Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dohanue on Swastikas and Burning Crosses

Today’s already written post will have to wait, given the response from Bill Donahue, the President of the Catholic League, to the desecration of a Eucharist by PZ Myers.

Donahue’s statement, in calling for the University of Minnesota to fire Myers, from MYERS DESECRATES THE EUCHARIST

“It is important for Catholics to know that the University of Minnesota will not tolerate the deliberate destruction of the Eucharist by one of its faculty. Just as African Americans would not tolerate the burning of a cross, and Jews would not tolerate the display of swastikas, Catholics will not tolerate the desecration of the Eucharist.”

The important point to note here is that the Swastika and the burning cross (and the Confederate flag, for that matter), are symbols of actual violence committed against Jews and blacks. These are symbols of organizations that not only advocate, but who have actually committed, physical and violent crimes against the people involved.

Nothing in what Myers has done consists of a real or threatened act of violence against a human being.

So, what Donahue is doing in making this analogy to say that the act of putting a nail through a cracker is equivalent to the slaughter of 6 million Jews, the lynching and segregation of blacks, and a century of slavery.

To make such a statement, of course, is to denigrate - to utterly trivialize - the Holocaust, segregation, and slavery.

"Put a nail through a cracker, kill 6 million Jews, enslave blacks for nearly two centuries and continue to treat them as subhuman for another 100 years after that, it's all the same to me." This is, in effect, what Bill Donahue is saying.

His act of appropriating these symbols of real violence for his own purposes is an ultimate act of exploitation. He is, in fact, harvesting the suffering and harm that these people endured for his own political ends. As such, he is adding a new injustice against the injustices that these others have suffered. He is declaring that their deaths and their suffering is simply another resource that he can appropriate for himself and use at his will.

Furthermore, if Donahue's standard of morality were to be universalized, then we would reach the absurd state in which no action can be performed, because you cannot name an act that violates some religious precept somewhere in the world.

Is the act of eating bacon going to be made a hate crime? If we follow Donahue's line of reasoning, this would follow. For a person whose religion forbids the eating of pork, knowledge that somebody else is eating pork can be interpreted as "a statement that my religious beliefs are simply idle prejudices, of no real value". He can clearly argue that, "To show respect for my religion, you must refrain from eating pork. If you violate this prohibition, if you eat pork anyway, we may take this as a sign of hatred and hostility towards those who view the eating of pork to be prohibited."

The desecration of a Eucharist cracker is quite like the eating of pork, or the wearing of a bikini at the beach, or of working on the Sabbath, or of taking the Lord's name in vain. These are the types of acts that those who follow a religion that condemns these acts must nonetheless tolerate in others, because they have no right to impose their purely religious requirements or restrictions on others.

If we follow Donahue even further, we would be viewing the wearing of a bikini on the beach to be the same as burning a cross, or working on the Sabbath to be the same as hanging a swastika in one's cubical.

This is the absurdity of his moral position.

15 comments:

arensb said...

Also, proclaiming the truth of the Trinity is telling Muslims that God (or Muhammad) is wrong, since he explicitly says that God is not a Trinity. Seems a bit of a dilemma.

Oh, and I keep hearing that Darwinism is a religion. So obviously the people calling for PZ to be fired are interfering with his freedom to practice his religion.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you need to read again:

The policy says that ‘Expressions of disrespectful bias, hate, harassment or hostility against an individual, group or their property because of the individual or group’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion…can be forms of discrimination

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anonymous

Perhaps you should read the post before commenting on it. Do you have anything you can say to refute the actual arguments used, or do you just dislike the conclusion?

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I'm growing weary of this whole spectacle because there aren't any actors within it who can be cheered; all I can do is raise the volume of condemnation when the focus shifts from Myers to Donahue.

But I'm pleased it led me to this blog, which is interesting, well-written, and intellectually challenging.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

transplanted lawyer

Thanks for the comments.

If one looks only at this specific issue, I can understand growing weary of the discussion.

However, I have found it to be an interesting venue with which to discuss different topics at all levels of moral philosophy - all the way back to metaethics.

Metaethics and moral theory are always looking for examples to use to illustrate their main points. This one has the benefit of actually being a topic of concern (at the moment) outside of the bland and boring subject of moral philosophy.

Ron in Houston said...

Doesn't it really come down to the question of intent? I mean, eating bacon when not meant as hate is acceptable. However, taking my ham sandwich into an orthodox Jewish temple is done to harass or demean them and then becomes unacceptable.

So, in PZ's case, when PZ did the benign act of throwing away a cracker whether it was acceptable or unacceptable depended upon his intent when he performed the act.

vjack said...

Excellent points here. Comparing what PZ did to swastikas and burning crosses is absurd. There is a vast difference between symbolizing violence and simply offending some Christians.

arensb said...

vjack:
There is a vast difference between symbolizing violence and simply offending some Christians.

If I may play devil's advocate for a moment:

Suppose that flying a swastika flag conveys the message, "I think Jews ought to be killed, and if I could, I would." By the same token, then, can't nailing a host be taken to mean "I'd like to do damage to Jesus"? And it's a small step from "I'd like to harm Jesus" to "I'd like to harm Jesus' followers". What's the difference between the swastika and the host?

Now, PZ has made his views on religion clear, so obviously he doesn't think he actually put a nail through Jesus. He's also made it equally clear that harming symbols is vastly different from harming people (i.e., if he had the opportunity to kick Jesus in the balls, he wouldn't do it). Of course, most people don't read Pharyngula and don't know PZ's views; all they see is an atheist professor who nailed a host. That's the problem with symbols: they're so abstract and easy to misinterpret.

Whateverman said...

Suppose that flying a swastika flag conveys the message, "I think Jews ought to be killed, and if I could, I would." By the same token, then, can't nailing a host be taken to mean "I'd like to do damage to Jesus"? And it's a small step from "I'd like to harm Jesus" to "I'd like to harm Jesus' followers". What's the difference between the swastika and the host?
The difference is vast.

Without denegrating a belief in Jesus, he is claimed to be enormously powerful, being either the embodiment of God or his son; capable of miraculous feats. Jews? Not so much. How much, really, could such a being be "harmed" by having a nail spiked through his crackerlike visage?

I'm serious. Faithful Catholics around the world consume his body weekly. How does a single instance of symbolic crucifixion represent a physical threat (or actual harm)?

Additionally, Jews actually still live. They go to work, pay taxes, raise children, buy clothing, and watch bad TV shows. A swastika presents a very real threat to living people.

A nail through the eucharist might be seen as a threat, but only if Jesus were still alive in his physical "can be killed upon being hit by a bus" form. That not being the case, it's difficult to liken eucharist desecration to the killing a jewish child while wearing a swastika.

Finally, a nail through the eucharist can only be considered "murder" (et al) if you're a Catholic - that is, you accept Catholic dogma as truth/fact. If you're Jewish, said nail-desecration might be viewed as unpleasant or irreverant or malicious, but that's about as far as it would get.

A hate crime that harms a real live human being does not require a specific faith to be seen/viewed as such.

---

The two are in no way comparable.

arensb said...

So what you're saying, Whateverman, is that flying a swastika or hanging a noose is comparable to person A threatening to kick person B in the nuts, while stabbing a eucharist is comparable to an ant threatening to kick a battleship. In other words, not a credible threat of noticeable harm.

I agree that one of my first questions when I read about Webster Cook was, "What do Catholics think is likely to happen to Jesus, anyway? Do they really think he's so feeble that he can be harmed by being put in a Ziploc bag?" (In fact, I've written twice to the priest mentioned in the news who called it a kidnapping. He hasn't answered.)

But given some people's over-the-top reactions, I suspect that they're not even thinking this through to this level. Judging by some people's reactions and words, I suspect there's a disturbingly large contingent who -- as hard as this may be to believe -- actually think that a host gets magically turned into God, a belief that would easily fit in with the most primitive tribal superstition if it weren't propounded by people in fine suits justified by centuries of tradition and lots of five-dollar words.

If you were going to say that this is precisely the sort of superstition that needs to be exposed and derided, then I agree.

But I think you've failed to address another part of my devil's-advocacy: the idea that if PZ is willing to stab Jesus (even if he's the ant who realizes he's kicking a battleship), then he's willing to stab the pope, or any number of other Catholics.

Obviously, from your point of view (and mine, and presumably PZ's) this is a ridiculous leap. But IMHO it just might fly if presented in court (though I hope I'm just paranoid and cynical).

Whateverman (jricht@hotmail.com) said...

An interesting argument, Arensb.

A quick blurb about who the cracker crucifixion actually harms. It's patently obvious to me (at least), that it does damage to fundamentalist Catholic sensibilities. Not once in any of the outrage I've seen expressed did anyone actually suggest Jesus was being hurt. If you view the tone and content of the "communication" from the vocal Catholic activists, you'll see it clearly appears they feel insulted, rather than being defensive.

Back to the topic at hand: I still maintain that the crucifixion was symbolic - and that no one (including the Catholics) feel Jesus or any living person is harmed by it. Even if PZ is swatting a battleship, no one seems to consider that it might do physical harm to the body of Christ.

In other words, he desecration a symbol (even if it appears fundamentalists consider that symbol to be a flesh and blood thing) is treated differently by those doing the complaining than the "desecration" of a living human being.

The Catholics themselves betray their lack of faith in what they (claim to) believe by not crying "Murder!"

Just my $0.02

Whateverman (jricht@hotmail.com) said...

Oof - pardon my Low Blood Sugar typing skillz...

arensb said...

Whateverman:
Not once in any of the outrage I've seen expressed did anyone actually suggest Jesus was being hurt. If you view the tone and content of the "communication" from the vocal Catholic activists, you'll see it clearly appears they feel insulted, rather than being defensive.

I think the evidence is mixed: on one hand, no one has threatened to file a criminal suit alleging bodily harm to Jesus.

On the other hand, if you look back at the original report of Cook's actions, you'll see words like "kidnapping" and "hostage" bandied about. These were most likely people's reactions before they had had a chance to think the situation through, when they were caught off-guard, and so I think they provide insight into what these people actually believe.

no one (including the Catholics) feel Jesus or any living person is harmed by it.

I asked about this at catholicism.about.com, and was told, in essence, that the "harm" Jesus suffered was sadness.

In other words, he desecration a symbol (even if it appears fundamentalists consider that symbol to be a flesh and blood thing) is treated differently by those doing the complaining than the "desecration" of a living human being.

Sure. If someone claims that the bread really and truly is Jesus' body, then I think we can agree that that person is factually wrong, and that that belief doesn't deserve respect (until the evidence comes in, yadda yadda).

The other facet of the host is as a tribal marker, and this aspect of the matter is actually rooted in reality. If, say, I smash a Washington Redskins helmet with a hammer, then even though it's obvious that no one has suffered any harm, it can still be perceived as "I don't like the Redskins; if you're a fan of theirs, don't say so within earshot of me unless you're up for a fight."

In the same sense, PZ's desecration of the wafer is an "attack" on the Catholic tribe. This isn't rational, it's just one ape baring his teeth at a tribe of other apes.

(Oh, and look! My MP3 player just served up the song "Alphamale" by Boole. That must be a sign! :-) )

But it does go back to what I asked above: how much of a leap is it from "PZ is willing to harm Catholic tribal markers" to "PZ is willing to harm Catholics"? You and I understand that he considers symbols and people to be in completely different categories, so it's a great leap indeed. But public opinion may see it otherwise.

Whateverman said...

Good points...

My opinion is that, if you spend the time to research the timeline of this situation, you'll see that PZ made an effort to keep his criticism on point (as opposed to letting it become an anti-Catholic diatribe).

First and foremost, i'm still amazed that people ignore the presence of the Quran and The God Delusion in that fateful desecration picyure. It's obvious he was attacking the notion that non-sentient objects can be sacred (or worthy of respect).

If all we (you and I) are talking about is public perception, then logic and reason are effectively excluded. People will see what they want, and ignore the rest. In this sense, it's perfectly reasonable for some fundamentalist to bring the matter to court.

But if we're talking about the actual situation, and trying to assess it without emotional bias...

I can't see any obvious legal basis for claiming PZ is threatening things (ie. property, people) with harm.

arensb said...

Whateverman:

Right. On the factual and intellectual side of the event, I think you and I are pretty much in agreement, so there's not much to discuss. That's why I turned to the more irrational/emotional side of things.

I can't see any obvious legal basis for claiming PZ is threatening things (ie. property, people) with harm.

The only thing I can think of is "fightin' words". But I doubt even that would stand up for very long in court.