Sunday, April 15, 2007

Standing Up Against Bigotry

It is strange that, at the same time that I am defending a post seen as being too soft on theism, I am writing a post that will accuse even atheist activists of not being hard enough on (certain forms of) theism.

A couple of days ago I read a post on “Atheist Revolution” titled, “This Progressive Values Free Speech: Reacting to Imus.”

I'm all for fighting intolerance in all its forms, but I've never understood how any reasonable person can think that restricting the sorts of free speech which make them uncomfortable is the appropriate way to do this.

This came after a post called, “Call Us Passionate Atheists, Call Us Atheist Activists,” in which Vjack said,

We are passionate about what we are doing because it is personally meaningful to us. We care about our fellow humans and want to help make the world a better place, free of superstition. We are activists because we work for positive change. Much like the activists of the Civil Rights era, passionate activism can accomplish worthy goals which originally seemed impossible.

I commented on the latter article that I do not qualify as an “atheist activist” because atheism does not entail any particular set of values. I write about moral theory, and “atheist activism” has as many moral implications as “heliocentric activism” has – that is to say, none at all.

Yet, lacking in atheist activist credentials, it seemed to me that Vjack was not being activist enough when I read the next article.

He calls the type of activism an attempt to limit ‘free speech’. However, I do not see how it qualifies under that label. Jackson did not talk about passing laws prohibiting speech. He did not talk about throwing people in jail, nor did he issue a fatwa against broadcasters who make bigoted claims. He spoke only about using his own right to free speech and to private actions to persuade people not to do or to support things that he asserts are immoral, and to instead support options that are more just and fair towards others.

So, I fail to see how this makes speech any less free.

Indeed, asserting that Jackson should not engage in these types of activities ultimately means asserting that Jackson ought not to express certain opinions or try to convince others of those opinions (solely) through the use of words and private (non-violent) deeds.

What Jackson talks about trying to accomplish with respect to racial discrimination, I would like to see done in the area of discrimination against atheists.

I would like to argue for a program where the major networks tell their employees that they are not to use the phrase, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” I would like to see that phrase removed from the public airways. I am not advocating any type of legislation where those who express the opinion, “there are no atheists in foxholes” are thrown in prison. However, by means of words and private action alone, I would like to get the network executives to realize that this is an unjustly denigrating and derogatory statement – that it brands atheists as cowards unwilling to fight to defend just institutions, or as insincere in their beliefs. As such, it is not a claim that an honest and fair broadcaster would use.

Of course, the broadcaster can still report, “The spokesman said that there are no atheists in foxholes” when it is in fact true that some person had said it. However, this is different from the broadcaster herself saying into the microphone, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Another comment that I would like to see cleansed from the airways is the claim that there is some necessary disconnect between atheism and morality. Here, I have in mind an opinion piece that appeared on Yahoo News called, “Atheism isn’t the final word.”

What would a world without God look like? Well, for one, morality becomes, if not impossible, exceedingly difficult. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ loses much of its force when reduced from commandment to a suggestion. . . .

In terms of morality, a denial of God leads nowhere. A universe that isn't God-centered becomes ego-centered. People come to see choices through the prism of self: what promotes the individual's well-being and happiness. Such a worldview does not naturally lead to benevolence or self-sacrifice.

There are no secularist counterparts to Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce (the evangelical responsible for abolition of the British slave trade), Martin Luther King Jr., or the Christians - from France to Poland - who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

This is bigotry. And the fact that it comes wearing clerical vestments does not keep it from being bigotry. Today, we would hardly grant sanctuary to somebody who defends negro slavery on the basis of biblical teachings. We would hardly allow him to protest, “You denigrate the teaching of my religion if you do not allow me to have the descendents of Ham as my slaves.” Nor would we give sanctuary to somebody who used the Bible as justification for calling for a crusade against Jews or Muslims.

Denigrating claims about atheists should be no more common on the airwaves than denigrating claims about blacks and Jews based on religious passages. This requires educating people into exactly what is wrong with these types of claims.

More to the point, a general campaign to rid the airways of bigotry and denigration is not evil. It is a worthy goal – though it must be carried out in a particular way. It may not be accomplished through violence – only through words and private actions.

It is no violation of free speech to condemn the bigot – to condemn the person who unjustly denigrates others. Indeed, it is a violation of free speech to prohibit people from condemning the bigot, and from expressing their disapproval through private non-violent acts. If speech is to be free, then harsh response in the form of words and private deeds to those who denigrate others is speech that is very much in need of protection.

I would like to know how I would be violating anybody’s free speech to say that such a person is not only wrong, but the nature of his error rests in a moral failing – a willingness to judge others negatively based, not on their own deeds and words, but on the basis of a label. I would like to know why it would not be a violation of free speech to prohibit me from calling Don Feder a hate-mongering bigot, and for condemning those who are responsible for giving him a podium from which to spew his message of hate.

It is not accurate to brand somebody as being opposed to free speech, simply because he wishes that certain errors are not repeated. The charge of censorship does not depend on the goal. It depends on the means that people use to reach that goal. The scientist who wishes to exterminate the idea that the earth is 10,000 years old is not a ‘censor’ who is ‘opposed to free speech’ so long as he limits his tools to open dialogue and private action.

It is not wrong to hope that, some day, everybody will be smart enough to realize the stupidity of young-earth claims. It is not wrong to pounce on those who make these false claims as a way of containing the damage that they may otherwise do. It is not wrong to tell those with money that there are serious problems with promoting such falsehood and nonsense.

So, I find myself in this awkward position.

On the one hand, I condemn atheist activists who, in their zeal, blame people who are guilty of no wrongdoing by creating this lump of people, sticking a label on them, then condemning everybody they have labeled, without regard for individual differences. This is bigotry.

At the same time, I condemn atheist activists who allow theist bigots to get away with their bigotry, when the protests against their denigrating and derogatory statements should be swift and merciless until somebody loses their job and everybody is put on warning.

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