Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Pledge Project: The 'Voluntary' Argument

A reminder to readers that I am spinning up Atheist Ethicist Journal to handle day-to-day reporting on 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' until July 6th.

One claim that is going to be used over and over again by those who support 'under God' in the Pledge is that it is voluntary. Nobody is being forced to say it if they do not want to. At the same time, these people will point out that the opponents of 'under God' are attempting to prohibit people from saying the Pledge, so the opponents of 'under God' are anti-freedom.

This is an easy rebuttal to those claims.

In fact, I want to express this rebuttal in terms of a fantasy I have that somebody will have an opportunity to step up to a microphone at a Barak Obama rally and ask him the following question.

Senator Obama, assume that a community that is 85% white, where 100% of its elected officials are white, adopts a community pledge to our white community. However, they do not require non-whites to say this pledge. In fact, non-whites are free to leave the room whenever white people pledge allegiance to our white community. Would you support the argument that, since the pledge is voluntary, that it cannot be considered racist?

Of course that pledge would be racist.

Of course those who oppose a community having such a pledge are not ‘anti-freedom’ – any more than people who oppose the practice of walking into a store and taking everything out of the cash register are anti-freedom. A free society still places some limits on what people are free to do.

Technically, the reason that the voluntary argument is not relevant in this case is because the objection to having 'under God' in the Pledge is an objection based on its content. I am objecting to what 'under God' means in the context of the Pledge of Allegiance. What the government is telling the people by inserting 'under God' in the Pledge is that a citizen that does not support 'one nation under God' cannot be considered a good American. It says this in the same way that it says that a citizen that supports rebellion or secession cannot be a good American, and a citizen who does not support liberty and justice for all cannot be a good American.

It does not matter who actually utters the words, "A citizen who does not support one nation under God cannot be a good American," the statement is both malicious and false and nothing that a moral person would support. The properties of being malicious and false remain a part of the content of this Pledge even if nobody says it – and is precisely the reason why a good person would not say it.

The parallel question about the community that adopts a pledge of allegiance to 'our white community' brings these properties up to the surface. We recognize straight away that a community that would adopt a pledge of allegiance to 'our white community' has attitudes towards people who are non-white that are malicious and false, and they are using this Pledge to reinforce those malicious and false attitudes.

In the same way, the American community has adopted malicious and false attitudes towards citizens who do not believe in God, and 'under God' in the Pledge is being used as an instrument to reinforce those malicious and false attitudes.

In these cases, the fact that people voluntary choose to utter, or have the freedom to voluntarily choose not to utter, the pledge is no argument for or against its merits.

In fact, in our community of white racists, we can see that the people who freely and proudly pledge allegiance to 'our white community' are morally more suspect (at least on this issue) than any who does so as a result of coercion. The strength of the racist sentiments that a citizen has can be measured by how freely and how proudly that citizens pledges allegiance to 'our white community'. While the person (the white person) who says such a Pledge out of social conformity and a desire to fit in, while morally flawed, is not as flawed as those who actually provide the social pressure to pledge allegiance to 'our white community'.

The flaw with coercion in this case is that by forcing people to say, 'our white community' this will, over time, still have the effect of growing the racist attitudes that are inherent in such a pledge. What a person is forced to do one year (surrounded by praise for doing so and condemnation for any sign of resistance), she may do willingly the next. This is because, over time, the agent may internalize the prejudices that sit at the foundation of a pledge to 'our white community'.

So, coercion is definitely an evil. It is a violation of the right to free speech and, in this case, it is a tool for the growth and development of prejudice. However, the absence of coercion is no defense against the charge that a pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God' is morally no different than a pledge to 'our white community'.

Given the tendency of some people to distort and twist words to political advantage, the above argument does not say that belief in God is tantamount to racism. It says that a pledge of allegiance to one nation under God (in light of the fact that there are good citizens who do not believe in God) is prejudicial in the way that a pledge of allegiance to 'our white nation' is prejudicial.

A just white person can be opposed to a pledge of allegiance to 'our white community' without saying that all white people are evil. Similarly, a just Christian can be opposed to a pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God' without saying that all Christians are evil. The white person simply needs to say, "As a white person, I will endorse expressions of bigotry against blacks". The Christian simply needs to say, "As a Christian, I will not endorse expressions of bigotry against those who do not believe in God."

The good white person will not try to argue, "Since the pledge to our white community is voluntary, then it is perfectly legitimate." The good Christian will not try to argue, "Since the pledge to one nation under God is voluntary, then it is perfectly legitimate."

2 comments:

Matthew said...

The problem with this argument is the caveat you mentioned: that believing this is a Christian nation is not analogous to racism. It would of course be racist to create a pledge in favor of whites. But a pledge of any kind is bound to uphold some common value or another; otherwise there's no reason for it. And whatever value it upholds, there are bound to be minorities who do not agree with that value. I do not think the minorities are seriously hurt just because the majority expresses its common values.

Take my case, for instance. I do not say the pledge out loud because I do not agree with the words "one nation, indivisible." The united states is not a nation in the pure (ethnic) sense of the word because we welcome immigration, and I do not believe the United States ought to be indivisible in the political sense of the word. Moreover, while I will fight for my family and community, I will not pledge unqualified allegiance to a nation-state, which is liable to ask for me to follow it into error and cruelty.

However, I realize that the belief in a united America with a loyal citizenry is important to most Americans, and while I may dispute those beliefs, I do not see any problem with a pledge being instituted by the majority, as long as those beliefs are indeed the majority view. The point of a democracy is that the majority does in fact have the power to express and enforce its opinions, and use them to get things done - so long, of course, as it respects a given level of individual freedom. I do not think that individual freedoms are threatened by creating a pledge that no one is forced to say. The minority always has an opportunity to become the majority, and it is better to let the majority decide actually do things than to stifle its every action merely to avoid offending people.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Matthew

Since I use the analogy quite a bit, I intend to write a post in the near future arguing that believing this is a Christian nation is, indeed, analogous to racism in all ways that are relevant to this argument.

What is relevant here is a relationship between the quality in question (Christianity, skin color) and some other quality of merit (patriotism, moral character). The assertion that there is a relationship between Christianity and these the qualities of being moral or patriotic is as false (and prejudiced) as the belief that there is a relationship between skin color and being patriotic.

It is also not relevant that some people do not share certain values. Just as it does not matter in science that some people do not share the belief that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, it does not matter in ethics that some people do not share the belief that people generally have reason to promote liberty and justice for all. What matters is whether or not the proposition is true, not whether or not it is believed.

The majority may well have the power to express and enforce its opinions. Yet, there is still a different question of whether the opinions they express and enforce have merit. The majority can force teachers to say that the earth is 10,000 years old. However, that has no effect on the age of the earth.

My objections have never been grounded on whether a claim offends people or not. This is a point I make in the fourth essay in this series, The Pledge Project: Offense. Offense is not relevant. It is truth that is relevant.