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Stuff [Jun. 6th, 2010|01:22 am]

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 hear about someone photographing a salmon, or they see a picture of a salmon, or they even contemplate taking such a picture, they get a feeling of wrongness that ruins their entire day.

I think most decent people would be willing to go to some trouble to avoid taking pictures of salmon if British people might hear about it. If someone deliberately took lots of salmon photos and waved them in the Brits' faces, I think it would be fair to say ey isn't a nice person. And if the British government banned salmon photography, and refused to allow salmon pictures into the country, well, maybe not everyone would agree but I think most people would at least be able to understand and sympathize with the reasons for such a law.

I tend to think in metaphors a lot, and then compare and contrast different metaphorical situations to understand where my intuitions come from. So I've been thinking about this sort of salmon situation quite a bit for the past two weeks. The central issue is: why don't most people extend the same sympathy they would give Brits who don't like pictures of salmon, to Muslims who don't like pictures of Mohammed?

I occasionally appreciate a good trolling - not stupid annoying trolling like Aster on Shireroth, but classy trolling that makes people think about what they're doing and is funny at the same time. So I appreciated Everyone Draw Mohammed Day while also wondering whether or not it could be justified by a moral system that didn't go around showing salmon to Brits.

The following answers are, I think, only incomplete parts of the puzzle:

• In this situation, Brits did not choose to have their abnormal sensitivity to salmon. Muslims might be considered to be choosing their sensitivity to Mohammed. I have general objections to using the word "choose" to solve any philosophical problem, but a more specific objection might be this: I can see little difference between how a Muslim "chooses" to get upset at disrespect to Mohammed, and how a Westerner might "choose" to get upset if you called er mother a whore. Even though the anger isn't being caused by alien technology, it doesn't feel like a "choice" and it's more than just a passing whim. Likewise, if tomorrow I tried to "choose" to become angry every time someone showed me a picture of a salmon, I couldn't do it - I could pretend to be angry, but I couldn't make myself feel genuine rage.

• Muslims' sensitivity to Mohammed is based on a falsehood; Islam is a false religion and Mohammed is too dead to care how anyone depicts him. I agree with this statement, but I don't think it licenses me to cause psychic pain to Muslims. I couldn't go punching Muslims in the face and saying "Your religion is false, so you deserve it!". Or, to continue the salmon metaphor, let's say the alien's electrodes only work on Christians - any British person who converts away from Christianity will be able to view salmon pain-free. I still think nice people wouldn't go showing British Christians salmon pictures.

• It is necessary to draw pictures of Mohammed to show Muslims that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses. I think the logic here is that a few people drew pictures of Mohammed, they got death threats and there were embassy burnings and stuff, and now we need to draw more pictures of Mohammed to convince Muslims not to do this. But it sounds really stupid when you put it in exactly those words. And besides, this is collective punishment. Say I kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed me and my entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. They didn't do it, and they may not even approve. But drawing pictures of Mohammed offends many Muslims, not just the ones who send death threats.

• The slippery slope argument: if we allow Muslims' concerns to prevent us from drawing pictures of Mohammed, sooner or later we'll have to accept every two-bit group with a ridiculous superstition and we'll never be able to get anything done. I take this more seriously than the previous three arguments, but I've previously argued that granting large established religions exemptions to stuff is relatively immune to slippery-slope. And anyway, drawing pictures of Mohammed is such an unusual thing to do that we can stop doing it without giving up our right to keep doing something else that's actually useful if the situation comes up later.

None of these excuses really does it for me separately. Together, they kind of part-way do it for me, but I'm still not convinced. So my provisional conclusion is that yes, people who draw pictures of Mohammed where Muslims can see them are jerks in the same way that people who go around showing photos of salmon to Brits are jerks.

So the big question is: why didn't I notice this before? And why do I still feel a little tempted to go draw some pictures of Mohammed and get outraged at any Muslim who tells me I can't?

A few nights ago, I was talking on MSN and I mentioned that the word "offensive" is a trigger point for me. There are some very personal, me-specific reasons for this: for one thing, back a few years ago someone misinterpreted something I said, decided without asking me that it was "offensive", and then spent the next few months trying to discredit me, tar me as an offensive person, and make my life miserable - with pretty resounding success. For another, part of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, back when it was really bad, was a tendency to be offended by almost everything (to the point where even someone saying the word 'damn' could send me into shock and horror), I went to therapy for it and got better, and so now I tend to think of getting offended as a character flaw to cure rather than a sacred right to be respected. So these are my biographical reasons, and I always assumed they were exhaustive.

But now I'm thinking that this is actually part of a larger phenomenon. Certainly many other people have the same reaction to the word "offensive" I do: sometimes when I need people to feel superior to I read way-out right wing blogs, and it's practically a staple of the far right that the whole idea of "offensiveness" is an evil liberal plot and they hate it forever. And even some liberals privately admit that they get pretty upset about offensiveness when it's used against them.

Now, I've been thinking a lot about deontology versus consequentialism lately, to the point where every passing cloud looks like Jeremy Bentham, so I may be seeing relationships that aren't there. But I can't help but notice a way in which that dichotomy bears on this problem.

The Brits and their salmon tend to bring up a consequentialist mode of thinking; I deliberately used the word "pain" in the description of the electrode's effects. One can imagine showing a Brit a picture of a salmon, and ey shouting "Ouch! Auugh! Please, stop doing that, I beg you!" And you would stop, because you don't want to hurt em.

The Mohammed issue, on the other hand, has gotten mired in a certain sort of deontology. It's no longer an issue of whether drawing a picture of Mohammed makes Muslims unhappy. It's an issue of whether Muslims have the right not to see a picture of Mohammed - and this is cashed out in the term "offensive". If you draw a picture of Mohammed, you are a bad person and you deserve to lose status for offending the Muslims, who have the god-given right to live without their beliefs being challenged.

The Brits are perceived as saying "We would really appreciate it if, as a favor to us, you would quit with the salmon photos"

The Muslims are perceived as saying "Our preferences are binding on you, and unless you do what we say, you are a bad person."

One of the techniques in any good book on conflict resolution is switching from "you" centered statements to "I" centered statements. You never say something like "You're annoying, go away." You say something more like "I really need to finish this paper, so I'm not in the mood to talk".

The "you" statement gets interpreted as an attack on the other person's status, and status attacks get dealt with as, well, attacks. The automatic response to an attack is to brand the other person an enemy and come up with a reason you're totally in the right and they are wrong and evil. Tell me "You're annoying", and I'll probably respond "Yeah, well, remember that time you kept whining to me about stupid stuff while I was trying to do my paper, which incidentally I finished last week because I'm not a lazy kvetcher like yourself? You're even worse!"

The deontological-Muslim-"you statement" approach immediately puts the Mohammed-drawer and the Muslim into an oppositional relationship in which the Muslim tries to gain status at the expense of the drawer by portraying emself as a victim and the drawer as an evil person. The Mohammed drawer responds by creating a counternarrative in which ey is the victim of a campaign of censorship and oppression, and in which drawing Mohammed becomes a heroic act.

In the consequentialist-British-"I statement" approach, the victimized party doesn't try to gain status; in fact, ey puts emself into a low status position by asking a favor of the other party. Most people are very willing to do favors for other people if asked nicely, and so most of us would be willing to avoid photographing salmon where the Brits can see them. We can even engage in a constructive dialogue like "Look, we really like having salmon pics on seafood menus, so maybe you guys can just stay out of American seafood restaurants?" which is totally impossible after it's become about offense and victimization and censorship.

This does correspond to my own experience. I was enraged for a while at feminists trying to make me use gender neutral language like "chairperson" because they were framing it in terms of "Ha! I just caught you saying chairman, now you're a bad person and you owe me!". But after reading some stuff that presented the issue in non-value-laden language, and made a point of exactly how women might feel in a world where they had to be represented as male, I became less hostile (and thanks to gryphonavocatio and his work on the Shirerithian dialect I even started using neutral pronouns).

I would like to be able to say that this solves the problem for me once and for all, but just knowing what's going on is pretty useless. I still get angry and upset whenever anyone phrases something in terms of offense, and I can't just convert it to the corresponding "you statement" phrasing. I suggest that anyone talking to me or to any other human try using the less confrontational phrasing and see if you get any further with it

(assuming that getting further is your goal; I think in quite a few cases it probably is entirely about status, and that the people involved have no interest in changing behavior if they can't make themselves look superior to other people while doing it. I'm going to avoid placing Muslims who don't like Mohammed pictures in that category without further evidence).

[User Picture]From: xuenay
2010-06-06 06:36 am (UTC)
Excellent post.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2010-06-06 06:37 am (UTC)
(Maybe even worth making an LW version of this?)
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From: kovacsa
2010-06-06 08:15 am (UTC)
I second Xuenay on this one.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2010-06-06 11:33 am (UTC)
You're not worried it's too political and value-y for Less Wrong?
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From: vnesov
2010-06-06 11:53 am (UTC)
To the contrary, it's the kind of contribution that might over time make political discussions safer, by educating about the mechanisms that generate irrational attitude.
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[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2010-06-06 09:25 am (UTC)
Yeah, agreed. Maybe the first person who drew a cartoon of the Prophet didn't realise how offensive it was, but after that, there can have been no doubt and the act was just mean and provocative. What's the point of deliberately goading people like that unless it is meant to stir up trouble?

I wonder whether ladies wearing the jilbab or burqa are not being a teensy bit provocative - especially those who don't have that tradition in their families - when a hijab would do.
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From: vnesov
2010-06-06 10:00 am (UTC)
Should definitely go to LW
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-06 03:39 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: cynicalcleric
2010-06-06 06:53 pm (UTC)
The whole salmon sensitivity thing made me briefly wonder if that is what "Salmon Of Doubt" is really about. (I've not read it.)

Muslims and Muhammed: they are offended because they were raised and taught to be offended by anyone depicting him.

I think the ban on drawing Muhmamed is stupid, but Catholics and other Christians needing to pray to a shrine of the Virgin Mary or a cross with a crucified Jesus statue on it is stupid too. And I was under the impression that is why the ban exists: to prevent the kind of psuedo-idolatry that occurs in Christianity.
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[User Picture]From: cynicalcleric
2010-06-06 07:02 pm (UTC)
I am friends with two women. They share a shortcoming: they are nearly always late for everything. I will often tell them to be somewhere at a time earlier than I tell everyone else. If they show up 5 or 10 minutes late for something, I'm not offended because I know they are just the type of people who are not on time very often. I'm paranoid and have abandonment fears, but neither of them trigger those by being late because I know that's just how they are and it's not a personal slight toward me.

Now I have another friend, a mutual friend to both women. He gets angry easy. If one of those women are late, especially for some event related him like a birthday dinner (specific example that actually happened), he takes it as a personal offense.

People just need to learn to chill the fuck out.

(Side joke: There's only one thing in the world that I really care if a woman is late for. If she's never late for that, all other lateness I can live with.)
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[User Picture]From: skull_bearer
2010-07-13 11:55 pm (UTC)
I know this is late, but I have to say that in the Koran, the law bans Muslims from drawing pictures of Muhammed. It says nothing about non-Muslims.
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