Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Defending Hate

The infamous atheist, PZ Myers, recently posted a short bit about a legal matter in Poland on Pharyngula, his popular science blog. It turns out that Poland has a law against insults to religion. (A number of EU countries have such laws.) If you offend religious sensibilities in Poland by "publicly profaning an item of religious cult or a place intended for publicly performing religious rituals," then you are "subject to a fine, restriction of freedom or imprisonment up to 2 years." I have been told by students and practitioners of Polish law that it is very difficult to offend religious sensibilities in a legally recognized way. The law is intended to protect the freedom of religious expression and prevent a sort of hate speech. It is not used to silence objections to, or criticisms of, religion. Whether or not the law is used to infringe upon the freedom of speech is a question to be determined by the application of the law, and not its letter.

As it turns out, it seems that it is very hard to find examples of cases where this law has been applied at all. It was applied in 2003, and resulted in a probationary community service sentence against Dorota Nieznalska, an artist who had created an art exhibit which featured male genitalia on the cross. However, Nieznalska eventually won an appeal. Otherwise, it does not seem that this law has resulted in any convictions at all. This could be because Poles are not so sensitive to public offenses to religion, or it could be because Poles have a strong tendency to publicly respect religious objects and institutions. Either way, it is at least possible that this law could be used to infringe upon the freedom of speech. The only way to find out, I suppose, is to test it.

Enter Doda, a pop star who made a provocative comment about the authors of the Bible. Some Catholics in Poland are trying to bring a legal action against Doda. As Myers observes in his blog, what Doda said is not deserving of punishment. If she is taken to trial and loses, it will look bad for Poland's legal system. Fortunately, I hear there is no way Doda will be punished for what she said. So, if and when she is brought to trial, she will probably win, and it will prove nothing bad about Poland or Polish law--except, perhaps, that it is too easy to file law suits and get in front of a judge in Poland--but that problem is not specific to "religious insult" laws.

It might seem like I agree with Myers. Not quite. Myers titles his blog post, "Shame on Poland," as if the entire country, or even a significant portion of its population, had done anything wrong. All that has happened is that a conservative fringe has made a fuss. Myers says that the people who are responsible for this situation are "touchy little cowards." He is probably right--but he is using this as an opportunity to criticize the entire country, or at least a significant portion of its population. More, he implicates all of Europe, suggesting that all Europeans are hypocrites for criticizing the way Muslims respond to depictions of Mohammad. (According to some conservative Muslims, visual depictions of Mohammad are punishable by death, a view which has led to death threats and violence around the world, even against people who are not Muslim. Recently, for example, a cartoonist was attacked in Sweden.)

There are two things to observe about this comparison. On the one hand, what is so upsetting to many Europeans is not that some Muslims are offended by depictions of Mohammad. It is that they consider it a capital crime and are willing to threaten and execute anybody anywhere for breaking their rules. It is absurd to compare that to the fuss made in Poland over Doda. On the other hand, how can Myers suggest that Europe itself--not just Poland, and not just the European Union, but the entire continent--was somehow implicated in this Doda situation? This is also absurd. Not just absurd, but irresponsible and damaging. I think Myers has let his emotions get the better of him.

PZ Myers has very strong and no doubt well-earned feelings about religion and conservatism. I wouldn't criticize him for that, and not just because I share those same feelings. I do share them, or at least a lot of them, even if I don't always agree with the way he expresses them. I often enjoy his well-thought-out critiques and commentaries, and I often agree with his perspective. Unfortunately, he is not always careful; and considering his influence, that is very irresponsible.

According to the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, hate is a "deep, enduring, intense emotion expressing animosity, anger, and hostility towards a person, group, or object." This is a healthy emotional response, and it serves many useful functions in our lives. I have no doubt that Myers hates many expressions of religion and conservatism. I hate them, too. For example, in another recent post, Myers talks about the brutal execution of a 13-year-old girl--a Muslim--whose only crime was to have been gang-raped. Myers says he does not want to share the world with people who could do that. I understand that sentiment. I can even agree with it. And I can think of no better word to describe its emotional foundation than "hate." I hate what happened to that 13-year-old girl, and I have no doubt that Myers does as well.

There is no reason to deny such feelings. The fact that you hate something does not preclude you from making a cogent argument against it. Emotions do not always interfere with our rational judgment. They also guide us. Consider: pro-life activists hate abortion; pro-choice activists hate unreasonable restrictions on a woman's right to control her own body. Does that mean that neither side has a legitimate argument to make? Of course not. The fact that an argument or perspective is motivated by hate is no reason at all to reject it.

If your adversaries in a debate criticize you for your hatred, they are not criticizing your arguments. They are trying to avoid your arguments by criticizing their source. This is called poisoning the well. It is not a valid counter-argument, and it should not be respected. The response is not to say, "oh, no, I don't hate!" The proper response is to say, "that is not a valid counter-argument; you are evading my argument." Don't pretend you don't hate. It is not convincing, and it does not further your cause. It only lets your opponents use your emotions against you. There's nothing wrong with strong emotions.

All of these issues came up in the comments section of Myers' post. I do not normally post on Pharyngula, and I do not normally read the comments section, so I went into the discussion without any prior knowledge of the participants. What I found was interesting. At first, a number of people were very supportive of my position. (I should mention that others had already pointed out some of the problems with Myers' post before I joined in.) However, it soon became apparent my use of the h-word was a problem. The Pharyngula community does not like to be accused of hating. It turns out that religious conservatives try to undermine their arguments by claiming they are expressions of hatred, so they have (perhaps tacitly) agreed never to claim to hate anything related to religion or conservatism. I find this deeply troubling.

I should also mention that I was not just concerned about the way PZ Myers misdirected his hatred. I was concerned with the way other people jumped on the bandwagon. Several people who responded in the comments section echoed sentiments of hostility and anger at Poland and the Polish people. One person claimed to have been happy about the tragic deaths of scores of Poland's military and civilian leaders last month. (This individual probably didn't bother to read about all of the people who had died, or he may have found out that they weren't all religious conservatives. For example, one was going to be the next Presidential candidate for the liberal party.) Another person said he was no longer going to be offended by Polish jokes. Yet another said the situation was disgusting, and that Poland was uncivilized.

As an American ex-pat living in Poland and married to a Polish woman, I felt a duty to defend my host country and its people against such unjust attacks. I was not defending religion or conservatism. I only criticized the misdirection of strong emotions. And, as should be clear by now, I was not criticizing those emotions themselves. I was only pointing out that (1) there were strong, negative emotions being misdirected, and (2) this made the posts not only absurd, but very irresponsible and sad.

As I said, some people agreed with and appreciated my comments. But then people started distancing themselves from my use of the words "hate" and "hatred." I was met with a little hostility and, finally, I was accused of being a "concern/tone troll." This apparently justifies ignoring me: Since I have been called a troll, nobody else has posted.

It is also worth noting the feeling of solidarity I sensed among the participants. Many felt very comfortable speaking about the emotions of the group. Perhaps they are all so connected to each other, they know that none of them hates anything. One wrote, "Hate requires energy which we don't have." Right. They have energy to post at length about the horrible effects of religious faith--but not the energy to have strong feelings about it?

Hopefully leading members of the atheist and liberal communities can make a change here. We shouldn't feel guilty for having deep-seated emotional responses to injustice. We shouldn't pretend that our arguments and actions are not motivated by our feelings. There's nothing wrong with hate, or expressions of hatred; just so long as those expressions are healthy and constructive, and not misdirected.