Manufacturing Offense

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 26, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

Today’s post on ethics is written by 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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A member of the studio audience has drawn my attention to an article expressing opposition to drawing or otherwise depicting Mohammed.

Yvain asks us to:

Imagine that one night, an alien prankster secretly implants electrodes into the brains of an entire country – let’s say Britain. The next day, everyone in Britain discovers that pictures of salmon suddenly give them jolts of painful psychic distress. Every time they see a picture of a salmon, or they hear about someone photographing a salmon, or they even contemplate taking such a picture themselves, they get a feeling of wrongness that ruins their entire day.

Yvain reports, “I think most decent people would be willing to go to some trouble to avoid taking pictures of salmon.” Furthermore, “[M]y attempts to think of reasons why [showing pictures of Mohammed] is totally different from showing pictures of salmon to British people fail.”

Ultimately, I have to say that I have not been given enough information to determine if the Salmon case is any different from the Mohammed case. One question left unanswered in the salmon case is whether this aversion can be unlearned, and whether actually being surrounded by pictures of salmon would be – though painful in the short term – ultimately effective in eliminating this aversion.

Another question to ask is whether the alien prankster can even be effective in a culture where images of salmon are common – and must confine his efforts to areas where they are rare or, better yet, banned.

Let’s add the assumption that the alien electrodes only work in regions where depictions of salmon are very rare, and that the effect wears off quickly as a result of repeated exposure to salmon-pictures. Now, let us re-ask the question of whether a decent person has any reason to refrain from showing pictures of salmon.

In fact, if these types of conditions apply, an argument can be made to launch a campaign to fill society with salmon images, just so that they can render this prankster impotent and can be free of the burdens he creates. It does not help us to avoid illness or protect us from injury. Instead, it makes some of us a source of violence and commands the use of a great amount of effort to obtain compliance.

Now, let us change Yvain’s example slightly from depictions of salmon to eating salmon. As a result of the efforts of this alien prankster, some percentage of the population has these reactions to the mere thought of somebody eating a salmon . . . or, perhaps, the thought of eating pork . . . or beef . . . or shellfish . . . or of eating something other than fish on Friday.

Does their offense mean that we must now remove these items from our menus and remove the food from our stores? Must we now pass legislation that prohibits people from mentioning the eating of these foods?

Actually, if we were talking about immutable sentiments, I would argue that we do owe those who experience those reactions some consideration. It would be cruel to disregard their reaction.

However, we are not talking about immutable sentiments when it comes to Mohammed or Muslims’ offense at consuming pork. We are talking about manufactured sentiments. And they are not manufactured by alien pranksters that stand outside the reach of our social customs. They are manufactured by fellow human beings who are very much within our reach.

Manufactured offense is not the same as pretend offense (which Yvain talks about in his article). Manufactured offense is very real – just as a manufactured couch is real. The reactions are genuine, and a person is not practicing any form of deception in claiming that they have these reactions. However, the reaction is learned and, more importantly, taught. This means that we have the opportunity to ask the question of how we should regard this practice of manufacturing this particular offense. Is the manufacture of this offense worthwhile? Should there be limits on the offenses that people are (at least socially) permitted to manufacture?

I think it would be quite easy to manufacture offense over the eating of pork. One could argue that the public displays of pork-eating, putting pork on the menus of restaurants, and having grocery stores sell pork products in the open is an insult to the beliefs of those who hold that it is wrong. It “rubs their nose” in the fact that others think that their beliefs are not only mistaken, but are not worthy of respect.

However, we say jointly as a community to any who would manufacture this offense, “Don’t go there. That’s an industry that we do not need. You may tell your people not to eat pork, but also tell them that they live among others who do not share their views, and to expect to encounter pork products on the store shelf and on the menus at restaurants. Tell your people not to take our decision to eat pork as an insult to your beliefs – one that demands violent retribution. Take it as expressing a difference of opinion, and you need to learn to live in peace with those who do not share your beliefs.”

The same is true of this manufactured offense at depictions of Mohammed. “If you wish to adopt a personal rule against depicting Mohammed, you are free to refuse to depict Mohammed. But know that you share the world with those who have not share the same beliefs or to adopt the same rules. The fact that they draw Mohammed in flagrant disregard of your rule is not an insult to your beliefs that demands violent retribution. It expresses a difference of opinion – and you need to learn to live in peace with those who do not believe the same things you do.”

Of course, some depictions of Mohammed are bigoted and derogatory. Where these types of depictions exist they may, in fact, be condemned. However, they are to be condemned because they make claims that are bigoted and derogatory, not because they are depictions of Mohammed.

Yet, even where a depiction is a genuine insult worthy of condemnation, this does not imply that it is worthy of any form of violent response. A prohibition against responding to words with violence remains in force, even where the words deserve contempt. This is required to prevent societies from erupting into the type of mindless violence that plagues regions like Pakistan and other areas where societies have not adopted this prohibition against answering words with violence.

When Yvain began his discussion by imaging an “alien prankster” outside of society as the source of these sentiments, he fudged the question. That, itself, is a significant difference between the “depictions of Mohammed’ case versus the “depictions of salmon” case. On the issue of depicting Mohammed, we are not dealing with an analogue to the alien prankster who has done his dastardly deed and left for parts unknown, leaving us to live with the consequences. We are dealing with an “alien prankster” that still lives here with us, that is still very active. We do not have to simply accept what this “alien prankster” is trying to do. We have the option of combating his efforts and, in doing so, lessening the harms that he creates.

Depictions of Mohammed explicitly deny the legitimacy of what this “alien prankster” is doing – who, by the way, are very human and who are often motivated by something other than a slightly malicious sense of humor. It inoculates people against his actions and deprograms those he might have already afflicted. It aims to create a culture where depictions of Mohammed are regarded like depictions (or acts) of eating pork. The restrictions apply only to those who adopt them, and are not forced on others outside the group.

Most importantly, it denies these “pranksters” and those like them free reign to manufacture offense whenever and wherever they may find it useful to do so

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Awais Aftab May 26, 2011 at 7:03 am

A well thought-out post! I totally agree with the approach recommended by Fyfe, and have been trying to play my part in bringing about that mentality in people around me in Pakistan.

Tact, however, is required. It would help matters if the depictions are carried out in a manner that are not bigoted and derogatory. Not because a violent response to them is justified, but because bigotry and degradation evoke a condemnation from most people, even from those who are otherwise tolerant of depictions per se.

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Citizen Ghost May 26, 2011 at 11:33 am

One question left unanswered in the salmon case is whether this aversion can be unlearned, and whether actually being surrounded by pictures of salmon would be – though painful in the short term – ultimately effective in eliminating this aversion.

I’m not sure how important this is. Let’s suppose that the aversion is NOT likely to be unlearned by exposure to picutres of salmon. Does that really matter? What if pictures of salmon fulfill another social good – like faciliating free expression and creativity. Maybe society as a whole benefits from an enviroment where people can freely photograph any manner of fish without fear of bodily harm. While not every displayer of fish pictures is well-intentioned, the overall practice of taking and displaying fish pictures may well provide ideas, insights and valuable commentary on issues of public importance.

Perhaps I’m extending the discussion outside the sphere of ethics and into the realm of “rights” and “laws” but I would argue that these are closely related. You draw an analogy to the eating of pork and argue that having a difference of opinion here on dietary practices should not be seen as insulting someone’s beliefs. But when beliefs are harmful why is it wrong to insult them? Opinions are OFTEN insulting to the beliefs of others. Dietary restrictions are too easy of an example. The fundamental beliefs of Christians are deeply offensive to Muslims (and many other non-Christians). And vice versa. The fact that I think that Jesus was only a man and that some of his teachings are harmful is quite offensive to some Christiains. Is it ethically wrong to express those opinions because the feelings of others might be hurt? I’m not suggesting that we should applaud the insulting of others or do so gratitiously, but I’ll defend anyone’s right to do so. One might certainly argue that an opinion should NOT be expressed when you know it will only hurt others, but I’d argue that this sets a troubling standard – one that only empowers this practice of manufacturing offense.

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Stig May 26, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Why the need to construct a hypothetical “alien prankster”, when there are plenty of existing social norms in Western society that produce this feeling of wrongness too? I can’t possibly make this point without using an example people will find “tasteless” or “disgusting”, so here goes:

“If you wish to adopt a personal rule against having intercourse in public, you are free to refuse to have intercourse in public. But know that you share the world with those who do not share the same beliefs or to adopt the same rules. The fact that they have intercourse in public in flagrant disregard of your rule is not an insult to your beliefs that demands violent retribution. It expresses a difference of opinion – and you need to learn to live in peace with those who do not believe the same things you do.”

Most people will have an immediate reaction to this that screams “wrong”! While possibly not resorting to violence, many Christians and secularists would certainly do their best to change this practice if they had to live their lives amidst it. Actually it would likely lead to a fine or imprisonment, which can be thought of as mild forms of (state-approved) violence. I think people should consider examples like this before being so hard on Muslims that are appalled by depictions of Muhammed. Now I’m not a Muslim and I can’t possibly know which of these two actions produce the stronger emotional reaction. But I’m inclined to believe many Muslims are genuinely distressed by the thought of depictions. Under their worldview such drawings can have dire consequences, just like free sex everywhere can damage sexual morality under my worldview. And that’s enough reason for me to refrain from drawing Muhammed, unless I have a stronger “reason for action” to draw the prophet.

I believe the world would be a better place if showing each other this kind of respect was the default option, not something that got you labels like “coward” and “enemy of free speech”. Yes, freedom of expression is a human right, but there are lots of things that are perfectly legal to say but at the same time, rationally speaking, better left unsaid! This distinction is typically lost on the most zealous defenders of drawing the prophet.

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Citizen Ghost May 26, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Stig,

While possibly not resorting to violence, many Christians and secularists would certainly do their best to change this practice if they had to live their lives amidst it

But the threat of a violent reaction shouldn’t be glossed over – it’s a major reason why the drawing of Mohammed is a very different example. Another reason is that drawing, unlike screwing in the streets, is a protected form of creative expression. (I suppose one could try to make the argument that public sex is also a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, but I don’t think that would fly in any court. Not all behavior counts as symbolic speech).

I can appreciate the distinction you make – between having the right to say something but having the good manners or the sensitivity to refrain from saying it. But this is precisely where the threat of violence alters the equation. Back to the salmon analogy – if individuals had this strong aversion to pictures of salmon, I would probably refrain from drawing them out of respect for others. I might even ask others to refrain too. Sure, the aversion is irrational, but so what? Why hurt the feelings of others unnecessarily?

But once the threat of violence is introduced, this polite bargain is off. The threat moves this from an issue of good manners to an issue of free expression. It becomes all the more important to protect those who engage in this kind of expression.

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Ajay Raju May 27, 2011 at 3:36 am

I am not sure i agree. If i am a muslim and believe in Islam and the Quran and all that it says, then i must also want that Mohammed not be depicted anywhere and i will do whatever it takes to have it done. I will get hurt if someone tries to depict him. Why will i want to unlearn something from the Quran.

Also, looks like violence does work. If not for the violence, lot of Muhammed depictions would be there everywhere. The fear of the violence is what is making sure that nothing happens.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 27, 2011 at 5:31 am

A lot of assumptions are being made in the “public sex” example to make it serve as a counter-example – assumptions that need not be accepted.

Let us begin here. I can be prohibited from tanning hides in my yard. The reason is because the stench of doing so is offensive to others. They do not want to live in a house where they must endure the smell. Furthermore, let us be clear that this prohibition is being backed up by violence. That is, I may be fined for refusing, imprisoned if I refuse to pay the fine, and shot if I should resist imprisonment.

Yet, among the facts about this offense is that is non-maleable. It isn’t taught to people, it is a part of our basic biological makeup. Repeated exposure is not going to change peoples’ reaction. And even if constant exposure could change their reaction, there are very real reasons not to do so. The same reaction to the smell of tanning hides is a reaction that keeps us away from situations in which diseases are easily spread. So, we side with those offended by the smell of tanning hides and threaten violence against those who tan hides in public.

In contrast, offense over depictions of Mohammed is entirely learned, and it is learned without good reason to back up the act of teaching it.

I suspect that we would discover the aversion to public sex has more in common with offense over the smell of tanning hides than offense over depictions of Mohammed. It is a fundamental aversion that we humans have acquired, in all likelihood because it produces positive social effects ranging from the lack of distractions to reducing incidents of rape and making the public environment safer for women and children.

I could be wrong on this. If it turns out that this aversion to public sex is learned and can be easily unlearned, and that unlearning this aversion will not produce adverse consequences (such as increasing the threat of sexual violence) then I will accept the implication that follows from my post above. We should set to unlearning this useless aversion so that we may enjoy the greater freedoms that this would entail.

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Stig May 27, 2011 at 9:38 am

A couple of brief comments for now:

The threat of violence gives me a reason to protect those who have chosen to depict the prophet from violence. But it in no way gives me a reason to approve of their action (apart from their obvious legal right). Muslims’ feelings about drawing the prophet must be kept analytically separate from the means they use to protect those feelings. I allow for and respect those feelings; I don’t respect their use of violence.

At any rate, the threat of violence in itself cannot be a motivation to draw the prophet. If I plan an armed invasion of the Netherlands or North Korea or Nevada, I will likely face threats of violence. That threat in itself in no way motivates me to try to invade those states. (For most sane and pragmatic people that threat would instead be a deterrent, but that’s another question).

@Alonzo Fyfe:

I agree that the aversion to public sex is not learned to the same extent religious prohibitions are. I still chose to use it because it is such a striking example to pinpoint this feeling of “wrongness”. Since we’re talking about respecting each others feelings unless there’s a good reason not to, I’m not sure it’s that relevant where those feelings ultimately came from. Culture and early learning can be powerful motivators too. But I need to think some more about this.

Let me just throw out a few milder but maybe more relevant counter-examples:

- Cultural dress codes, specifically how much of the body is appropriate to cover up in public. It can be very amusing to hear people object to women choosing to wear a nicab or hijab; but at the same time they would consider it inappropriate to be topless or nude in public. Both customs seem to me arbitrary and ruled by culture, yet people everywhere are certain their own culture has the moral high ground over those who would cover up either more or less.

- The respect shown to national symbols like flags. During the early protests after the Muhammed caricatures, a Norwegian politican went on TV and said that the burning of Norwegian flags (in Iran or wherever) was completely unacceptable. Earlier the same guy had affirmed that drawing the prophet is acceptable and legal. This inability to see the parallel between one’s own and others’ sacred symbols is both ironic and sad.

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Phil Howard May 28, 2011 at 2:03 am

If you tried criticizing atheism is a country where atheism was the official postion of the state, as in the Soviet Union, you went to a work camp, a re-education center, or a mental hospital. And in the early years of the organization of that state the death penalty was employed.

Thats what happens when atheism has control, as I learned from my grandparents and later confirmed through research. The Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn proved this beyond reasonable doubt in the three volume series The Gulag Archipelago.

Atheists need to face this and quit pretending like it doesn’t happen, even now.

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Citizen Ghost May 28, 2011 at 6:30 am

Phil Howard,

I’m not aware of any prominent atheist who advocates any government to adopt atheism as an “official” position of the state. A police state is a police state whether it happens to adopt atheism or some religion. There is a massive difference between establishing atheism as state dogma and upholding a separation between church and state. Only the latter ensures freedom of conscience.

Stig,

The threat of violence gives me a reason to protect those who have chosen to depict the prophet from violence. But it in no way gives me a reason to approve of their action (apart from their obvious legal right).

Agreed. But we haven’t heard a good reason to DISAPPROVE of their actions either. The only reason offered seems to be this: Drawing the prophet deeply offends the beliefs of others. But lots of ideas and forms of expression are offensive to others. Most of us don’t worry about that – if we did, we would be walking on eggshells in a perpetual state of self-censorship.

Artistic renderings of God – even beautiful ones – are considered offensive and idolatrous by religious Jews. They do not, however, call for shutting down the Sistine Chapel or for stopping the publication of Michelangelo’s images. Satirical cartoon depictions of Jesus are deeply offensive to some Chrisitans. Other Christians laugh their heads off and still go to church on Sunday. My own opinions about Jesus would surely offend many Christians. Ethically speaking, should I keep these to myself? There is no end to the feelings of offense that might be and are generated when people express their beliefs and opinions.

You say that we should keep the feelings separate from the violence used to back up those feelings. But if it’s not the threat of violence that’s controlling, why is the drawing of the prophet different from any number of “offensive” expressions?

Is the ethical precept to be followed this one: We should keep our ideas or criticisms to ourselves if expressing them will hurt the feelings of others. Isn’t that just good manners? The thing is, this isn’t about dinner table conversation, it’s about creative expression and honest criticism within a marketplace of ideas. Here, we don’t need to respect all ideas equally. I think that’s a good thing.

Is there a test to be followed where, before an individual speaks or draws, he should consider the hurt feelings of others and balance these with his own need to express himself? Is he obliged to assess the social good of the expression itself? I’m not sure how this sort of calculus would work but in any event, I would argue that a great deal of human progress is owed to the ideas and creative expressions of individuals who DON’T apply that sort of test.

A person who chooses to draw the prophet might have a good motive or a bad one. The drawing might have artistic merit or it might be awful crap. It might offer insightful commentary or it might be vulgar and obscene. But I can’t approve OR disapprove of a drawing if I can’t see it.

The thing that we are being asked to disapprove is not any particular drawing, but the very activity of drawing or depicting this one subject – an important subject. The outrage that this triggers is not a “feeling” that I’m obliged to respect. Yes, taking consideration of the sensitivity of others is a fine thing. But so is taking on irrational sacred cows.

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Stig June 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I looked up the Less Wrong-thread referred to and there was a much fuller discussion of these issues there.

Stig,

Agreed.But we haven’t heard a good reason to DISAPPROVE of their actions either. The only reason offered seems to be this:Drawing the prophet deeply offends the beliefs of others.But lots of ideas and forms of expression are offensive to others.Most of us don’t worry about that – if we did, we would be walking on eggshells in a perpetual state of self-censorship.

You say that we should keep the feelings separate from the violence used to back up those feelings.But if it’s not the threat of violence that’s controlling, why is the drawing of the prophet different from any number of “offensive” expressions?

[...]

Is the ethical precept to be followed this one:We should keep our ideas or criticisms to ourselves if expressing them will hurt the feelings of others. Isn’t that just good manners? The thing is, this isn’t about dinner table conversation, it’s about creative expression and honest criticism within a marketplace of ideas. Here, we don’t need to respect all ideas equally. I think that’s a good thing.

Is there a test to be followed where, before an individual speaks or draws, he should consider the hurt feelings of others and balance these with his own need to express himself? Is he obliged to assess the social good of the expression itself? I’m not sure how this sort of calculus would work but in any event, I would argue that a great deal of human progress is owed to the ideas and creative expressions of individuals who DON’T apply that sort of test.

It seems you agree that if I have no good reason to draw the prophet (or approve of someone drawing) but I have some reason, however slight, to abstain from drawing or approving, I shouldn’t do it. And that slight reason is the respect for other people’s sacred symbols and the desire to avoid unnecessary animosity. This is the EXACT same reason I would not burn the Norwegian flag, the American flag or the Bible in public: While I personally may not feel the sacredness and deep emotions connected to these symbols (I recognize that they are arbitrary signs, after all), I don’t go out of my way to offend my fellow human beings who may feel strongly about flags and books, with actions I have no strong personal reasons to engage in anyway. Now if I show that respect to Christians and Atheists, why wouldn’t I show it to Muslims? To them the prophet is surely an even stronger symbol than a flag or a book. Just because some Muslims threaten violence it seems odd to go out of my way to offend all of them.

So it turns out you actually need a positive argument FOR drawing the prophet to outweigh this basic human respect (and again simply pointing to free speech doesn’t do the job of justifying the action apart from making it legal). That reason is usually defiance, attacking “sacred cows” and/or some belief that we will change their minds if we insult their views enough times. Often the debate doesn’t even get as far as to point out these supposed reasons.

But does this idea of conversion by defiance actually work? Most of the religious criticism that has succeeded in the West has at least come from within Western societies. The “best” way to attack Atheism in the US is still to associate it with a perennial enemy, Communism. We would not listen to moral condemnation or ridicule from Muslims, so what makes us believe they will listen to us? Btw. as an Atheist I take the same attitude when discussing with Christians; You rarely get anywhere by ridiculing the other person’s views. But you may get to the core of the disagreement with respectful and rational dialogue.

I believe Muslim morality will have to develop in a modern direction after its sharp encounter with Western enlightenment and secularism. But that change will be driven from the inside of traditionally Muslim societies and minority groups.

In the meantime, there are frankly so many things to worry about in the various systems of Islamic law, like women’s rights to self-determination and schooling, the situation for homosexuals and apostates, etc. And instead of focusing on those things there’s an outcry over the right to draw pictures of a single person that died 1400 years ago!? That’s a strange choice of priority to me.

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