Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Pledge Project: Legitimate Response

I want to apply the scenario that I presented a couple of days ago against the idea that a 'voluntary' Pledge of Allegiance is defensible to the hypothesis that the ‘under God’ in the Pledge is not an issue worth caring about.

That scenario went as follows:

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?

Now, imagine that you logged onto your computer one morning, browsed to your favorite news site, and saw a headline, "Community adopts pledge of allegiance to 'our white community'?"

You read a story that fits the description that I gave above. It is a story about a community that is 85% white and where whites hold 100% of the elected seats (because most people in that community refuse to vote for a candidate that is not white). This community adopts a community pledge to 'our white community'.

Now, I have some questions that I would like to ask you.

(1) What do you think your reaction would be as you read that story?

(2) What do you think your reaction should be as you read that story?

(3) How do you think the rest of the nation and even the rest of the world would react to that news?

(4) How do you think the rest of the nation and even the rest of the world should react to that news?

Next, imagine next that some news commentator, newspaper editorial board, politician, or opinion leader were to declare, "This issue is not important. The fact that some community has adopted a pledge of allegiance to 'our white community' simply is not important. We should be devoting our attention to more serious matters."

(5) How would you react to the news report about what that commentator or politician said?

(6) How do you think you and others should react to a public figure who said that a community's pledge of allegiance to 'our white community' is trivial and unworthy of concern?

A Digression into Theory

Before I go on to discuss the implications of these questions, I need to beg your indulgence for a few short paragraphs of moral theory.

I do not hold for intuitionist moral arguments. Intuitionism says that you can arrive at moral truth by contemplating a situation in a moment of calm and measuring one's own feelings towards that situation. It is as if the universe is filled with moral vibrations and the brain has some type of mental sense organ for picking up these vibrations.

All of this is nonsense. No such faculty exists.

My points above were not intended to pick up moral intuitions. They have to do with consistency. Whatever moral condemnation is justified against a city that posts a sign in its civic center that says, "We Are White People" that same level of condemnation is justified against a city that puts up "We Trust In God." Those who think that the latter is a trivial concern unworthy of a good person’s time and attention needs to also stand ready to assert that any protests against "We Are White People." Those who think that some more severe level of outrage would be justified against a community posting, "We Are White People" in its public school rooms cannot consistently assert that "We Trust In God" is a trivial concern.

At least, the person who gives these two events different moral evaluations needs to provide us with an explanation as to where the moral differences can be found.

(See yesterday's post for a defense of the analogy between religion and race on matters of government discrimination.)

The Civil Rights Calendar

I have heard some people describe the Atheist situation in America as being comparable to that of homosexuals in the 1960s – on the verge of a political movement that has brought them substantial progress.

I disagree. I think that a more accurate comparison puts atheists in the United States today on the same level as blacks in the 1920s. Blacks at the time were living in a society where they were surrounded by signs on water fountains, restrooms, sections of a restaurant, and parts of a bus that said "colored" and "white". There was no organized resistance against these injustices for the most part. Society was allowed to live a lie of "separate but equal" where blacks were clearly separate and clearly not equal.

In order or atheists to be able to claim that they have reached a level of sophistication in defense of their rights that blacks had in the 1950s, they would have to be willing and able to identify some community that has decided to post "In God We Trust" in its civic center or classrooms and make that community an example of all communities that expressed this type of bigotry.

How would blacks respond to news that a community that is 85% white had voted to post the sign, "We Are a White Community" in city hall?

They would probably begin with an economic boycott. They would advise anybody in the country planning vacations in that town to change their plans and to avoid the city. They would contact businesses and organizations planning conventions in the city and call for them to cancel those conventions or move them elsewhere, and encourage all other organizations to consider different locations for their businesses. They would contact businesses considering expansion into the city and have them reconsider.

My point is that anybody who claims that atheists are overreacting to a decision to put "We Are Not Atheists" in city hall must, by consistency, be ready to object that blacks would be overreacting to a sign that says, "We Are a White Community." If they are not ready to say that blacks would be overreacting to such a sign cannot, consistently, argue that atheists are overreacting to a sign that says "We Are Not Atheists" or, what amounts to the same thing, "We Trust In God."


Anonymous said...


Kudos to you for your series on The Pledge Project.

If you have the time I would like to point out what I perceive as a possible weakness of your line of argument.

A possible objection to the race analogy could be that you cannot hide your skin color, but you can hide your atheism. In order to avoid disadvantages all an atheist has to do is conceal his atheism.

Signs like "In God we trust" can be ignored with impunity - not so the signs "For White People Only".

In this sense I feel that the comparison to the gay movement would be more fitting: You should not have to conceal your identity in order to not suffer negative consequences.

I would very much like to hear more from you on why the race analogy is more fitting than the gay analogy.

An even better fitting analogy would be the situation of socialists in the McCarthy era.
(Homosexuality is not a choice, while it could be argued that atheism is voluntary.)
But since this issue has never been quite resolved in the US - it is still considered "un-American" to espouse socialist or social democratic ideas - using a "socialist analogy" would be politically unwise.

But I would also like you to address the question of "voluntary" association with atheism, since the scientific finding that homosexuality is not a choice had a strong impact on the gay rights advancement.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thank you for your compliments.

I think that there are some relevant points that deflect what you see as a 'possible weaknes'.

The ability to hide from injustice does not really prevent an act from being unjust.

There is no argument to be made that if blacks could simply find a way to hide their skin color (say, by using particularly good makeup) that this would make segregation and Jim Crowe Laws legitimate practices.

Nor would it be legitimate to deny women the right to vote by arguing that a woman who wishes to vote merely needs to change or to hide her gender.

It would still be the case that these policies are unjust in virtue of the fact that they categorize people using illegitimate criteria.

Also, while it is the case that many people treat the proposition that homosexuality is not a choice as having moral significance, it does not have nearly the significance attributed to it. If the disposition to rape children were shown to be something over which a person had no choice, would this argue for decriminalizing the rape of children?

It is harm (or the thwarting of desires) that is relevant here, not choice. Choice is only relevant in determining whether we count a disposition to do harm as an evil (if it is under social control) or an illness (if it is outside of social control). It is not relevant in classifying something as an wrong or permissible.