bookmark_borderConstitutional Fundamentalists

Right-wing columnist Marc A. Thiessen recently wrote an op/ed claiming that “liberal presidents tend to nominate judicial activists who legislate from the bench and shape the law to reach their preferred outcomes” (Concerning “Chief Justice is incorrect on both counts,” by Marc A. Thiessen, The Houston Chronicle, 11/26, p. A17). Further, “These liberal judges hold that the Constitution can be “interpreted to mean whatever they want it to mean.” Conservative justices, on the other hand, “follow our laws as written.” In other words, according to Thiessen, there is no such thing as a good-faith liberal reading of the Constitution.
It occurred to me that Thiessen, and many who call themselves “originalists” or “strict constructionists” approach the Constitution in much the same way that religious fundamentalists approach scripture. Fundamentalists are called “biblical literalists,” but I think that “biblical positivists” would be a better description. The logical positivists associated with the Vienna Circle famously held that “protocol statements”—statements allegedly reporting raw, basic, pre-theoretical experience—could serve as neutral adjudicators of competing theories. Such statements could therefore constitute objective checks on our theoretical commitments, confirming theories consistent with such statements, and disconfirming those that are not.
Similarly, fundamentalists hold that the plain, unvarnished meaning of Scripture can be invoked to authenticate some theological claims and discredit others. As they see it, their theology—and theirs alone—is biblical, that is, transparently reflects the clear dictates of scripture, while all other views distort the plain meaning of God’s Word for ideological ends. It inevitably follows from such views, that disagreement cannot be in good faith, cannot be an honest and rational difference of opinion, but must either be benighted or malevolent. This was precisely the view of the fundamentalists when, in the eighties, they took over the Southern Baptist Convention at all levels, and purged all moderates as heretics.
The problem is that fundamentalists, like the positivists, overlooked the extent to which experience (including the experience of reading a text) can be subjective, ideological, and theory-laden. Now I emphatically do not agree with Kuhn, Feyerabend, and other “postpositivists” that all observations are theory-laden to the extent that they cannot serve as objective constraints on theorizing. However, to ignore the possibility that our observations or readings might be conditioned by our prior convictions and commitments is to set yourself up as a sucker for circular reasoning. It becomes fatally easy to “see” in Scripture (or the Constitution) what you want to be there and then conclude that (mirabile dictu) the text 100% supports your ideological commitments. You compound your self-deception when you then claim that your reading is not a reading, and your interpretation is not an interpretation. No, you are simply telling it like it is, and all others are engaged in self-serving ideological distortion.
I do not hold that any text can be read in any way. Further, some texts really do not require much interpretation. A stop sign means “stop.” The warning on a cigarette pack that smoking causes lung cancer, is not to be taken as metaphor, simile, or satire. It means that smoking causes lung cancer. Seriously. On the other hand, complex documents written long ago in cultural and historical circumstances very different from ours always require interpretation. Such texts present a problem of underdetermination, in much the same way that scientific evidence often does. For instance, a few years back it was a lively debate among paleontologists whether T. Rex and other very large carnivorous dinosaurs were deadly active hunters or scavengers. The evidence did not decisively determine one answer or the other. Indeed, scientific debates become liveliest precisely when the evidence is indecisive.
The point is that, even in science, the evidence often constrains our theorizing without decisively determining the truth of a given theory. This condition is chronic in fields that require the interpretation of texts. Whereas all good-faith interpretations are constrained by the text, it is bad faith to say that your interpretation is the one that obviously gets it completely right. The difference between a reasonable person and a zealot comes down largely to the degree that one is willing to admit the rationality of alternate readings of facts or texts. This emphatically does not mean that we have to settle for a weak-kneed, wimpy relativism. No, you go with what seems right to you and argue for it with all your skill and passion. You simply see yourself as having a conversation with a reasonable and honest interlocutor, not as chastising a corrupt ideologue.

bookmark_borderWhy I May Have to Stop Blogging with Patheos

I have long enjoyed posting and commenting on Secular Outpost. I also frequently leave acerbic comments on Friendly Atheist. I think that both sites are hosted by Patheos. I may have to stop however. While I am trying to comment–and I do try to put thought into my comments–advertisements are rapidly flipping just below and beside the space where I am trying to write. While trying to think of a philosophical point, ads are doing their best to distract me. They are succeeding.  I emphatically do not give a shit for any of the worthless, overpriced junk they advertise, and would not purchase any of it in a million years, yet I am still distracted by their impertinent solicitations. I know that these sites are supported by ad revenue. Fair enough. However, if the purpose of these sites is to encourage serious discussion of important issues, then this purpose is undermined by the constant, obnoxious in-your-face hard sell. I am not asking for no ads, but merely that they not be performing calisthenics while I am trying to write. Anybody else similarly irked?

bookmark_borderSkepticism about Religion – Part 6: Cultural Bias and Social Conditioning

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II. There are good reasons to be SKEPTICAL about religion and religious beliefs.

A. Religion is NOT the key to Happiness and Virtue, contrary to common belief.

B. Significant Disagreements exist Between Different Religions.

C. Religious Beliefs are Typically Based on Cultural Bias and Social Conditioning.

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Religious Beliefs Are Associated with Geographical Locations
The religion of a person can often be accurately predicted based on where they were raised.  For example, if someone was born and raised in Saudi Arabia or in Turkey, it is almost certain that he or she is a Muslim, because nearly 100% of the populations of those countries are Muslims.  If someone was born and raised in the Honduras, Venezuela, or Bolivia, it is almost certain that he or she is a Christian, because nearly 100% of the populations of those countries are Christians (in fact it is highly probable that such a person is a Roman Catholic).  If someone was born and raised in Cambodia or Thailand, then it is highly probable that he or she is a Buddhist, because about 95% of the populations of those countries are Buddhists.*
If someone was born and raised in Norway, then it is highly probable that he or she is a Christian, because 98% of the population of Norway are Christians (in fact it is highly probable that this person is a Lutheran).  If someone was born and raised in Greece, then it is highly probable that he or she is a Christian, because 98% of the population of Greece are Christians (in fact, it is highly probable that he or she is a Greek Orthodox Christian).  If someone was born and raised in India, then it is very probable that he or she is either a Hindu or a Muslim, because 81% of the population of India are Hindus and 13% are Muslims, so 94% of the population is either Hindu or Muslim.
There is more of a mix of religions in the USA than in most of the countries I have mentioned above, but Christianity is clearly the predominant religion, and “nones”  (non-religiously-affiliated people) are the next largest group in terms of “religious” identification.  So, if all you know is that a person was born and raised in the USA, you can reasonably predict that this person will either be a Christian or a  person who has no religious affiliation, because 71% of the population of the USA are Christians and 23% are nones, so 94% of the population in the USA are either Christians or nones (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/).
 
Religious Beliefs are Typically Based on Cultural Bias and Social Conditioning
Why is the religion of a person so closely related to the location where he or she was born and raised?  The answer is obvious: religious beliefs are typically based on cultural bias and social conditioning.  People who are born and raised in Turkey or Saudi Arabia are raised to be Muslims.  People who are born and raised in Venezuela or Bolivia are raised to be Christians.  People who are born and raised in Cambodia or Thailand are raised to be Buddhists.  The society or culture of the country where one is born and raised has a great deal of influence over which religion one will believe and practice.
Another relevant fact is that people do NOT typically carefully study a wide variety of religious and secular viewpoints and then decide which one to believe and practice.  It is true that a few people do this as adults, but they are a tiny minority.  Most people simply accept the religion (or the secular viewpoint) of their parents, or the predominant religion/worldview in their ethnic group or community or nation.  Religion is typically a matter of GROUP THINK, of accepting a point of view without doing any serious investigation and inquiry.  It is sad but true that the most important beliefs we hold are typically adopted without doing any serious thinking.  The alternative to doing a serious comparison between alternative religions is the path of least resistance: believe and practice the religion that is most common in your ethnic group or community or country.
One more bit of evidence confirms my thesis: religious people are usually skeptical about the beliefs and practices of other religions, but not about the beliefs and practices of the religion they were raised to believe and practice.  Theists, for example, reject belief in thousands of gods, but believe in just one infinite god, the one god that their culture and upbringing promotes.  Christians are skeptical about the existence of various gods worshiped by polytheists.
This appears to involve use of a double-standard. We either need to indiscriminately accept ALL religions on the basis of little or no evidence, or else we need to be skeptical about ALL religions.  We either need to accept belief in ALL alleged gods and supernatural beings on the basis of little or no evidence, or else we need to be skeptical about ALL gods and ALL supernatural beings (This is a point that John Loftus rightly emphasizes in his book  The Outsider Test for Faith).
Because it is clear that religious beliefs are typically based on cultural bias and social conditioning, we have GOOD REASON to be skeptical about religion and religious beliefs.
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* The statistics I give on the religions of populations of countries other than the USA are from this source:
https://www.infoplease.com/world/countries-world/world-religions

bookmark_borderSkepticism about Religion – Part 5: Disagreement between Religions

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II. There are good reasons to be SKEPTICAL about religion and religious beliefs.

A. Religion is NOT the key to Happiness and Virtue, contrary to common belief.

B. Significant Disagreements exist Between Different Religions.

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Significant Disagreements exist Between Different Religions
According to Christianity, Jesus was God incarnate, fully God and fully human.  But according to Judaism and Islam, Jesus was, at most, a prophet, a human being who was devout and who had a close relationship with God.  According to Judaism and Islam, Jesus was NOT God incarnate.  This is not a minor disagreement.  That Jesus was God incarnate is a very basic Christian belief, in both Catholic and Orthodox theology, and also in most Protestant traditions.
Jews and Muslims are fiercely monotheistic and they view the claim that Jesus was God incarnate as a very basic theological error, even as blasphemy.  So, if Christianity is true, then Judaism and Islam are fundamentally mistaken, and if either Judaism or Islam are true, then Christianity is fundamentally mistaken.  Either Jesus was God incarnate or he was NOT God incarnate.  At least one of these three major religions is false or fundamentally mistaken, and it is possible that ALL THREE are false religions.  For example, if atheism or pantheism were true, then ALL THREE of these Western religions would be fundamentally mistaken about the nature of reality.
Western religions agree that humans get just one life, and then must face divine judgment.  But Hinduism and Buddhism claim that people can, and usually do, experience many lifetimes, and that there is no day of judgment, just the possibility of obtaining release from the cycle of reincarnation when one eventually achieves enlightenment.
Buddhism is not particularly interested in God or gods.  Any god must face the same basic problem that humans face: everything changes, nothing stays the same; if you love someone or desire something you can enjoy it for a while, but it will eventually die, be destroyed, or mutate into something else that you don’t love and don’t desire.  This is a problem that each person must overcome on his or her own.   This is not a problem that a god can fix for us.
Hinduism encompasses a wide variety of metaphysical views: monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and even atheism.  So, there are contradictions and disagreements on very basic metaphysical issues just within Hinduism, disagreements between various traditions encompassed by the term “Hinduism”.
Eastern religions and Western religions disagree about the basic problem that humans face and need to resolve; they have conflicting views about what happens after we die.  We either have just one life or we get to experience many lives.  If one of the Western religions is true, then we only get one life, and Buddhism and Hinduism are false or are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of death and about the basic problem that humans need to resolve.  If, however, we get to experience many lives, then Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all false, or are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of death and about the basic problem that we need to resolve.
The major world religions contradict each other, and not just on minor points.  They disagree about some of the most basic and important issues that religions address.  At best only ONE of the major world religions can be true, only ONE can be consistently correct about it’s basic teachings, and the rest are false or are fundamentally mistaken about some of their most basic teachings.
Furthermore, it is possible that ALL of the major religions of the world are FALSE.  If, for example, there is no life after death, then some of the basic teachings of Christianity (2.4 billion), Islam (1.8 billion), Hinduism (1.2 billion), Buddhism (520 million), Shinto (100 million), Sikhism (30 million), Judaism (17 million), Caodaism (8 million), Bahai (6 million), Jainism (4 million), and Zoroastrianism (190 thousand) are fundamentally mistaken.*
There are many different religions, and all of them claim to teach the truth about the basic problem(s) of human life, the best solution(s) to the basic problem of human life, the nature of reality, and the nature of death, but they disagree with each other on all of these issues, and other basic religious issues.  This gives us good reason to be skeptical about religions and religious claims.  Without doing any serious investigation, we can quickly determine that NEARLY ALL religions are FALSE or mistaken about some of their basic teachings.  Without doing any serious investigation, we can determine that it is also possible that ALL of the major religions of the world are false or fundamentally mistaken about some of their basic teachings.
But all religions claim to be true, and to derive their religious truths from religious experience and/or a religious authority (a prophet, a guru, a priest, etc.).  Since we know that ALMOST ALL religions are FALSE or mistaken about some of their basic teachings, this gives us good reason to be skeptical about religious claims to truth and knowledge.
There MIGHT be a true religion in the world, and there MIGHT be a form of religious experience or a particular religious authority  who provides us with reliable answers to basic religious questions, but we know, even before doing any serious investigation,  that the vast majority of religions are false or fundamentally mistaken about some of their basic teachings, and that the vast majority of alleged religious authorities do NOT provide reliable answers to basic religious questions.  The disagreements and contradictions between the many and various religions of the world give us GOOD REASON to be skeptical about religion and religious beliefs.
Religion contrasts with Science on this front.  There is no “African” chemistry, no “Chinese” physics, no “French” biology.  There is just chemistry, physics, and biology, and scientists from countries and cultures around the world agree on the basic concepts and principles and laws of chemistry and physics and biology.  Science and scientific beliefs transcend particular languages and cultures and nations.  There is widespread cross-cultural agreement on the basics of chemistry, physics, and biology.  There is no such widespread cross-cultural agreement on the basic issues of religion.  That is one reason why we place great confidence in science and scientific inquiry.
The presence of disagreements and contradictions between dreams is one important reason why we believe that our dreams are SUBJECTIVE and do not reflect reality.  My dreams do not correspond to your dreams, and my dreams tonight do not correspond to my dreams last night.  I might dream tonight that President Trump is assassinated in his first term by a disgruntled Kentucky coal miner.  You, however, might dream that President Trump is NOT assassinated but that he goes on to be elected for a second term. And I might have dreamed last night about President Trump resigning from the office of president to avoid impeachment, and thus that he was NOT assassinated in his first term.   Such contradictions and disagreements between dreams are common, and are one of the reasons why we believe dreams to be SUBJECTIVE, to be just in our minds, not representations of actual events.
Disagreements between religions do not prove that all religions are false or fundamentally mistaken or delusional, but they do cast doubt on religious beliefs and on the reliability of the sources of religious beliefs (e.g. religious experiences and religious authorities).  Because there is a great deal of disagreement across cultures concerning religious issues, we ought to be skeptical about religious claims and beliefs.
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* Statistics on number of adherents to these religions are from this source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups

bookmark_borderMorality does not depend on the existence of God

Some people believe (or claim to believe) that if God does not exist, then there are no objective moral truths (e.g., truths about what we are morally obligated to do or refrain from doing). This claim is false as the following argument shows:
(1) Torturing a child causes the child to experience severe suffering.
(2) Torturing a child violates the child’s consent (that is, it is not possible for the child to rationally consent to being tortured).
(3) That torturing a child causes severe suffering is a reason to not torture children.
(4) That torturing a child violates the child’s consent is a reason to not torture children.
Thus,
(5) There are reasons to not torture children
(6) Torturing a child would cause severe suffering even if God does not exist.
(7) Torturing a child would violate the child’s consent even if God does not exist.
Thus,
(8) There would be reasons to not torture children even if God does not exist.
(9) These reasons are so powerful as to be overriding (that is, they are stronger than and cancel the force of any other reasons that might exist that count in favor of torture).
(10) These reasons also concern the welfare and autonomy of persons.
Thus,
(11) There are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not torture children, and that exist even if God does not exist.
(12) If there are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not engage in some action, then this action is morally wrong.
Therefore,
(13) There are some actions that are morally wrong even if God does not exist.

bookmark_borderBelief, Unbelief, and Rationality

In his classic essay “The Ethics of Belief,” mathematical and philosophical wunderkind W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) famously made rationality a branch of ethics. A belief is rational when we have discharged all of our epistemic duties in forming that belief and are thereby within our epistemic rights in holding it. Your epistemic duty is to carefully examine beliefs to retain only those that pass strict standards of belief-worthiness. It is always and everywhere wrong, Clifford tells us, to hold to a belief that has failed the test. To cling stubbornly to an idée fixe when the evidence is against it is to be derelict in one’s epistemic duties; it is a defiant assertion of irrationality.
Irrational beliefs can have dangerous consequences, and not just for the person who holds them. Clifford illustrates with the story of a ship owner who knows that his ship is old, leaky, and far overdue for overhaul and repairs. Yet he tells himself that the ship has survived many previous voyages and probably will make one more, so he irresponsibly dismisses his worries and books passage for many poor emigrants. In mid-ocean the ship breaks up in a storm and the hapless emigrants drown. The owner collects the insurance and tells no tales. Irrationality is a moral failure as well as an intellectual one.
I agree with Clifford (and Aristotle) that rationality is a branch of ethics. The cultivation and practice of both the intellectual and the social virtues is necessary for human flourishing, and such flourishing is the final telos of moral actions. Human well-being depends just as crucially upon sound thinking and judgment as it does upon such virtues as justice, generosity, courage, and self-control. Therefore, as a personal virtue, we should eschew irrationality, and, further, exercise social responsibility by not tolerating its promulgation by crackpots, fanatics, shills, hucksters, demagogues, conspiracy theorists, and ideologues.
While I agree with Clifford’s approach, I can only sigh wistfully for the heady days of nineteenth century rationalism, when being rational seemed to be basically a matter of sturdy Victorian self-discipline in discharging our epistemic duties. We now know that it is much harder to be rational than Clifford (or Aristotle) could have imagined. It is not merely that we are now on the far side of the historical chasm of the twentieth century when optimism seemed drowned in an ocean of blood, and science generated horrors of mass destruction. (n.b., Steven Pinker eloquently argues in his recent tour de force, Enlightenment Now, that optimism is abundantly justified and that science is the driver of progress). We now know how difficult rationality is because we have learned so much more about ourselves.
As Michael Shermer explains in The Believing Brain, our brains are belief-forming engines. We emphatically do not do as Hume and other philosophers earnestly exhorted. We do not look at the evidence and then proportion our belief to its strength. On the contrary, we leap to conclusions, generating beliefs promiscuously and prolifically, and then look for evidence to support our beliefs while ignoring contrary evidence. In other words, we are all suckers for confirmation bias, and you are only fooling yourself if you say that you are not. Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown the confirmation bias is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways that we spontaneously fool ourselves, even, perversely, when we think we are being most rational. Further, we are all subject to groupthink and to various belief-shaping emotional and social influences—as indeed Francis Bacon realized long ago with his “idols of the mind.”
Such disturbing findings are reinforced by the research of social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt, as presented in his eye-opening book The Righteous Mind. Haidt says that reason, far from being an objective arbiter between competing claims, instead serves as our inner lawyer, advocating for beliefs that have been predetermined in ways that are anything but classically “rational.” When NFL players kneel during the national anthem, why do you support or condemn them? Whatever arguments you give for either side, the evidence is clear: Your reaction is not determined by the reasons you give. Quite the reverse. Your reasons are just the brief your inner lawyer uses to justify your spontaneous emotional response. If you say that those other people are being emotional while you are just being logical, then you are fooling yourself once again and thereby compounding the problem.
So, are we condemned to irrationality? Are we inevitably suckers for confirmation bias and the many other cognitive traps and illusions that beset the human mind? Is there no higher function of reason than to invent excuses for the emotions? Actually, things are not quite that bad. Scientific and scholarly methods were devised because people are not rational. The rationality of science is due to the methods of science and to the development of professional communities that enforce a culture of objective practice and collective skepticism. Scientists recognize that the individual scientist is a passionate believer, often with a sizable ego, and just as subject to cognitive bias and the blandishments of ideology and vested interest as anyone else. This is why methods, like the double-blind tests of the efficacy of new drugs, were devised to insulate against bias, wishful thinking, and distortion.
What, though, about questions like theism vs. atheism, that do not seem to be settled by a straightforward application of logic or scientific method? Now, zealots on either side will demur and insist that their position is obviously compelling, and that the other side is plainly sunk in dogma, confusion, and self-delusion. Some fervent atheists hold that all religious believers are gullible or dishonest and that a whiff of science easily disperses the flimsy, antiquated, and superstitious claims of religion. Likewise, hardcore religious apologists have written many books adducing supposedly overwhelming evidence that demands the verdict that their own religion is the true one.* Others, including some who should know better, say that atheists refuse to believe so that they can indulge in sexual sin without guilt.** Such extreme and simplistic views are sad and silly and based on nothing but ignorance and hostility.
As always, the actual situation is much more complex than ax-grinders think. The late, great John Hick, perhaps the foremost recent philosopher of religion, argued that the universe is religiously “ambiguous.” That is, as the universe presents itself to us, we may reasonably construe it as “physics all the way down,” that is, that all things are explicable in terms of physical entities, laws, and forces, and reality contains no transcendent or supernatural aspect. This is the naturalistic view most atheists endorse. On the other hand, says Hick, given the totality of human experience, it is just as reasonable to affirm the existence of a transcendent reality. After all, very many human beings across cultures and across time have had profound and compelling experiences of the sacred or numinous and an undeniable sense of being in the presence of the divine. Hick argues that each interpretation, the naturalistic and the religious, is compatible with the evidence and cannot be condemned as irrational.
Being a rational atheist or believer (or a rational liberal or conservative, for that matter) is not a matter of how you formed that commitment, but how you live it. We have no choice but to judge things as they honestly seem to us, but, informed by studies such as Haidt’s, we know that how things seem to us is not a function of a fictitious ideal rationality. Where rationality comes in is in the self-critical nature of our commitments and in the quality of the arguments and evidence we employ in defense of our positions. To listen seriously and respectfully to the most articulate and intelligent persons on the other side, and to defend your views with the best evidence and most logical arguments you can find is to be as rational an animal as humans can be.
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*I talked to one well-known religious writer that told me he had written eighteen books on the resurrection of Jesus. This was some years ago, and it is probably more now. Wow. Honestly, if I did not feel that I had nailed something down in two or three books I would turn to something else.
**Oh yeah. Nothing appeals to attractive young women more than carrying a copy of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion under your arm. An irresistible pick-up line is, “Hey, babe, wanna come by my place for a heavy discussion of the evidential problem of evil?”

bookmark_borderDoes Rhetoric Lead to Violence?

I have been away from Secular Outpost for about six months due to a very heavy teaching schedule and publishing commitments. However, recent events compel me to come back and say some things.
The morning of 10/31/18 on NPR’s 1A program with Joshua Johnson they were discussing the question of whether overheated rhetoric can lead to violent attacks, as with the recent pipe bomb mailings and the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This last incident was especially painful to me since I used to live very near the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the shooting took place. I frequently walked through the area when I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
Obviously, much of the discussion centered on the inflammatory rhetoric issuing from Donald Trump and right-wing media and websites. When we are told that the caravan of migrants from Central America is an “invasion” of gangsters and terrorists and that the “invasion” is being funded by George Soros, who is Jewish, is it surprising that these malicious and hateful lies would be believed by violent anti-Semites who might then act on such beliefs? In general, does not the promulgation of hateful words spur hateful action? Surely everyone knows that this is so, right?
Not actually. On 1A they had someone from the libertarian Cato Institute who also writes for Reason Magazine (Note: When you call your publication “Reason,” I cannot help but suspect a bit of defensiveness, as if you are protesting too much). This person (sorry, I did not catch his name) argued that rhetoric does not incite violence and, further, that if we say that it does, we will soon be led to advocate censorship and the banning of “dangerous” speech.
So, there are two claims here, first, the factual claim that inflammatory rhetoric does not cause violent actions, and, second, that, even if it does, it is dangerous to discuss the connection because we thereby easily segue into recommendations of censorship. Does rhetoric cause violence? If it does, should we censor it?
As for the first question, human actions are always complexly caused and conditioned, so it is misleading to speak of a single factor as the cause of an action. On the other hand, it seems more than plausible that there might be persons already motivated by pathological hatreds and irrational beliefs who might be prompted to violent action by rhetoric that encourages, permits, or extenuates such actions. There are always unhinged losers who are prone to obsessive fears and hatreds and who entertain violent fantasies about killing their supposed enemies. In our society, many of these people are heavily armed, often with military-style weapons—machines that efficiently kill large numbers of people in a short time. In an atmosphere of overheated and divisive rhetoric, surely it is unsurprising that hateful actions sometimes follow hateful words.
This much I take to be common sense, but can we move beyond common sense? Is there scientific evidence? Indeed there is. In his enlightening and entertaining primer of neuroscience, The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman shows that we now have an understanding of what goes on in the brain when empathy shuts off and dehumanization occurs. Historically, genocides have always been preceded by dehumanization. Nazi propaganda portrayed Jews as, literally, vermin. As the movie Hotel Rwanda showed, prior to the massacres of 1994, before Tutsis were massacred by Hutus, Hutu media depicted Tutsis as “cockroaches.” You step on cockroaches. The pattern of dehumanization preceding slaughter has repeated again and again.
Eagleman notes that there is a portion of the brain called the “medial prefrontal cortex” (mPFC) that is activated when we interact with or think about human beings, but is deactivated when we are thinking about mere objects. Unfortunately, the activation of the mPFC can be inhibited in various ways. Eagleman says that propaganda that demonizes others can cause us to see them as objects and not as human beings. Experiments show that people respond with less empathy to depictions of injury to members of “outgroups” that they have learned to dislike. Other experiments indicate that identifying someone as a homeless person or drug addict (people allegedly responsible for their own misfortunes) can decrease the activation of the mPFC and lead to the perception of these others as less than human beings. Neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried identifies what he calls “Syndrome E,” a pattern of diminished emotional reactivity that permits repetitive acts of violence.
The upshot is that we are now developing an understanding of genocide in terms of neuroscience. We are learning how the brain can be manipulated to switch off empathy and switch on the process of dehumanization. That poisonous rhetoric and propaganda can be causal factors leading to genocide now has the support of science and not just common sense. It appears, then, both reckless and irresponsible to dismiss or deny the likelihood that calumny, especially emanating from persons in positions of prestige and power, like the president of the United States, can promote violence.
Supposing, then, that words can lead to violence, should we censor? Of course, we recognize that there is such a thing as inciting to riot, and such actions are rightly punishable by law. What, though, about incitements that are less explicit? Should we shut up the disseminators of hate and division? Should they be subject to prosecution as they are even in some liberal countries?
As I said in a previous post, I am a free-speech fundamentalist. I see no plausible set of demarcation criteria that are sufficiently precise to exclude worthless speech while protecting speech that is merely controversial. For instance, what criteria would ban Milo Yiannopoulos while permitting Jordan Peterson? Or should Jordan Peterson be forbidden too? If so, how do we prevent our de facto rule from becoming “Forbid everyone with whom I have strong disagreements?” If that is our rule, then who is allowed to speak will simply be a matter of who has the power of proscription. Those congenial to those who wield such power are permitted and those uncongenial are not. I think something important will be lost if that becomes our practice.
There appears, then, to be no choice but to let the asses bray in public venues. Then use your freedom of speech to show that they are indeed asses.