Friday, August 31, 2012

Caustic Comments: Themes of (Sexual) Violence

It is wrong to inject violence, threats of violence, or celebrations of violence into a discussion.

This post concerns one of the major complaints motivating the Atheism Plus movement. I do not write as a member of that movement, but as a commenter on one of the its areas of concern. This concerns comments that inject violence. In this case, the focus is particularly on comments that celebrate violence - and often violence of a sexual nature - against women. However, the principles are broadly applicable. I will be applying them as well to comments that celebrate violence against atheists.

With respect to women, it concerns comments like, "Slap the bitch," or "Rape her with a knife" or "Kick them all in the cunt."

No decent person would inject these types of comments into a discussion, or offer a defense of those who do so under normal circumstances. (No moral statements are absolutes. If somebody were to inject such a comment because "a kidnapper has my child and threatened to hurt her if I did not," this could make such an injection legitimate. However, we are focused here on normal cases, not extraordinary circumstances.)

Comments such as these, particularly when they go unchallenged, create an environment that makes these types of violent reponses more likely. A person who is repulsed by such thoughts simply is much less likely to perform such actions. The way that people learn to be repulsed by such thoughts is by praise and condemnation working on the reward centers of the brain to alter their values, which is how the practice of praise and condemnation came about.

Allowing these attitudes to go unchallenged means allowing the psychological barriers against this type of behavior to be lower than it otherwise would have been. In doing so, they make acts that correspond to these comments more likely. Furthermore, it serves to generate anxiety in those who would be subject to those actions, thus helping to "keep them in line" - making sure that they avoid behaviors that would increase that risk even further.

Some readers may be able to relate better to the points I have just made by looking at a relevantly similar situation. This involves being an employee in an organization or being in a group where people embrace and endorse the sentiments in the "joke" about The Atheist and the Marine. This 'joke' celebrates an act where a Marine beats an atheist into unconsciousness.

Even where no such act of violence takes place, these types of comments create a hostile environment which gives people permission to denigrate and discount any contribution that an atheist may make, or to obstruct their contributions merely because they are atheists. A culture where people routinely celebrate and endorse the sentiments contained within such a joke are bound to be intimidating. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that this is the purpose of this type of "humor" - to intimidate and bully others and, in doing so, to maintain control over them.

"But we are just having fun. Lighten up, will you? Quit taking these things so seriously."

This is the clarion call of the bully. While intimidating and dominating others - or while simply being cruel - he responds to criticism with, "Shut up. We were just having fun. We were not hurting anybody."

However, this invites us to ask, "What type of person are you that you consider this to be fun?" What does it say of a person that he laughs at the mental image of an atheist being beaten to unconsciousness or at the image of a woman being raped with a knife? And how much safety and security can one enjoy surrounded by such people if, in the first case, one is an atheist or, in the second, one is a woman?

Some people seem to argue that, even where this behavior is wrong, it is also wrong to respond to it with condemnation or with private actions that aim to express disapproval of those who engage in this kind of behavior (e.g., blocking such people from making comments or disinviting them from a conference).

This attitude towards condemnation is not even coherent. "I condemn you for engaging in acts of condemnation, which no person should ever do."

It is, in fact, the very essence of a moral position that those who violate the principle are to be condemned while those who follow it even when it is difficult to do so are to be praised. It is on this very ground that we condemn, liars, thieves, rapists, murderers, those who abuse children, and those who kill or maim in the name of God. It is on account of the fact that some behavior is wrong and those who engage in that behavior deserve to be condemned for it.

Injecting violence, threats of violence, or celebrations of violence into a discussion qualifies as such a wrong.

What about freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech prohibits responding to words alone with violence - which, in this case, includes the violence inherent in criminal punishment.

This is a prohibition established in recognition that there are things that people agree passionately about where they are mistaken. Beliefs that fit this criterion have been discovered in every generation so far, and there is no reason to doubt that the same is true today. Consequently, we must not close down debate on subjects, even where we are all certain we are right.

However, a debate on a subject has no need for injecting violence or threats of violence. In fact, these types of comments represent a known fallacy - appeal to the stick.

Note that the right of freedom of speech itself is a prohibition on the use of violence or threat of violence. Making members of a group - such as women - fearful of speaking out because of threats of violence contained in these types of comments is, itself, a violation of the right to freedom of speech. One cannot consistently defend the right to freedom of speech while coddling and defending those who cay that those who speak "should be raped with a knife."

This right means that people who make comments like those above shall not be met with violence for words alone. (Though this protection ends where violent words can be shown to be attempts to coerce behavior by making people afraid of actual violence).

However, freedom of speech does not protect a speaker from words offered in response - such as words of criticism, contempt and condemnation.

We hear the counter to this from religious groups constantly - that somehow their freedom of religion means a freedom from criticism of their beliefs or condemnation of practices that bring harm to others. We correctly reject it when the priest or the apologist makes such an assertion. We may reject it when it is applied to the person who injects violent themes into a discussion as well.

Your right to freedom of speech does not imply a duty on my part to remain silent when your comments are false, cruel, or create for me or others an environment where I must live under a threat of violence or be intimidated into silence.

Nor does freedom of speech prohibit private actions taken as a result of such comments. Refusing to work with a person or organization that frequently makes comments such as these, or who create a culture where statements of sexualized violence are met with indifference, are among the legitimate private actions one may take. Banning people from making comments or banning them from participation in private events are also permissible. These private actions do not violate the right to freedom of speech.

The very fact that a violent response is not appropriate means that non-violent responses - words and private actions - become that much more important. These become the only tools for expressing disapproval of - and for promoting aversions to - attitudes expressed with words that create risks for others in general and sexualized violence against women in particular.

In the absence of condemnation and private actions, we are left with treating these attitudes as permissible - with creating attitudes that make this type of behavior much more likely and forcing women to live in that environment. In terms of social consequences, the inability to condemn is the same as saying, "Go ahead. Have a good time. It doesn't matter one way or the other. Clearly, nobody has a legitimate right to complain."

If one cares that women not be required to live in an environment where they face a constant fear of sexualized violence, and where jokes are used to create obedience and dominance through fear, then one must object to people injecting themes of violence in general and sexual violence in specific into conversations. Furthermore, will will follow up those objections with private actions against the most serious offenders - those who persist in establishing and maintaining and endorsing those attitudes.


diƤtplan said...

very good comment

Anonymous said...

I am very happy to be reading more and more people standing up against these nasty violent words on blogs and other internet forums. Very good post, and I like how you picked apart the argument against those who are claiming 'free speech!'. This post is encouraging. Thank you.