Sunday, April 26, 2015

Delight in Giddiness

@roygrubb praises @HPluckrose for clarity.

Helen says we need something. But is this really a clear statement of requirements? What exactly is she demanding here? Does she expect politicians to provide precise definitions of all the cliches and platitudes and vague promises in the manifesto or on the hustings? If benefits are going to be directed towards "hard-working families", do we need this term to be defined as well? (See Terry Eagleton's criticism of the party manifestos.)

Supposing it to be possible to legislate about "islamophobia" (or "hate crime"), the term would need to be defined properly, so that the legislation is fair and workable. My initial reading of Helen's tweet was that she believed that a meaningful definition was not possible, therefore legislation would not be possible, therefore the promise to legislate would be either foolish or in bad faith. However, instead of stating this belief directly, she expresses her challenge in the form of a case that may demonstrate the impossibility of producing a fair and workable definition.

Of course, this form of challenge is quite legitimate, but I should like to quibble with Roy's assertion that it is the clearest (most explicit) way of posing such a challenge. The fact that I initially misread Helen's tweet (as affirmed in the comment below this post) reinforces my concern about clarity. I'm not blaming Helen for this - it is rarely possible to express one's complete meaning in a 140 character tweet.  

Helen wants Ed Miliband to reassure us that any legislation would be drawn narrowly, to avoid restricting legitimate intellectual debate. However, there is a precedent for ill-defined and over-generalized terms being coded into legislation, as shown in the absurd laws on "glorifying terrorism", and we may have little confidence that the legislators will apply the appropriate rigour in coming up with a proper definition of anything.

The example quoted by Helen is interesting because it could be used to generate further examples. Firstly, the word "Islam" could be replaced with the word "Christianity". Secondly, the word "Islam" could be replaced with the phrase "Islam-or-Christianity". Could someone who wished to attack Islam and/or its adherents evade the Islamophobia laws by including a token attack on other religions and their adherents? And how would the law regard someone who claims to attack all religions indiscriminately but is accused of devoting a disproportionate amount of his bile for one religion in particular?

The example quoted by Helen is also interesting because it attacks the notion of truth embedded in the phrase "True Islam", using a correspondence notion of truth, which Richard Dawkins and other scientists take as the epistemological "gold standard". But I think many people would interpret "True Islam" in terms of some (subjective) notion of authenticity, and regard the opening statement as either begging the question or deliberate provocation.

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting.

Hamed Chapman, Labour would outlaw Islamophobia, says Miliband in an exclusive interview (Muslim News, 24 April 2015)
S. Abbas Raza, Richard Dawkins, Relativism and Truth (3Quarks Daily, December 2005)
Francis Bacon, Of Truth (Essays)
Terry Eagleton, Which party’s election manifesto is the best written? (Guardian 24 April 2015)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Correspondence Theory of Truth
Wikipedia: Terrorism Act 2006
POSIWID blog: Glory Glory Knockdown Argument (October 2005)

Update 14:20 UK time following Helen's comment. Clarified that this was my initial (but incorrect) reading of her tweet. Reworded from "attack Islam" to "attack Islam and/or its adherents".


Helen said...

"My reading of Helen's tweet is that she believes that a meaningful definition is not possible, therefore legislation would not be possible."

Nope. A meaningful definition is both possible and necessary. I asked for one because I think it can be provided and that it needs to be. Its not even difficult. Islamophobia is anti-Muslim bigotry. Bigotry is an attack on people. However, many mistake it for an attack on ideas and consider criticism of Islam to be Islamophobia. This is worrying. People and ideas are very different.

For anyone having trouble with this, here is an example.

Criticism of ideas:
Sharia calls for the killing of gay people. This is barbaric and inhumane.

Attack on people:
Muslims want to kill gay people. They are barbaric and inhumane.

The former is not Islamophobia but a statement of ideology and an opinion on it. The latter is because it generalises a whole group of people and evidence shows that a wish for Sharia law varies hugely from Muslim population to Muslim population. (See Pew attitudes survey.)

However, many people will insist that both are Islamophobia and we really need Ed Miliband to assure us that he is not one of them.

I am concerned you might be because you go on to speak of people wishing to attack Islam as being subject to prosecution rather than people who want to attack Muslims. However, your point about singling out Islamophobia rather than prejudice based on religious identification is a good one.

This sentence worries me:
"And how would the law treat someone who claims to attack all religions indiscriminately but is accused of devoting a disproportionate amount of his bile for one religion in particular?"

Laws have no place 'treating' anyone who is criticising any religion, let alone policing them and ensuring they do it equally. Criticism of religion tends to correlate with what its adherents are doing at any given time.

Yes, truth is a gold standard. The existence of gods is not a subjective thing. They either do or don't. Opinions on this are subjective and all are allowed. Even mine.

Yes, everyone who claims there to be a 'True Islam' does have a subjective notion of authenticity. These vary very widely. My point is that determining which one actually is 'True Islam' is only a priority for Muslims. It is perfectly valid for the rest of us to leave this question to them and focus on the manifestation of the most violent and oppressive interpretations of it in the world we all share.

Yes, some people who think there is a true Islam might find provocative my statement that this is less of an issue to people who don't think Islam is true at all. Tough. It is perfectly reasonable for a non-Muslim not to consider establishing the correct interpretation of Islam a priority.

Again, the point that I am making as a non-Muslim - that I am more concerned about what is happening in the name of the religion than how the religion is to be correctly interpreted - is ignored for the concern that my statement abt true Islam might be taken badly by some Muslims.

This is my whole point and the reason I made the meme in the first place. Non-Muslims need to be able to discuss what is happening in our world without having to address the true meaning of a faith we do not think to be true. That is an academic or theological debate for Muslims. It is OK for the rest of us to be concerned about human rights issues.

Helen said...

However, do not mistake my distinction between valid criticism and bigoted attacks to indicate that I am in favour of making it illegal to make bigoted statements. I would deplore them and respond disgustedly to them but still defend the right to free speech.

Richard Veryard said...

Hi Helen. Thanks for your comments. I accept that I misread your intention, and I think this reinforces my quibble with Roy.

I also accept that we are not just talking about attacks on Islam, but attacks on Islam and/or its adherents, and I will clarify the relevant portions of my post.

And I agree that it is invidious for non-Moslems to try to separate "true Islam" from any other kind. We may be free to disagree with the literal truth of a religion, but the question of "True Islam" wasn't ever an epistemological question but always an ethical question - do we think that one Islamic stance is more authentic than another.

Just as when Christians or non-Christians might praise Pope Francis for his humility, or acclaim him as a True Christian, this is a moral judgement rather than a scientific one. They aren't saying anything about the validity of his beliefs.

Helen said...

Don't think we can 'and/or' this, though, Richard. Distinction between Islam and its adherents is vital. It is always OK to criticise ideas, however harshly. It is never OK to attack whole groups of people. I don't use the word 'criticise' here because its never possible to 'criticise' a group of people and that is the reason for never blurring the distinction.

Helen said...
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Helen said...
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Richard Veryard said...

We started from the premise that our objection to an idea is based not on its content but on its effects.

Here's the problem. It is perfectly possible for a preacher or politician to give a speech saying "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin", and for his followers to interpret this as a call to violence against the sinner. It is also possible for an intellectual to give a speech warning about the social consequences of some belief or some racial imbalance, and for this also to be interpreted as a call to violence. In the 1970s, many people thought that Enoch Powell's views on race provided intellectual cover for racist violence. Obviously Powell did not explicitly condone violence, but his words had the effect of amplifying racial tension and violence.

Some legislators may seek to separate the intellectual criticism of ideas and the social effects of such criticism. But if legislation is couched in terms of effects, then this separation will be problematic. In 2005 I blogged about some of the problems with the proposed anti-terrorism legislation, subsequently enacted as the UK Terrorism Act 2006.

Meanwhile, if critics of Islam couch this criticism in terms of the supposed effects of Islamic beliefs and practices, then this confuses the issue even more.

So for the purposes of legislation, I'm not sure that the distinction between ideas and people is as clear-cut as Helen suggests, especially when we try to evaluate things in terms of their effects.

Helen said...

Legislation cannot go by the effects of any speech. We'd have to ban speaking about almost everything - particularly religion.