Friday, 16 December 2011


On the day Christopher Hitchens died religion is on my mind. This post is not about that, but you'll excuse if I use it as an example more than once. One thing that I dislike about twitter is the way the immense power of this unprecedented tool is used for a large category of bad ends. Twitter is amazing, every hashtag, used right, is an impromptu, undirected, leaderless lobby group. It comes into existence, organises action, generates followers, achieves some end or gives up and then burns itself up totally. This is a vast improvement over the old pressure groups that invariably fought more for their own continued existence and influence than for the actual aim that founded them. But what if this power is used stupidly? What if it's used to amplify the offence taken by a small number of people?

Now I'm not sure that I'm even right to say that the groups themselves are wrong here. More importantly is the danger of one of the key syllogisms of modern political discourse. This is an implicit assumption that's normally so well respected it doesn't have to be mentioned.
I find this offensive. Therefore this must be stopped.
First off, as a straightforward matter of logic this doesn't follow. You need another argument to make this work. I want to consider those arguments and more generally what this false syllogism means.

"Offence" is easy, statements or actions that, whilst not harming anyone in a straightforward physical sense, cause distress to some nearby. This runs from something as simple as shouting "cunt" at an old lady to the most visceral and detailed description of why the ideas most central to you are pure evil.

Why is this a bad thing? Well it's unpleasant. It's fairly obvious that causing someone emotional distress is something that caeteris paribus we ought to stop. The problem is twofold. On the one hand, are caeteris really paribus, on the second, how ought we to do the stopping?

The problem with saying an argument holds "all else equal" is that all else rarely is. The reason that humans talk is that there are advantages to doing so. Swearing has a well proven pain reduction power, it feels deeply satisfying and damnit all if it isn't funny. We discuss politics and religion, even though these are deeply sensitive topics, because like it or not some people are wrong on those subjects, and both of them matter a huge amount. There are even obvious advantages to vulgar abuse ("fuck off you wanker") or intolerant language ("fuck off you raghead"). {It's fun to observe how hard I had to push my mental barriers to type the second, whilst the first was trivial.}  It's clearly better to find out who hates you by means of something other than being punched or being discriminated against.

So the first question is when do these advantages count for less than the emotional harm? The second one is what should we do in such cases. Clearly offence is justified if the offence is minimal, calling someone a wanker causes few people distress of any great importance. (Would you rather be called a rude name 20 times or have a papercut?) Clearly it's justified to offend someone if doing so is valuable to others. Calling someone a thief (if accurate) is offensive, but justified.

Now consider how we address unjustified offence. There are two obvious ways of doing it. Suppose you know that some newspaper columnist has views which hurt you and people like you more than is justified by anyone else's enjoyment. You could ask for this columnist to loose their job. ... Or you could just not read the column. Supposing the world to be divided into a class of people (maybe only the columnist) who like the opinions and a class who dont, it's clear that if the second class can ignore the column for free then (caeteris paribus) letting the first class read it is argument enough for taking the second route.

Notice the key distinction between an offensive and a dangerous columnist. To want a columnist to be fired because they're a bigot, rude, or just offensively stupid is not legitimate. To want a columnist to be fired because they cause riots, mislead people about health or unduly influence policy in a damaging direction is a separate and 100% legitimate cause. I'm even happy for people to try and get all those damned lefties at Channel 4 replaced. That's different from wanting someone to be fired for some silly act of sacrilege like not wearing a poppy or calling some large class of people murderers.

It should be clear that offensive speech can be justified at least sometimes. But even really deeply offensive speech can. If not you believe that any talk about religion should be banned. Consider the statement "there exists a perfectly just/perfectly ethical being who sends people who dont believe in him to a place of literal suffering for ever." To my knowledge there is no more offensive statement.

To say that nonbelievers are tortured for ever is horrifying, but not in itself offensive. To say this is ethical is monstrous. Suppose you believed that bad deeds should always be rewarded by suffering (your ethical system could really do with some work but that's another matter), now imagine a person who deserves infinite suffering. No, really, try to imagine such a person, I tried, I failed. We're not just talking about Hitler here, he caused a finite amount of suffering. We're talking about someone who created infinite pain, pain without end, who hurt more people than the universe can ever contain for more time than there has ever been. Can you imagine that? That's not Satan, that's worse than Satan, unimaginably worse than Satan. And the statement is that those who dont believe in this god are in that category? For many religious people then, merely stating their faith is the most offensive thing they can do. Remember why the Westbrough Baptists are evil? Exactly that reason. They believe that gay people deserve infinite suffering, that an ethical god hates them. Then they tell people that and it's offensive. And I applaud them for doing it. I would rather they continue to talk and explain their beliefs, because every single person who believes in a hell of literal suffering for sinners and who believes that being gay is a sin agrees with them. And that's important to remember before you ask anyone else for ethical advice.

But let's not let the atheists off. "God does not exist". We tend to brandish this around casually. Like we were saying fairies dont exist, or Santa. Because to us it's exactly the same. They're all silly mistakes that brains make because they're confused. Brains get confused, some of them become group selectionists, some of them believe in homoeopathy, some believe in gods. But imagine for a second what you're saying to a religious person. You know that person, the one you love most deeply, who's love sustains you at the worst times? The person who gives you your most rich sense of satisfaction by you pleasing them? The one who cares for and loves you more than you can express? The one you've spent years of devotion trying to connect ever more deeply with? Yeah, no such being. Sorry, and what's more, it was obvious if you think about it, you're as stupid as group selectionist for ever believing that. ...When was the last time you had to tell someone that their husband was a old pillowcase with a face badly drawn on in lipstick? Can you imagine how painful it would be to even consider that possibility? Let alone to be argued at and persuaded it's true. Atheists know that loosing religion is survivable, that you can recapture all the old joys without the god you though gave them to you. But we sometimes forget that it's damned hard to believe that when someone is telling you that the thing that gives your life meaning isn't real.

And yet obviously religious talk is good and valuable. Why? Because what people belive about gods effects what they do in fucking important ways. Because one of the two parties that's allowed to run America is batshit insane. Because people blowing themselves up is a bad idea. Because abstinence based sex education... read my motherfucking lips... DOES NOT FUCKING WORK. Because women being educated is a good idea. Because if there's a god out there we are really seriously pissing him off and this is a threat to the very existence of mankind, and that justifies anything. Because people who stop believing in god in the wrong way go crazy and kill people.

And this is the key argument. It scares me when people say "I am offended" and go on to argue as if this meant they had the automatic right to reparation. Because there are offensive things that ought to be said. In the spirit of debate if nothing else.

I hate the fact that there are people out there who believe in a just god and a hell of literal suffering. But shutting them up is not the way to fix it, they need to be able to say that kind of vile thing, because it might just be true damnit. When people talk about politics (yes, even tories) we need to let them talk because the science of political organisation is still fantastically primitive. We just dont know what the right answers are with a good probability of being right. Yes, of course [person you hate] has stupid views, that's obvious ... to you, and not to them or their supporters. Of course it's obvious that vast amounts of government debt are a terrible idea ... except to half the world's economists. Of course it's obvious that gay parents cant bring up children, apart from to a whole bunch of people who have been raised by gay parents. Yes of course it's obvious that polyamory is doomed to fail ... apart from to all those poly couples out there.

Sometimes (as with religion and politics) you cannot avoid offence and still talk about things that matter. In such cases we need to stop caring about offence and start caring about well-recognised dangerous speech. Sometimes it's easier than this, take responsibility for what you get offended by and avoid it, the rest of us aren't offended, it's easier for you to stop listening than for us to stop having fun,

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