P Z Myers of Pharyngula had a posting called, "We aim to misbehave" that criticized the "be nice" approach to advancing atheism. There is a core truth to what he wrote. However, he wrote it in what appears to be the complete absence of any type of moral backdrop.
The core truth is actually an argument that I have repeated often in this blog, including Thursday's posting "Framing" and Friday's posting "Disagreement". It points to the absurdity of blaming anti-atheist bigotry on the atheists because they are not being nice. Bigotry does not respond to "being nice". It makes no sense to blame the subjugation of women, for example, on the idea that women were - at least until the early 1900s - rude and obnoxious individuals and that only by 'being nice' were they able to obtain political equality. Myers provides some clear examples of how not being nice was the cause of their political liberation.
One of the better objections ever written against those who demand that one 'play nice' came from Martin Luther King in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" - an argument that I covered in the posting, "Culpability of the Moderates".
However, exactly how 'not nice' are atheists allowed to be?
Are there limits to political action?
There Is a Line
Let me put the question bluntly. "If you could end religion 500 years earlier by detonating a nuclear bomb in the Vatican and Mecca, would you do it?"
At this point, I expect somebody to assert, “Hold it, Alonzo! Nobody, least of all PZ Myers, is talking about nuking religious centers.”
This is true, they are not. However, there is a point of order here. The first point is to establish that there is a line that can be crossed. The second point is to ask where the line is.
Now, in answering the original question about detonating the bombs, some might say, "No I would not. Ultimately, I don't think it would be useful. It would turn people against atheists and have other unfortunate consequences."
However, the person who gives this answer is still telling us, "Well, if I had a way of avoiding these consequences, then I would do it." He seems to be suggesting that if he could make sure that the Muslims are blamed for blowing up the Vatican, and the Christians are blamed for blowing up Mecca, this might generate an anti-religion attitude that could be useful. Under these circumstances, he could set off the bomb.
Unless, of course, there are moral limits to what one might do in obtaining a political goal.
In Myers' article, he quoted an article in which the authors said that the Women's Social and Political union engaged in the breaking of windows and arson to obtain their ends.
Does Myers advocate destruction of property and arson as a legitimate form of protest?
He also writes,
Successful revolutionaries ignore the admonitions about which fork to use for their salad because they care only to grab the steak knife as they launch themselves over the table.
Does Myers advocate murder?
I would say that he does not. However, his words to - in this passage. The defense that 'any sane person would realize that I wasn't talking about actually killing somebody' begs asking the question, "Really? Do you know that as an empirical fact? Whose life are you willing to bet on that?"
I hold to a certain amount of moral responsibility in my writing. The responsibility exists because it is all too easy for somebody to get carried away. There is always . . . always . . . a bottom or most extreme one percent who are at risk of carrying any political activism too far.
Myers does not mention limits. He quotes, without qualification, statements that accept vandalism, arson, and attacking others with a stake knife – all without suggesting that there might be moral limits to what is acceptable.
So, what is he advocating? If he does not mention limits, then what is his message to the bottom one percent?
I argue that there are limits, and that it is important to keep them in focus at all times. Whenever I speak in defense of protests – and I am very much a defender of protest – I take care to mention the limits of morally legitimate protest. Words and private action (including protest, and even including non-violent civil disobedience) are the only legitimate responses to words, and a political campaign is the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society. Nothing more is justified.
I do not advocate or even condone ‘being nice’ – not to those who are unjust or whose recklessness threatens the life, health, well-being of others. Imagine catching a guy beating a child and ‘being nice’ to him. Imagine catching an organization withholding food from a whole village of children. Imagine catching a church banning the medical research that will free countless children of disease because they think God prefers a state where the children to be sick and dying. It is very difficult to defend the idea of ‘being nice’ to such people.
However, there is a difference between being nice and being fair – between condemning those who deserve to be condemned and condemning those who have done no wrong simply because they share some trait with those who are justifiably condemned.
Some of the claims that atheist activists make are dishonest, intellectually reckless, and unjust. Those claims lie outside the moral limits of political activism.
One could say, “Damn the morality, full speed ahead. We have a cause to fight for here, and morality will only slow us down.”
Yet, it is somewhat problematic to toss morality aside for the sake of a political end while condemning others for tossing morality aside for the sake of political ends. One could say that this type of attitude is somewhat ‘hypocritical’. That’s the first (and not the most serious) of its faults. The person who tosses morality aside tells others that they may do so as well.
As an ethicist, one of my complaints about President Bush is that, in tossing morality aside and setting up secret prisons, endorsing torture, engaging in rendition, holding prisoners without trial or charges, bypassing the legislature through signing statements, simply refusing to deal with the courts, and the like, that he is setting a moral standard for countries around the world to follow. These are not the types of actions that we have any reason to see become international standards.
These are the fruits of tossing morality aside.
So, I ask again, where does PZ Myers speak of the moral limits of political activism?
In another post the next day, PZ Myers tells us, “Conflict sells. Use it.”
Conflict does sell. Conflict is profitable. However, is that what Myers is after? Profits?
Shout television is profitable. Shout television is what the cable news networks engage in when they get two attack dogs to go after each other in front of the cameras. It involves a lot of shouting and rhetoric – a great deal of heat, and little light.
Research shows that shout television is very popular, however it is not at all informative. People who watch shout television end up much more firmly set in their own views, and less capable of understanding the opposing position. In short, shout television weakens the middle and promotes the extreme on any issue they cover.
But, it brings eyeballs to advertisements, and that is what matters.
If we create a situation, with a more strongly polarized population, with a week and ineffective middle, and with no moral limits to what may be done in the name of political activism, then the only option left is civil war. No doubt, people on both sides will assert that they are only defending themselves against the aggression from the other side. Both sides will make-believe that they are the aggrieved and wronged party reluctantly entering into the fight. The ‘lovers of conflict’ will be there at the lead demonizing the ‘others’ while convincing ‘us’ that the cause is noble and just.
Yes, conflict sells.
But, answer the question, “WHAT, exactly, does conflict sell? And is this something we have any interest in selling?”
Yesterday, while writing about ‘scientism’, I mentioned that I agreed with Harper. When scientists begin talking in the realm of value, they tend to abandon the principles of intellectual rigor that they insist on in their own field.
This is an example.
Once again, I am not disputing the claim that there can be no progress by being nice. Myers’ best and most accurate line in the first article was, “They won't stop (calling atheists rude) until we're completely silent.” This is true. The accusation of “rudeness’ is simply a rhetorical trick to get the opposition to shut up. There is no way to avoid the accusation without simply accepting second-class status. So, either ignore the accusation and stand up against it, or accept your position in the only place where you will not be called ‘rude’ – as a silent and impotent part of society.
However, no discussion of the importance of fighting back should be without some mention of the moral limits of fighting back. For the sake of all potential victims, this is a line that we are ill advised to ignore.
I am not going to be a fan of any discussion of activism that includes mention of arson, vandalism, and attacking people with knives that does not offer some sort of disclaimer recognizing the moral limits of protest.