Moral high ground and other thoughts

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The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1996

It is also not attacking someone presenting fallacious ideas. It is not punching a Nazi.

There is a nearly infinite number of things, of current events that one could try to break down and discuss. The Muslim ban, alternative facts, Sally Yates, and whatever else is going on at the moment. A slight sense of dread rises every morning as I check the Guardian newsletter on my email. At least one of the headlines is always about Trump – and it’s never good. If it wasn’t crystal clear before, it sure is now, that his appointment has had and will continue to have global consequences to the lives of already disenfranchised people.

The reinstatement of the so called “global gag rule” takes away family planning resources from vulnerable women in economically unstable areas across the globe. US government dollars will no longer support family planning programs if those programs mention abortion as an option for their clients. The “pro-life” movement has always been a disgusting hate group in my eyes since they unambiguously value an unborn, unconscious, barely sentient foetus more highly than its actual living mother who may simply have been unlucky with contraception, or you know, raped. There are pregnancies that become life-threatening for the mother, and there are situations where the child is unwanted for other reasons. To force a woman to carry a child against her will is a vile act of oppression. And it’s not like making abortions inaccessible or even illegal will stop them – it will only make them more dangerous.

This was not supposed to be an abortion rant.

Let’s get back to punching Nazis.

Richard Spencer who is a nefarious and vile piece of human garbage, and an outspoken ethnic cleansing advocate, got smacked in the face during a TV interview after Trump’s inauguration. And the Internet loved it. Apparently that was the second time his face took a battering that day. I can’t say that I feel sorry for him as he really is as much of a Nazi as a human being can possibly be.

However, at a time when a nation that once represented the good guys, and rode the wave of freedom and democracy, is now being lead by a narcissistic orange 2-year-old, those of us on the side of universal human rights, religious freedom and free speech have to preserve the moral high-ground. It’s frustrating, I know.

As an isolated incident this isn’t interesting in any way. People get punched for saying disagreeable things all the time. Many European countries condemn the kind of hate speech that routinely pours out of Richard Spencer’s mouth, and perhaps that’s why it is easy to think that he got what he deserved. And honestly, if anyone deserves a beating for stupid shit they say, it is Richard Spencer.

But.

In the wake of the Trump presidency where facts are challenged by “alternative facts” issued by none other than the White House, and an Attorney General gets fired for following the constitution rather than the unrestrained temper tantrums of the President, the pillars of democracy have to stand their ground. One of those pillars is the criminal justice system whereby individuals are punished by the institution after they have been found guilty by the proper process – not by street vigilantism.

We must remember that in their eyes those abortion clinic burning dipshits (official term, trust me) think they are doing the right thing just as much as we think we are doing the right thing when we assault a Nazi. This is why civil societies have law enforcement that takes care of stopping and punishing for criminal acts. Needless to say that it is nowhere near a perfect system but if the alternative is that each person acts as a judge and deals justice as they see fit I will happily take the first option.

If we commend random beatings of well-known Nazis on the street, we are unwittingly commending suppression of any speech by violence. As a liberal, feeling victimised by the rise of the far right and the likes of Donald Trump, it is easy to feel entitled to going rogue and taking down the bad guys that have sneaked into our governments. But if we do that, then we are no better than our opponents. In a free society, all opinions can be voiced. It doesn’t mean that they are all equally valid, but a society based on principles of the enlightenment and democracy can withstand a multitude of voices without turning to censorship and propaganda.

Violence is but a short-term solution to silence harmful and discriminatory speech, and the better and only way to counteract it is speaking up against it. Debating and arguing with our antagonists lacks the excitement and sense of power that simply breaking their noses and as many teeth as possible provides, but it is the only viable way forward. Violence breeds martyrs, and martyrs can be powerful.

I could go round and round this topic for hours, but I just want to say this.
It is more important than ever, for those of us who oppose totalitarianism, austerity and theocracy; injustice and bigotry, to stand our ground and not let ourselves be dragged back centuries. We must not give in to our lizard brains’ impulses to simply rip our enemies to shreds, but to speak up and do our very best to spread factual information and promote equality.

Women’s March in London gave me a sliver of hope where I didn’t see it before. About 100 000 people gathered in London to display solidarity for women in America, and to show our own government that we are serious. As cheesy as this kind of talk sounds, I believe that bringing hope to people’s lives in any shape or form is invaluable. Millions of people across all continents came together to peacefully protest the values of those in power. If nothing else, it created a sense of unity. Things like this don’t necessarily effect immediate change in the world but they do have value for they prove to each of us that we are not alone, and that we are not mindless slaves merely following the whims of those in power. We can make a change, and we ought not to let ourselves be silenced.

Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.

Christopher Hitchens

So you’re offended?

IMG_9866Freedom of speech is very high up on the list of my most important values – as I believe it is for most. However, following the expansion of social media as a platform where anyone and everyone can have their say on any topic under the sun it seems that freedom of speech has become confused with the freedom of not being offended.

I used to be an avid Tumblr user some years ago. At first it was a cool place for pop culture and fandoms where you’d find a lot of people deeply devoted to sci-fi shows doing character studies and meta-analyses and what have you. Feminism, LGBTQ rights and anti-racism were always prevalent and I have to say I learned a lot about everyday sexism and racism in the U.S. (most users seemed to be American) among other things. But then gradually everything became offensive to someone, and the term ‘trigger warning’ started to appear.

By the way, I’ve now heard that some universities in the U.S. and even in the UK have student bodies demanding that lecturers issue trigger warnings and refrain from using certain words lest they cause a student to be upset – or rather traumatised.
I sometimes wonder how the human race has survived for this long…

The thought behind this is that some topics may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault or otherwise. I can see the value of the idea but so long as media platforms like Tumblr don’t automatically generate trigger warnings haphazard tagging by a minimal number of users seems pointless.
With regard to establishments of higher education and research, I can hardly think of a worse course of action than to start censoring people in spaces which were created for free enquiry, research, discussion, debate and open critique of ideas and theories. I simply cannot stand the thought of going to do a Masters degree and finding out that the professors and lecturers are having to hold themselves back in the fear of accidentally making someone feel uncomfortable. This is inconceivable – and in my honest opinion, individuals who feel that they would be seriously damaged by hearing certain words or discussing certain topics should probably not go to a university in the first place. Being uncomfortable is crucial for intellectual development.

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.
– Stephen Fry

But back to Tumblr: the more I read responses to apparently triggering content, the more I came to realise that for the most part people were merely upset or angry about something they had read, rather than actually triggered in a psychologically serious way. In Finnish we have a wonderful word,’mielensäpahoittaja’, for people who seem to actively look for things to get offended by so that they can attack the alleged offenderAs soon as one seeks to shut down a conversation or silence their opponent on the grounds of being offended, in my eyes, they have lost. No problem was ever solved by declaring it a taboo.
So then I stopped using Tumblr because my blood pressure couldn’t handle the “How dare you use that word you racist, trans-phobic, misogynist, white supremacist, ableist, sociopathic cunt!!!” type of rhetoric that was rampant.

Escaping Tumblr was only a short-term solution and being offended is increasingly trendy in every nook of social media. Of course there are words like nigger or fag that are found offensive in most of their uses. However words in and of themselves are not and can not be offensive; we give them meaning and one can either chose – or not, to give or take offence. There are ideas that can be viewed as offensive, such as women as second-class citizens, and of course some people find nudity or homosexuality terribly upsetting. All in all everyone has a right to be offended. This is not an issue. The issue is the misconception that being offended means you are right and the other person is wrong; that somehow you, as the offended party are entitled to be de-offended. Spoiler alert: you are not, and none of us are. Taking offence is our own business, and if we wish to confront our perceived offenders we have every right to defend our views. But simply stating “This is offensive” is not effective advocacy, and will not aid your cause whatever it may be.

The world is full of interesting and hard conversations to be had and the real tragedy is if intelligent and insightful people start to censor themselves under the pressure of thin-skinned opponents and audiences. I firmly believe that any topic should be open for discussion and any idea fair game for critique. We should all recognise that when our ideas, views and beliefs are being criticised, we as persons are not under attack. For instance, when I question your religious ideology I am not questioning your personhood, morality or value. I would never deliberately offend a person but I would offend an idea.
How about actually offensive and hateful speech though – isn’t that bad? I think everyone should have the right to present themselves precisely as bigoted and ignorant as they in fact are. Genuinely bad ideas will more than likely be faced with mockery, and genuinely malicious speech will be condemned. Shutting people up won’t stop them from generating stupid ideas, laughing them off the stage might.
That said, when it comes to representing the views of a group of people, one ought to be held more accountable for their statements as they are in fact not only speaking for themselves.

‘If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”.’
– Christopher Hitchens

Some resources:
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – I’m Offended!
Sam Harris and Jonatahan Haidt talk about political correctness on campus and lots of other things (just listen to all of Sam’s podcast episodes, he’s brilliant and you might get offended)
SubReddit about Social Justice Warriors on Tumblr and elsewhere (it’s funny ok)
All of Christopher Hitchens’ debates on YouTube (he’s the bomb)