Category Archives: General

Free Speech Aside, Why We Must Defend Those Who Draw Muhammad

Callimachi free speech aside

Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a ‘Muhammad drawing contest’?”

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi asked that question on Twitter at 8:08 p.m. on May 3, within hours of gunmen opening fire at a “draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas.

It is tempting to answer Callimachi’s question dismissively. Speech needs no why. Freedom of expression is its own raison d’être.

That is in fact what I believe.

I am a freedom fetishist.

But perhaps we have strayed so far from our classically liberal tradition, become so complacent inside the bounds of our own civility, that we must deign again to explain the why of it.

Free speech aside, why depict Jesus Christ floating in urine? Why paint the Virgin Mary splattered by dung and surrounded by hovering vaginas? Why fake an interview wherein Jerry Falwell confesses to losing his virginity with his mother? Why produce the musical The Book of Mormon?

Free speech aside, why does anyone, ever, do or say or think or draw or write anything profane or blasphemous or provocative or controversial or impolite or mean-spirited or harsh or unkind?

Do only certain answers to that question justify the exercise of such freedom? Insulting to Christianity 15-0505

I sit as I write this in a crowded coffee shop. The tables are small and closely spaced. There are men seated at the two tables on either side of me. All three of us have matching disposable cups of overpriced coffee sitting precariously on the edges of our small tables crowded beside our silver laptops.

There is no way for me to turn my laptop to prevent them both from seeing the screen. After reading the Wikipedia entries for the artwork I mentioned above, I peruse galleries of Charlie Hebdo covers looking for examples of images targeting Christian and Judaic ideas.

Ideas. Not people.

CircumcisionI wonder to myself, what do these men sitting so closely beside me think of these images? By now, they have surely glanced over and seen them on my screen. What meaning have they ascribed to them, to my perusing of them here inside the narrow confines of this crowded coffee shop?

I find my mind flowing back through the years to another table in another time. It is more than a decade and a half ago. The table is bigger, square instead of round. In a lunch deli, not a coffee shop, and not at all crowded. I am having lunch with a friend. It is before the days of smartphones. We are reading different sections of a shared newspaper.

An article captures my attention. I summarize it aloud for my friend. A couple struggling with fertility sought help from a fertility clinic. Ultimately the wife was implanted with embryos that were successfully fertilized using her eggs and donor sperm. A baby was born.

Only there had been a mix-up with the donor sperm used by the clinic. The baby does not have the right look to her parents’ way of thinking.

Her skin is too dark. Her hair is too kinky.

The parents are suing. The article closes with a quote in which they insist they are not racist.

“Right. We aren’t racist,” I mimic, sarcastically. “We just don’t want this baby. For entirely nonracist reasons.”

My friend snickers. We both get it. We are young and smug and sure of ourselves, signaling our mutual membership in the best of all possible tribes. We start riffing off each other, back and forth, mimicking all the things we imagine people blissfully unaware of their own contrivances say in such circumstances.

We’re not racist. We just don’t think the races should mix.

We’re not racist. This is about the children.

We’re not racist. We have black friends.

A man at a corner table looks up from behind his own newspaper and frowns at us.

Jerk. I immediately assign him to one of those other, less desirable tribes. One whose members remain fatuously assured of their enlightened values right up until the moment they are handed that baby. The swaddled bundle of Other that forces them to confront the things they had until that point been able to deny existed inside their own minds.

Or—

Wait.

Wait!

Does he think we are the—?

Did he misunderstand? We were only…

What? I struggled to think of the right words to describe what we were doing.

Making fun.

Mocking.

Satirizing.

I am fifteen years away from knowing what Charlie Hebdo is.

Poe’s Law is not yet a thing.

All of sudden I see how the view might look from his table. I am no longer sure which of us belongs in which tribe. Which of us is blinded by our own contrivances.

It is not always obvious.

It is not always possible to find a single objective truth in satire, in mockery, in fiction, in art. It is not always easy to define the line between the thing mocked and the mockery itself. Between racism and the illustration of racism. Between targeting ideas and targeting people. To avoid the place where laughter collides with conscience. To know if we are punching up or down.

To avoid the inherent limitations of the views from our own tables.

But it is in those moments when self-doubt obliterates contrivance that paradigms shift. It is in the moments when we finally sense the chinks in our own armor of righteousness that we fully appreciate the limitations of our perspectives. It is where we straddle those lines that cannot be drawn that real debate occurs and social change is worked.

There is inherent value in the speech that drives us to the place where the curtain is pulled back.

And that is why.

As Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors, writes on his Steam Thing blog:

It’s possible, of course, to see the antiracist message of one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as no more than a cover for an underhanded relishing of the racist imagery deployed in it. Parody usually does participate to some extent in the energy of what it parodies; that is one of the risks it runs. Humor is not pure. It speaks to us through our flaws, as well as speaking to us about them—envies and hates, as well as greeds and lusts—and it can’t exist without the license to work with dark materials.

Last year at the University of Iowa, a visiting professor created a sculpture of a Ku Klux Klansman papered with articles about racial tension and violence over the last 100 years. Some people complained that it was racist, and the sculpture was removed. Its creator, Serhat Tanyolacar, intended the sculpture to confront the comfortable assumption that our racial frictions are all safely in the past.

Can one of these interpretations be pronounced objectively correct to the exclusion of the other? They are like conjoined twins—one good, one evil—and you cannot kill one without killing the other.

And that is why.

If the message cannot always be nailed down, neither can the direction of the punch, though that was a criteria for meritorious satire recently advocated by cartoonist Gary Trudeau. An LGBT couple denied photography, floral or catering services will undoubtedly perceive the balance of power differently than the Christian business owner bankrupted for expressing religious values that amount in others’ eyes to politically incorrect discrimination.

Which side controls the narrative about campus “rape culture?”

Does Paul Nungesser have more or less power than Emma Sulkowicz?

Are the targets of Charlie Hebdo’s satirical barbs victims, as Trudeau suggests, or are they oppressors, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others might argue?

[T]o portray an institution that mocks any religion’s sacred cows as villainously “punching down” ignores that religious institutions are very much part of the power structure and have been throughout history.

When you’re challenging the gods, and those who claim to speak for the gods, you are always punching up.

Can we say with certainty that Charlie Hebdo’s (alleged) punching down in France does not help people like Raif Badawi punch up in Saudi Arabia?

Like shifting sands, our perceptions of the balance of power change from setting to setting, issue to issue, moment to moment, always influenced by the view from our table. If we refrain from swinging except in the clear cut cases, satire is sidelined precisely at those moments when we stand on the brink, when social upheavals make the scores too close to call.

And that is why.

But it is not all.

Circumscribing speech based on the sensibilities of out-groups marginalizes and infantilizes the members of those groups. It treats them as children who must be shielded from the harsh confrontations that members of other, more superior groups might be expected to handle. As David Frum noted in responding to Trudeau:

It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.

In this manner, Trudeau and his cohorts would return fierce debate to the exclusive province of those—white, male and Judeo-Christian—who by dint of their power and privilege can be expected to handle such heady and taxing matters responsibly.

Out-groups are not comprised of children. Nor are they homogenous. Among their many victims, extremists who call themselves Muslims kill moderates who also call themselves Muslims. Is Charlie Hebdo punching down against the latter—or punching up on their behalf?

People of good faith can reach different answers.

And that is why.

Finally, and here is the crux of it, we cannot make the world safe for the people who would punch up unless we find it our hearts to defend those who will use the same freedom to punch down.

I used to differentiate between government censorship and private consequences for unpopular speech. It was the wrong distinction. The meaningful difference is between non-forceful responses to speech—firing, boycotting, bankrupting, and shunning, all of which are fair game—versus forceful responses, which never, ever are.

It is not functionally different whether the thugs suppressing expression are the official ones we call “government” or a renegade band of religious zealots. If we give in to the latter on the theory that they are somehow exempted from the resistance we would put up against the former, the zealots simply become a shadow government of censors.

We are no less unfree.

Bosch Fawstin's  winning entry in the Garland, Texas "Draw Muhammad" contest.

Bosch Fawstin’s winning entry in the Garland, Texas “Draw Muhammad” contest.

If we want freedom to exist for the Raif Badawis of the world, we must defend its exercise by the Pam Gellars.

The peaceful way to do that, to render violence counterproductive to its own ends, is by mirroring the speech that would be suppressed. Even when it is offensive. Even when it is blasphemous. Even when it is rude, childish, stupid, unpopular, pointless or unnecessarily provocative.

Even when we don’t agree. Especially then.

And that is why.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Trigger Warnings and a Police Escort for Christina Hoff Sommers

Christina Hoff Sommers is an author, resident scholor at the American Enterprise Institute, host of the Factual Feminist YouTube channel, and a former philosophy professor.

Christina Hoff Sommers, equity feminist, classical liberal and author of the books Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys, gave a speech at Oberlin College earlier this week. The week before that she made a similar appearance at Georgetown University.

Anticipating Sommers would use the occasions to speak words in freely exited auditoriums no one was required to enter, tomorrow’s greatest minds concerned students at Oberlin and Georgetown rallied to face the psychological trial of…hearing words in freely exited auditoriums no one was required to enter.

Of course, they could have just not attended.

That would seem an ironclad way to avoid being subjected to the dangerous trauma of this shaming, violent, misogynistic, rape-y…uttering of words.

Instead, they wrote a “love letter” to themselves in the Oberlin student newspaper calling Sommers a rape “denialist,” referring to her upcoming speech as “this violence,” and evincing an odd fixation on Sommers’ Twitter followers.

They posted “trigger warnings” around the speaking venue. The signs said loving, “safe,” non-triggering things like:

“Christina Hoff Sommers & OCRL [Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians] support rapists.”

“RAPE CULTURE is REAL and YOU are a PARTICIPANT.”

And:

“FUCK ANTI-FEMINISTS.”

These were obviously thoughtfully and carefully crafted to help rape survivors who might be attending the speech to feel safe and avoid being “triggered” as they entered.

The objecting students also created “alternative safe spaces” for anyone who felt triggered by Sommers’ words (but not the signs). These were in addition to the “alternative safe spaces” of: 1) one’s own dorm room or apartment; 2) the library; 3) the coffee shop; 4) the entire rest of the world; 5) just not going; 6) doing whatever one would have done if Christina Hoff Sommers had never been born; and, 7) hiding under the bed at mommy and daddy’s house.

The existence of the “alternative safe spaces” (the special ones with the vapors and fainting couches, not the seven I listed above) was announced ahead of the speech. This was to help the adult college students who, despite being old enough to vote and go to war, otherwise might not have known they could get up and leave the unlocked auditorium they had voluntarily entered to hear a non-mandatory speech.

Despite their insistence that listening to Sommers speak words was so fraught with peril it required trigger warnings and alternate safe spaces, many of the objecting students nevertheless attended the speeches.

Is anyone surprised?

At Oberlin, they interrupted, booed, and mocked a professor who asked them to be civil. Well, that is, except for the ones with the duct tape over their mouths…

Folks, this isn’t about dangerous words.

This is about tribal signaling and performance art.

As anything more, it is at best dead on arrival. Such mindset cannot empower its adherents to compete with women like Sommers, capable of confronting auditoriums of angry protestors, engaging in unfettered debate, examining deeply held beliefs, considering contrary evidence, and revising paradigms and refocusing energy where appropriate.

Deep down they know it.

The echo chamber is guarded so shrilly precisely because of how deeply its occupants fear subjecting their beliefs to scrutiny. But choked off from sunlight and oxygen inside those rigid walls, their ideas wither into limp and lifeless shades of ideas.

At worst, they have become bullies. They are the ones suggesting that rape survivors are participants in the “rape culture” if they attend the wrong sort of speech. They are the ones trying to stifle disfavored speech. They are the ones making people feel unsafe.

They are the reason Oberlin College gave Sommers a two-man police escort.

After the speech, some of them followed her to the restaurant where she was having dinner in order to confront her.

Is that how we do safe spaces? Or is it that Sommers is not entitled to safe space because she’s the wrong sort of woman?

Some women just deserve what they get, I guess.

Students who think they see something dangerous in speakers like Christina Hoff Sommers should consider the possibility that what they are actually looking at is their own reflection.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Humans Are Pack Animals Who Pretend To Reason

We think we’re soooo smart.

Humans. We think we come up with our political positions through reasoned analysis, and then join the political party that’s aligned to our beliefs. We’re ideologically honest and consistent. We’re dispassionate referees looking at evidence and argument and making informed choices.

And we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, right?
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The truth is that this is all a bunch of bull. We’re pack animals. Human reason has done amazing things for us as a species, but we’re still pack animals imbued with an “us vs them” mentality, and that continually trumps the weak “reason” we rely upon.

I was struck by this by two posts I’ve read recently. The first, of course, was Kevin’s post from yesterday. It was a great post about the cultural and religious differences between the South and the rest of America. Two passages are directly relevant to what I want to discuss today:

Another interesting thing about Southern culture is how it tends to leave its mark on surrounding cultures. There are reasons why in particular heavily Catholic south Louisiana, pre-dominately Catholic Hispanics in Texas, and the Catholic Cuban-American community in Miami are more conservative than Catholics in New England and the Midwest. Those Southern values of individualism, hard work, personal responsibility and family values have rubbed off on those communities.

Here’s an exit question: do you think many secularists replace religion with a belief in the state and social justice and that’s why they’re hostile to limited government? Let us know in the comments.

In the first passage, he points out that seemingly disparate groups (Catholics in the South vs Protestants in the South) frequently find themselves having more in common that what should be clearly defined allegiances (Catholics, regardless of location). To me, this suggests a more fundamental principle at work–we align our beliefs to feel comfortable with those around us, not based upon objective reason.

His second passage suggests the hubris of human reason. He’s asking whether secularists “replace” religion with belief in the State, and this explains why atheists tend to fall on the left side of the spectrum.

As for that second passage, let me quote Warren @ Coyote Blog, about how political forces must align opposite to each other–highly polarized, in fact–by simple explanations of group dynamics:

So here is my theory to explain many party political positions: Consider an issue where one party is really passionate about something. The other party might tend to initially agree. But over time there is going to be pressure for the other party to take the opposite stand, whether it is consistent with some sort of party ideological framework or not. After 9/11, the Republicans staked out a position that they thought that Islam as practiced in several countries was evil and dangerous and in some cases needed to be subdued by force of arms. In my framework, this pushed Democrats into becoming defenders of modern Islam, even at the same time that domestic politics was pushing them to be critical of Christian religion as it affected social policy (i.e. abortion and later gay marriage). Apparently, the more obvious position of “yeah, we agree much of the Islamic world is illiberal and violent, but we don’t think we can or should fix it by arms” is too subtle a position to win elections. I fear we have gotten to a point where if either party is for something, they have to be in favor of mandating it, and if they are against something, they have to be in favor of using the full force of government to purge it from this Earth. And the other party will default to the opposite position.

Expecting most partisans to be ideologically consistent is expecting pack mentality to be trumped by reason. The fact that it rarely is suggests that being a member of a pack is such as strong emotional evolutionary drive that people will reason themselves into other positions rather than fight the orthodoxy.
01-lemming-political-parties
You see this consistently in politics. When Bush was in power, Republicans dismissed concern over warrantless wiretaps as the ravings of civil libertarians who were more worries about the feelings of terrorists than the safety of our nation. Put Obama in the White House, and suddenly it’s government spying on our most treasured private secrets! When Bush was in power, the anti-war left was in the streets, demonstrating about our illegal war. Put Obama in the White House, and the left goes silent while suddenly the right slams Obama for his actions on Libya.

In these cases, we’re more worried about solidarity with our pack than adherence to ideological consistency. Now, that’s not everyone. There are outliers. There are still hawks on the right that want Obama going into the Middle East guns a-blazin’. There are still those on the left more willing to cheer Edward Snowden than Obama on government intelligence. But it’s amazing how quiet those folks are today.

Most people, however, are blind to this inconsistency. They find rationalizations to change their position to become consistent with the position of their pack. They smooth out outlying positions by segmenting themselves into one part of their political party (i.e. they’re a Conservative, not a Republican, or they’re an Environmental Democrat, not a class warrior). But over time, it’s amazing how closely their beliefs tend to mirror those of their party.

So, back to Kevin’s question: do secularists replace religion with the State?

I think they do, but not consciously. Going back to Coyote’s point about people defining themselves in opposition, what you’ve seen in the Republican party is that Republicans have become “the party of the religious conservatives”. Secularists look at that party and say to themselves, “I am not like them. I am not a member of that pack.” They seek out alternative packs. For some, who are much more stridently in favor of small government, they end up in the libertarian camp. For most, though, they end up falling in with Democrats. Democrats seem so much more like themselves.

Why are Democrats the secular party, despite the fact that they’re overwhelmingly Christian just like the Republicans? Well, as Coyote states, when the other party tries to own religion, you take the opposite position. Republicans are loudly the party of the “traditional Christian values”. Democrats may still be Christian, but they don’t wear religion on their sleeve quite so heavily.

So those who are turned off by religion jump in with the Democrats. From there, the cognitive dissonance of identifying with leftists on religious grounds works its magic until they slowly start coming around on other issues. They start seeing Republicans as not as compassionate as their new comrades. They start believing that because their new friends view “compassion” as being in favor of government redistribution of wealth, they start to believe in redistribution. In short, they start aligning with the people who surround them and actively distancing themselves from those against them. To quote Kevin, those leftist values have “rubbed off on them”.

The same thing happens the other direction. After 9/11, there was a serious rift in the Democratic party between those who were more security-oriented and those who weren’t. Republicans already owned the “strong national defense” brand, and many Democrats started to break with their old party on that front. What happened? You end up with people like Dennis Miller, who was a leftist prior to 9/11, ended up on right wing talk radio. Was he always a conservative in disguise? No. But the issue of high importance to him [fighting terrorists] caused him to change pack, and he couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance of not accepting the pack’s other beliefs as well. Christopher Hitchens is another good example. He broke with the Democrats over Islam, and over time started finding himself more and more in agreement with Republicans on other matters. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.

Even libertarians are not immune. We like to believe we’re free-thinkers, and we certainly consider the circular firing squad to be our favorite pastime. But the libertarian purity tests have the aggregate effect that we end up defining ourselves as far to the extreme as possible to distance ourselves from “the Coke/Pepsi parties”. As a result, people end up describing themselves as “small-l libertarians” or “libertarian-leaning Republicans” because we’ve defined our brand to be so extreme that many are not willing to associate with our pack. I was once told–by Eric, the founder of The Liberty Papers, no less–that I seemed “too normal” for libertarianism.

Going back to Kevin’s points about religion, this is also the case with atheism. So many people who don’t believe in god call themselves agnostics or “spiritual”. Atheism as a brand has a reputation defining itself as anti-religious, and that brand’s reputation is heavy on defiance, non-conformity, and anger. People are scared of that brand, don’t see themselves as part of that pack, so they shy away from the label entirely. Niches, whether political or religious, tend to become insular and more extreme as they define themselves opposite moderation.

So, what’s the takeaway? Well, it’s first and foremost to recognize who and what we are. You can’t solve a problem unless you identify that it’s a problem at all. Pack mentality is one of the key attributes of confirmation bias. It’s one of the key reasons we engage in appeal to motive in arguments–we fundamentally see “them” as being motivated by everything that’s evil and wrong with the world while excusing our side as well-meaning even when wrong. And when we follow Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, we are explicitly allowing pack allegiance to trump ideological consistency. We value “our side” winning more than we value the truth.

We have natural tendencies towards pack mentality. This is part of our evolutionary biology. But it’s dangerous, and doesn’t have any place in the modern, multicultural, globally interconnected world in which we live today. We need to recognize it and guard against it. Because when you actually sit down and break bread with the people who seem so different to you, you find out that we’re really not as different as we seem. We need to come around to a world that’s not “us vs them”, because when it really comes down to it, it’s all just “us”.

Epic Takedown Of “You Didn’t Build That”

you didn't build that

Over at Cafe Hayek is a must read takedown of the entire “YOU DIDN’T BUILD THAT!” charge.

Don Boudreaux lays out a cohesive, detailed, and very compelling case against the entire mentality behind “you didn’t build that.” In one sense, the charge is true. Whether public or private, the infrastructure and the products of an entire worldwide market in goods and services is a key enabler to allow entrepreneurs to be successful. This includes things like government roads, education systems, etc. This is true, and not really a point of argument.

But the “you didn’t build that” charge takes it one step further and places the credit for successful entrepreneurship at the feet of all that infrastructure. If this were the case, entrepreneurship would be easy. But it’s not. It’s what entrepreneurs do to create value above and beyond all that infrastructure that makes them successful. And that’s a story that isn’t well-written anywhere–until now.

I try to set a high bar for linking off-site, since I so rarely post. I do it when I see something that really deserves a read, and this post cleared that bar easily.

Walter Scott Shooting Is Reminder of Why We Must Defend Our Right to Record

A police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina has been charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of an unarmed motorist named Walter Scott.

Patrolman Michael Slager initially claimed that following a traffic stop for a broken headlight, motorist Walter Scott tried to take Slager’s taser. The two struggled, Slager feared for his life, and shot Scott as the two fought over the taser.

Then an absolutely devastating video emerged. The video shows Slager shoot the unarmed Scott eight times in the back as Scott tries to fee. After the shooting, Slager handcuffs the dying man, leaves him lying facedown without medical attention, and retrieves an object to drop near the body.

After the video emerged, Slager, a five-year veteran with the force, was taken into custody, charged with murder and denied bond at his initial hearing. He was fired from his position with the force. The attorney who went on record with Slager’s story about the shooting occurring during a struggle over the taser is no longer representing him.

Query:

How do you think it would have played out without the video?

All over the country, our right to record is under constant assault from police who treat citizens recording them as law-breaking obstructionists. Walter Scott’s death is a stark and heartbreaking reminder of why we must vigorously defend the right to record.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.
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