From the Blevkog Archives – April 21, 2006: Cultural Relativism: An Example

December 1, 2013

Note to readers: I’m not entirely sure why, but this has always stood out for me as one of my favorite pieces of writing that I’ve done on Blevkog. This particular frivolous item comes from the prior incarnation of the blog. I may have written better entries since then, but I don’t think I’ve ever written anything more memorable. It has been edited slightly to remove what must have been evidence of a sale on commas and to add a photo at the end. Fortunately I am no longer so prone to being Captain Subordinate Clause. Enjoy.

Apropos of nothing except the spirit of Friday afternoon, I present the following.

As regular readers may know, in a rather lengthy comment to my compadre kevvyd’s item here, I made reference to the concept of cultural relativism. Simply put, it is the unfortunately rare ability to judge a culture or its members on its own merits, and not on the basis of another country’s cultural norms. The opposite of cultural relativism could therefore be called ethnocentrism.

Other cultures are different, that’s pretty much why there are other cultures. It makes the world an interesting place to live, all too often in the sense conveyed in the Chinese curse.

Japan, as a culture, has some interesting and unique qualities similar to our own, but just different enough to make us cock our heads sideways like a dog when you make a funny noise. For example, comic books are for the most part intended for adult consumption, and many cartoons are also so intended. The output of the anime culture, as it is called, is immense.

For quite a while, different business interests have made deals to bring some of these products to North America – the comic books are experiencing an unprecedented surge in popularity, for example. The cartoons have enjoyed a longer history, with Astro Boy closely followed by Speed Racer. Japanese cartoons, as a rule, have often seemed badly animated and poorly dubbed, which is partly true: often the dubbing is a result of the stories needing to be changed to more appropriately, shall we say, North American values.

Which leads me to this: many of my generation look back with an embarassed fondness on a show called Battle of the Planets. You know, the one with the flaming spaceship. In said battle of the titular spheres, Mark, Jason, Princess, Keyop and Tiny save the world each weekday (or whatever) from the forces of the evil Zoltar, from the planet Spectra.

With me so far? Great.

Not long ago, I was excited to find at my local library a copy of the Ultimate Collection of B.o.P. (if you’ll excuse the acronym). What intrigued me, however, was the inclusion of the original Japanese episodes of the series that became, after the meaty paws of Sandy Frank was finished with them (anybody else thinking about the ‘Sandy Frank’ song from MST3K?), Battle of the Planets.

Originally, the series was entitled ‘Science Ninja Team Gatchaman’. In this series, Ken, Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu battle the forces of Galactor (from somewhere on earth, not from space), represented by the evil Berg Katse. In this series, the characters, particularly Joe (the moody one), swear a fair bit, using the ‘S’ word more than once, per episode. As I said, these things were relatively easy to remove, since the dubbing process would change the language anyway.

Further to this, the show is considerably more violent – in one episode, we are shown the corpses of victims of one of the monsters, and people obviously die by the hundreds in some of the attacks on cities. This content was cut to reflect the North American culture at the time, and since it resulted in a considerable amount of material being cut, the U.S. producers hastily animated the robot 7-Zark-7 to act as a narrator and time waster.

This is going somewhere, honest.

As I watched one of the original Japanese episodes, I was completely surprised by something. We open the episode in a fictional country, in which there is a large peak, Blue Mountain. Upon said mountain are carved the faces of three of the country’s past presidents (sound familiar?). The work has taken three generations to complete, and the young lady is just about to finish the fourth head, that of Jesus. Yes, Jesus.

The Gatchaman episode is, in the original translation from the Japanese, “The Magma Giant: Emperor of Hell”. One of the heads from the mountain is used by Galactor as the head for the roughly 500-foot tall lava monster. Can you guess which one?

Cultural relativism: the ability not to totally laugh your ass off at any culture in which this phrase is even possible:

500-Foot Tall Molten Lava Jesus.


Excuse me sir, do you have a moment to discuss YOUR FIERY DEATH?

The Ultimate Responsibility

November 19, 2013

I am not a parent. It’s not that I didn’t want to be, I love children, and they seem to tolerate me well enough; events in my life have thus far prevented me from being a father. Which, of course, does not preclude it from happening in the future, and as time marches on, I have come to realize that I will in all likelihood become a ‘step’ to an older child or children, perhaps even adult children. I look forward to whatever life brings in that regard – I feel like I would have something to offer in terms of support, love, and guidance should the opportunity present itself.

I have great admiration for my close friends who are parents – you know who you are, and you know I admire you for persevering when times inevitably got tough and for producing incredibly intelligent and just thoroughly fantastic kids. Some of you have faced incredible hardship and adversity and still managed to bring up some resilient and loving children. You are the reason I feel like the future is in safe hands – your children will grow up to be independent, thoughtful adults who grew up to be just like you. Take that, Harry Chapin.

As proud as I am to know some amazing parents, and I know there are many more, I am still incredibly pained to hear of incidents like this. It is completely heartbreaking that parents would follow the pseudo-religious, Spanish Inquisition-like parenting style described in this abhorrent book.

book cover

As the article describes, some of the techniques advocated include:

  • Using plastic tubing to beat children, since it hurts a lot but leaves fewer marks to alert authorities
  • Wearing the plastic tubing around the parent’s neck as a constant reminder to obey
  • “Swatting” babies as young as six months old with instruments such as “a 12-inch willowy branch,” thinner plastic tubing or a wooden spoon
  • “Blanket training” babies by hitting them with an instrument if they try to crawl off a blanket on the floor
  • Beating older children with rulers, paddles, belts and larger tree branches
  • “Training” children with pain before they even disobey, in order to teach total obedience
  • Giving cold water baths, putting children outside in cold weather and withholding meals as discipline
  • Hosing off children who have potty training accidents
  • Inflicting punishment until a child is “without breath to complain.”

That children have died is horrifying, although frankly not surprising. A childhood should be a time of joy and learning about the world, it should never resemble a reign of terror. Any “parent” who decides this type of parenting is acceptable is not fit to lead a child into the world.

The fact that it is couched in religious overtones is not in the least surprising. Not only do some of the faithful adhere to the above child torture techniques (I’m the first to admit that not all do, however), some will also refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. The only way we have to prevent abuse like this is to remove faith-based exemptions based on religious belief when a child’s health is at stake. Prayer in all its forms and manifestations have never, ever been proven to be effective in treating illness of any kind, and medical science has been proven unequivocally effective in saving lives, preventing infant mortality, and relieving suffering. Some of the cases listed here are absolutely horrifying. There is no excuse that could justify denying a child a chance at life simply because a parent believes illness is a test or part of a divine plan. Listen up, sunshine, if there were a deity, he created doctors and health care professionals as well as your weak-willed, deluded self. Get in the internal-combustion tool of satan horseless carriage and get your unfortunate spawn to the hospital. If you are lucky, the child will live – if we’re lucky, you’ll never see them again.

I realize I am not going to change anyone’s mind if they choose to follow an abusive religious creed, but if enough of us express our outrage at these types of abuses, perhaps the ruling classes will dilute the opiate just enough to prevent this from happening – even once. Religion, as a phenomenon of human behaviour, should never play a role in determining social or legal responsibility for anything. Marriage is not a religious ceremony, it is a legal one sanctioned by the state – they just let guys in weird dresses officiate. Voting is not a religious duty, it is a social one. I have no objection to religious faith as a private expression of a need for security or a need to feel special or to feel part of a community; however, when you start making decisions on other people’s behalf – what they can or cannot do or say or wear or who they can love – then, I object in the strongest possible terms. This applies to the act of parenting as well. If we value our children and want them to be responsible adults, let them choose to follow or not follow whatever creed works for them. When it comes to a child’s heath, however, your duty as a caregiver always supersedes any doctrine; the need to keep a child alive and to ease their suffering and seek a cure from sources that are proven to be effective is and always should be the moral imperative, not service to some imaginary, insecure dictator.

Religion be damned, if you’ll pardon the expression.

It’s Not the End of the World

October 30, 2013

His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.

-George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

To those of you thoughtful (or at least conscious) enough to recognize the process described above, you probably have asked the same question I have: How do people who, for the most part, seem outwardly rational and functioning members of society, believe some of the political or religious ideology that has been spoon-fed to them? Many of the ideas espoused by extremists of all stripes are demonstrably false, so how can people go on believing them?

As far back as 1956, behavioural scientists have published studies dealing with this question – that year, Leon Festinger published When Prophecy Fails, a book that described the reactions of individuals faced with the by now quite common phenomenon of the world continuing on without ending. The individuals were members of an apocalyptic cult who had given away all of their belongings and waited upon the figurative mountaintop for the end of the world, which never came. How did these people deal with the fact that their beliefs, and the actions that followed their beliefs, had been proven unequivocally incorrect? Surprisingly, the cult members’ beliefs intensified, and they began proselytizing even more fervently.

This phenomenon was described by Festinger and his co-investigators as a type of cognitive dissonance, which occurs under specific circumstances:

1. The belief must be held with deep conviction and be relevant to the believer’s actions or behavior.

2. The belief must have produced actions that are difficult to undo.

3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and concerned with the real world such that it can be clearly disconfirmed.

4. The disconfirmatory evidence must be recognized by the believer.

5. The believer must have social support from other believers.

So to create the increased fervor, the members of the group must actually recognize that the evidence is against them. The social support of the other believers is crucial to the continuance of faith in what has clearly been disproven.

So, let’s apply this to those that myself and other authors here on the ‘Kog often find ourselves at odds with: Tea Partiers, religious fanatics, Conservatives, conservatives (note size of ‘c’), climate/evolution/science deniers, racists, alt med zealots, and so on. Our frustration in large part comes not from the fact that people have a particular belief; that’s their right in a democracy and none of us would have it any other way. The frustration arises (for me, at least) from the individuals’ dogged adherence to beliefs and customs that have been clearly shown through evidence to be non-productive, simply false, or even patently absurd – no amount of discussion or clarification will budge them from their metaphoric hilltops. As long as they have the security of knowing that others share their beliefs, they can cover themselves in that fact as with a warm blanket and weather any storms we may visit upon them.

Kinda makes you think, don’t it? Considering this over the past few days, I have recognized my own tendency to dig my heels in and push when encountering opposition; recognized also my quite literal anger at people who refuse to change their minds despite whatever evidence I may bring to bear. I have realized that I will quite clearly never change their minds or cause them to alter their behaviour one bit, just as their arguments won’t change me in the least. Engaging with the zealot on his own terms requires you to become a zealot, to attack the individual and react emotionally to the ‘ignorance’ you must crusade against. I have personally seen this in myself, and walked away grumbling from my computer, my day ruined by my ideological opposite number who has drawn me into reacting emotionally.

But, no more – evidence is evidence, and truth is truth despite some people’s objections to it. Some acts are just and some are unjust, and some ideologies deserve the time and energy that can be committed to teaching and learning different perspectives… And some, as much as my brain craves closure and victory, are not. The secret to creating and maintaining an online persona that carries some weight and the appearance of validity, as I see it, is recognizing the difference. Some people cannot and will not be convinced, so wasting the effort to try is folly. So, I shall no longer feed the trolls. I expect my blood pressure will be better overall as a result.

If you are so motivated, I’d love to hear some discussion of your experiences in the comments. I want this to be the start of a great conversation, not the end.

G20, Canadians 0

June 27, 2010

I have been following, probably to a lesser degree than I might have, the protests surrounding the G20 summit in Toronto. What I find interesting is that the summit itself has been eclipsed by the violent clashes occurring outside the security perimeter – perfectly natural, after all, violence has always provided better ‘copy’ than negotiation and discussion. In that sense, the protesters have accomplished one mission: their messages are being covered, if only in a primarily negative fashion and only as a peripeheral story to their methods of propagating the message.

For what it’s worth, I wish to offer a few observations:

It is important for the general public to remember that all of the protesters are not violent, and all of those acting violently are not legitimate members of social activist groups – it is said by some that there is a cadre of ‘professional protesters’ who travel from event to event to cause disruption. I would certainly not want to see everyone painted with the same broad brush as ‘violent’ or ‘irresponsible’. Nor, as it happens, do I particularly like having all police portrayed as ‘jack-booted thugs’ or provocateurs. There is reportedly evidence that some covert provocation by undercover police has occurred in the past, however, in the age of YouTube and the ‘citizen journalist’, such actions are a clear liability. The police are paid to maintain order, and I have no doubt that they arrived on the front lines with the ideal of doing this job – that being said, police, first and foremost, are human beings, and human beings make mistakes; they lash out when attacked, due to fear (they are greatly outnumbered by shouting, angry protestors), or out of an over-developed sense of duty. The violent members of the police services, as with the protestors, are vastly outnumbered by those who do their jobs well, and with integrity. Remember that just because the violent individuals on both sides get the most attention, that does not make them representative of the whole.

Speaking of representation, I was interested and curious after reading some stories on the CBC as to whether or not many of the individuals, violent and otherwise, among the protesters are politically active in other ways, such as voting. A quick search revealed this study, which indicates that surveyed individuals in the 15 to 21 and 22 to 24 year-old age groups are the most active in “non-voting political behavior”, and the least active in actually voting (even allowing, of course, for the fact that the voting age is 18). While understanding that younger adults are cynical and disillusioned with the political process, I think we have done a poor job in educating younger people about the importance of voting – it is the acceptable democratic method of social change, as opposed to the proposed ‘violent revolution’. We already have the means to enact social change and ensure that the individuals who represent us truly have our best interests at heart – the organized, purposeful, collective casting of ballots. Demanding social change while declining to participate in any meaningful way in the process available seems dishonest, in my opinion. Call me naive if you must, but I’m an optimist – I believe if we truly want social change, if we want to replace the current regime, it is within out power collectively as Canadians to create the change – ‘be’ the change, in other words. Revolution worked in Russia in 1917, but is unlikely to have any meaningful effect beyond the disruption of the lives and livelihoods of individuals not even concerned with the protests – the small businessmen and so on. If you want justice, you have to be a full participant in the creation of the just society, become one of its builders, and not focus on the violent destruction of the old regime. Each of us, every day, in any given moment, create and maintain justice within society according to our moral codes – let that creation dominate through the political process rather than abetting wanton destruction.

Beyond (and inextricably bound within) the political is the personal – how we act, what we do, whom we choose to help or hurt. Concern for our fellow citizens – the expression of justice, of tolerance and of lending assistance where possible – is the basis of democracy, particularly a democracy such as ours which is based on a pretty good (but not perfect) social safety net. Behind this altruism, however, is the single most important unit of society, the individual, who maintains (or breaks) the social covenant as she sees fit on a constant basis through interactions with others – society is not imposed from the top down, but is built and maintained, moment by moment, by the individuals, the ‘bricks’ that are its component parts. Humanity, however, is descended from animals (no matter what creationists may tell you), and the proof of this ascent lies in our behavior, in the actions between thoughts, in our instincts. One of the more fascinating parts of Social Psychology lies in the realm of Collective Behavior, as discussed with great clarity over the years by writers such as Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, and by Erich Goode in the excellent textbook Collective Behavior (who knew?). Human social interaction is by nature complex, but the behavior of crowds as they become mobs has been examined in great detail, and is, to some degree, predictable. The social dynamics of the crowd-to-mob transition rely on  particular elements to unfold: first, the ‘power’ granted to the individual by the collective – to put it another way, as individuals, we can be known quantities; as part of a collective, we are anonymous, and therefore more free to express ourselves physically and emotionally – witness on a small scale the strident nature of the anonymous message boards on the Internet, and keep in mind that each of these is a building block of a collective expression of order or disorder. Second, observation of crowds has proven the importance of leadership – one or more individuals, usually a small number, who define the ‘agenda’ for the collective. How they act sets the tone for the dynamics that follow. If, for example, the natural leaders from whom the collective takes their cues are peaceful by nature, the dynamic will remain a peaceful one – which is why all crowds, at concerts and sporting events, do not become mobs. On the other hand, if the leaders, being more expressive or lacking impulse control, are more violent or begin to destroy property, then the crowd’s transformation to a mob is virtually assured – in many cases, all it takes is one act of violence to transform the collective, empowered by the anonymity of numbers, into the anarchist army. Third, there must be that act – the violent action, the thrown brick or punch, that acts as the ‘tipping point’ in the collective mood, and unless the emotional impact of this act is diffused immediately, the transition is inevitable. It is for these reasons, despite complaints of excess on the part of police and security services, that motivates the array of precautions in Toronto. The police understand the potentially negative consequences of collective behavior, even if we or the protestors do not.

Finally, as time goes on, the patient observer will take note of the escalating rhetoric on the Internet, again motivated by anonymity and the protection it provides. The attacks will become more personal and the rhetoric more heated, until the faceless and inherently evil ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ Other becomes unworthy of respect or calm dialogue – in fact, as individuals, they are to be torn down and destroyed as effectively as are physical structures. Although not a physically ‘present’ collective, the concept of the tipping point still applies – the first one to ‘flame’ the opposition sets the tone for what follows, despite the efforts of some individuals to foster a more civil dialogue. The Other, meanwhile, becomes dehumanized, and the attacks become personal, until the level of vehemence approaches a point which would never be reached in a face-to-face confrontation on the same subject.

I make these observations with a goal in mind – not to bore you, as may well be the case, but hopefully to point out the imperfections of both sides in this ‘struggle’. I don’t pretend to be an expert in capitalism or colonialism, so I have deliberately left these issues out of the equation; ultimately, these are but ideologies which require human agency to exist.

And that’s the point, really – despite the perception of the monolith labeled ‘SOCIETY’ that we percieve, we, individuals, citizens, police and protesters, are society writ small. And, frankly, it is a little humbling, despite the accelerated growth of technology,  just how fragile our collective is, under the right conditions. In the building of a society, we are all keystones.

Note: Edited to reflect a quite accurate comment that I had stated an opinion as fact.

Congratulations to the Media…

March 4, 2010

… You are now officially complicit in Prime Monster Harper’s efforts to distract Canadians from what really matters by introducing a classic red herring – namely, the ‘sexist’ language in our national anthem.

Hey, Look over here!

So the government is concerned about women. Explain this to me in that context:

The (labour and women’s groups) coalition’s report points out the government’s decision to eliminate the phrase “gender equality” from the mandate of Status of Women Canada, the country’s primary institution responsible for gender equality. It also highlights the closing of 12 of 16 Status of Women offices and the elimination of funding to a program for court challenges related to equality rights.

Or this, from the Toronto Star:

As the federal government prepares to roll out a new budget on Thursday, a new study by a Queen’s University professor argues that men are seeing a disproportionate share of the benefits of Ottawa’s record spending over the past year.

According to Kathleen Lahey’s analysis, women have only received about 7 to 22 per cent of federal infrastructure spending, because they are under-represented in the construction, manufacturing and engineering industries.

By Lahey’s calculations, women are also not getting as much as men out of the billions Ottawa has committed to corporate, GST and personal-income tax cuts. And though women represent around 50 per cent of the population, they’re only seeing roughly a third of the enhancements to the employment-insurance program, according to Lahey’s study.

Yep, feeling the love you have for women, Stevie boy.  Oh, and nice job appointing that begging-to-be-tasered meat puppet Helena Guergis to lead the march backward.

I have a suggestion. How about “By all thy scum’s command”? Certainly fits the circumstances, don’t it?

The Vast Difference Between Balanced and Irresponsible

February 27, 2010


If you’ve been reading my little posts for a while, you’ll know how I decry irresponsible journalism. On the flip side, I am an admirer of good journalism – writing that informs about legitimate debate and shows signs of painstaking research and fair examination of both sides of an issue.

Once again, Time Magazine shows us the difference between legitimate balance and useless filler. Jenny McCarthy is the subject of an article in which she claims to have ‘cured’ her autistic son. Oddly enough, Time manages to both justify (poorly) thir reasons for running the story and indicate why it shouldn’t have run in the first place:

To McCarthy’s opponents, from the public-health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the pediatricians of the American Academy of Pediatrics, this makes McCarthy much worse than a crank: she’s a menace to public health.

So, the recognized scientific authorities on this topic disagree with the half-wit actress and former Playboy model? It’s not hard to decide who carries more authority in this case.

They ask why so many mothers are reluctant to vaccinnate their children based on McCarthy’s insistence that they are dangerous. That’s an easy one: They are idiots. Easily-led, scientifically illiterate idiots. Articles like this one will only make the problem worse, thereby giving Time the opportunity to exploit the resulting catastrophic preventable illness rates somewhere down the road.

In responsible scientific journalism, debate is important – two sides, both interpreting evidence they have gathered, but who have reached different conclusions. This is the essence of constructive debate, and is reflective of how science is built – good scientists always accept the possibility that they may be wrong. All of it is based on evidence, however. To juxtapose the results of hundreds of scientific studies with the beliefs of a third-rate actress is clearly wrong. The arguments are not coming from the same basis of assumptions – one is systematic, the other emotional. The evidence is clear: vaccinnes do not cause autism. Even the single study cited by vaccine panic-mongers is an admitted falsification, and is therefore invald. Preponderance of scientific evidence vs. fake science and anecdotal belief. Which should you choose?

Yet, Time insists on perpetuating the myth by giving McCarthy a venue to create more risk to children.

Let’s use a crude (very crude) analogy to demonstrate: I hereby deny the existence of Australia (no offence, just the first thing that came to mind). I’ve never seen it, except on maps. Well, what is my motivation to trust the representatives of the mapmaking industry? They have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that Australia exists. How else would they maintain sales of maps of certain portions of the Southern Hemisphere?  Basically, I’ve never been there, never experienced the country directly, so I don’t believe it. What about all the people who have been there? In the pocket of Big Cartography. All the pictures? Faked – probably New Zealand or clever photoshops.

So, within a logical (although deeply flawed) framework of belief, for which I could probably gain support from at least a fringe portion the billions of people who have also never visited there, I have made my case. I demand equal time in Time to defend my views, because only then will they have fairly presented all sides.

In a word, no. Time, and other venues, need to wake up to the fact that not all views are equal. Despite the insistence of politically correct postmodern apologists for the validity of all ways of knowing, some beliefs are demonstrably, objectively and irrefutably wrong. Jenny McCarthy’s views on the link between autism and vaccines is one of them.

I know, my position is impossibly naive and not reflective of the competitive world of infotainment that news has become, but I can still hope for better. I can hope for someone, somewhere, to wake up and realize how irresponsible this type of reporting is. Somewhere in the world is an editor who can stand up and say, “No more”.

Except in Australia, of course.

Another Disaster: Human Nature

January 14, 2010

As I was watching coverage of the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake this morning, absolutely gobsmacked by the level of devastation and agony that has resulted from the disaster, when a sudden, horribly pessimistic thought entered my mind:

Somewhere, someone is already planning to take advantage of this catastrophe and defraud people by exploiting their generosity and their willingness to help those in need.

Beware the scammers, dear readers. My advice to you is to proceed directly to the Red Cross and donate there – at least then you know your efforts to help will actually make a positive contribution on the ground. I encourage everyone to do so.

Lucky or Unlucky?

January 6, 2010

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, when he was 29 years old, endured a level of misfortune thus far unmatched in the history of humanity.

An engineer, he was on a business trip, and was riding a streetcar when the first disaster occurred: he was unfortunate enough to be taking his business trip to Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945. He later estimated he was approximately 2 miles from ground zero when the atomic device, “Little Boy”, detonated over the city. He was burned, and his eardrums ruptured, but he survived and returned to his hometown the following day, where he was on August 9th.

His hometown? Nagasaki. He was telling his boss about the events in Hiroshima when “Fat Man” was dropped on the city. Almost miraculously, Yamaguchi survived that blast, too.

One tough, unlucky bastard.

Yamaguchi died recently from stomach cancer, at the age of 93.

Read that again.

That’s right, he survived two atomic blasts and died at age 93, to the best of my knowledge the only person to experience this in the reasonably short history of mankind.  Just thought it was worth mentioning.

The Emerald Isle: Boldly Moving Forward into the 12th Century…

January 6, 2010

Let me preface these remarks by saying that if we were Irish nationals, both Kevvy and I would be criminals. Kevvy for his most recent post, and me for what I am about to write. Once more unto the breach, dear readers!

On January 1st, 2010, a new law came into effect in Ireland – the law is, according to legislators, primarily designed to modernise laws regarding defamation. Goodness knows, given the state of defamation laws in England, that area could use a bit of cleaning up in the Isles, so to speak. This, however, is not what is most troubling about this legislation. Contained within the law are provisions making blasphemy, the disparaging of religious beliefs which might offend practitioners of a given religion, illegal.  Of course, as one would expect, some, like Richard Dawkins, are speaking out against what is perceived to be a return to medieval thinking.

The Irish Constitution already contains provisions against blasphemy, however, Ireland and other countries which have similar laws or edicts have chosen largely to ignore them, given that they are impossible to define or enforce, and constitute an unreasonable restriction on free speech. Modern societies have largely recognized the importance of free speech and the benefits of the unrestricted flow of ideas. What is puzzling is that some commentators cannot even identify whose idea this was, or whether religious leaders of any denomination have pushed to have this law enacted.

Some will recall my post on the efforts of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to pass a United Nations resolution making disparagement of religion an offense around the world – even as a non-binding resolution, it is a terrifying prospect that such resolutions can even be seriously entertained in a global context.  This new law is an unreasonable and unwarranted attack on free speech and should not be tolerated. While we are turning our gaze toward Africa and threatening dire consequences if homosexuality is outlawed in Uganda, this type of petty, superstitious nonsense is actually happening in what is presumed to be the ‘civilized’ West. There are people around the world who are suffering unnecessary misery due to the efforts of supposedly well-meaning christians, and direct conflict between religious ideologies is killing hundreds, if not thousands of people a day in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Recently, a court in Malaysia decided it was acceptable for non-muslims to use the word ‘allah’, as long as it is not misused. Thousands are up in arms at what is seen as an insult to islam – never mind that the word ‘allah’ means ‘god’ in Arabic, and could conceivably come up in conversation in a respectful way – and this is just one of many instances where the rule of law has come up against the forces who encourage the growth of superstition and the suppression of competing ideas. The suppression of ideas, even ridiculous ones, is dangerous because it is a slippery slope from protecting one set of ideas from another to defining one idea, or ideology, as better or more worthy of promotion by a government.

Unless there are instances of demonstrable harm (such as are inherent in militant religions of any stripe), people should be permitted to share ideas and let the minds of others accept, debate or deny them as they see fit. It is the only way societies can grow and evolve – technology is great, but without ideas to determine its use, technology is just a tool. Moral ideas, divorced from the burden of religious dogma and developed to provide the greatest benefit for the greatest number, are the force that propels us forward as a race.

A restriction on speech is a restriction on thought, and any infringement on the right to think and speak freely is a violation of human rights, and should be regarded as a crime against humanity.

Desecration and Dismay

December 18, 2009

The iron sign over the gates of Auschwitz, bearing the legend “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will set you free”, a cynical and disgusting sentiment no matter how you parse it), has been stolen.

To consider this disturbing and monumentally evil is to understate the point. I sincerely hope the words, as horrible a reference to an infamous period of world history they may be, are recovered quickly.

I am currently without further words myself.


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