Phobias

Many years ago, in a previous workplace, a colleague and I had the following exchange.

She: All of the stories where the virgin appears to someone in a field or whatever have similar details, even when they are in different countries and cultures. This must mean that they really happened, and that the virgin mary walks among us.

Me: There are similar details, yes, but often these stories are transcribed or even retold by priests, all of whom belong to the same culture (catholicism) and expect to see certain features in a miracle story and are, indeed, prone to shape the stories by adding or emphasizing those features. Even those doing the encountering may, if they have had a religious education, have certain pre-formed expectations of what such an encounter should look like. Similarities between these incidents that appear in the written record are not, therefore, good evidence that miracles happen.

She: Okay, now you’re not respecting my religion.

Let’s unpack that last statement, shall we?

First of all, let’s just be honest. In actual fact the problem is not that I don’t RESPECT her beliefs, it’s that I don’t SHARE them. This is an endless loop where anyone who does not agree with Marcela (the colleague in question) is being disrespectful. And while this is certainly handy for Marcela, since rhetorically, no one can ever disagree with her about anything ever again without now being a bigot, it’s not a great premise for free speech, collegiality, friendship, rational inquiry, or equal rights.

Second of all, in a free state, you respect people’s RIGHTS, not their OPINIONS. It drives me crazy that these two categories have recently been elided to the point where you are no longer allowed to say that an IDEA is bad. Ideas can be bad. They can be evil, wicked, dangerous, destructive, stupid, unfounded, and much in need of rebuttal and eradication. Some ideas should crawl away forever and die in a hole they are so potentially damaging. And even those that are not, well, free people in a free state are allowed to disagree about them, because it’s the RIGHTS of those people — to have ideas in the first place, and to express them freely in various ways like speech, publication, and assembly — that free states protect, not the ideas themselves.

And so, third of all, and following on first and second of all, when you tell someone who disagrees with you about something that they are not allowed to hold that opinion, when you call them bigoted and disrespectful instead of addressing the content of their speech, you are the one doing the silencing, and you you are the one who lacks respect. For the law. For people’s rights. And for the other person. And, incidentally, since you seem to think ideas must be “respected” (i.e. agreed with), for that person’s ideas.

To be clear, I think the premise of “respecting someone’s beliefs” is a bad, bullshit premise. However, those who claim to live by its rules should be respecting my beliefs as well, should they not? And since my beliefs say that we use science, evidence, reason, and empirical data to make our decisions about the world, and are heavily skeptical of any and all religious claims, shutting me down is not respecting MY beliefs. Ok, now go back to the exchange above, apply the principle evenly, equally, to both parties, and see where it gets you on the discourse front. Hear those birdies chirping in the total silence? Yes, that’s where it gets you, and that’s why it’s a bullshit premise.

Fast forward to the american left, the 2010’s. Everywhere you look, there is a creeping new problem, islamophobia. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, people everywhere in the world today are not respecting other people’s beliefs, and they are bigoted about–an idea.

I am deeply, deeply tired of hearing about this for the reasons stated above, principally, but also for some additional reasons which I will detail below. Know for context that when I typed essentially exactly the same thing (rights and ideas are different) on someone’s post about islam as I did above about christianity, that person called me a bigot, twice, in front of an audience and refused to engage in any further discussion about the issue. When challenged, she wrote: “I don’t know what to say.”

So, in addition to the incredibly dangerous and mind-numbingly stupid base problems that come with “respecting someone’s beliefs”, let me add the following about “islamophobia”.

If extremist religious groups kidnap a classroom full of girls and sell them into sexual slavery, and they do so for religious reasons, and they tell everyone that their reasons are religious, and they chant allah is great all the while that they are engaged in this horribly violent, misogynist act, and you say to me, okay, but that has nothing to do with islam, I say are you some kind of moron? Of course it has something to do with islam, because they guys who are doing the kidnapping say it does, and that’s how beliefs work.

I understand the reasons behind the counter-arguments. Not every muslim is a conservative muslim, and not every conservative muslim is a terrorist, and we should not run around blaming individual muslims for something they didn’t do, and we should definitely be on the alert against the kind of violent, racist, and disgusting reprisals that my former country is, unfortunately, famous for throughout its history. I get all that, I’m with you. But all of this is still in the territory of protecting and respecting people’s rights. Once you step over the line and say that you cannot say anything negative about islam as a system of ideas in the world, you lose me, and also, you are deluded. When people say, hello, I am a deeply religious person and that is why I am smacking you in the face, and then they smack you in the face, and your response is, hey, that’s not about religion, you are deluded. How is anyone supposed to take an argument like that, a left like that, seriously?

Speaking of which, I understand that I have stepped outside the immediate context of fox news, and that many of these “islamophobia” posts are responses to things that get said, first, in these circles. Genuinely racist things, in many cases, because the american right is the only thing that is worse than the american left. So I get the impulse. But here’s what. Once you are letting the fox news guys decide the discourse for you, you may or may not win a few battles, but you have already lost the war. First because you are being reactive instead of setting up your own agenda, constantly following along the worst and stupidest lines of thought currently available and line-by-line glossing them to point out their errors instead of actually building change. And second because now, the ONLY people ever to say anything negative about any content of any religion are fascists. You’ve created a ground where you can either defend any and all religious ideas, no matter how cracked, or you ARE the fox news guys. It’s a bad idea to leave this territory for the neo-nazis. Leftists need to claim it, and find ways to talk about it that aren’t racist and horrible, or racist and horrible will be all we have left. If it isn’t too late for that already.

Also, this. If an extremist religious group kidnaps a vacationing backpacker in the mountains and executes him in the name of the lord because of his citizenship, and your FIRST REACTION is, okay, it’s true, those guys’ imaginary friend is a bad guy, but I know other guys who claim to have the same imaginary friend, and THEY SAY that he didn’t REALLY say to kidnap people and execute them, they say he’s actually a really nice guy, and would never do anything like that, so let’s focus on the fact that this imaginary friend guy isn’t like what the first group said but is actually like what the second group said because there is a hierarchy of imaginary friend guy evidence which proves that the facts about imaginary friend have been gotten wrong by group one….

If the above is your reaction to the events described, I question not only your capacity for rational thought, but also your capacity for empathy and a basic human response. Because the victim in this story is not some idea, “islam”, the victim in this story is the guy who got decapitated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A person who cannot see that is not a person I want as my friend or my neighbor. If a bunch of these guys (and they are nearly all guys, let’s not kid ourselves) who believe in this imaginary friend guy are running around saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to read or drive a car, I say that, because we are, indeed, talking about an IMAGINARY FRIEND, a response that says they are wrong about him is illogical, useless, and completely deluded. Give each little believer subgroup its own name if it makes you feel better, but when your fellow citizens say something like, islam is bad for women and gay people, they’ve got good evidence for doing so, and calling them a bigot is not an appropriate, rational, or indeed a respectful response.

Finally, people, you are being used, and not just by fox news (who must be delighted that leftists as stupid and credulous as you have stumbled into their path). When “respecting a religion” becomes coterminous with “obeying that religion’s dictates”, well that religion and its leaders have now succeeded in converting you. Here, you need to rethink your position on publishing pictures of the prophet. It’s forbidden TO MUSLIMS to do this, not to everyone in the world ever, muslim or not. I’m not a muslim, I am not subject to this law, and, living in a free state as I do, I am allowed to publish whatever the hell I want. If somebody else gets upset about it, that’s THEIR PROBLEM. If you refrain from publishing this image “out of respect”, you are agreeing with the people in the religion who say that everyone, muslim or not, must obey them, who say that islam is the truth, that it is a world religion, and that everyone should be subject to its principles. This is a bad idea. The mother of all bad ideas. As for the people (and I know some) who defend those who kill people for publishing images of the prophet, hey, fuck you.

In a free state, all ideas a fair game. In a free state, I can think and say whatever I want. If you don’t work for these principles, you are not on the side of right, no matter how strident your denunciations of others.

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