|Your momma's so perspicacious, she probably thinks this title is about her
||[Nov. 28th, 2012|05:48 pm]
[Trigger Warnings | Paedophilia, rape, frank discussion of the prophet Mohammed, mohammed discussion of the prophet Frank]
[Epistemic Status | I feel offended and don't know why; I intuitively feel justified but am not sure the reasons I give are at all correct.]
Chris Hallquist on Uncredible Hallq recently made a post titled "Does This Cartoon Offend You?", which I will not link to, because it - surprise! - contains a cartoon which may offend you. If you want to find it anyway, it should take about twenty seconds.
Said cartoon shows a picture of the Pope having sex with an underage boy while talking to Mohammed (recognizable by the classic bomb in his turban; if Mohammed ever pulls off some kind of Muslim Second Coming, he's going to have to get one of those bombs just so that people recognize him.) Mohammed says "Don't worry, I never use condoms when raping my 9 year old wife", and the Pope replies "Thank God! That would be immoral!"
Chris notes that it's relatively truth-based, in that the Catholic Church does have a terrible record of covering up paedophilia, and that Mohammed did marry a nine-year old kid. He says:
"It’s not wrong to mock religion in this way. In fact, there’s a pretty good test in here for whether your moral compass is well-calibrated. Which offends you more: the pretensions to moral authority of a man who had previously been involved in hushing up child rape? Or seeing said pretensions ridiculed?"
So first, let's point out that it's not actually all that truth-based. The Pope has not himself raped any children, as far as we know. I don't even think anyone claims he approves of raping children, he just seems to disapprove of it much less than anyone else does, or at least have a very weird way of showing his disapproval.
For Mohammed's part, there's no evidence that he raped his young wife Aisha; she was the daughter of one of his close friends, and in the accounts she later wrote of his life she goes overboard with stories of how much she loved him. There is no record of her being opposed to or reluctant about the marriage. Even calling it "statutory rape" is misleading as she was well past the age of marriage set by the laws of Arabia at the time (granted, these laws were horrible). Some Muslims (most Muslims?) believe Aisha wasn't even a child at all, and that she later exaggerated her youth at the time of marriage in order to gain political advantage by playing up her commitment to Mohammed. And, alas, Mohammed didn't really wear the bomb turban, and it's hard to know whether he would have approved of modern terrorism - he seems like one of those honorable people who made sure to always stab his enemies in the front.
So the comic has four outright lies, regardless of anything else we may find wrong with it.
Chris acknowledges this, but claims it's symbolic exaggeration and synecdoche, and that the audience is expected to realize this. It's not untruth, it's art.
As for the current Pope, no, there’s no evidence he’s a child rapist. He’s just head of an organization with a history of enabling child rape...The cartoon expects the audience to more-or-less know this; it’s not trying to slander the Pope as a rapist.
So okay. Imagine a comic with the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, sporting an enormous nose, sitting upon a pile of gold and tearing the head off a Palestinian baby. Not offensive at all, right! Because some Jews do have biggish noses, lots of Jews are good with finance, and there are some Jews who are involved in seriously questionable human rights abuses. So it's just symbolic exaggeration and synecdoche! Perfectly harmless!
(also: "There’s a pretty good test in here for whether your moral compass is well-calibrated. Which offends you more: killing lots of Palestinian children so your "chosen people" can take over their land? Or seeing a comic about it?" This is a super duper false dichotomy.)
But maybe that's not fair; it's not obvious that our culture's level of sensitivity and easily-offendedness at anti-Semitism is optimal. Let's see if we can replicate the offensiveness without taking advantage of pre-existing cultural trigger points:
Gilbert from Last Conformer recently mentioned a strategy of his: whenever you can't understand something the other side is doing, trying to find something isomorphic on your own side and see if it makes more sense.
(I hereby assert that I independently had this idea - I even wrote it in some stuff I sent Luke Muehlhauser a while back - but in today's publish-or-perish blogosphere I will concede Gilbert deserves the credit.)
So let's use Gilbert's idea. Religious people are inexplicably claiming to be offended by this perfectly good cartoon. Is there something similar that would offend atheists, and if so, can we figure out why?
I won't ask whether my atheist readers are "offended by" this comic. The word "offense" has gathered so many connotations, both good and bad, that their answer would have a lot more to do with whether promoting the idea of offense is useful to their political goals than about anything in the cartoon. Instead I'll ask: is this a good comic, a virtuous comic? Does the comic promote good argumentative norms? Does it set forth a challenge atheists need to answer? Do you as an atheist consider it an honorable opponent, the sort of conversation you like to have? Is the world a better place for the existence of this comic?
Would it be fair to argue: "It’s not wrong to mock atheism in this way. In fact, there’s a pretty good test in here for whether your moral compass is well-calibrated. Which offends you more: the horrors of school shootings and Soviet communism? Or seeing said horrors pointed out?"
And if, like me, you think that this comic above is unfair, unproductive, unkind: now that it has been translated into our language, how might we start to point out the problems with it?
I know you are all very smart and can come up with twenty reasons why this comic is not quite isomorphic to the original. Some of them will be irrelevant (the Pope is depicted in proper costume in the first, but my Soviet is mysteriously wearing a czarist uniform). Others will be just plain wrong (actually, I can get you quotes from a few school shooters talking about how much they hate creationism, if that was your complaint, and you wouldn't believe how many atheists tried to excuse or justify Soviet communism right up until there stopped being a Soviet communism to excuse). Others will be good points (the Pope is a figure of respect for many religious people, but school shooters are not a figure of respect for any atheists).
But the question isn't whether there are differences: the question is whether the differences are sufficient to justify being offended by one but not the other. I don't think there are. I think once we analyze some of the factors that make this second comic offensive, we will have explained some of the problems with the first.
Without touching on every single problem, let me note three broad points, which hopefully will explain the big-nosed rabbi example above as well.
First, the comic never says "Please generalize from these two people to all atheists." There's really no reason to think anyone should. Maybe it's just a perfectly normal high-schooler in a trenchcoat with a copy of the God Delusion, meeting a perfectly normal Soviet prison guard, with no greater relevance to the intellectual world outside the two of them, right? And yet it is totally obvious that this is what is supposed to happen.
Second, this comic is not an argument, but it has a conclusion. The conclusion is something like "Negative feelings toward atheists!" or "Atheist conceptions of what is rational are horribly skewed". If we were to actually try to put this in an argument, the argument would fall apart instantly. "One atheist did something bad, a few other atheists were too quick to excuse it, and somehow we're going from there to all atheists being hypocritical in denouncing creationism?" And yet because it's not framed as an argument, it manages to sneak under the radar (compare: superweapons). This is why I am suspicious of claims like "I'm just 'presenting a narrative', not trying to argue anything."
Third and most important, the comic is obviously intended to cause offense. Chris even titled the post "Does this cartoon offend you?" Suppose I go up to a big group of people on the street, single out a big muscular guy with a couple of tattoos, and say "Hey you! Yeah, you! You're...you're perspicacious! Yeah, you heard me! Perspicacious! What're you gonna do about it?"
Probably that guy would beat me up. Not because "perspicacious" is an offensive word. But because he got the feeling that I was trying to offend him, and trying to offend someone is itself offensive, whether or not you succeed. It's basically saying "Bet you're too weak to be able to do anything about this."
Let's be really clear about why this comic exists, and why it is getting upvoted at r/atheism. It's not because it points out that the Pope is soft on child abuse, or that there is a tradition of Mohammed marrying a young child; as Chris admits, the reader is already expected to know this. It's not because it points out the hypocrisy of being against condom use while being soft on child abuse; that's no more "hypocritical" than being against creationism while shooting up a school. The entire point of this comic is to be able to offend religious people and get away with it by saying "Ha ha, I bet you can't point out exactly what's offensive about this, so your complaint is invalid!" It's an attempt to make someone feel bad and then trap them into not being able to complain about it.
And the lies, which Chris dismisses as dramatic exaggeration, are kind of the point. The lies are supposed to make it offensive, so that when someone gets offended, you can seize on it and say "Hah, you are a terrible person who is offended by me calling people out on child abuse, but not on child abuse itself!"
If there were no lies, it would look like this, and then no one would be offended, and then it wouldn't be fun anymore.
I do not know if the original comic is actually "offensive" - as I said, I hate that word. But it's certainly not good. It's not as bad as child rape, but "not as bad as child rape" is a very low standard to hold a blog to.
There are lots of good ways to fight child rape. If the Pope read my blog, I would totally ask him why he's doing such a bad job pursuing child abusers (actually, can someone explain this to me? It doesn't seem to be in his self-interest and there's no theological justification for it) and try to criticize him on this. If I thought there were a lot of people reading my blog who weren't aware that the Catholic Church has a serious child abuse problem, and though informing them would help, I would try to do that. But posting a comic that reiterates what everyone already knows just in order to make people mad (and honestly, if your goal wasn't to make people mad why put the bomb on Mohammed's head?) That's out of "helpfully informing and questioning territory" and into "trolling with a halo" territory.