All in Good Fun …

So, Michael Nugent has weighed in on the ability to make fun of religion. The big problem with the article is that it is very light on arguing for why this is something that we need to protect, and heavy on trying to demonstrate that the Catholic Church is doing the same thing and so are themselves insulting and ridiculing people and/or ideas. The problem is that the examples don’t work because they ignore the critical factor between criticism and ridicule, satire and mockery: the primary intent.

He sums up his view thusly:

We should not cause harm to actual people by infringing on their human rights, but we should always be able to robustly criticise and to ridicule ideas.

Presumably, this is because, as he says, you have rights but your beliefs don’t. However, this isn’t adequately fleshed out, meaning that it is reasonable to presume that his main thrust here is the standard notion of free speech: that we must be able to express ideas no matter how offensive some people find them. He does go on to defend that sort of line, by appealing to a possible societal benefit:

Pope Francis says “one cannot make fun of faith”. This is just silly. Of course we can make fun of faith. Faith is believing things disproportionately to the evidence. Religious faith is just one example of this folly. Making fun of silly beliefs is one important way of encouraging people to examine why they believe them, and of discouraging others from starting to believe them.

The reason that many religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous. If they could withstand scrutiny they would not need to be protected from mockery. Scientists don’t worry if somebody mocks the law of gravity, because they know that the law of gravity does not change based on whether people are laughing at it.

Reading in a bit, the idea here is that faith and religious beliefs are silly, or at least are of the sort that people ought not believe in them. People have to be free to criticize and to work to convince people to abandon them. Ridicule and mockery is an effective way to do that, so we must be free to ridicule and mock “silly” ideas to that end. Thus, he is tying it to purpose: the purpose is to make an intellectual case, and so the speech has value, and so must be protected.

The problem is that this would not hold for what I’d call “straight” ridicule or mockery, ridicule or mockery whose main purpose is to, well, ridicule or mock. Nugent’s argument provides comfort for people who just want to insult and offend others, by placing ridiculing people as a desirable thing in and of itself without assessing whether the purpose is to convince those who follow those beliefs to abandon them or instead simply to offend people without having anyone be able to hit back at them, or protest their being utter jerks about it, as they hide behind the intellectual claim that it is necessary criticism.

Also, this is an odd line for anyone who thinks that we should base our beliefs on logic and reason to take. If the beliefs really are silly, you shouldn’t need to mock or ridicule them in order to get people to stop believing in them and to not start believing in them. You should be able to simply point out, repeatedly, the arguments demonstrating that they are silly, and then people will just see that they are silly, and once they agree with that they’ll do that naturally. Sure, things are more complicated than that, but surely that should be the take that someone who wants us to base our beliefs on logic and reason should advocate. What they shouldn’t do is advocate that we use an explicitly emotional approach … one that will work whether or not they have sufficient arguments for their claims. Because that’s precisely the sort of approach he’s advocating here: make it so that people who believe those things are teased and mocked and ridiculed, and as people don’t like to be teased and mocked and ridiculed they’ll develop an emotional aversion to accepting those beliefs and so will abandon them or not accept them in the first place. But this is independent of the arguments given or the strength of the proposition; all you need to have this work is to have enough people on your side and willing to engage in the ridicule.

This is the difference between criticism/satire and ridicule/mockery. Any offense caused by legitimate criticism or satire is unintentional, and is not necessary to make the point. Those forms focus on doing what they can to make their intellectual points come across clearly and effectively, and any humour — either incidental or at the expense of their opponents — is done strictly to make the arguments stand out better intellectually and rationally. With ridicule and mockery, the opposite is true: the joking at the expense of the opponents is the entire point, and any intellectual arguments are incidental to that (and usually, in my opinion, only used to make the mocker feel better about doing it, by allowing them to appeal to the idea that they are mocking in the service of what is right).

Criticism needs to be protected, and we should not allow the censoring of criticism because it incidentally offends people. However, there is no need to protect speech whose main purpose is to mock and ridicule, as for that speech the main purpose is to offend and to convert through emotion. Society is not better off with that sort of “criticism”.

So, the claim about Charlie Hebdo is that they engaged more in ridicule than in making an actual criticism, that their primary purpose was to offend rather than to make an actual argument. How true this is might be debatable, but let’s look at what Nugent thinks compares to that:

Also, I support the right of the Pope to joke about punching people who insult his mother, even though such jokes make fun of the pacifist religious beliefs of the Amish and Quakers, and even though supporters of actual violence could misinterpret the Pope’s joke as being supportive of their behaviour. It is clear that he is not actually promoting violence, and we should support his right to make fun of violence as much as we support Charlie Hebdo’s right to make fun of racism and religion.

Except that it is clear that his intent there is not to make fun of the pacifist beliefs, and in fact it is difficult to see how one could call his statement “making fun” of them at all without using a rather non-standard definition of “making fun”. All he did there was state something that in his cultural context is an acceptable phrasing, and promote something that his cultural context might accept. He doesn’t even pass judgement on their pacifist beliefs by implying in any way that people who wouldn’t do that are somehow wrong, bad or holding wrong beliefs. So all he’s done is express something in a way that aligns with his personal beliefs, without passing judgement on what those with other personal beliefs might think. This is hardly “making fun” in any real sense because in order to “make fun” of it you have to at least express the idea that what they are thinking is wrong … and he doesn’t.

This just highlights the underlying problem with this debate. Nugent presumes in all of his examples that expressing a personally deeply held belief that others might disagree with is “making fun” in the problematic way. He adds this one later:

The Catholic Church considers homosexuality to be an objective disorder because it is ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.

But, again, this is just expressing what it believes. We do indeed need protection under free speech for expressing what we believe, even if some disagree and even if some are offended by our statement. So, I will defend Nugent’s ability to express his belief that religious beliefs are “silly”, despite the fact that that does express strong judgement and does so in a way that’s so dismissive as to be absolutely offensive to anyone who holds the belief … as long as he really does think that they are so obviously silly. However, I don’t defend an argument that says that because he thinks that it is reasonable for him to simply mock and ridicule those beliefs out of people. If he wants to convince people to abandon those “silly” beliefs, let him do that by convincing them that the beliefs are silly with reason and argument, not by making them feel bad for holding beliefs that he doesn’t agree with. If he has the arguments, this should be relatively easy to do. He can use humour. He can use satire. He can be harsh. He can incidentally offend people. But he cannot set out to offend people out of their beliefs, or offend them into saying or doing something harsh that he can then use as ammunition.

Free speech protects speech that has an intellectual, artistic, or societal benefit. This is why free speech defenses of pornography make no sense because it is not speech that has any of those benefits; a better argument would be to appeal to the idea that society cannot limit someone’s pursuit of happiness unreasonably. Ridicule and mockery have no intellectual or artistic benefit, and as they can be used to promote that which is false just as easily as that which is true they don’t have any societal benefit either. And the only happiness pursued with them is the happiness that comes from making others feel bad, which a reasonable society need not defend. While there is reason to defend criticism and satire that happens to offend — because the intellectual purpose of challenging beliefs is one worth defending — ridicule and satire aim to offend … and free speech does not defend offending people as a worthy goal in and of itself.

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2 Responses to “All in Good Fun …”

  1. GM Says:

    First time posting here. I’m in a long discussion with an atheist elsewhere about this topic in the context of the Paris attacks. I really find it fascinating how some atheists vigorously defend the act of mockery when it comes to religion. I don’t know of any significant social change that would make anyone proud where mockery was an indispensable vehicle of that change. Adults really should know better.

    What I’m starting to suspect is behind the heavy-handed false pretenses of paternalistic defenses of the practice is something much more insidious. Religious epistemic “pay off” comes through perceived interactions with the Divine. Prayer, ritual, mystical experience, what have you, validate faith to believers experientially and existentially. An atheist can certainly experience awe, but it’s not interactive: the atheist can only go “look and see” with his eyes, he can’t “wait and listen.”

    Mockery provides a crack-cocaine version of epistemic pay-off. It’s not only that the religious person is just merely incorrect, it’s that they are “silly” and the atheist is “serious.” Mockery, it seems, is the sacrament of affirming superiority and loving the hell out of it.

  2. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    Such is the intolerance of the politically righteous one.

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