Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, May 03, 2015

When Should We Brand People As Immoral?

Having written a rather long post about why I think reasonable people can disagree about how praiseworthy Charlie Hebdo is, I want to make a more general point about how we think about social norms.

Alan believes something like:  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala in honor of Charlie Hebdo."  Well, actually, that's not quite right.  Alan himself won't be in attendance, but presumably he isn't pointing the finger of blame at himself.  Why not?  Because he wasn't invited.

Fair enough.  Maybe Alan believes:  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala if you were invited."  But Caleb Crain probably was invited, and yet won't attend.  Why not?  Because he didn't read the email from PEN that contained the invitation.  (He may have deleted it without thought, or he may have unsubscribed from the list long ago.  We can't be certain.)

And yet Alan isn't pointing the finger of blame at Crain, either.  Why not?  Isn't there some kind of moral obligation to attend?

Apparently not.  It is fine not to attend the gala for reasons of convenience.  So let's try again.  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala if your reason for not attending is a matter of conscience."

Now this might seem bizarre, since the more natural approach might be to respect people's conscientious beliefs, at least where those beliefs are within the bounds of reason and decency.

But maybe we can explain it this way.  Alan has considered the matter, and he has decided that there can be no two opinions on whether Charlie Hebdo did enough to avoid humiliating Muslims.  So in other words, he disagrees with my previous blog post.  He doesn't think any reasonable person could possibly take the view that Charlie Hebdo crossed the line in its humiliation of Muslims.  And since no reasonable person could take that view, and the PEN dissenters are reasonable people, Alan concludes that darker motives are at play.  Hence the immorality of their stance, and hence the efforts of people like Caleb Crain to shame the dissenters for following the dictates of their consciences.

I suppose this makes sense.  Imagine a Catholic nun who sheltered Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.  As a result of this bravery, the nun has been invited to attend a gala in honor of social justice.  The nun finds out that the gala intends to honor an abortion rights group that is fighting for on-demand, publicly-funded abortions.  The nun decides not to attend the gala, observing that according to her religious and moral beliefs, abortion is murder.  What I think Alan would say is something like, "Look, this nun is clearly committing an immoral act by declining to attend the gala."

Or imagine an animal rights activist who has been invited to a gala.  When she discovers that the gala will honor an organization dedicated to bringing American-style factory farming to the developing world, the animal rights activist declines to attend.  Alan might say, "Look, there are millions of people starving.  Are you really going to try to deny the developing world the agricultural tools that it needs to feed itself?  You are immoral for declining to attend the gala."

Or maybe not.  Maybe Alan would say that reasonable people can disagree about the morality of abortion, or factory farming, but not about the morality of humiliating Muslims.  I don't know.

My own opinion is that it makes no sense to attack people for taking a principled view on the question of whether Charlie Hebdo crossed the line when it repeatedly humiliated and provoked Muslims.  Do we really think there are no two legitimate opinions on this question?  Do we really want to embrace a kind of forced unanimity on this question, by shaming people whose views differ from our own?  Is it really morally mandatory to honor a publication that you believe went out of its way to humiliate a vulnerable and much-put-upon minority?

Lawyers who read this blog may recall the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the famous "flag-salute" case.  The question was whether students could be required to salute the American flag.  (The students who declined to salute were Jehovah's Witnesses who had principled objections to saluting the flag.)  Of course the dispute was about whether the government could legally compel students to salute the flag, and the Court determined that it could not.  But it strikes me that when political and moral issues are sufficiently complicated that reasonable people can disagree, it is as wrong to force people to salute Charlie Hebdo as it is to force them to salute a flag.  And that doesn't just apply to legal coercion, it applies to public shaming and accusations of immorality as well.  If you think Charlie Hebdo stayed on the right side of the line, then say so.  But does it really make sense to engage in a campaign of public shaming of the dissenters?  Does it make sense to try to intimidate them into not expressing their views?  To question their morality in public?

I think Caleb Crain and Alan bear a heavy burden if they want to demonstrate that it's immoral to decline to attend the gala for reasons of conscience.  They need to show, not just that Charlie Hebdo was on the right side of the line, but that this is so obvious that no reasonable person could take the opposite view.  I don't think they've met that burden.  I don't think they've come close.

[So to be clear about what I believe:  It is completely fine to express the view that Charlie Hebdo was on the right side of the line, if that is what you believe.  But I don't think makes much sense to ask, "Were the dissenters right to decline to attend the gala?"  That question is not really at issue on these facts.  Of course they were right to do what their consciences told them to do—how could any reasonable person think otherwise?  If you think they deserve to be criticized, it is because you believe this issue is so clear-cut that there are no two reasonable opinions, and therefore their consciences don't deserve anyone's respect.  In  other words, you want to exclude the view that Charlie Hebdo crossed the line from reasoned debate.  You believe that in this discussion there are no meaningful nuances, gray areas, or difficult questions.  This is a very hard argument to accept.]


Blogger Sarang said...

To change the hypothetical somewhat. Say TS Eliot wins the Nobel Prize and you think his views are immorally reactionary, or Auden wins it and you think homosexuality is immoral. Say you were going to attend -- had bought a ticket and all that -- and then decided to boycott the event as a protest. What would it take to justify this boycott, "morally"? The answer you are implying here seems to be essentially, nothing, disagreement with some of the awardee's positions is enough. But I feel that this can't be the right answer: if it were widely held and acted on, then it would create a huge tax for awards committees that wanted to honor people or institutions with unpopular viewpoints.

Now you might try to draw a distinction between viewpoints you don't agree with and those you find pernicious/harmful but this doesn't really work either, I think. For instance I (and much of the left) believe GOP policies are almost entirely pernicious/harmful.

If this sort of self-evidently chilling outcome is to be avoided, it must be obligatory for people not to boycott awards ceremonies based on the political views of the awardees except in extreme cases.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

I agree with Sarang, and I also think you're exaggerating my position. I'm not "shaming" the boycotters, and I'm not saying no reasonable person could have the view that Charlie Hebdo crossed some sort of line in at least some of its cartoons about Muslims. If an invitee simply said, "I'm sorry, but I would really not feel comfortable with being part of the awards ceremony given how much Charlie Hebdo's material offends me," I wouldn't lash out at her and accuse her of being against free speech. (I might give her my take on the nature of the award and nudge her to reconsider.) What bothers me is the vehemence and assuredness of the boycotters in accusing PEN of acting immorally by giving the award to Charlie Hebdo, even though the award is not meant to endorse the publication's viewpoints or style. Again, it seems to me that the boycotters are the ones going on the moral offensive, calling out PEN and the attendees, implying that there is a moral obligation to give the award to someone else, and to not attend unless that is done. I don't think the boycotters are merely saying, "I don't feel comfortable," or "I feel another person or institution is more deserving." Rather, it seems they're saying PEN is doing evil by honoring evil.

My mind is not closed to the possibility that Charlie Hebdo really did engage in evil, beyond the pale speech (though it seems we agree that they have a legitimate political intent as opposed to an intent to just hurt and instigate, and that they should not be disqualified as honorees simply by virtue of the kind of speech they're engaged in). I have not meaningfully evaluated their material, and I confess that most of my understanding of it comes from presumably biased sources such as Crain and Wilson. But like Sarang, I think the boycotters are the ones with a hefty burden, especially given the nature of the award. They have to show that Charlie Hebdo is so bad that it is wrong to give them an award meant to celebrate the principle of freedom of political speech by honoring their courageous perseverance in the face of threats and murder. I of course agree that some people and institutions are not deserving of such an award, no matter how courageous. Neo-Nazis are obviously over the line, and based on your earlier post (my sole source of knowledge about them), the Orangemen seem to be on the wrong side as well. But Charlie Hebdo strikes me as pretty far removed from such hate groups. The image I have of them is a satirical, irreverent, equal opportunity denigrater of the sacred, out to take religion and other forms of dogmatism down a peg. The fact that attitudes towards them -- such as whether they're racist -- are sharply divided, even among the targets of their satire, strikes me as pretty good evidence that they're not over the line for purposes of this award.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post and several immediately before it seem to treat it as irrelevant that the people at Charlie Hedbo were violently murdered. I think that this is not a random detail irrelevant to how we should, in retrospect, treat their speech.
Had they published the same cartoons and lived to a ripe old age, I might have reviewed their body of work and concluded, “those folks were kind of dicks.” (I also might not have, I haven’t actually reviewed their body of work). But they were murdered. And since they were, I think there is something of an obligation to circle the wagons (as it were) and have those that use words stand together against those that use violence.
Or to use reductionist incentives again, the more people stand with Charlie the more self defeating the violence was. The more self defeating an act is the less people are incentivized to do it.
Regardless of if you take a symbolic stand together view or an econ incentive view, it all points to the same direction. It is easy to forget just how anomalous the current low level of violence we live in is compared to the bigger picture. It is very rare in history, and it is rare relative to much of the rest of the world today. It took a lot of effort and social change to get to this spot. Those protesting this event are eroding one of the most valuable commons society has in order to make their points.

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