laying a white wreath every Remembrance Day for 24 years, Marc Scheimann, had one English grandfather and one German – they both died in World War II, each with opposite allegiances. Their children, presumably, later married, in a rather glorious example of humanity’s ability to overcome tribal allegiances and hatred, and find common ground and solidarity.

Kevin Carroll didn’t seem interested in any of that. According to Mr Scheimann’s report:

He called me a scumbag and said when he was police commissioner he would make sure I went to jail for this.

This isn’t quite how Kevin Carroll remembers it. In his own words:

It will cause massive offence if Mr Scheimann is not prevented from laying his wreath of white poppies as they symbolise cowardice.

But he was allowed to lay it and then a drunk woman tried to remove it.

Remembrance is to pay honour but he was just there to desecrate it.

Which, frankly, doesn’t make him sound like any less of a dick.

If you’re so uninterested in the sometimes tricky details of reality, that the moment someone deviates from your accepted way of doing things even a little – even so far as to pick a different colour flower by which to remember the past with a slightly different attitude toward foreign affairs – you start to see them as an offensive and dangerous menace whose actions and words need to be suppressed…

…then, well, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence about you. But, wow. You suck.

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And this is totally how grown-ups behave.

He’s finally noticed that in 1987 there was this award-winning photograph called Piss Christ. Don’t ask me why. I don’t understand art, and I don’t understand this.

He’s offended by it, which is not remotely surprising, but also not entirely unreasonable. It’s a symbol of Jesus on the cross submerged entirely in urine. Even if most Christians have more sense than to get particularly riled over it, it’s pretty offensive.

But Bill Donohue’s reaction to it is very confused. First of all, he wants those people who spoke out against that YouTube film which offended Muslims recently to mount a similar defense of Christians:

Where are they when Christians are being offended? We are offended over and over again, through the artistic community, on radio and television, in the movies. Where have these people been? Why don’t they ever speak out against anti-Christian fare?

I suspect the answer is partly to do with the dearth of Christian extremists bombing embassies who officials feel they should mollify, and partly because the overwhelming majority of the USA are still Christians, are in no way a persecuted minority, and are in no actual danger of suffering any serious detriment to their lives because of a few jibes about their belief system.

He then adopted a completely different set of principles, and presented a piece of art of his own creation, in which a doll of Obama is mounted in some fake shit.

It’s not a subtle or complex piece. (Or maybe I still just don’t get art.) But I suspect it honestly expresses the artist’s feelings, in a way likely to offend many people. In this way, perhaps it’s doing exactly what art should do. But the target of the work is in such a position of power or authority that their autonomy and dignity is not remotely threatened by something so weakly subversive.

Bill Donohue has, in fact, chosen to closely emulate the creator of Piss Christ.

You know what? This part kinda doesn’t bother me. Because, in his blindly petulant lashing-out, in his latest childish tantrum against some irrelevancy he’s picked on and inflated to a major injustice against the centre of his own personal universe, he’s actually managed to stumble quite by accident across the right answer.

The solution to bad speech is more speech.

If someone creates something which denigrates you or your ideas, then assuming those ideas have any merit, the only way for you to really lose that fight is to try and forcibly shut them up.

Make some art of your own. Add to the conversation. Don’t try to hush it up.

Bill Donohue’s part of the way there. He knows he ought to have the right to insult Obama and his supporters. He gets why free speech is important when it supports his cause, even if you can just hear him squawking:

“Hey, if you get to do that, I get to do this! Yeah, Obama’s covered in shit! See? Not so fun, is it? How d’ya like your precious free speech now, huh?”

We like it just fine, Bill.

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– No damn President of mine is going to celebrate Kwanzaa. At least, no African President.

– This black kid shouldn’t have run from those cops. It’s “illogical”. I mean, it’s not like they were going to hurt him.

– “Mohammed had a thing for little girls.” Any law which locks people up for saying this is repugnant. Any law which has to resort to the technicality that, because Mohammed stayed with his nine-year-old wife until she was eighteen, such comments constitute “incitement”, is batshit insane. And yes, the law can still go hang if that first sentence was replaced by “The Holocaust never happened”.

– Apparently you can be prevented from taking a plane out of London if you’re in possession of the wrong kind of political literature, on the apparent grounds that you might “upset” the other passengers by passing it around among them. Wow, they’re not even pretending this is about legitimate safety concerns any more.

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But what of my religion? I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance. That is my religion, and every day I am sorely, grossly, heinously and deeply offended, wounded, mortified and injured by a thousand different blasphemies against it. When the fundamental canons of truth, honesty, compassion, and decency are hourly assaulted by fatuous bishops, pompous, illiberal and ignorant priests, politicians and prelates, sanctimonious censors, self-appointed moralists and busy-bodies, what recourse to ancient laws have I? None whatever. Nor would I ask for any. For unlike these blistering imbeciles my belief in my religion is strong and I know that lies will always fail and indecency and intolerance will always perish.

The above words were uttered on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, somewhere around the late 1980s, by Donald Trefusis, Professor of Philology at the University of Cambridge and Extraordinary Fellow of St Matthew’s College. The character of Donald Trefusis was regularly written and performed by Stephen Fry, and I read the above section today amidst a transcript of an essay on blasphemy, in a collection of Fry’s writings called Paperweight.

I’m quoting it here because I don’t think I’ve seen it put better in the years since.

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