Sunday, May 20, 2007

Islam, Religion, Free Speech and Pat Condell

Recently, I was having a discussion and the topic veered towards freedom of speech and how in Europe the legal trend was towards the criminalization of "hate speech" codes that the US hasn't really taken to. I wasn't even, really, critiquing Europe's hate speech codes, but at the time tried to point out the cultural differences between the US and Western Europe -- in particular, we've never had fascists in power, we've never had a Nazi Party. Jews in America, for instance, can't meaningfully talk about a history of systematic abuse. They're the wealthiest, best educated and most politically powerful minority in America, and I don't mean that in a creepy conspiracy theory way, but in the sense that one of the Supreme Court justices is traditionally Jewish and things of that nature. So, as ugly as US racism is, it has not descended into the freakishly murderous depths that European racism, in the not too distant past, has gone. At least, not in the 20th century. Given this relative lack of genocidal murderousness in American racism, I have long felt that hate speech codes are unnecessary in America.

Well, that and the whole bit where we Americans, culturally, just like to mouth off. I think this is relevant, too. Culturally, Americans have traditionally enjoyed and been proud of our ridiculous, often over the top levels of freedom of speech. Americans like to tell each other off, even big shots, in extremely colorful language. It's a cultural tradition I like!

Well, apparently that is changing. Comic Pat Condell is, apparently, being sued by Berkeley, California, for hate speech. In particular, on YouTube, Condell put up a video named "The Trouble with Islam". In it, well, he spared little. He called Islamic men "primitive pigs whose only achievement in life is to be born with a penis in one hand and a Koran in the other" and said that any woman who wore a veil in England was "mentally ill". Go watch it. It's quite funny.

Is seems to me, though, that this whole case is another example of religion getting special treatment in society. One of the things that Condell points out in his video is that in English schools they're pulling back on teaching the Holocaust because it might provoke Islamic students to voice their Antisemitism. That's insane. So, this religion -- this collection of poorly written bullshit mouthed by one of the most successful con men in history, this racist and sexist fable with all manner of impossibilities -- is being given such cache that not only can they leverage removing one of the seminal and important events in 20th century history from classes, the same religion then gets additional protection from the state of California who doesn't want to let comics point out the fucked up things that Islam is doing. That's insane.

Well, I rather agree with Pat. Teaching religion to children is a form of child abuse. If we removed the oh-so-special status that religion has from our society, the obviousness of this would leap up at us. Teaching children religion is like forcing them to watch snuff movies and hardcore pornography as a moral code, for crying out loud! Even the "best" parts are the arrogant rantings of a "the end is nigh" nutter condemning most of the human species to an eternity of suffering -- that's the best parts. The worst? HOLY SHIT. Go read Revelations some time. Go read Judges. And the Koran is no better. As Condell points out, every time some Muslim or other deluded person calls Islam a "religion of peace" they lie. They have to ignore that not only does the Koran say to go out and convert people by the sword but they have to ignore the historical reality of Mohammad himself doing that!

And, man, all fundamentalists, everywhere, are diggin' on this. The more it becomes unacceptable to criticize Islam, the more it becomes unacceptable to criticize any fundamentalist religion, any religious madness no matter how over the top or severe. Which I think is just a whole new level of depraved, and indicates that religions are all gonna, in the long run, sink or swim together. That the mindset that protects one of them protects them all. Unless we are allowed to attack Islam, or any religion, we will not be allowed to attack any at all -- because Christians and fundie Hindus (oh, yes, they certainly have them) and the like will be able to rightly say that they should have the same protection as Islam. Which would be madness.

My solution is, of course, let people say what they want. I think that the freedom of speech to attack religions -- any religion -- will end up destroying them all. At least as we understand them. And that sits pretty well with me.

But, to end it up, here's Pat Condell talking about the very same subject:


beepbeepitsme said...

There are similar laws in Australia and whilst I can see how these sorts of laws find favour with many, I also wonder how and if they impact upon free speech.

Perhaps one way of looking at it is that one's ability to disagree is not impeded, but HOW one can disagree is.

For example:

Calling muslims "primitive pigs" is unconstructive and counter productive. Stating that islam is approximately 500 years younger than christianity and that this may mean it has some catching up to do when it comes to human rights; is a different matter.

It's different because it is not deliberately inflammatory and it leaves open the possibility for a thoughtful discussion on human rights.

Chris Bradley said...


Sometimes saying shocking things can rattle someone's head out of complacency and make them examine their beliefs. It's a technique used from Zen Buddhism to Nietzsche. I think it's a legitimate technique. It definitely catches your attention!

Stew said...

I haven't yet seen the "inflammatory" video, but he certainly comes over very articulate and rational (and funny) here.
I've often thought that until a group of people can laugh at themselves they have not found maturity as a people.

beepbeepitsme said...


I have some serious doubts about laws which limit speech, but I also dislike the parade of political and religious insults found in the media which pretends to be thoughtful and intellectual discussion.

The only advantage to having "hate speech laws" is the idea that people may actually have to provide substance in a discussion, rather than just insults.

Chris Bradley said...


Well, calling Muslim men pigs with a penis in one hand and a Koran in the other is pretty inflammatory. But he is v. funny.

I tend to agree that if you can't laugh at yourself, then you're probably not terribly mature. Laughter is the lubrication that oils human society. Sorta like all those gearboxes you cleaned, and occasionally as messy. ;)

Chris Bradley said...


Well, here's the thing that I've had some personal experience with.

I think that I do more than just insult religious people. I think I offer both analysis and insight, I largely avoid at the person attacks (especially with people who I interact with; I might go off on Jerry Falwell, but if you post here I'm probably not going to attack you unless you step over the line repeatedly -- and even then I'm more likely to just delete your posts and ban the person from commenting).

Yet, time and again, when I bring up something that I think is a relevant issue in the discussion about Jesus, the letters I get don't address the point I made but the fact I was "rude" or I was "attacking" someone when I made it.

Most recently, on a fantasy author's LJ, religion got brought up and someone talked about how Jesus was humble. I disagreed, saying he was a callous, uptight apocalyptic millenarian who condemned to eternal suffering everyone who didn't agree with him, and was surrounded by a bunch of toadying sycophants who didn't have the guts to tell him he was being a dick. That's almost a quotation.

Both in the comments and in private letters I got responses that did not address, on any level, my assertion that Jesus was not humble -- but I did get a lot of people saying I was mean and rude for saying that Jesus wasn't humble.

I attacked no one alive (I don't even think I attacked Jesus). The level of aggression in my post was WAAAAAY below the standards used in virtually any other context (say, discussions about politics). But the commonest defense was not that I was factually wrong but that I was mean and rude.

IME, religious people create this elaborate sense of prickliness to control the conversations about religion. Any time that anyone offers any critique about religion at all, they jump up and say that it's an attack. Even when the critique is, really, quite mild.

So, even when a person does provide something other than insults (and, really, Condell does that, too -- saying that religion is a form of child abuse is substance and I think there's some truth to it; we would not allow young children to study secular works with the same level of awful violence and sexual content as the Bible or Koran, after all), it is cast as being nothing but an insult in order to stop the conversation.

And I'm not even sure what substance is. To religious folks, in my experience, any critique of their religion, no matter how mildly put, is seen as an insult. So you'll get fundie Christians here in America viciously condemning Unitarian Universalists as immoral. Condemning Unitarians! Are they serious? So, what is substance to me is a vicious attack to them. Who draws the line between meaningful debate and "vicious insults"? I don't trust anyone to do it, because in this sort of discussion it seems to me that the line is arbitrary, shifting and so context-laden as to be meaningless. (As opposed to the far stronger definitions for libel or slander, where an effect must be demonstrated.)

Plus, like I said, Condell brings up many points that I believe are legitimate, even if I might not agree with them. (For instance, the whole thing about veils. Yes, it's a symbol of oppression. But to be told to take them off in England or France is functionally the aesthetic of white Christian men being forced on Muslim women, as opposed to wearing the veil which is the aesthetic of brown Muslim men being forced on the same women -- it's a dicey situation, IMO, because the people being directly effected have no meaningful voice in the discussion.)