Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hypocrisy and Shades of Gray

I've rewritten this post several times today.  Hopefully I have not made it into a jumbled mess as to be unintelligible.  This is probably the hardest post I've had to write so far.

If you are going to make a stand on unpopular topics based on principles, then you must continue to make that stand even when it is extremely unpopular (as if being an atheist isn't unpopular enough).

I am somewhat in the minority when it comes to defending the construction of the Manhattan Islamic Center.  The owners of the property have met every legal hurdle (and then some) they have needed to build at that location.  They have a First Amendment right to practice their religion at that location.  But what about the feelings of the victims family?  While I acknowledge those feelings are real and valid, that, in itself, is not enough to deny them the right to build.

The creators of South Park did an episode earlier this year where they depicted one of the characters as Mohammad.  Any drawing of Mohammad, even a stick figure, is considered blasphemous by Islam.  Yet, the creators of South Park have every right under their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion to do what they did.  I recall some stories about this, but mostly those were because Comedy Central censored that particular show.  Nobody seemed overly concerned about anyone's feelings.

The Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center has a plan to burn Korans.  This is considered blasphemous by Islam, Yet, he has every right under the First Amendment to do this.  The Korans are purchased by him or donated to him, so he has the right to dispose of them as he pleases.  Even though he had been denied a fire permit for this, I assume that if the fire is small enough in size, he may be within the law without the permit.  Everyone is condemning this.  It is dangerous to our troops.  It is disrespectful to the 1 billion Muslims around the world, etc.

What is the difference?  What is it about the Koran burning that is more vile than protesting the Manhattan Islamic Center, or drawing Mohammad in a cartoon?

I have no problems with blasphemy.  I have no issues with depicting Mohammad in a cartoon.  Even though I dislike seeing any churches, synagogues, or mosques being built (what a waste of good money), I don't have an issue with the Islamic Center because they have every right to build it.  I am more than happy to endorse so many other blasphemous practices, such as Draw Mohammad Day or International Blasphemy Day or even "crackergate."

If I fundamentally have no issues with these things, then how can I have a fundamental problem with the Koran burning?  If I were to stand by my principles as stated in the first two cases, then how can I condemn what Jones is doing with the Koran burning?

Am I being a hypocrite?

So, what is the difference? 

Is it a reaction to the fact that this Jones guy is a real douche bag because he is hateful and bigoted based on his other stance on other issues?  Have I been quick to judge him for that reason?  Probably.  But I couldn't condemn him for donating a ton of food to a local food bank just because he is a douche.  I really should evaluate each of his actions separately.

Is it because it is being planned on 9/11?  No.  Not really.  I just don't place enormous emphasis around dates such as this.  Would the reaction be any less if it wasn't on 9/11?  Probably not.

Was it a visceral reaction to the fact that it is a book burning?  I have a moral objection to book burning in general as it really has no meaningful protest value to it.  It is simply a sign of ignorance and intolerance regardless of the subject matter of the books in question.  I will condemn any book burning, however, I will defend the right of any individual who wishes to do it.  Ah!  Maybe that's it.  Or at least, it gives me an out.  That is a moral objection that I can squarely place on this one act that I can feel good about and be consistent about.  And, for that reason, I feel justified in condemning this act.  However, I cannot justify condemning this act simply because it is a Koran, or because Jones is a known douche bag for other reasons.

To make the claim that this is going to endanger our troops overseas any more than the bigoted intolerance of those protesting against the Manhattan Islamic Cultural Center is wrong.  To make the claim that South Park's rendering of Mohammad does not somehow endanger our troops overseas is also wrong.  All are and will be used as propaganda and recruitment by the more extremist elements.

So why the quick condemnation from all corners of religion of Jones versus the lack of condemnation for the protests, or other things that happen on a daily basis in this country?  Why are we still not talking about the arson fire at the construction site of a mosque in Kentucky?  Is that act any less insulting against Islam then burning the Koran?  Or drawing a picture of Mohammad?  Or mistaking a dark skinned man as a Muslim at a protest rally?

The bottom line is that I don't know that I can condemn this Koran burning simply because it is blasphemous or disrespectful to Islam.  Just as I don't know that I could condemn a Bible burning as well.  If anything, it speaks to the craziness of religion in general that the burning of an inanimate object is such a big deal.  Doesn't that border on the Koran being a false idol?  Isn't that the argument against cartoon depictions of Mohammad?  Aren't Muslims actively burning American Flags and effigies of Jones in Afghanistan as we speak?  Are Muslims any less tolerant of Christian symbols?  Didn't the KKK used to burn crosses?

The only leg I have to stand on in this fight is the fact that it is a book burning in general.  Otherwise, it would be hypocritical of me.

There.  I said it.  I will now be ducking for cover.

P.S.  I started writing this post early this morning. Since then, both Ed Brayton and PZ Myers have chimed in on the subject as well.

P.S.S.  I have been wanting to find a reason to condemn this guys act of the Koran burning in a way that is not hypocritical of other acts of blasphemy.  Well, I think I found it.  Here is a comment from Ed Brayton's blog that I can fully get behind.  The idea of inciting hatred and intimidation.
My sole "moral" objection is that it's an organized book-burning, and making an event of it shows intention to incite hate and intimidate American Muslims.
I still support their right to do it - and if there's any violent retaliation I can only hope it'll be focused on Jones' organization.


  1. It seems to me that one relevant difference is the motivation. The Koran burning is simply mean. It was going to be done (he's called it off now apparently) solely to offend Muslims. Some might have been thinking of it as a sort of retaliation against 9/11 or other evils perpetrated by Muslims, but that would be misguided since it was individuals, rather than Islam itself, who perpetrated the evils.

    By comparison, the NY mosque was not intentionally designed to be offensive. Those who are offended by it are making the same mistake: failing to distinguish particular Muslim terrorists vs. Islam itself.

    As for the cartoons, having not ever seen them, I'm not sure what the author's intent was. If their sole intent was similar to the Koran burning, I'd be inclined to say that they were similarly offensive. However there, the story of the cartoons quickly shifted to the story of death threats, assaults, etc. with which some Muslims expressed their anger. Even if something really is offensive, it would still be wrong to respond with such disproportional force.

  2. I support this idiot's right to burn Korans. I support the right if any individual to burn the American flag, or bibles, or Books of Mormon, or "Catcher in the Rye" and "Huckleberry Finn" for that matter. I despise it, regardless of their intent, but I absolutely support their right to do it. I guess what I'm saying is don't mistake my condemnation for this ass-hattery as being non-supportive of their right to do these things. I support anyone's right to attend a Benny Hinn revival and seek healing for whatever affliction they have, but I reserve the right to mock such a ridiculous show of naivete as well.

    Crime Dog

  3. In one of the previous iterations of this post, I referred to the plan as cruelly intolerant, which I think is pretty close to mean. The problem is, isn't any act of blasphemy considered mean by those whose faith or belief is blasphemed? Isn't the desecration of a Eucharist considered mean? What about calling God a Sky Fairy (one of my personal favorites)? It quickly became an indefensible position. I believe atheists use blaspheme as a tool to point out the absurdities associated with these symbolic artifacts and how that projects onto the absurdity of their core beliefs.

  4. @Crime Dog,

    I agree. In my previous post on this, I defended his right to do it, but I also condemned the act. I condemned it for reasons that I can't defend without being a complete hypocrite on other acts of blasphemy.

    Mocking and condemnation are not the same thing. I have no problem mocking this ass-hat.

  5. You're right that any blasphemous act will be perceived as mean by those it's aimed at. And, even if the religious beliefs being flouted are false, the suffering of those who believe them is real. As such, though one has the right to blaspheme, in virtue of having a right to freedom of expression, one ought not cause that harm without a sufficient justification.

    But I think we can still draw a distinction, without becoming hypocritical, based on whether or not a particular blasphemous act, harmful though it is, is justified by an appropriate benefit. When PZ defiled his wafer, he was doing it to defend freedom of expression, which some Catholics wanted to suppress by using state power (the university police) to prevent it. He was also defending separation of church and state, since the only possible justification for having the police guard the wafers would be if they really were Jesus, and the state is not authorized to take a position on that question. These are big important issues which, at least arguably, are important enough to justify offending some Catholic sensibilities if necessary.

    By comparison, there doesn't seem to be any real good at all that could come of the Koran burning, and that could best be accomplished in that way.

  6. @Joel,

    I agree. An act of blasphemy that is done with the intent of mocking or calling out the absurdity of the belief, or as a means to distinguish and clarify a right, I'm OK with. While the believer may be offended or angered, it is not the intent of the blasphemer to incite hatred. I think that is the distinction I was looking for. Your comment on motivation and a thorough reading of commentary on Brayton's blog allowed me to find the distinction. An act of blasphemy for the purpose of inciting hatred or intimidation is very worthy of condemnation.