Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A Rational View of Tolerance

I haven't used this blog in a while. However, I have found a lot of nonsense on a recent question of whether Sam Harris and Bill Mahar are 'racist' in their criticism of Islam that I wanted to say some things about.

The criticism is tied to comments made on Bill Mahar's show, "Real Time".

I have seen a lot of criticism of 'the liberal view of tolerance' that seems to interpret it as saying that tolerance requires that we accept without condemnation the beheading of kidnapped journalists and taxi-drivers who have volunteered to help those in need, because refusing to do so is 'racist'.

'Racist' is the term that is being used, but in fact it has little to do with 'race'. I prefer to use the term 'bigotry'.

I think I can put the objection to Sam Harris and Bill Mahar on a bit more rational footing.

Cultural Moral Relativism

There is a field of thought that holds that there is no sense to condemning other cultures. On this view, what is right (or wrong) is whatever a particular culture believes to be right (or wrong). So, if a culture accepts rounding up all the Jews and killing them, enslaving blacks, or wiping out the Native Americans and taking their land, we cannot reasonably condemn them. We can say that we happen to dislike the practices that they like, but morality is nothing more than a matter of taste.

I often respond to this by reducing it to its basic claim, "Thou shalt not force thy morality on others, or else!"

If criticizing other cultures is going to be branded 'racism' then I shall be racist (bigot). Because I will, in fact, condemn genocide, slavery, and the execution of people merely for their beliefs.

However, I am also going to charge any cultural moral relativist who condemns me for my condemnation with an inconsistency. "You are willing to tolerate the person who executes an innocent person for failure to share their beliefs but you are not willing to tolerate my condemnation of their acts? You have some explaining to do if you want to take that position."

Bigotry Defined

I begin by defining bigotry as the act of making derogatory overgeneralizations. One takes a derogatory fact about some people within a group and they extend that criticism to the whole of the group. For example, one takes the fact that some Muslims are guilty of beheading innocent people and use this to attack - not 'those who kill innocent people' - but 'Muslims'.

This commits two errors.

It blames a lot of innocent people for crimes they did not commit.

It ignores a lot of other people who are guilty of the same type of act but are not members of the target group. Beheading those who hold the 'wrong' beliefs has been popular across cultures for centuries. This even includes executions committed in 'atheistic' revolutions such as the French Revolution (where beheadings were also popular) and Communism.

Justice requires condemning those who are guilty and not blaming those who are innocent. Extending the group who are guilty to a different group condemns the innocent and fails to condemn some of the guilty. In that, this act - bigotry - is unjust.

Which means, when it comes to condemning those who behead or otherwise kill those who disagree with them, the target group is not "Muslims". The target group should remain, "Those who kill people who disagree with them".

This latter group excludes Muslims who condemn such acts of violence, while at the same time it includes atheists, communists, Christians, and others who would execute those who disagree with them.

Redefining those who are guilty as "Muslims" is bigotry.

Criticizing An Ideology

The objection often made against somebody who takes this type of position is that the person who criticizes claims like those made by Bill Mahar and Sam Harris are declaring that it is wrong to criticize an ideology. The responder then objects to the idea that it is wrong to criticize ideology.

In my case, it would be a difficult charge to make stick since I spend a great deal of effort criticizing other ideologies. I criticize act-utilitarianism, cultural moral relativism, Rawlsian theories of justice, theories of morality, social contract theories, Ayn Rand Objectivism, as well as divine command theories of ethics. I have no trouble criticizing doctrines.

But what I do not do is extend the group of people to be condemned for an act beyond those who are actually guilty. When I object to those who oppose homosexual marriage, I do not identify them as Christians, Muslims, intrinsic value theorists, or evolutionists who somehow got the idea that 'sex' has a 'purpose' which is 'reproduction'. I identify the target group as 'those who oppose homosexual marriage' and I leave it at that.

The same is true when I condemn those who allow people to engage in acts that have significant negative externalities (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions) without compensating those harmed for harms done. Or, at least, without internalizing the costs into the price of the activity. Again, I feel no need to identify this group with a label such as Republican, libertarian, or 'the rich', precisely because the term does not strictly apply to any of these groups.

If I were to identify a position I criticize with a group that does not strictly hold that view, then I would be guilty of bigotry. Instead, I keep the target group narrowly defined. I define the target group as 'those who support the practice of generating negative externalities without compensation or at least without internalizing those costs" or "those who execute people who do not share their views", and I leave it at that.

I will call anybody who violates this rule - who extends the boundary of those who are guilty of a wrongdoing to a group whose members are not strictly guilty of the crime - by the name it deserves. I will call them bigots, as I condemn the practice.

It is a label that properly fits Bill Mahar and Sam Harris.

The Religious Defense

Someone may ask, "Alonzo, if you are confronted by a Muslim who says that their religion condones the practice of executing infidels," how would you answer them? Would you not do so by criticizing their religion?"

Well, it depends on what you mean by "their religion".

Actually, regardless of what one means by "their religion", my first answer would be, "In fact, your scripture represents the opinions of people who have been dead for over 1000 years. Their ideas did not come from God. They made it up themselves and then attributed their own ideas to God. A lot of their ideas about morality - like many of their ideas about science - are simply mistaken. In other words, it is not an authority on moral matters, just as it is not an authority on matters of science."

I do not need to make any claims about what Islam requires or condemns.

In fact, I don't think that anybody can even come up with a clear claim about what Islam requires or condemns. Religions are made-up stories, rife with contradictions. No matter what view one attributes to a religion, there is a different view that relies on a different set of passages that will 'justify' the opposite conclusion. Any time somebody declares, "Islam requires/condemns X", I do not disagree with them. I simply assert, "Yes and, at the same time, using a different set of passages, Islam requires/condemns not-X. That is the way of religions."

This, in fact, is a fundamental claim in logic - from a contradiction, all things can be 'proved'. And religions are filled with contradictions.

Rather than argue whether Islam requires or condemns X, let's ask a different question. Is X something that should be required or condemned? Let us focus on that question. If it is something to be required, then let us require it - regardless of what people think their religious book says. If it is to be condemned, then let us condemn it.

We do not even need to address the question of what a particular religion requires or condemns because, to be honest, any and all religions both, at the same time, requires and condemns X depending on what parts one focuses on.

At least by showing that X is to be condemned, we can at least guide people to focus on those parts of their religious text that condemn X.


There are probably people who would be offended by my claim that their religion are the contradictory and uninformed opinions of people who died over 1000 years ago.

Let them be offended.

The standard that I use is not a standard that condemns offending people. My position is, "If the truth offends your beliefs, then change your beliefs and you will not have that problem."

I am not denying that I can make mistakes. However, the proper response would be to say, "Here is where you are mistaken and why," not "I am offended." The former is relevant - the latter is not.

My objection to Bill Mahar and Sam Harris is not that they offend people - I could not care less. My objection is that their derogatory overgeneralizations are untrue and - in blaming the innocent and not blaming some of the guilty - unjust. It condemns the innocent for crimes they did not commit, and it ignores those who are guilty of the same crimes but who are not a part of this target group.


So, I hold that Bill Mahar and Sam Harris are guilty of bigotry. They are guilty of extending the target group away from those who are actually guilty and onto a different group that they love to hate. It is not grounded on an argument for tolerating the intolerable, or the offense of offending people. It is an argument strictly based on the principle that the guilty are to be condemned and the innocent are to be left alone.


Jon said...


Nice to see you back writing.

In Egypt 90% of population are Muslims, 10% non-Muslims. Non-Muslims don’t support death penalty for leaving Islam. 84% of Muslims in Egypt support making death penalty the law for those who leave the Muslim religion and part of the rest of 16% attend a local Mosque and support the Mosque and Islam with their financial support and attendance. When this becomes the law in Egypt is it justified to say that Muslims are responsible for killing apostates or Islam is responsible for killing apostates? Once the law has been in place for a while who can we blame?

In many Islamic states Sharia law has over 90% support and often the law of the land. If someone travels to Islamic state and locals find out that in his public view is "ideas [in Quran] did not come from God. They made it up themselves and then attributed their own ideas to God." and kill him according to Sharia law, can we blame Muslims in that country and/or can we blame Islam? If not who can we blame if anyone?

Jasen said...

Given the numbers I don’t believe Maher and Harris are overgeneralizing. I’m thankful for their public criticisms of Islam.

"A wide-ranging 2013 Pew Research Center poll, conducted between 2008 and 2012 in 39 countries, offered a deeply disturbing, unequivocal overview of the faith-based intolerance prevalent across much of the Muslim world. Among other things, majorities of Muslims – varying somewhat according to region – favor putting to death apostates and adulterers, condemn homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia as immoral, and believe that “a wife must obey her husband.” Large minorities condone “honor killings.” It should be noted that for practical reasons, the Pew Center could not survey Muslims in the repressive, highly conservative Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Wahhabism), so, if anything, these numbers provide an excessively moderate summary of Muslim positions on issues progressives hold dear."
Given the numbers I don’t believe Maher and Harris are overgeneralizing. I’m thankful for their public criticisms of Islam.

Anonymous said...

On a different note: Surely the French revolution doesn't count because people were not beheaded over their beliefs, they were beheaded for the way that they had behaved?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

John and Jasen - Any number less than 100% agreement on an issue is enough to make my point.

For example, it would not matter if 99% of atheists were communists or Ayn Rand style Objectivists, any criticism of them or their policies cannot legitimately be called a criticism of atheism. A criticism of atheism requires that the criticism apply to that which defines a person as an atheist - the lack of a belief in god.

If you admit that the term 'Muslim' still applies to the "100% - X%" of those in the minority, then you are admitting that the criticism is not targeting a defining characteristic of Islam, meaning that to call it a criticism of Islam (and not to call it a criticism of a faction within Islam) is not legitimate.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous - actually, among the
'way that they had behaved' that was declared criminal in the French Revolution was 'being a priest' or 'harboring a priest'.

Albert Beller said...

I appreciate your article as you make many good points. I do think that Harris and Maher were trying to make it clear that the danger lies with the Islamist interpretation of the Quran, primarily the Jihadists and secondarily the fundamentalists who share a similar ideology. The point they were trying to make is that this group is larger than just a very tiny percentage.

By your definition of bigotry is there a single human that does not deserve to be called a bigot? I think it is counterproductive to label people as racists or bigots if something they say sounds like an overgeneralization. By your article it would seem that you wish to emphasize specificity. Thus, it is more appropriate to say that your statement sounds bigoted. Could labelling someone a bigot be an overgeneralization of that person, thus bigotry in itself?

You may appreciate this article by Freddie DeBoer, "Where Online Social Liberalism Lost The Script".

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am going to agree with the article you linked to about people identifying so many things as being 'insulting' - that there is simply no way to speak any more without saying something wrong. Even a reasonably concerned individual cannot keep track of what all of the groups are being offended by these days.

Please note that, in this essay, I did not say anything about offense. I spoke about what is true and accurate. The objection I made to bigotry is that it contains claims that are false and/or inferences that are invalid.

Whenever somebody claims that some piece of text offends them, I typically shrug my shoulders and say, "So what. Be offended if you want. My question is: Is it true? If it is true, then you will need to live with the offense. If it is false, then it should be changed - but not because it offended you. It should be changed because it is false."

Terry said...

To say that Islam is "the mother load of bad ideas" and then to state that "not all believe" is not necessarily contradictory. It may be that not all Muslims believe everything written in the Koran but that does not mean that the things written in the Koran are not the idea of Islam, since this is their foundational source of theology/belief. Not all Roman Catholics believe what Rome teaches but that does not negate the fact that The Roman Church is the source of what that church believes.