When is a criticism of Islam bigoted, and when is it not?
This has been a hot topic of debate in some circles recently after an exchange between Ben Affleck on one side, and Sam Harris and Bill Mahar on the other. In this exchange, Sam Harris said the Islam is "the mother lode of bad ideas," and Affleck responded that such a statement is "racist" (a poor word choice - I will substitute the term 'bigoted').
(RealClearPolitics has a clip and a transcript of a part of the discussion.)
Separating Two Debates
Some confusion is generated because this discussion is taking place in a discussion on a different topic - on the virtues of standing up for liberal western values. Some people conflate the two. In fact, I think that it is fair to say that that this specific discussion took place BECAUSE some people (Bill Mahar) conflate the two.
The complaint is against the idea that standing up for western liberal values and criticizing other ideas is bigoted and must not be permitted.
The first thing to do, then, is separate the two discussions. I would defend the proposition that standing up for 'western liberal values' (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.) is a virtue. However, they are to be defended using true premises and sound reasoning. One of those values is a prohibition on derogatory overgeneralizations that promote hated of the innocent by, in a sense, blaming them for things of which they are innocent. These types of overgeneralizations count as acts of bigotry.
In other words, sound criticisms of other ideas are not only legitimate, they may be obligatory. However, extending those legitimate criticisms to people who are innocent of wrongdoing, based on some property they share with those who are guilty, is not legitimate.
I am not going to defend the virtue of defending liberal western values here. I am going to take this as a given and argue that it is possible to agree with this and still brand the comments of Bill Mahar and Sam Harris as bigoted.
In this essay, I am going to understand 'bigotry' as a claim that shifts a target group in such a way that it ends up targeting people who are not guilty of the specific wrong, while (often, though not always) ignoring those who are guilty of the same wrong but are not members of the target group.
For example, if I were to take the condemnation of child molesters and apply it to the new target group 'men', I would commit the two wrongs of bigotry. I would be making an unjust and derogatory claim about men who have not molested children. At the same time, I ignore a group of people who have committed the same wrong but who do not belong to the target group.
Similarly, if I take the group 'those who endorse beheading those who do not share one's ideology' with 'Islam', I commit the twin crimes of bigotry. I unjustly brand those who are Muslims but who do not endorse the act of beheading unbelievers. At the same time, I ignore the beheading of 'unbelievers' when the ideology in question is not Islam - when, for example, the ideology is communism.
The way to prevent these twin injustices is to keep the focus specifically on the target group - those who call for the execution of those who reject a given ideology - whatever ideology that happens to be.
Criticizing an Idea
When it comes to criticizing an idea, the first thing to note is that there can be legitimate and illegimate criticisms. Legitimate criticisms spring from true premises and follow valid reasoning. Legitimate criticisms contain false assumptions or invalid leaps of logic such as those mentioned under the label 'bigotry' in the previous section.
The principle that I will defend is that a claim that one is criticizing an idea is only legitimate when one is targeting a defining characteristic of that ideology. That is to say, it must be attacking something whereby, anybody who rejects that which is being attacked cannot coherently be said to be a holder of that ideology.
Let us take communism, for example.
One legitimate criticism of communism is that the communal ownership of property destroys the incentive to work - to a large degree people will try to live off of the productive efforts of others. Another criticism is that it leads to the destructive overuse of basic resources (e.g., grazing land, buffalo, tuna) as people race to harvest as much benefit from themselves as possible before others get to that resource (the tragedy of the commons).
These are legitimate criticisms of communism because they target a defining characteristic of communism - the communal ownership of property. They attack something whereby, if a person gives up that which is under attack, it would no longer be sensible to say that they hold the ideology being criticized.
On the other hand, a claim that one is criticizing communism is not legitimate if one points to Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union and Mao's purges in China. A person can be a communist and still object to - and even abhor - these mass slaughters of people for the crime of questioning the central planners. Objections can be raised to these practices that are entirely irrelevant to communism itself. Consequently, it would be an unfair attribution to say or imply, "If you are a communist, then you are to be regarded as we would regard somebody who defends those practices."
There are also people who try to blame the purges of Stalin and Mao on atheism. Both leaders were promoting atheistic philosophies - that is, philosophies that denied the existence of a god. The defense against these accusations is to say that the defining characteristic of atheism is not believing in god. Atheism does not endorse or prescribe Stalin's purges. Because your criticism of Stalin's purges are not applicable to the defining characteristic of atheism, it is wrong for you to claim that you are attacking atheism when you attack those purges.
Furthermore, we can say that your claims are derogatory and prejudicial towards atheists. In fact, where we can show that the argument is motivated by a dislike of atheists - and thus a personal preference to see and to cast them in an unfavorable light - we can legitimately apply the term 'bigot' to those who would use and promote that argument.
If we take this idea and apply it to the practice of criticizing Islam, then a criticism can legitimately be called a 'criticism of Islam' when it attacks a defining characteristic of Islam. That is to say, it must be attacking something where, if a person were to reject that which is under attack, it would no longer be true that they were a follower of Islam.
There is perhaps no characteristic that best qualifies as a defining characteristic of Islam than the first of the five pillars of Islam: There is no god but Allah and Mohammed was his prophet.
This, then, would count as a legitimate, non-bigoted criticism of Islam:
There is no God. Mohammed was nobody's prophet. Mohammed simply made stuff up. I will leave it to others to try to determine if he was being deliberately dishonest or suffering from delusions. Furthermore, when it comes to making things up that actually display moral virtue, JK Rawlings and George Lucas are just examples of people who did a far better job.
However, if a person is criticizing something that is believed by only a fraction of Muslims - where it makes perfectly good sense to say that the term 'Muslim' applies to a person who rejects the belief - and CLAIMS to be criticizing Islam, then that person is making a false attribution - a derogatory overgeneralization. What that person is doing instead is criticizing a faction within Islam. Extending that attribution to those who do not share that belief is unfair.
Not All Muslims Believe That
Ironically, Sam Harris repeatedly states that the 'bad ideas' he is criticizing are not shared by all Muslims. Unfortunately, this is all that needs to be admitted for the claim of, "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas' to be a false attribution. To claim that one is criticizing Islam is to claim that one is attacking a defining characteristic of Islam - which means that the term 'Muslim' does not apply to those who reject what one is criticizing.
To claim that only X% (where X < 100) of Muslims hold that opinion is to deny that one is talking about a defining characteristic of Islam. Speaking about it as a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory attribution to those who are Muslim but who do not share the attribute being criticized. The derogatory and potentially bigoted part of this is in attributing a bad idea agreed to by a faction of Muslims to all Muslims.
By speaking about it as if it is a defining characteristic of the class, this implies that it is shared by all the members of the class (by definition), and those who do not share this derogatory characteristic can legitimately claim to be falsely maligned.
Harris' claims are comparable to a person claiming, "Harold, who is a bachelor . . . ." Somebody then objects that Harold is married to Chris. Harris answers, "Of course I know that. I am not denying that Harold is married to Chris." The critic continues, "But you just said that Harold is a bachelor." Harris answers, "We must be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor even though he is married to Chris. It is absolutely absurd to claim that, just because Harold is married to Chris, we cannot be permitted to say that Harold is a bachelor."
I want to repeat the key point that makes this analogy valid. To claim that, in attacking a 'bad idea', that one is attacking Islam is to claim that the bad idea is a defining characteristic of Islam. In other words, one is claiming that the common understanding of the term 'Muslim' is such that the term does not legitimately point to anybody who rejects the idea that you are criticizing.
If, in fact, the term 'Muslim' does apply to those who reject the 'bad ideas' you are criticizing, then you are not criticizing Islam, you are criticizing a faction (think of the term 'fraction') within Islam. The claim that this is criticism of a faction within Islam is a criticism of Islam is to make a false and derogatory overgeneralization - the defining characteristic of bigotry.
Criticizing Bad Ideas
None of this implies that it is wrong or bigoted in any way to condemn as a bad idea 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'. What it implies is that there is a virtue in putting a great deal of effort into criticizing this bad idea. However, in doing so, one should simply state their objections to 'beheading those who do not accept a particular ideology'.
By keeping one's focus specifically on the bad idea, one can avoid the twin mistakes of bigotry - which is extending the target group beyond those who are actually guilty, while ignoring those who are guilty but who are not members of the new target group.
People should, in fact, defend the right to freedom of the press. People should object to legal penalties for blasphemy or heresies. In fact, people should actively promote the principle that the only legitimate response to words or private actions expressing an opinion or attitude are words and private actions (meaning those actions such as deciding where to shop that do not require public justification) - never violence.
Another thing that one should defend is the principle against making derogatory overgeneralizations - of attributing the wrongs to a fraction of a group (a faction within a group) to the whole group. This means that a claim of attacking an idea is only valid if one is attacking a defining characteristic of that idea. If a person can reject that which is criticized and still belong to a given ideology, then the legitimate claim is that one objects to a faction within that ideology.
Monday, October 13, 2014
When is a criticism of Islam bigoted, and when is it not?
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:17 AM