© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

My fundamentalism

stonetabletI am a fundamentalist.

No, this isn’t one of those glib non-confessional confessions ( “If loving my country too much is a crime, then I’m guilty as sin!”). I think fundamentalism, even in the name of something good, is a bad thing.

Fundamentalism is best described as the uncompromising adherence to a set of basic principles. Adhering to principles isn’t the sticking point. It’s the uncompromising part that presents the problem — the unwillingness to allow any other concerns into the discussion lest they distract from a laserlike focus on your guiding light.

My particular fundamentalism is free expression. I’ve become convinced that it is an essential good to be protected at all costs. Some people take this as a license to act badly, and I wish they wouldn’t, but their lack of judgment shouldn’t trammel this good and glorious thing, which in the end, torpedoes be damned, leads to a better future for everyone.

If you doubt that this is a kind of fundamentalism, read that paragraph again, changing “free expression” to “Christianity” or “Islam” or “the love of my country.” First principles are fine, but nothing should ever get exclusive control over our decisionmaking.

Free expression has defined a large portion of my adult life. My college teaching career was ended as a direct result of a free expression issue. As a result of this and other experiences, I tend to see free speech issues in fairly black-and-white terms.

It was my free-expression fundamentalism that led me last week to support Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. I looked at the issue, checked my free-speech compass, and BOOM, knew what was right.

But critics of EDMD have cited several concerns that they say should have shared the stage with free speech issues in this case, among them:

– That the existing atmosphere of general hostility toward Muslims is only exacerbated by the event;
– That the event represents a powerful majority attacking a less powerful minority;
– That moderate Muslims are unfairly attacked along with the extremists, increasing distance at precisely the time we need to be decreasing it;
– That “diluting the fatwa” is meaningful only in the abstract, and actually increases the chance of harm coming to those who most prominently depicted Muhammad;
– That many who participated took the opportunity to create intentionally obscene or demeaning images of Muhammad, and that this was inevitable;
– and more.

Not all of the arguments are equally good, and some are irrelevant (including at least one of those above, in my humble). The canard that the event represented “offense for the sake of offense” is the weakest of all, an assertion that really means, “I haven’t taken the time to figure out your point, so I’ll declare it nonexistent.” I think just about any argument that includes the avoidance of “offense” as its driving principle is hollow and misguided. Finally, I am still troubled by the assertion that those who participated out of ignorant or hateful motives irreparably taint those who did not.

But I’m also becoming more pragmatic in my dotage, and outcomes matter as much to me as abstract principles. (Those who have never thrown your entire family under the wheels of your principles may not know where I’m coming from, and that’s okay. My 30-year-old self agrees with you.)

In addition to some thoughtful opinion pieces, several people have offered convincing analogies. “There are campaigns to remove Mark Twain’s books from school libraries [because of the use of the word ‘nigger’],” said FB friend Bruce Ayati. “Would a campaign to use that racial slur, only to prove you can, be the right thing to do?” Not bad.

“Given the position of atheists in this country,” he continued, “it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening to us, where an Angry Atheist somewhere does something terrible, and we are all subjected to undeserved hostility in the name of ‘standing up’ to us and the supposed threat we pose to this country.”

Damn, that’s a good one. Damn.

The best of these and other arguments, offered by smart and articulate people, slapped me out of my hypnotic free-expression trance long enough to first confuse the issue for me, then to lead me to a change of mind. I’m now of the opinion that EDMD was not the right thing to do, and will in the end have done more harm than good. I still defend the right to do it, of course, and especially support those who are working so hard to do it right.

Considered in glorious isolation, the free-expression question was always open and shut. But nothing in human life exists in isolation, and a more thorough consideration of the context has led me to change my position. Not with 100 percent certainty. Anyone who registers complete certainty in a case like this is hereby invited to have a very nice day indeed, and my you’re looking fit.

And as before, and as always, I may be wrong. Most important, I continue to offer my strong support to those who choose to participate. How can I not, with articulate and thoughtful supporters like this?

[Thanks as well to commenters nonplus and yinyang and my old friend Scott M. for their part in slapping me awake.]

Anyone else have a principle so beloved that it sometimes blinds you to other considerations?

Comments

comments

This was written on Monday, 24. May 2010 at 13:50 and was filed under critical thinking, eating crow, Kerfuffles, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

Du hast die Möglichkeit einen Kommentar zu hinterlassen.

«  –  »

Comments »

  1. I hear you on challenging your own fundamentalist ideas. BUT…does believing in freedom of expression necessitate supporting all expression? I don’t think so. One can comprehend the reasons behind, say, drawing Muhammed, as well as the reasons why it might be unwise to participate in this event, and even disapprove of participation and encourage others not to participate…all while still supporting freedom of expression. You’re not calling for the entire event to be forcibly shut down, right?

    Recently my city was visited by members of the hate group Westboro Baptist Church. As much as I recognize the humanity of each of those members and will defend their right to say whatever they wish to say, I wish they wouldn’t make that choice, and I absolutely believe in standing up for (and beside) the people at which they fling their hatred. Freedom of expression? Absolutely. Freedom for me to disagree with and actively work against their agenda without blocking their own freedoms? You bet.

    Comment: spark – 24. May 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  2. There’s a lot of food for thought here, Dale, and I respect your willingness to change your mind. I currently still feel that EDMD did some good, but you’ve certainly made me think again, and I’ll probably still be thinking about it tomorrow.

    By chance, a recent photo online seems quite apposite here, particularly given spark’s comments about the WBC…

    http://lolgod.blogspot.com/2010/05/im-with-stupid-best-sign-to-bring-along.html

    Comment: macronencer – 24. May 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  3. @spark:

    You’re not calling for the entire event to be forcibly shut down, right?

    (*shudder*) Gourd no!

    One can comprehend the reasons behind, say, drawing Muhammed, as well as the reasons why it might be unwise to participate in this event, and even disapprove of participation and encourage others not to participate…all while still supporting freedom of expression.

    Heck yeah! We’re in exact agreement.

    Comment: Dale – 24. May 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  4. I’m not so sure that all of the “problems” that are listed are really problems. You suggest that you agree with that stance, but didn’t really pick out which ones. In caps below, my thoughts:

    – That the existing atmosphere of hostility toward Islam is only exacerbated by the event;
    SO LONG AS THE HOSTILITY IS NON-VIOLENT, I’VE GOT NO PROBLEM WITH THIS. AS INFIDELS, WE ARE ALWAYS GOING TO BE HOSTILE TOWARDS BELIEVERS. IMO, A BIT *MORE* (NON-VIOLENT) HOSTILITY IS WARRANTED.

    – That the event represents a powerful majority attacking a less powerful minority;
    GIVEN THAT THE SUPPOSEDLY “POWERLESS” MINORITY IS CAUSING MAJOR US TELEVISION NETWORKS TO CENSOR THEMSELVES, I’M NOT SURE I BUY THIS ONE.

    – That moderate Muslims are unfairly attacked along with the extremists, increasing distance at precisely the time we need to be decreasing it;
    MODERATE MUSLIMS (IMO) GAVE THIS CRITIQUE AWAY WHEN THEY DID NOT VOCIFEROUSLY DENOUNCE THE VIOLENCE ADVOCATED BY THEIR MORE DOGMATIC AND FUNDAMENTALIST FELLOW MUSLIMS.

    – That “diluting the fatwa” is meaningful only in the abstract, and actually increases the chance of harm coming to those who most prominently depicted Muhammad;
    AND IF WE DON’T DRAW HIM, THE TERRORISTS WIN. THIS ONE SEEMS THE MOST SCARY BUT MOST NECESSARY.

    – That many who participated took the opportunity to create intentionally obscene or demeaning images of Muhammad, and that this was inevitable;
    UNFORTUNATE. BUT IS IT DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT THAN, SAY, THE CRUCIFIX SUSPENDED UPSIDE DOWN IN URINE AS ART?

    As a final thought, I just don’t buy this:

    “Given the position of atheists in this country,” he continued, “it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening to us, where an Angry Atheist somewhere does something terrible, and we are all subjected to undeserved hostility in the name of ’standing up’ to us and the supposed threat we pose to this country.”

    Comment: mlaporte1 – 24. May 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  5. “AND IF WE DON’T DRAW HIM, THE TERRORISTS WIN.”

    @mlaporte1: The unspoken assumption of this Bush-esque sentence is that if we do draw him, the terrorists somehow lose. If we alienate Muslim moderates (many of whom are speaking up against extremism, by the way, and at great personal risk), it’s hardly a loss for radical Islam. But again, I am quite sympathetic to your position — just 60-40 against it in this case.

    Comment: Dale – 24. May 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  6. Interesting take Dale. I actually opposed the idea of EDMD when it was first making the rounds because of many of the reasons you just mentioned. However, due to your previous well thought out and rational defence of it I changed my mind and supported the idea behind it. I find it highly ironic now that you have changed your mind.

    Comment: jcornelius – 24. May 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  7. @jc: Sorry for the whiplash. I still think the idea is quite defensible. But when in doubt, as I now am, I prefer to err on the side of caution.

    Comment: Dale – 24. May 2010 @ 8:45 pm

  8. You asked, “Anyone else have a principle so beloved that it sometimes blinds you to other considerations?”

    Yeah. I’m feeling regret about reacting with a shot of verbal hostility to a fundamentalist Christian relative who sent me a fear/decisiveness-infused chain letter via email.

    Even though I assured them that I love them (but don’t share their beliefs and find aspects of their lifestyle offensive), they never responded back. I fear that the relationship is irreparably damaged and the consequences might be harsh in the form of ostracism from that part of the family (50+ people!).

    I wished I would have expressed myself in a more personal way via a phone call.

    I know I was well within my right to request that certain boundaries be respected, but I could have been more sensitive (even if they weren’t capable of it themselves) and perhaps things wouldn’t feel as uncomfortable as they do now.

    This was a case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

    Comment: bookofchange – 24. May 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  9. Interesting thoughts on this Dale. I too have been thinking a lot about this topic since Blasphemy Day.

    CFI’s Blasphemy Day made me think hard about these nuances of free speech, or more specifically when to exercise one’s free speech. I felt more and more uncomfortable with it as I saw the submissions and heard some people talk about how they could out do each other’s blasphemy. In all, the event was not bringing out the best in people, and some of what I saw was just plain disgusting. The analogy I came up with was that while I support the rights of neo-Nazis to do their marches and make their speeches, I definitely do not want to nor need to join in their rallies to support free speech. While not nearly as ugly and hate-filled as a neo-Nazi rally, CFI’s Blasphemy Day was not something I could be proud of being a part of. So I ignored all the invites to celebrate the day or “like” the event.

    A few months later came the student group chalkings of Muhammad, stick figures to be specific. This was different in two ways, and so I supported it. First, they were going out of their way to be as inoffensive as possible while still getting the message across. They contacted the student Muslim groups and explained their intentions first, and they purposely drew simple stick figures. I did not see hate or disgust in this. Second, I think Islam in particular really needs to be desensitized a bit to criticism if it is ever to integrated into a pluralistic society. I am disturbed greatly by the reaction to the Danish cartoons, and I am bothered quite a bit by our self-censorship in special regards to Islam above all other religions. That has to change, and I see no way for it to happen except by a bit of exposure therapy.

    When the EDMD came around, I was more conflicted. While I still feel Islam deserves criticism and Muslims on the whole (of course I can not speak of ALL Muslims) need to be less hyper-sensitive for their religion to be compatible with life in a pluralistic society, I did not like the approach. While some cartoons were quite benign, others were getting very disturbing. As opposed to the stick figure chalkings, I think the motives of many were less pure. I saw hate and anger on that facebook page, though not from all. Anyway, I decided I could not support that event on my facebook page without a 2 page disclaimer and instead just ignored all the requests.

    The funny thing is that after seeing how unabashedly supportive of the event you were earlier, I almost changed my mind. I thought if even Dale is supporting it, maybe I am missing something.

    Comment: SkepGeek – 24. May 2010 @ 9:54 pm

  10. Being somewhat conflicted myself over EDMD, I’ve greatly enjoyed these posts, Dale. I’ll no doubt be reading this one more than just once!

    That said, I’m not quite sure I agree with the strength of Bruce’s argument.

    I recognize there are good arguments against EDMD (some of which you’ve mentioned above), and while I’m still on the fence about it I’m still leaning towards considering it worthwhile.

    Bruce said…

    “…an Angry Atheist somewhere does something terrible, and we are all subjected to undeserved hostility in the name of ’standing up’ to us and the supposed threat we pose to this country.”

    At first, I shared your response: Damn. But then two things bothered me.

    1. Hostility and offense are different things.

    Hostile – “characterized by enmity or ill will”; “impossible to bring into friendly accord”; etc.

    “Can one drawn Mohammad without hostility?” I certainly think so. While many depictions of Muhammad on EDMD were hostile, doing it wrong doesn’t make the original endeavor a bad idea.

    2. “Atheist does something terrible” is very different than “Atheist does something terrible in the name of alleged core atheistic beliefs.”

    Imagine a small, fringe group of extremist atheists that did indeed threaten our country, and claimed loudly that there actions and motivations were justified by core atheistic ideals as found in the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Hume, etc. — and that provoking atheists would be “(ahem) unwise”? Would it be so wrong for a large portion of society to protest — or rather, draw a line in the sand — by defying them and explicitly offending atheists with a single (albeit very offensive) gesture?

    I’m failing to see exactly how such a response (1) isn’t justifiable given the threats, and why (2) it must unavoidably be done with hostility?

    In the end, I think I’m most swayed by pragmatism — doing it wrong might not make it a bad idea, but it’s more than enough to call the whole thing (at a minimum) unsuccessful.

    Best,
    Paul

    Comment: obsciguy – 24. May 2010 @ 10:19 pm

  11. So “freedom of expression is a *good* thing” bumps up against “can you hear me now?”.

    Maybe the main reason that this has turned into such a rich and complex problem is that it’s actually one of those ideas that Dan Dennett calls a “universal acid”. In “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, of course, he’s refering to Evolution by Natural Selection. An idea that, once introduced, won’t stay in its container, but burns its way right out, up, down, and all the way out to the edges. Natural selection is an idea like that in a way that, say, the Heliocentric Theory, wasn’t( which explains, partly, the vastly greater vitriol that Natural Selection has inspired as opposed to the Heliocentric Theory). Universal Suffrage is another idea like that, I think (“Universal Suffrage! Yes! For *all* the rich white guys, not just some of them!….what? what do women have to do with Universal Suffrage?…you get the idea).

    Very possibly Freedom of Expression is one of those Universal Acid-type of ideas. As it burns its way out of its original container (i.e.–the freedom of the people to speak out against the government, a way to keep power in the hands of the people and a check against national government becoming too strong), it touches other areas–art, religion, libel and slander laws….where does it stop? Can it stop, or be stopped? Should it be stopped?

    The other point, which I alluded to in the opening statement of this comment, is that there’s a way to do Freedom of Speech, and a way *not* to do Freedom of Speech, and it has very much to do with what Dale has been talking about in the “Can You Hear Me Now” series. The notion that lines of communication get clogged up by “expression” in the form of finger pointing, blaming, “nyah-nyah”, name-calling, angry epithets, you-did-it-to-me-so-i’m-going-to-do-it-to-you,…Dale touched on any number of these kinds of “expression” or “communication” that are mainly just finger-jabs in the eye, or simply so blaring that they cause the people who are supposed to be listening to plug their ears. My point, which is coming right along here, is that there should be ( or we have to find) a way to discuss ideas that are important to us without alienating the person (or group) who just doesn’t get why we think our idea is the right one, and their idea needs adjusting.

    This particular case (EDMD) is hard, because humor so often is one of the *best* ways to do that (Dale, for example, is good at it:)). Unfortunately (and I say this as a person who speaks four languages), humor is one of those things that doesn’t always translate well. And since this effort was directed across international (and language) boundaries, it probably won’t have the intended effect(get the other side to see how unreasonable they are) and could have unintended negative effects (really piss them off so that they simultaneously stick their fingers in their ears and punt something smelly this way).

    Ahh–human tribal life in the Information Age…

    Comment: yokohamamama – 24. May 2010 @ 11:22 pm

  12. There’s a well written piece in the June/July 2010 Free Inquiry titled “Diplomats and Rabble Rousers” that addresses the larger issue of why atheism needs both types of supporters to gain a greater foothold in society.

    Comment: codysmom – 25. May 2010 @ 5:49 am

  13. So “freedom of expression is a *good* thing” bumps up against “can you hear me now?”

    Oh, it’s Yokohamamama for the WIN!

    Thanks to everyone for chiming in. To those who continue to support EDMD, know that I agree with most of your arguments wholeheartedly. My head hurts so good.

    Comment: Dale – 25. May 2010 @ 7:36 am

  14. I have to disagree with Dale on this one.

    Assume 100 billion people have lived on earth since the dawn. I can draw a picture of 99,999,999,999 of them without causing offense. The fact that drawing one, and only one, causes offense indicates that certain people are going out of their way to be offended.

    I agree that people should not needlessly cause offense but the offended Muslims need to grow up. A respectful picture of Muhammad is respectful. A silly picture of Muhammad is silly. An offensive picture of Muhammad is offensive. It should be ignored or countered with appropriate words.

    As long as a significant minority of Muslims favors violence in response to a picture, freedom loving people need to act. Appeasing the violent only encourages more violence and erodes our freedoms. We need to ridicule the thin-skinned and take back our freedom of expression. This was the best idea that I have heard.

    Comment: curtis – 25. May 2010 @ 6:54 pm

  15. Curtis: Disagreement is not the slightest problem, of course — but you’re arguing against a position I haven’t taken. To quote my post, “I think just about any argument that includes the avoidance of ‘offense’ as its driving principle is hollow and misguided.” I even agree that the prohibition is ridiculous, especially since those who insist on it don’t even know that the original reason for it was to prevent exactly what they are doing. I agree with everything you said…in the abstract.

    New question: What is the RESULT of violating this ridiculous prohibition in this way? Does it alienate moderate Muslims? It does. Should it? No. Does our nuanced free-speech argument register in most of the Islamic world? No, it does not. It is seen as a bare-faced attack. Is that fair or sensible? Not at all. Does that change the facts? No.

    Insisting that they need to “grow up” is all very well. Adapting one’s actions to the real world, a world in which not everyone does what they should, is even better. I agree that something must be done about the threat to free expression. I do not agree that EDMD, for all the poetry and correctness you and I so clearly see in it, did more good than harm to the very things we are trying to achieve. But I fully understand why you think otherwise.

    Comment: Dale – 25. May 2010 @ 7:30 pm

  16. Dale:
    I agree with everything you say except the conclusion. You say “something must be done about the threat to free expression“ but you do not say what that “something” should be. I say “something MUST be done about the threat to free expression NOW”. Allowing veiled threats to continue to intimidate us is not an accceptable option.

    The best idea I have heard is EDMD. If you have an idea that is better idea than EDMD, I will support it. For five years, freedom lovers have done nothing but wring their hands. We MUST do something and EDMD is a good start.

    Long hair and earrings for men used to be frowned upon. Tattoos and piercings were outrageous. Now they are accepted because they are everywhere. IMO, that is what needs to happen here. Once pictures of Muhammed are commonplace, this will no longer be an issue.

    Comment: curtis – 26. May 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  17. Now that’s poetic justice! I agree completely. If you scan my own comments from last week, that was (and remains) my single greatest complaint — if not EDMD, then what? I still haven’t seen a satisfactory answer.

    Comment: Dale – 26. May 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  18. At some point, I expect, an astute Muslim is going to point out Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire (315 U.S. 568 (1942)), a case decided by the Supreme Court in which the court articulated the “fighting words doctrine”, a limitation of the First Amendment’s guarntee of freedom of speech. (Straight off Wiki, lest anyone think I keep all that sort of thing in my head:) Here is Justice Frank murphy writing the decision:

    There are certain well-defined and narrowly-limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

    Thought I’d point it out first, lest we Americans be accused of being (*gasp*) unfamiliar with our own Bill of Rights….

    I would emphasize one word in Justice Murphy’s decision: *essential*

    As a corollary, I’ve noticed that those who shout “freedom of speech!” the loudest are generally those who have been *particulary* rude….

    What’s really unfortunate is that EDMD, done right (choosing the best submissions instead of simply posting all of them), could have been a really appropriate response, potentially inviting intelligent discussion and debate with members of the Muslim community. A number of the cartoons posted at Friendly Atheist were clever, simple for non-english speakers to understand, thought-provoking, gentle nudges to consider, even loving (I’m thinking of the peace sign done in rainbow hearts and “this is Muhammad”). An extended hand, not an extended finger.

    The obscene submissions, well… how do you feel when somebody flips you the bird?

    Comment: yokohamamama – 27. May 2010 @ 12:48 am

  19. What’s really unfortunate is that EDMD, done right (choosing the best submissions instead of simply posting all of them), could have been a really appropriate response, potentially inviting intelligent discussion and debate with members of the Muslim community.

    My feeling exactly. Absent that kind of control (which also presents free speech problems, of course), I think virtually all mass actions are doomed to this kind of unhelpful muddle. It’s interesting to note that religion itself is a mass action doomed to the very same kind of muddle — the bad actions of a few discrediting the many. Islamic extremists are a perfect example.

    Comment: Dale – 27. May 2010 @ 8:53 am

  20. Dale:
    On my last post I said “I agree with everything you say except the conclusion“. Apparently, it is truer than I thought. I had read your earlier post but I forgot about it. It certainly is possible that your ideas triggerred what I thought was an original idea. That’s the problem with changing your mind, your own ideas will be used against you. Of course, publically changing your mind is a sign of honest thinking.

    Comment: curtis – 27. May 2010 @ 5:48 pm

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.