I attempted to address this issue before in a limited sense. I will revisit this theme with the intention of providing a fuller, more comprehensive treatment of the view of the subject.
My older and brother and I were once having a discussion wherein I described someone or something as evil. My brother replied by asking me if this was an example of “pure evil”. I asked what he meant by the phrase and he replied something to the effect of whether there was such a thing as pure evil or if these examples could all be explained by other considerations such as people acting narrowly within their self interests to the detriment of others and if we were simply using the term “evil” as a conceptual shortcut to address actions that are not appropriate from a societal standpoint.
I found the idea fascinating from the standpoint of a philosophical brain teaser. Leaving aside any thought of justification for bad actions (I don’t think any person within the parameters of normal ethics would seek to defend the actions of Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson), if it is possible to explain all the actions that we regard evil, does this have any implications for the way in which we respond to such people and actions? Specifically I’m asking if our demonization of such people and actions results in morally inappropriate responses by individuals and societies that regard themselves as good.
The best example I can think of in this regard is the shooting of Trayyvon Martin which has divided the nation with both sides invoking what they see as a moral standpoint. While it is possible to argue the facts of the case without discussing or considering the racial and social aspects and while I’m certain there would have been proponents of both sides even if Trayyvon had been white, it is an inescapable fact that the issue as presented has divided the nation along racial lines. Is this an indication that black Americans are more moral that whites or vice versa? Or does this mean that whites and black people have vastly different and irreconcilable views of morality? The answer on these is a resounding no and for further reading I would recommend Stephen Pinker’s work on this subject. The point that Pinker makes is one that can certainly be debated but for the purposes of my argument I am going to accept it as true so that I can move on to my next point.
It is my contention that the reason that this case can be racially divisive with both sides appealing to morality is because for many, a young black male in a hoodie is the very physical embodiment of that which our laws are supposed to protect us against. It is an undeniable fact that in-group morality is regarded as something entirely different than the ethics we use in deciding what to do with people outside the in group and for many Americans, Trayyvon Martin is definitely part of the out-group. In much the same way that society demonizes other groups and would dispense with due process and normal humane considerations, with young black males in our society the presumptions of innocence seems to be a mere formality. And while black Americans can look at this case and immediately identify with Trayyvon Martin (“That could have been my son”), other people seem to be more apt to sympathize with George Zimmerman. Once you decide which side you want to defend, contriving an argument to fit your conclusion is as easy as playing dodge ball against blind kids.
My main concern with the dehumanizing nature of regarding certain people and things as evil (terrorists, sexual predators, racial minorities, etc.) is that people who are truly innocent are nevertheless tainted and are held to a different standard, in fact if not de jure. Are there any innocent people incarcerated in Guatanamo Bay? If so, does anyone care? Should convicted sex offenders be allowed to live anywhere once they are released from prison? And for that matter why do we set up laws restricting where sex offenders may live but living next to a convicted murderer is apparently just fine? I’ve never been raped or murdered but I’m not entirely sold on the idea that the former is worse than the latter.
I initially intended to wrap up this blog post with a nice tidy summation but I have the feeling that I’m not finished with this subject. I throw this out inviting comment.
The former Ron Artest, now known as Meta World Peace, intentionally elbows James Harden for the knockout in the 3rd quarter of today’s Lakers v Thunder game. He’s ejected with a flagrant 2 and my prediction is the NBA comes down hard on this repeat offender. I predict he’s gone for the rest of this season and at LEAST half of next season. It might be worse because this was in no way accidental.
A recent quote from Washington Councilman Marion Barry:
â€œWe’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops. They ought to go. I just tell you that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.â€
Can you imagine the repercussions if a white political figure was quoted saying that black owned shops need to go and should be replaced by white businesses? The fact that such racism is voiced by a politician in today’s day and age is breathtaking. The fact that the press appears to be largely giving him a pass is reprehensible.
“Look honey! Right here in the news, people are calling for this guy to be put in jail just for doing something I think about doing every day of my life: shooting black people right in the face. I mean come on!”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m not saying something like this is not a crime but if it is it’s certainly a minor one. Sometimes cops and prosecutors need to look the other way. Something like this is just so understandable. I mean, every time I look at a picture of a black guy, I say ‘you know what would make this picture look even better?'”
“Bullet holes, exactly, I say that all the time!”
“I know you do dear. I believe the first time you said that to me was that time that when we met at the vigil for Caley Anthony.”
“Right, that vigil for Caley Anthony we attended because life is so precious and must be protected.”
“Yes. Just the thought of the life of an innocent child being snuffed out by that heartless monster and her little white body being lowered into the ground. And the fact that Casey was allowed to just walk out of the jail like that. It must makes me want to. . . (breaking up)”
“I know honey I know. And then there are these idiots actually get online and defend her and make cruel and insensitive comments about poor little Caley. As if that’s something to joke about! I mean we’re talking about the killing of a child here! What kind of person would make jokes about such a thing!?”
“I don’t know honey. There’s just some sick people out there. It’s really a testimony of what kind of society we’ve become.”
(the two sit in angry silence sipping coffee and looking around restlessly)
“Life is just too short.”
“It really is. Sometimes what we really need to do is sit back and appreciate it all. And hope there is some justice in the afterlife.”
“I think about that sometimes.”
“Do you suppose in the after life. . . Do you think there are colored people in heaven?”
“Of course there are. Who do you think is gonna be serving us steaming bowls of Cream of Wheat?”
“Oh you, you’re such a card! Oh that reminds me! I’ve got a riddle for ya.”
“Oh goody, I love riddles! Go ahead!”
“What do you call. . . Ha ha wait, I can’t say it with a straight face. Let me try again.”
“Oh go on, stop laughing and say it!”
“I know hang on haha! Ok here goes: What do you call. . . What do you call a dead black kid and a scattered bag of Skittles?”
“Oh dear, let’s see. NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH!!??”
“Seriously though. I hope the shooter, this Zimmerman fellow gets a fair shake. I don’t see how a white guy stands a chance with all this biased media coverage.”
“Speaking of, I just noticed it says right here this guy’s family says he’s not white. They say he’s a Spanish speaking Latino.”
(uncomfortable pause while they look around and start fidgeting restlessly)
“Yeah so this ethnic gang violence really has to stop.”
“Absolutely. What if an innocent bystander had been killed?”
According to polls a growing number of Americans think President Obama is Muslim with key percentage differences between Democrats and Republicans (conservatives are more likely to hold this belief than liberals although the numbers are significant on both sides). When I first heard these claims at the beginning of Obama’s Presidency I chalked it up to the fact that many Americans are ignorant about Islam and what it really means to be Muslim. Now that I have heard more of the substance of some of these claims, I think this error is based on a selective partial knowledge of Islam combined with the aforementioned ignorance.
I was debating with a fellow player in the chat within a first person shooter game while we were both dead. He had begun his claim that Obama is Muslim by arguing that in Islam a child is considered to be the religion of his father. While that is true, it is also true that in Islam it is considered to be a sin to draw a picture of the Prophet Muhammad. If, for the sake of this argument, we’re going to believe every Islamic assertion then we are all Muslim, including the opponent with whom I am arguing so that in fact is already game over. The fact is, however, that as a practical matter everybody does not automatically buy into every Islamic assertion so the fact that in Islam a child is regarded as having the religion of the father is entirely beside the point. Also, since Islamic doctrine is not passed on genetically or absorbed through osmosis, who would have raised Obama Muslim? His Ivy League educated non Muslim mother? By 1964 Barack Obama Senior was too busy living with his new Jewish wife and wouldn’t have been around to indoctrinate Obama Jr. in the intricacies of Islamic customs and theology, at least not in a manner that would have created a mind ripe for planning secret world domination. There is always the possibility that Obama would have embraced Islam on his own in later life but that is something that would have been noticed had it happened as I will later address.
The second point in the debate came when my opponent invoked the concept of taqiyya, a concept that permits Muslims to deny their belief in Islam and/or commit normally blasphemous acts in extreme circumstances where doing so is necessary to preserve their lives. My opponent was arguing that Obama was hiding his religion in the course of hijacking the American Presidency in order to run the nation in a manner that would presumably be favorable to Islam and Muslims and that he was specifically engaging in this deception under the auspices of taqiyya. This argument fails in at least two significant respects: the concept of taqiyya absolves someone for lying under duress. It does not negate a Muslim’s duty to believe, pray, pay the religious tax, fast during the month of Ramadan, attend Jummah prayers, and perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. What’s more, even if Obama had begun hiding his religion at some point during his adult life when it appeared possible that he might one day win the Presidency, someone would have undoubtedly noticed his ritualistic devotion at some time before that. Classmates and students would be bound to notice a person disappearing to pray five times a day, abstaining from food or drink during the daylight hours for an entire lunar month, and political opponents would have certainly dug up evidence of a trip to Mecca during the Hajj. None of this has ever come to light, not so much as a claim that Obama was heard to utter ‘salaamualaikum’ or even say ‘alhamdullilah’ after a sneeze. And the idea that Obama might be so devoutly religious as to conceal his religion for the sake of world domination but not religious enough to ever perform the mandatory salat and sawn (prayer and fasting) is patently ridiculous.
The thing that most Americans don’t understand is that Islam is not a religion in the sense that we think of when we think of modern Christianity. The two millenia of Christianity have watered the religion down to a form that has become lassez faire in terms of dealing with how to conduct ones self in the real world. With the exception of the evangelicals, modern Christian behavior is unexceptional in that one might work and life among Christians for years and not notice it. In this respect, Islam is not like the Christianity of today. A dedication to Islam would be outwardly obvious and impossible to conceal for the span of a lifetime.
Lastly, it must be pointed out that for devout Muslims, victory over the enemies of Islam is not even the ultimate goal. For Muslims the main purpose of one’s dedication is to be admitted to Paradise upon one’s death and to avoid hellfire, in short, preparation for the ultimate and permanent reality as opposed to this present ephemeral one. There are numerous hadith (traditions of the life of the Prophet) which describe God rejecting the worldly efforts of people because they were somehow deficient in their obligatory devotions. For this reason no Muslim in his right mind would waste an entire lifetime in avoiding the obligatory prayers, fasting, and pilgrimage (I’m conceding here that belief and charity can be done in secret) even for the purpose of secretly leading America on a path that is favorable to Muslims if doing so would result in God’s rejection in the afterlife. This is to say nothing of the fact that, if Obama were actually Muslim he would have already incurred eternal hellfire for having the ordered the execution of fellow Muslim Osama bin Laden which, by the way, begs the question: why bother becoming the secret Muslim President of the United States if you’re going to allow the killing of Bin Laden anyway? For that matter we might as well have had George Dubya Bush as President (please no liberal conspiracy theories about how Bush would have allowed him to live out of gratitude to the Bin Laden family, this post is long enough as it is). While it would be tempting to think that the entirety of Obama’s life is a deception, not only do the facts not bear it out but also there is no example in the Qur’an, hadith, or sunna (example of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) that would justify living an entire lifetime as a life. This wouldn’t even work for a CIA agent, much less for a devout Muslim.
I am entirely willing to debate the above points as well as considering some points I might not be aware of in anyone cares to bring them up.
The Presidency of Barack Obama has been interesting, no so much in its own right, but rather in the reaction of the American people. In my lifetime I believe no American President has been so misunderstood and misinterpreted, both by his supports and by his detractors, and I believe this is more an indictment of America’s sociological hangups than it is about the Presidency of Barack Obama, although I will have something to say about that as well.
Let me begin by saying I did not vote for Barack Obama. Neither did I vote for any of his political opponents as I was so unimpressed with the field of candidates that 2008 marked the first time in my adult life that I abstained from voting in a Presidential Election. Neither was I impressed with the racial story at the time, that the possibility of a black man being eleted President of the United States was supposed to somehow be a watershed moment for American society. I was actually impressed that white people were apparently willing to vote for someone who they perceived as black. I just never bought the concept that although it takes two white parents to make a white child, having only one black parent is supposed to be enough to result in a black one. That does not follow and that line of thinking is in itself racist. Black people are not some extra human (or non human) species with DNA that trumps, corrupts, or overrides white DNA. Barack Obama is not black, he’s half black and half white. More important than that is that, since he was raised by the white parent he is culturally more white than he is black (whatever that means and that’s a whole topic for another blog entry if anyone cares to go there). The race issue is the first issue where both his detractors and his supporters have got it wrong.
The second issue, even supposing we agree that Obama is considered black by most of the American public, is how important is this in regard to race relations in America? On a scale of one to ten I will have to give this a one. Having a black President in the United States does not change the way white and non white people feel about each in this country. The real issues, the financial, educational, and health disparities between the white and black population (to say nothing of inequalities in the criminal justice system) are not fixed now or not even anywhere on the way to getting fixed simply by having a black man in the Oval Office. I think most people vastly overrate the power of the Presidency, even extending to the mystical belief that the commander in chief has the power to simply eliminate (or perpetuate) injustices simply by decree. Note to the people: if Obama does not have the power to eliminate racial injustice then you must be prepared to consider the possibility that George Bush et al didn’t have the power to create that injustice in the first place. The waves of justice are drawn by the gravitational pull of society so if we need someone to blame we would be more accurate in turning the mirror on ourselves rather than blaming a President, whatever his race and political affiliation may be.
The third element of misunderstanding with regard to President Obama would have to be religion which is too large a subject to cover in a paragraph or two. I will save this for my next blog entry as the subject of religion is a favorite of mine and as such I need to get all my ecclesiastical ducks in a row.
An atheist who appeared in a Halloween parade dressed as the Prophet Muhammad while shouting provacative phrases was allegedly assaulted by a Muslim. The case has taken a turn for the controversial when the judge in the case dismissed the charges citing a lack of evidence. In dismissing the case, however, the judge admonished the alleged victim for being needlessly provocative on an issue sensitive with Muslims. Critics of this decision have accused the judge of siding with Islam or at the very least of not protecting the rights of atheists.
This appears to me to be a question of whether blatantly offensive speech negates an individual’s right to be free from physical violence. It is a question I find difficult to answer because, while I strongly support the right to free speech, I also believe that there is a certain level of speech which is sometimes referred to as “fightin’ words”. For example, I think that if I were to walk up to a married couple and say to the woman “I would like to f*** you right in the mouth”, I am inviting physical violence upon myself. If I wind up busted up in the ensuing chaos I think the police, prosecuting attorney, and judge of any potential court case would be correct in turning away any effort on my part to initiate legal action for the trouble I invited. My only real question in the case of this atheist v Muslim is whether this particular incident rises to this standard.
The question as to whether or not people have the right to offend each other is moot. In a society where free speech is the standard, we have the right to offend each other all day. The real questions are:
In addressing the first question, I find myself thinking of my own behavior. Personally I would never specifically go out of my way to offend someone’s religious sensibilities unless that person had used their religion to insult me first. The one exception I can think of is the time some Jehovah’s Witness walked up to me and tried to hand me an issue of The Watchtower and I replied “No thanks, I’m already in a cult”, but even then the offense on my part was minor and in my opinion warranted. If someone does use their religion to attack me, I believe I am within my rights to attack their religion, even to the point of insensitivity, blatant offense, and theologically dismantling their theological tenets piece by piece. There are times, however, when my insensitive counter to an offensive attack by a Christian might have resulted in offense to other Christians within earshot (or blogshot) who had done me no ecclesiastial wrong. It is for this reason that I would be very careful in labeling a religious offense as a blanket provocation to violence. I do not want to live in a world where religious debate is considered an invitation to physical violence, especially since the person giving offense might have simply been responding to offense that was given by the other side first.
In short, I believe that all people have the right to be free from physical violence but I also believe that if you goad another person to violence either through boorish behavior or intentional offense, you should basically live with the result and that seeking judicial action against the other side in such a case is in poor taste. I state this as a matter of street credibility an ethics, not as a matter of law (it is also important to note that this in no way is to be construed as a justification of death threats such as those which were lodged against the creators of Southpark after the Muhammad episodes which I consider to be extreme overreaction which should be taken seriously and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law). The above case strikes me as a case of intentional provocation which is akin to saying the n word, chink, or Barbara Streisand in public and I think it’s like pissing on a flag at a NASCAR event. Whether or not one has the legal right to do these things, I think they are all terrible ideas and I think if someone happens to get roughed up as a result of something like this one should be prepared for the possibility that the ensuing case might very well be dismissed. Theoretically you have the right. As a practical matter, a court might not care to pursue it. I file this one under ‘assumption of risk’.