Thursday, April 11, 2013

Moral Condemnations and Tribal Identities

Yesterday, I wrote about a couple of hundred thousand arrogant, ignorant, semi-barbarians gathering at a rally in Bangladesh demanding that atheist bloggers be rounded up and executed.

I did not write about arrogant, ignorant, semi-barbaric Muslims - even though the vast majority of participants were Muslim.

The reason is because the second option invites confusion - a misunderstanding of the facts, include moral facts, of the case.

One should not include a tribal identity in a moral criticism of this type. It confuses and obscures the important issues and tends to cause people to draw unjustified and unjust conclusions.

While it is true that the protesters were Muslim, it is also true that they were Bangladeshi, that they were male, that they were adults born after 1900 and before 2010, and that they were human. We could have included any of these terms as well, and the statement would have still been literally true. Not every true statement is worth saying.

A possible response to this would be to say that their being Muslim is a relevant fact, while the rest of these facts are irrelevant. After all, they are calling for the execution of those who - in their opinion - insult Islam.

Here is where the problem lies, because it is not true that their being Muslim is a relevant fact. It is in virtue of their being a particular type of Muslim that they participated in this rally. There are other types of Muslims who did not participate in or support the rally, some of them in the government of Bangladesh.

Including the tribal identity in this list of terms used in moral condemnation invites the very real danger of applying the moral terms to everybody within the tribe. This is a bad move for three reasons.

First, it condemns the innocent. If there were - or even if there could be - a Muslim who does not fit the description of arrogant, ignorant, semi-barbarian, then using the term of tribal identity invites people to judge them guilty of moral crimes for which they are innocent.

Second, it allows those who are guilty to draw on the innocence of those falsely condemned. A standard - almost cliche response - to this type of claim is to point to that segment wrongly condemned as proof that the accusations are false and need not be taken seriously.

At the very least, those legitimately condemned are provided with an opportunity to change the subject. In this case, they get to shift the attention away from the fact that atheists are being rounded up and may be executed, and shift the conversation to one over whether Sam Harris is an Islamophobic bigot. This allows the arrests and possible execution to go on in the periphery of public attention.

Third, it provides cover for arrogant, ignorant, semi-barbarians who are not Muslim. They get to draw the unwarranted conclusion that, "The criticism does not apply to me because I am not Muslim." Socially, they can go on about their business because everybody's attention is being directed either to the arrogant, ignorant, semi-barbaric Muslim or Muslims wrongly being branded as such.

Removing the tribal tag from the condemnation removes the innocent Muslim from the target list and adds, the non-Muslim guilty of the same crimes, and it keeps the conversation focused on its legitimate target.

Let us assume, just for illustration, that 99.9 percent of Muslims are arrogant, ignorant, semi-barbarians; while only 0.5 percent of non-Muslims fit this description. This is a wild exaggeration I am using merely to illustrate that the point that I am making is applicable even in these extreme circumstances. Certainly it is more applicable to more moderate real-world situations.

It is still better - even in the sense of being technically more accurate - to link the 99.9 percent of guilty Muslims in this example with the 0.5 percent of the rest of the population who are also arrogant, ignorant, and semi-barbaric than it is to link them to the 0.1 percent of Muslims who are innocent. Or, if we look at it from the other side, as an accuser, I would rather be associated with the more modest, knowledgable, and civilized Muslim than with the arrogant, ignorant, semi-barbaric non-Muslim. Consequently, "Muslim" is not included in the description of those I am targeting.

The way to do this - the way to communicate these distinctions most efficiently - is to leave the purely descriptive tribal terms out of the moral condemnation. It is not morally relevant that the protesters in Bangladesh are Muslim. What is morally relevant is that the protesters are arrogant, ignorant, and semi-barbaric. Those are the qualities that we have reason to weaken through social forces such as condemnation.

Finally, some would argue that it is integral to Islam that one take this attitude of executing all of those who were to say, on matters of religion, "I think you are mistaken." If a person were to deny this view, then one would not be a "true" Muslim.

At one level, I am not such an expert on Islam that I can make or defend statement - and neither are the vast majority of people who make those statements. On another level, language is an invention. There is no sense to the idea of discovering the one true and correct meaning intrinsic to any term. There are only the meanings that people agree to use. The claim that there is a one true and correct definition of the term "Muslim" and that can only legitimately refer to people who advocate killing those who say they are mistaken is grounded on a false premise about the nature of language.

We can apply these points to a comment I received on my last post.

I am really shocked and surprised to see your observation on the situation now prevailing in Bangladesh. But I respect your personal right to freedom of expression. I am sure you know Bangladesh is a country of 150 million Muslims. Percentage of literacy is around 60. General people are still poor. Very rich people are also here. Politicians are in general rich. I am a Muslim by faith. I do also respect other faith. I believe in Islam because,it is the only religion on earth which hates poverty and illiteracy. Islam protects the rights of women, but not in a manner you think fit.These days westerns have almost no religion. Atheism never abuse or rebukes others faith or religion.

I did not write a post about all the people of Bangladesh. I wrote a post specifically about a couple of hundred thousand protestors in Bangladesh. Facts about non-protestors in Bangladesh are as irrelevant as facts about non-protestors in Tel-Aviv. I would protest a KKK rally in Washington DC - without making any implication about Americans in general.

I also - and quite intentionally - did not mention the term "Muslim" until the final paragraph. Even there, I mentioned it only in the contest of saying that I intentionally left out the fact that these protestors were Muslim because I think that there are problems in including such a fact that I would discuss in the next post (in this post). So, any comments made against my post by describing the virtue of some Muslims is also irrelevant to my post.

My post concerned the arrogance, ignorance, and semi-barbaric attitudes exhibited by any person, in any country, of any faith or no faith at all, who advocates the brutal murder of those who dare to say that they are mistaken. The only relevant responsen to such a post would be an attempt to defend the moral permission of executing those who dare say, "You may be wrong."

And the rule is - statements of moral condemnation should not include merely descriptive tribal identities. It only serves to confuse the issue and to invite the application of the moral claims to all members of the mentioned tribe. This, in turn, leands to conclusions that are not only unjustified but unjust and weakens their effectiveness in condemning the type of behavior we have many and strong reasons to condemn effectively.

1 comment:

Jim Habegger said...

I love this. I'm really glad to see this. The issue of maligning whole categories of people has been on my mind a lot for a long time. Thank you!