Who is Responsible for Violence?

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 16, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post,Islam

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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While I have criticized those who object to Park 51 – the combined mosque and community center to be built near “ground zero”, some people have started using a criticism that I object to.

There have been two acts of violence against Muslims that are being attributed to the “hate speech” associated with the construction of the center that have been widely reported in the news recently.

A New York City cab driver, Ahmed Sharif, was stabbed by a passenger who first had asked him, “Are you Muslim?” and was given an affirmative response.

Equipment at the construction site for a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, was set on fire.

These acts are being blamed on those people who are protesting the Park 51 complex and being attributed to their anti-Muslim protests motivating the violence.

Now, let is assume that some piece of news were to come out saying that one of the more vocal opponents of the Park 51 complex was assaulted. Somebody recognized him, asked him, “Are you (insert name here)? Are you the one who wrote those articles against the Park 51 complex?” And when he said”Yes,” the man beat him.

Would it then be justified for his friends and allies to come to me and this blog and say, “You, Alonzo, are responsible for this attack because you stoked anti-Park51-protester sentiment. You are to be condemned for this violence.”

I would not accept any blame for that attack. The responsibility rests solely on the person who committed the act of violence. I have said repeatedly that a right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence – but not a right to immunity from criticism. In my blog, I offered criticism. If somebody else (wrongly) offers violence, then his wrong action is not my responsibility.

If the speech actually calls for violence – if somebody can provide quotes from an individual that can be taken as stating, “You should go out and do violence against these people” – then a case can be made against that person.

However, the moral objection against that person would not be that he motivated any actual act of violence (as if his act is not wrong unless and until some act of violence took place). The speaker’s call for violence itself would be sufficient to condemn him – and even to punish him. The right to freedom of speech does not include a right to threaten violence.

Still, the speech being protested in this case is limited to an actual “call to harms” as it were.

So, yes, the Park 51 protesters are guilty of hate-mongering and bigotry. But only those who called for violence are responsible for any act of violence.

Blaming all Park 51 protesters for this violence is, in fact, an exhibition of the very same type of “derogatory overgeneralization” that the Park 51 protesters are guilty of. It makes those who condemn all of them for the crimes of the few just as guilty as those who blame all Muslims for the crimes of 9/11. It means that the critics of the Park 51 protesters are giving up the moral high ground and have decided to stand in the same moral swamp as those that they criticize.

The 9/11 attacks are to be blamed on those who perpetrated the attacks and those who cheered them. It is not to be overgeneralized so as to condemn members of the Muslim community who neither participated in nor condoned those attacks.

The violence against Muslims is to be blamed on those who perpetrated the violence and those who cheered it. It is not to be overgeneralized so as to condemn those Park 51 protesters who neither participated in nor condoned those attacks.

In order to put an end to bigotry and hate-mongering, we do have to do a better job of recognizing it when it happens, and protesting it in all of its manifestations.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

dh September 16, 2010 at 7:43 am

“You, Alonzo, are responsible for this attack because you stoked anti-Park51-protester sentiment. You are to be condemned for this violence.”

I would not accept any blame for that attack. The responsibility rests solely on the person who committed the act of violence.

and later

The violence against Muslims is to be blamed on those who perpetrated the violence and those who cheered it.

The first seems a little confusing given the latter but I agree with the difference between criticizing an idea (proscription) vs. calling directly for a particular behavior (prescription). I take your whole point to be about the nature of “stoking” anti-whatever sentiment. I understand you to be differentiating between calling directly for a behavior and inferring that same behavior from an affective state, even though a particular affective state may result directly from criticism of an idea. Is that right?

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Patrick September 16, 2010 at 8:58 am

I have to disagree.

It seems to me that if your words foreseeably promote an environment in which violence is likely, you bear some prima facie responsibility for the violence, adjusted based on how directly the violence resulted, whether the violence itself was justified, and how foreseeable it really was.

So what we’ve got are people who promote the belief that Muslims are evil terrorist infiltrators doing a victory dance on the graves of our heroes while aided and abetted by cowards and a third column that runs our government. At this point the question of moral responsibility, for me, is an empirical one. How foreseeable is it that violence will erupt as a result of the promotion of this belief?

In my opinion, not very. I know that may sound surprising, since if taken seriously this belief ought to lead to violence.

But I don’t think the burden of responsibility for violence resulting from the promotion of this belief is particularly strong, since most people advancing this belief are liars who don’t really believe it. They’re just bigots who view life, and politics, as a sort of morality play. This is their form of having a rich imaginative life, and in support of that, I offer the fact that even though violent revolution would be the only recourse were their beliefs true, they react with horror at militia groups like the Hutaree who believe most of the same things they do, and simply take those beliefs seriously. The low level of empirical connection between advocacy of crazy right wing conspiracy theories and actual violence based on those theories minimizes the moral obligation. It doesn’t erase it, because the connection isn’t non existent. We do get the occasional domestic terrorist as a result of right wing conspiracy ideology. But the rate at which that occurs is relatively low, so violent outcomes aren’t particularly foreseeable.

On the other hand, I think that the foreseeability of violence as a result of calling these guys out as bigots is far, far lower.

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plutosdad September 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

I think the other thing the people blaming the protestors are doing is seeing the world through a filter. They want to blame “right wing tea baggers” for all violence, yet they ignore violence commited by people with left wing political beliefs (as if you can even divide us all into right and left in the first place). For instance, there was the Code Pink man who bit the finger off of the elderly man last year, the numerous counts of violence by SEIU members that occured last year, the shooter earlier this year who espoused both right wing and socialist sentiments on his blog but was reported only as a “teabagger”, and more recently even the attempted killing last month by a man who supported the muslim center against a muslim taxi driver, which has continually been misreported as a “teabagger” who committed the violence when it was just the opposite. The charges of the N word being said at a congressman, when the videos on youtube that have sound do not show that word at all, etc. Lies and anger are coming from both sides of any issue.

Violence is out there, but when the perpetrators are people with politics we agree with, we say “those are extremists and not normal” but when the perps are people we disagree with, we say “oh they are ALL like that.” This is an awful sentiment that reeks of prejudice and bias which is the very thing the people saying it purport to be against.

This post is a great example of why this is one of the only “atheist blogs” I still read. There is little to no tribalism or cheerleading, and you treat everyone equally and hold us all to the same standard, which is refreshing. It is also challenging and forces me to think to try to become a better person.

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plutosdad September 16, 2010 at 9:52 am

oops in my middle paragraph the second “disagree” should be “agree.” we are quick to judge everyone we disagree with, but see people we agree with as extreme and an aberration if they commit violence.

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cl September 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm

What does this post have to do with desirism?

I don’t think Alonzo is responsible for any anti-Muslim violence, but I sure do chuckle whenever I hear him get all preachy against “derogatory overgeneralizations.” That coming from the man who writes,

Electing a young-earth creationist to make laws is as foolish as getting into a car driven by a drunk…

…what a young earth creationist believes itself contributes to death and maiming. [Alonzo Fyfe, Immorality and Young Earth Creationism]

Those statements seem difficult to reconcile with,

In order to put an end to bigotry and hate-mongering, we do have to do a better job of recognizing it when it happens, and protesting it in all of its manifestations.

I agree, and that’s why Alonzo’s anti-creationist bigotry is doubly-alarming for me. If he was practicing what he preaches, it would seem he would criticize isolated creationists – the ones actually doing harm in our various institutions – instead of all members of the group.

Then again, it’s usually more difficult to detect our own bigotry than others’.

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Rabbi Mel Gibson September 16, 2010 at 8:44 pm

If there were 17 billion galaxies, with 17 billion planets, and on each of the 17 billion planets there were 17 billion monkeys typing random keys on a typewriter for 17 billion years at 41 keystrokes per second (!) it is 99.99999995%certain they could NOT randomly produce the single sentence “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Here is the math:

http://www.nutters.org/docs/monkeys.

FYI: the human genome is comprised of 3 BILLION DNA base pairs.

just sayin’

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lukeprog September 16, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Rabbi Mel Gibson does not understand evolution.

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Hermes September 17, 2010 at 6:31 am

>> Rabbi Mel Gibson does not understand evolution.

Nope. But I have to say, I love the name. It would be better if it were “Rabbi Yaakov Melveen Gibson”, but not bad.

Now, Rabbi, if you want to take a look at what evolution is and how it differs from a study of origins of life (abiogeneis), take a few minutes with these references;

Abiogenesis (not evolution): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6QYDdgP9eg

==> Skip the first 3 minutes if you are short on time. The meat kicks in just before the 4 minute mark.

Evolution in 2 minutes (not abiogenesis): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnzmxeZJeho

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puntnf September 17, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Forgive my ignorance, I’m honestly confused.

What’s his argument? Something about the human genome being too large?..

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Jeff H September 17, 2010 at 12:58 pm

What’s his argument? Something about the human genome being too large?..

I think he’s arguing for better typing skills for monkeys.

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Wade Anes September 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm

@cl,
Bigotry against creationists? I’m sorry, that is just absurd. So now I guess chemists are just ‘bigots’ when it comes to alchemy, or astronomers are ‘bigots’ when it comes to astrologers.

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Hermes September 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Re: Rabbi Mel G.

I think he’s, with the monkeys, not just making an argument from ignorance, he’s actually stating his strong advocacy for ignorance as a universal way of life.

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cl September 17, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Wade Anes,

I’ve provided the statements from Alonzo that I believe constitute anti-creationist bigotry. If you have an objection to them, or some argument, I’m willing to discuss it. Otherwise, I don’t care what you think is absurd.

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Wade Anes September 17, 2010 at 6:36 pm

cl,

I guess now you’re being a bigot if you are against having psychics advise the president. So would you object to Sylvia Browne helping decide public policy? And if you do, would that make you an anti-psychic bigot?

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cl September 20, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Wade Anes,

I guess now you’re being a bigot if you are against having psychics advise the president. So would you object to Sylvia Browne helping decide public policy? And if you do, would that make you an anti-psychic bigot?

Red herring.

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Hermes September 21, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Cl, Wade Anes has a proper analogy. If you disagree, say how it falls apart, specifically, or concede his point.

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cl October 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm

You really don’t see how the analogy fails? In the case of Wade’s Sylvia Browne analogy, Sylvia would be advising the president based on messages from her psychic friends. A creationist, on the other hand, is simply someone who believes that God created the universe. Nothing about believing that demands that the creationist is unfit for policy making.

I’m under no obligation to concede anything to Wade.

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