Essay:Draw Muhammad day was a terrible idea

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Though I'm hesitant to get this argument started up again I thought I'd just register here a more considered version of what I was trying to say on Pharyngula (yeah, I was the GJames guy, 21/05/10, the comment thread on the Muhammad day post) rather than kick it off there again - the chances of another 200 comment argument with a fair few "fucks" and "cunts" being thrown around are comparatively low here. They were in fact my views on the subject [1] and I think it's really important that people learn from what went wrong here. A fair portion of what I'll say is in footnotes, so that the main point can be as clear as possible.

My position was that Draw Muhammad day was at best a minor "fuck you" to Islam, of not much substance or necessity. Everybody was aware that if this went ahead, then we could expect a reaction along the lines of that to the Danish Cartoon Controversy, and at least from what I gather, that was a large motivating factor behind doing this [2]. No-one could have have predicted exactly what would happen, but the idea that some people who didn't have much to do with us or radical Islam might get hurt in some way was quite probable, and I don't think the idea that some of these people might actually get killed was way out of the ball park. Yet people went ahead with it anyway, and Pakistan blocked access to facebook and youtube. Not a catastrophic loss for the average Pakistani, especially given all the other stuff that they're going through right now and the good chance that these measures will be temporary, but I'm pretty sure an expansion of religious authoritarianism and censorship for the people who actually have to suffer it was the polar opposite of what we should have legitimately been after here and certainly wasn't worth the point that was made, so it's fair to say that Draw Muhammad day was a massive cockup. Now obviously the real sods here remain radical Islam and the pakistani government [3], but some culpability has to lie with the guys who had a good idea of what was going to happen and pushed on with it anyway. A whole host of arguments made about how this latter point implied all sorts of things were made [4], which I wasn't bothered to respond to, but my argument here is largely a consequence of the "don't cry fire in a crowded theatre" principle which most people are comfortable with - i.e provoking people to irrationally hurt others is something you shouldn't do without bloody good reason, and if you do it then expect a bit of blame thrown in your direction.

The point is that we need to be pragmatic about this sort of thing [5] and understand that not everything has to be decided as if it's a matter of principle [6]. Organisations like AI and HRW have come under a lot of fire they really didn't need recently because, amazingly enough, they find they have to associate with some people that they in principle have some pretty strong objections to, in order to further human rights and fight censorship [7]. And it's very frustrating that some of the people who have really thrown a spanner in the works when it comes to AIs efforts do so while (that is, at the same time) talking about how vital free speech and human rights are [8]. Generally, when it comes to a choice between making a point about defending human rights, and actually defending them, I choose the latter.

I also made a claim about how offending people isn't justified simply on the grounds that their beliefs are silly. This was mostly tangential, but anyway. If someone genuinely has a close relationship with something and that relationship is irrational, then I'll need to consider whether they're doing themselves or anyone else any harm [9] before saying anything. That relationship or belief, may have a real sentimental importance to them - and though it shouldn't, it does. It genuinely is offensive, and makes people feel bad, to say some sorts of things about their irrational beliefs and I stick by a principle taught to me when I was 4 or 5 that you shouldn't offend people and make them upset unless you really need to. Now obviously, this isn't a universal principle, there are some people who I don't particularly care about upsetting, and some people I would quite like to make upset, by any means available. But I don't think that these people constitute the 80% of humanity or so who have a genuine belief in some religious object or other.

Anyway, I understand that this might cause a fair bit more swearing[10], but if we don't learn from what happened here then we risk walking into yet another incident like this. [12]

[1] Unlike my outright trolling on election night - Sincere apologies to all involved, late night, drinks, major personality defects, occasional unbearable foolishness etc

[2] We could have made the point that "Muslims react stupidly to us drawing pictures" in a much more responsible way that didn't involve Muslims stupidly reacting. Saying it on TV was one possibility. Also, in real terms combatting the kind of harmful things that muslim radicals do by provoking them to do more of it isn't an effective strategy.

[3] I'm suspicious that a lot of people got the impression that I thought the cartoonists were entirely responsible because I didn't say much about how the Pakistani government were the ones we should be most pissed off with. But frankly, I was arguing on Pharyngula, I'm pretty sure that the need to have a long post on what a bunch the Pakistanis are was about as necessary as writing a big post on how much God doesn't exist.

[4] This is a bit pompous I suppose but I'm a philosophy student at a uni that was bloody hard to get into, where we're all quite competent at working out what the logical implications of our premises are even without having to go through it step by step, such that when I see the claim that "If you're going to provoke people act in a way that gets innocents hurt, then make sure it's worth it, and if you know it's not and do it anyway, shame on you" has "force western women to wear burkas to appease Islam" as a logical implication, I can kinda see straight away that this is a lousy claim (many non-philosophers have this ability - it's called common sense) and call it one of my personality defects but I don't really take it upon myself to have to go into the strict reasons about why it's so ridiculous, especially when, having been on the internet before, I know that it's not going to convince anyone even if it's an intellectual OoS and it'll commit me to defending a lot of well founded auxiliary propositions against similarly ludicrous claims. Again, call it a personality defect, but sometimes I genuinely do decide to not respond to an argument because it's too dumb to bother with (hence why I don't make a habit of going on to Conservative forums and arguing that Obama is in fact not a Communist infiltrator) rather than because I don't understand it (again, arrogant philosophy student here, but I would have been forced out of uni pretty early on if I had difficulties understanding arguments - good portion of the subject is trying to see what some people far more intelligent than you are saying in a far more sophisticated language that you can even think in) or because I have no arguments against it.

[5] A lot of the complaints about what I was saying ignored this. If what I'm saying is "be pragmatic, don't do something that'll end up in a lot of harm if we're not going to get much good out of it" then it's mad to suggest that I should therefore say "be pragmatic, cause us lot's of pain for no real gain whatsoever" or "be pragmatic, a bit of harm done to us makes a lot of good not worthwhile". I'm not going to say that women should be made to force Burkas to appease radical Islam, because that seems an enormous cost to very real freedoms that we cherish (and last time I checked, women will make it very costly for us in other ways) with virtually nothing to show for it. The point is that all these claims that if I applied the structure of what I suggested we do to absolutely everything as a principle, then it would result in some bad decisions. I agree, as does every single philosopher except for the most extreme Kantians, last time I checked.

[6] I've been accused of being too disparaging too a necessary "Idealism". I looked this up to be sure, but I always thought that Idealism does not mean that everything you do should comes down to whether it conforms with your ideals or not, but it means that you should set your goal according to your ideals, whether or not these ideals are "realistic". For example, I want world peace, no religion, no authoritarianism, and I can't imagine that my desires will be met in my lifetime, or in any of my near descendants. "Idealist" does not mean that I then have to be a real loudmouth about this, what it means is I will work towards these goals all the same - how you do so can come down to more pragmatic considerations, it can even mean, occasionally, refraining from saying that religion is really awful or in his company saying that Gadaffi's a guy we can work with.

[7] Full disclosure here, my girlfriend's a Muslim (along with 2 members of my close family and of course, her family) and I'm a member and a participant in AI. I suppose this makes me biased, but only in the quite acceptable sense that I might have a clue what I'm talking about when it comes to what Muslims are like and what fighting religious authoritarianism really means. For inquiring minds, I have indeed confronted my girlfriend's faith, including an argument about Pascal's wager that was rather unproductive, and about Palestine. But I tend to keep my gob shut, and I don't think that counts as "surrendering to her beliefs". My grandfather had some really outrageous views about Judaism (not far off Hitler) and his Iraqi Muslim upbringing was presumably the cause of that, I was too young to say anything back but again I don't think I was required to hound him down about them, particularly if it would have screwed over the rest of my family by doing so.

[8] I'm not talking about Bush here, though the description does apply. Google "nick cohen harry's place moazzam begg". AIs been in all sorts of trouble because we haven't disassociated ourselves enough with a fundementalist muslim who campaigns for prisoners rights - and this trouble has been caused by a group who insist that they are doing it because of how much they care about prisoners rights.

[9] I'm actually quite broad about this. Maybe it's just reflective of my own interests, but I think questions about who we are, whether we have a purpose, why we should be moral, what we should focus our life on doing in the broadest sense - these are all questions that we harm ourselves in an important way by not thinking about carefully and rationally, and I don't want people to reach the end of their lives having believed really lousy answers to theses questions. Hence why it's worthwhile to take on people's belief in God, even if they're moderates. But again there are limits.

[10] I'm hesitant to use analogies right now, because according to Pharyngulites when I do they logically entail that I should be a rape apologist, but this is the footnotes and out of the way so here goes. I know some people will react to the last sentence of my post by saying something like "ah, so you acknowledge that you expressing your views will provoke a reaction, yet you do it anyway! That's inconsistent/hypocritical." No.[11]

What I was having to say again and again was that if you're going to make a point, you want to make sure that it's worth the reaction you'll get, and not disassociate yourself entirely with that reaction. In the worst case scenario (probable scenario is that people leave this thread dead), someone will be a bit sweary to me and maybe another person, but, evidently, I can't see that as outweighing the importance of saying that what went on here was a massive cockup and we need to be a lot more careful next time. If that happens, I'm very sorry to whoeever get's sworn at, I'm not going to say that I didn't have it coming if that person's me, and that's going to be consistent with me saying that whoever it was that was swearing was in the wrong. Now, suppose that I had good reason to believe that the probable reaction I would get was someone tracking me down and killing me. I don't think this post is worth dying over nor putting my family through my death, so I'd probably keep my mouth shut, but if I was a bit braver I might go ahead and do it. Some people would think I was silly (because it wasn't worth dying over) but I'm sure there would be broad agreement that while the risk was my own, and I can't be completely unresponsible for the consequences (including of course, the harm inflicted on my family), the killer's done wrong and he's the guy who needs to be thrown behind bars.

Now suppose instead that I could be quite confident that in reaction to me writing this essay, someone would hunt down and murder some poor bloke in Hull. I imagine there would be a fair bit of quite legitimate castigation of me by many other rational persons - this essay is nothing like worth getting someone hurt (according to some supporters of DMD, the mere fact that my essay could get someone else killed makes it worth posting, but as mentioned above, I don't really have the willpower to go through exactly why this is so mindless, and trying to convince somebody that their position is mindless has the predictable consequence that you'll get some further mindless responses). My primary defence would be that it was an intellectual commitment, and though that would hardly be enough, I'm sure people would acknowledge that the essay was presented in as intellectual a manner as possible. What happened with the DMD business was a bit like the final hypothetical situation, but without the intellectual defence. Had it been a symposium on essays about how Muslim's shouldn't react in such a pissy way, and that had caused a lot of harm, then there would be a defence here (I'm open to arguments that say that defence would be good enough) but frankly we're talking about pictures of Muhammad with pig tits, they aren't worth causing harm to the people of Pakistan.

[11] Not too mention, my being a hypocrite is a fault of mine (I'm quite confident I'm a hypocrite for other reasons) but their mucking about and provoking a fair bit of harm is still a fault of theirs. I'm kind of embarassed to respond to this claim of hypocricy, because I'm not the kind who likes debating games where we head down one line of argument, exchanging pretty banal insults until we're arguing about how one's commitments in the metaphysics of fiction makes one the moral equivelant of a pedophile.

[12] I mean please, can we all agree that the results of what happened aren't what we want to see repeated, and should take steps not to repeat? Given hindsight, can we agree that next time, we should consider ways of taking the piss out of the muslims that don't involve the kind of consequences we got here?

[Also] There was a fair bit of talk about how I'm an accomodationist. I'm not, at least if accomodationism is what people have been talking about in the past when they say "accomodationist" - namely that PZ and Dawkins need to call it a day, we need a disclaimer on the end of each scientific discovery about how you can still believe in your favourite book now that we know it's likely false, and people should keep their gobs shut about how religion is stupid just because it's offensive. On that last point, maybe you just haven't read the relevant footnotes, but I've pretty openly said that whether we should criticise religion depends on who we are making the criticisms too, when we are making those criticisms, and what these imply about the consequences we should expect, while taking into account that making somebody upset is a consequence we need to consider (good or bad) whether or not they should be upset. Given the way the world is, I think someone should be criticizing religion - but that doesn't mean that I think it's okay to do it in all cases. But I suppose if this (which is surely just being reasonably pragmatic) makes me an accomodationist, then that's what I am.

[Also 2] I don't use different names on different places because I'm especially cowardly, but more because if, as I do, you have a habit of picking a fight with every commenter on a quite popular blog, then a somewhat (see [1]) undeserved reputation for being a cunt and a morally bankrupt lunatic spreads faster than it really should, and gets taken into account even on the occasion that you have something legitimate to say. The other reason is that I just generally don't like people knowing that I'm that guy elsewhere, even when I'm posting on gaming forums or whatever.

[Also 3] Just remembered this, and couldn't find a way to work it back into the essay without screwing up the footnote numbering. There was a bit of prodding for me to get involved in a discussion about the metaphysics of causality (no, really, whether or not the cartoonists could be considered a partial cause or not of the subsequent Pakistani repression was a point of argument). Fortunately I studied the metaphysics of causation last year, and I remember the best thing I learnt the whole time was that, when it comes to causation about stuff that matters, be a pragmatist (this is in E.J Lowe's book, forgot the page citation). If there are lots of interlinked causes, look at what you can avoid doing next time. So let's say a candle is left in a room, and there's a gas leak. And there's a gas leak in another room, and somebody walks in with a candle. Well actually, the two are causatively identical (no really, this result stands up), but obviously for pragmatic purposes we want to say that in the first case the gas leak caused the explosion, and in the second the candle caused the explosion (so we can avoid an explosion next time). So it seems perfectly pragmatic here to identify the cartoonists as partly causing the subsequent violence. Now, there's further consideration about whether that makes someone responsible for what they cause to happen, and here I'm not too well informed, but there seems fairly broad consensus that if you've got a good idea of what you're going to cause to happen, then you've likely got a bit of responsibility for it.

[Also 4] I swear I'll wrap it up here, but I think that there could have been some fair objections to my argument (as in, that I don't agree with, but would have been plausible). Instead of arguing that my pragmatism entails that we should force women to wear burkas for no good reason (i.e not pragmatic), how about saying that we shouldn't be pragmatic about this sort of thing? I disagree that whether or not we should draw muhammad fucking a pig is a principled point (the right itself of course, was never in doubt) but I wouldn't be too harsh on a more abstract agument that said that it is (preferably with no reference to false claims that our right to criticise Islam is in any real danger). Or alternatively, that it's more pragmatic, say in the long run, to do DMD. At least one person made the claim that DMD would actually in the long run lead to more moderates opposing the Pakistani government, and thus meaning better results over time. I think the probability of DMD marking the beginning of the end for Pakistani authoritarianism is not much more than zero, but if anyone could give good reason (beyond the most extravagant wishful thinking) to believe otherwise, then I'm straight on the next DMD bandwagon.