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A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Does it offend you ? The Voltarian principle

When you've been wasting your time on the Internet like I have instead of doing all the productive science / music / theatre work you're supposed to be doing, you'll no doubt have had your inbox flooded with e-mails to sign some petition - In the days of yore, before social networking, these came as chain e-mails between the reams of porn and junk mail, appended with the signature of the last 8.7 million people and their dog who had signed it. These days, the presentation is a lot slicker - dedicated petition sites have made the chain e-mail a thing of the past. Petitions seem to spring up for all manner of things; In the past fortnight I've been asked to sign a few petitions to get facebook to ban certain particularly sick joke pages. Now, I appreciate and understand why people with good intentions sign such petitions. Indeed, I share many of the same sentiments and many of them even offend my beliefs. But much as I want to support the friends of mine outraged by such things, I'm afraid I cannot in good conscience sign a single one of them - In fact, I'm actively uneasy with the logic underpinning these petitions. 



While I loathe much of it, finding many of these jokes crass, brain dead and downright insulting, unless they're actually breaking the law I'm afraid demanding them to be shut down would violate Voltaire's principle, which is one credo I hold sacred - the one that says "I detest what you say but defend your right to say it"*. Even if I find what you say ignorant, untrue, demeaning or otherwise disgusting, I have no right to silence you, nor do you have the right to silence me if my position is at odds with yours. [*Voltaire is a personal hero of mine, and although it was his biographer rather than him who coined that phrase, it sums up his attitude rather well. ]


Ah Voltaire, the handsome devil - When he wasn't scamming treasuries, writing plays or getting almost killed, he wrote a great deal on personal liberty and freedom of speech.


Of course there's PLENTY of people I'd love to shut up - anti-vaccination people, racists, homeopaths, climate change deniers, misogynists, misandrists, creationists, tea-partiers, homophobics, bigots, faith healers, quack doctors, liberal arts majors**, and so on. But the best I can do and should do is counter their nonsense with logic and trust other people can see the difference. If I instead censor them, I am not changing attitudes, all I'm doing is vetoing their right to free expression. It will not change the underlying issue, and may in fact make it worse. Problems are not fixed by sweeping them under the carpet; they require patience, occasional confrontation, regular dialog and sometimes even an attempt at understanding those people whose views you find repugnant. The most intellectually and socially fair thing I can do is challenge their assertions; I may NEVER convince those passionately opposed to my views, but I may help sway people on the middle ground, which is where lasting change comes from. My task it to show their position is untenable, not take away their right to have that position.   [**And I'm just kidding - unless of course you're a postmodern philosopher in which case kindly stop..]



Of course, this right extends both ways; I write on a variety of things that get people's backs up - My recent Irish Times pieces on secularism, abortion rights, nuclear power and homeopathy have generated quite a bit of hatemail and angry letters to the editor - even a few threats to me.  Yet these people have no right to STOP me writing, nor should they be allowed ban my output even though many of them might find it offensive; they can however present their own views if they so wish. But I shudder to think of what would happen if they had the capacity to shut down anyone who disagree with their world view.




Just a fraction of the unhinged commentary my last piece got. Some of it is inspired in its craziness. .It would have been less weird if that hadn't been the 3rd time she'd conjured up the visual of me getting myself off. Someone has a fetish....


I also try not to attribute to malice what can be attributed to thoughtlessness, insensitivity or conditioning. People can tell or laugh at awful jokes without being awful people - my physics undergraduate class had a particular thing about bad taste dead baby jokes, despite the guys and girls in that class being some of the kindest, fairest people I've ever come across. Equally, I've heard physicians and nurses make incredibly dark jokes about death, policemen joke about violent crime and even a river-rescue friend of mine joke about bodies coming apart in water - all of this is also bad taste or Gallow's humour to some, but I do not for one second think this impinges on their integrity or ability to do their job, nor does it demean their characters that this might provide light relief. I myself endured a lot of violence as a teenager and would be the first to crack a joke about it.  For these reasons, I am not quick to condemn people's sense of humour, unless they don't find Spinal Tap funny. Because then they're simply wrong of course...



This one goes up to 11.....



I am in general wary of knee-jerk anger - there are many, many bad things in the world. And while sticking our names on a petition might make us feel better, does this slacktivism actually address the problems at hand ? No. Not one iota. In fact, there's a school of thought that indicates e-petitions do little apart from make people feel better. Unless the law is actively being broken, then the cost of having freedom of speech is sometimes having to hear things you find offensive. And although I know the intentions of my friends who forward me on these petitions is no doubt good, I cannot intellectually reconcile their or my hurt feelings with the demand to censure anyone with whom you disagree. Living in a democracy with freedom of speech means sometimes you'll be offended.

I leave you in the more than capable hands of Stephen Fry on this subject...


Another hero of mine...







Monday, September 10, 2012

A few thoughts on Alom Shaha, confrontation and Atheism+

Just the other night I have the pleasure of hearing Alom Shaha speak at Oxford SITP - Alom is the author of The young Atheist's handbook and despite the title, this book is not a guide to godlessness but rather a memoir of a deeply personal journey, and I recommend it heartily. He writes with an engaging honest style, rather than a breathless polemic rant.  During the course of the discussion, someone asked how he could thought we could best convert believers; at this stage Alom's polite demeanour momentarily broke down and a sigh escaped him - why, he argued, should we have any interest in converting believers, unless they're trying to force something on us?

The majority of the room nodded in agreement at this pronouncement, with a few exceptions. Alex Gabriel shook his head and declared Alom was "an accomodationist" - I should clarify this was a not a heckle, and Alex's thoughts can be seen here. Alom stopped, and declared he may be - but was that such a bad thing? People have the freedom of conscience, and so long as they're not pushing their beliefs on us, why do we need to convert anyone? He pointed out that despite the assertion by many atheists that they were merely following logic, the online discourse of many of them contradicted this stance and he doubted it was always logic that made people atheists, as people lie on a spectrum between intellectual and emotive, and to some people, himself included,  God just doesn't "feel" right. 


Everybody sing the mandolin part! Do do dooo doo doo - do do do dooo do do!

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