Morality Religion

(Strange arguments for) An African Pope

Ratzinger on DrugsVia Jonathan Faull, I learn that if the next Pope were to be African, he’d in fact be the fourth African Pope, “following in the footsteps of Victor I (AD 189-199), Miltiades (311-314), and Gelasius (492-496)”. And it might make good marketing sense to elect an African Pope – religiosity is still very strong and rising, in many parts of the continent. Even in countries like South Africa, arguably more in tune with global trends than most other African countries, we’ve got 70% or more who claim religious faith (a recent poll showing a sharp decline is unfortunately, not at all convincing).

Of course, people who think the Pope an essential and useful figure are not only concerned about who their largest audience might be. They also care – perhaps even more than demographic representivity – about whether the next Pope can defend the traditions of this archaic system of belief. It takes a certain strong character to defend “traditional” marriage and oppose any other unions, or to oppose contraception, in the 21st century. But when you read some arguments for why the next Pope should be African, it becomes easier to see how Popes (and lesser religious authorities) get away with talking nonsense, decade after decade.

Here’s a prime example: Richard Dowden begins an article arguing for an African Pope with: “Over the decades that I have travelled in Africa I have met only four African atheists”. A claim like this is astonishing, for various reasons. First, because as a look at something like the IHEU member organisations will show, we have a growing number of secular humanist organisations on the continent. We have atheist conferences – in Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere, and some of us attend and speak at international conferences too. In other words, the myopia of Dowden’s claim is the first notable thing.

One suspects, though, that he’s not looking very hard. It’s implausible to imagine that he starts every conversation with “say, are you perchance an atheist?”. And because we are a religious continent, a lack of belief would not typically be the sort of thing you’d advertise. Then, Dowden – who appears to be religious himself – might well tend to congregate with other religious folk in any case, making his (tiny already, as why should “who I meet” be your criterion) sample one that has a strong self-selection bias.

Then there’s this “no true Scotsman” paragraph, in which he claims that:

African history is largely untroubled by religious wars. Wherever religious wars are reported in Africa the cause is usually a dispute over land rights involving two communities that happen to be of different faiths. Religion per se is rarely the cause. That traditional tolerance however is now under pressure – not from atheism – but from externally-funded, exclusive fundamentalist religions in the form of Wahabi Islam exported from Saudi Arabia and evangelical Christian fundamentalism funded from the United States.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that religion and religious practices aren’t equally dangerous. But the extreme forms – even if he identifies their influence accurately in that paragraph – feed off a base of people who are already sympathetic to strange metaphysical claims. The fundamentalist religions could not gain traction without people finding the idea of gods plausible in the first instance, and the evangelical churches would remain empty, despite the funding, if rescuing your soul from hellfire was never a plausible offer in the first place. Just like in any market, competition emerges and can become aggressive. This competition is certainly premised in religion more broadly, and Dowden needs to acknowledge the role of the “traditional tolerance” for religion as a factor.

Worst of all, for me, are these two sentences:

Would an African pope change the Church’s attitude to homosexuality? Highly unlikely but on social justice, both local and international, expect a far more forthright and vigorous voice.

“Highly unlikely, but on social justice…”? One must hope that the opposition set up here is entirely accidental, because in implying that homophobia is not a social justice issue, Dowden would be making it clear that he knows as little about religion in Africa as he apparently knows about atheism in Africa. It’s in Uganda, after all, that we’ve had years of debate around whether homosexuality should be subject to the death penalty (there’s no debate around whether it should be illegal – of cours it should, according to Ugandan lawmakers).

Speaking in 2009, Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo was by contrast a model of tolerance, saying that life imprisonment for homosexual men might be better, as “killing them would not be helpful“. In a context like this, with homophobia prevalent across the continent, one does not get to carve homosexuality out of any bundle of social justice issues. After patriarchy, and the consequent and frequent abuse of women, it might well be the largest social justice issue.

It’s thanks to columns and arguments like these that it becomes ever clearer that the debate should ideally not be around whether the next Pope should be African or other, but rather around how long the Papacy – and Catholicism in this form – can survive at all.

Morality Religion

Errol Naidoo, allegedly a Christian, on Marikana

Presented without comment, from his latest newsletter:

There has been much hand wringing and recrimination about the Marikana Massacre. But when human life is diminished in the womb, that callousness will find its way into the national psyche.

It is a tragedy that the Church of Christ has not developed a sustainable and coherent strategy to expose the grisly consequences of the culture of death – advanced by pro-death activists.

I have written a feature article about the Demographic Winter in the latest issue of Joy magazine. The culture of death is slowly killing off the human family in Western civilisation.

Abortion-on-demand – driven by radical feminist activists – and the homosexual agenda, lie at the heart of the culture of death. These anti-family groups are responsible for population decline.

[Edit]Contrary to expectations, there are people out there who are willing to say that Naidoo “has a point“, and that I quoted him out of context. Here’s the full newsletter, so you can judge for yourselves.[/edit]

Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality Politics

When fried chickens become homophobic

As submitted to Daily Maverick

You’ve probably heard about the Washington, DC. chain of dry-cleaners who have been barred from opening a store on Dupont Circle after their CEO admitted that she favoured a qualified franchise. In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Kate Parker of GreenClean was reported as saying that “anyone should be allowed to vote, so long as their families have been in the US for at least 3 generations”.

You haven’t? Well, neither had I until I made it up a few minutes ago. But the story that has received a significant amount of coverage are the calls for boycotts and attempts to block the expansion of American fast food chain Chick-fil-A, after their president Dan Cathy was quoted as saying “We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

Conservative activists (including ex-presidential no-hopers Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin) have rallied to Cathy’s defence, while defenders of gay rights and marriage equality have been quick to denounce the company for offences including not only offensive remarks such as those quoted above, but also their financial support for anti-gay organisations and therapy groups that aim to “cure” gays.

But while companies that are anti-immigration attract only very occasional and fairly disorganised backlash, Chick-fil-A is experiencing a nationwide campaign calling not only for boycotts of their franchises, but also statements from lawmakers including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel indicating support for Joe Moreno, the Chicago alderman who blocked Chick-fil-A’s expansion in that city following Cathy’s homophobic comments.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating: the only way free speech arguments can ever be taken seriously is if we apply them consistently, and especially to speech that offends us. If free speech is only about forcing people to listen to what you have to say, you’re missing the point. That sort of “free speech” typically only entrenches the privilege of those who already have something to say, and a platform from which to say it.

Meanwhile, the very views that are marginal and unpopular might be worth hearing, and protecting. Sometimes, because we learn that we are wrong through being exposed to them, and sometimes because we learn why we can consider ourselves right through hearing how weak the opposition’s point of view really is. But if we don’t allow for the possibility that we are offended, we can’t describe ourselves as campaigners for free speech.

Emanuel said that “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members. And if you’re gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values”. If it’s freedom that’s at issue – whether in the form of gay rights or freedom of speech – the question of whether Emanuel’s comment is as offensive as Cathy’s is not a trivial one, because Emanuel is giving a moral principle the same status as a legal one.

It matters not that I – and ideally all of you – share a commitment to the moral principle at issue, namely that heterosexuals don’t have a monopoly on “family”. What matters is that having the sorts of views that a Mogoeng Mogoeng or Jacob Zuma have can be condemned through the use of one’s own right to free speech, rather than effectively stripping that right from others by threatening to (illegally) discriminate against them in terms of where and how they can trade.

Following an outcry from liberal commentators in the US, both Emanuel and Boston Mayor Tom Menino have subsequently admitted that any such restraint on Chick-fil-A’s operations would violate the chain’s rights. If Chick-fil-A could be shown to discriminate against gay employees in terms of who they hire or what they pay, or perhaps in their treatment of gay customers, legal action is both permissible and proper. In the absence of that, much of the outrage has rested on a confused conflation of morality and legality.

Part of speech being free is that we can be outraged, whether for good reason or not. In this particular case, even the question of whether the outrage is merited is an open one. While there’s no question in my mind that homophobia is a bad thing, it isn’t clear that it’s a failing that trumps all other potential failings.

We know this one thing about Chick-fil-A and their values, and what we know obviously can’t be measured up against the attitudes of any other fast food chain, where presidents might hold more odious views and simply choose not to air them.

Then, we also know other things about Chick-fil-A, for example that the roughly $2 million they donated to anti-gay causes over each of the last two years is trivial in light of both their $4 billion annual sales, and also that they donate substantial amounts to non-homophobic organisations also (and, as a result of the same conservative Christian principles that motivate their homophobia).

Calling for a boycott might sometimes be exactly the right thing to do, although it remains unclear that we should feel compelled to mix every aspect of our lives (including our fast food choices) with moral debate. But seemingly knee-jerk moral outrage is something to be treated with suspicion, whether or not it happens to agree with your viewpoint. This is perhaps especially true if it’s a bandwagon that you can’t avoid joining, for fear of being labelled a homophobe.

Daily Maverick Morality Politics Religion

Little evidence of integrity at the Film and Publications Board

As submitted to the Daily Maverick

When the Minister of Higher Education calls for a painting to be “destroyed for good”, it’s difficult to not be reminded of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. In case you’re unfamiliar with the book, the title describes the temperature at which paper auto-ignites, and the plot addresses the burning of books as a method for suppressing dissenting ideas.

Framed as a method of thought-control, the destruction or censorship of paintings and books should horrify all of us who hope to live in a free society. So instead of framing it in those terms, why not instead make a case based on “protecting the children”? After all, who but a moral monster would be opposed to protecting children?

This is not yet another column about Zuma’s Spear, but rather an attempt to highlight the creeping threat to liberty exemplified in Nzimande’s statement about The Spear, as well as the Film and Publication Board’s (FPB) decision to classify (images of) the painting as 16N. That the former hasn’t attracted significant outrage is a surprise, because even though Nzimande might well have been speaking as the leader of the Communist Party, he also happens to be the man who oversees the country’s higher education system.

As one of the thousands of academics whose professional lives are influenced by this man’s judgement, I have cause to be concerned about a statement like this. As do all of us, not simply through being invested in the country’s future, but because it’s a stark distillation of the level of cynical manipulation of voters that some in the ruling party are willing to deploy. It’s not simply inappropriate for a Minister of Education to call for the destruction of artworks – it’s a complete abrogation of his responsibilities.

But seeing as those he reports to happen to be sympathetic to that view, we should of course expect no censure, apology or retraction. Meanwhile, if the FPB could have their way, images of Murray’s painting would be scrubbed from the Internet lest some under-16 (or sensitive adult) happens to come across it. The danger is of course real, in the sense that a Google search for “South African art” might well highlight the offensive image in question.

The FPB will be engaging with Internet service providers and search engines to “enforce this decision going forward”, which could well mean the dusting off of the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, Malusi Gigaba’s plan to enforce the moral standards of a few right-wing Christian organisations on all of us. One of the organisations consulted in the drafting of that Bill was the Family Policy Institute (FPI), headed by Errol Naidoo.

You might remember Naidoo from his call to boycott Woolworths for their decision to take Christian magazines off their newsstands (the profitability of a private company obviously being subservient to Naidoo’s interpretation of God’s wishes). Or, perhaps you’d recall his involvement in blocking both Multichoice and TopTV from screening adult content.

But in case all of those campaigns happen to coincide with your preferences, we’re also talking about the person who called the Civil Unions Act a “grossly negligent act of Parliament”, and whose monthly newsletters rarely fail to mention the immoral and unnatural scourge of homosexuality, and the complicity of the “liberal media” in obscuring the imminent downfall of civilization that will be precipitated by consenting adults in their bedrooms.

The reason Naidoo and the FPI are relevant to the discussion around the FPB’s decision to classify The Spear is that the FPB statement laments the “suggestions made that have sought to question the integrity and independence of the FPB”. I’d hope that in this instance, integrity would include being guided by the spirit and letter of the Bill of Rights in matters such as freedom of sexual preference and orientation.

But this hope seems somewhat unfounded when you look at the FPB’s website. On their home page, you’ll find a sidebar element headed “Useful Links” – but you’ll only find one link there, and that link is to the Family Policy Institute. In case my objection is not entirely clear, I’m not making the claim that religion (or Christianity in particular) can have nothing useful to say in matters of morality or in decisions regarding what children should be exposed to.

The claim is instead that the FBP is endorsing an organisation, and a man, who is a proud homophobe, and who has repeatedly demonstrated that his views on sexuality in general seem to be plucked straight from the pages of Leviticus. To describe this link as “useful” seems somewhat at odds with integrity, at least as I understand it.

Perhaps there’s a more innocent explanation, namely that the FPB has no idea who or what they are endorsing. If this is the case, we have no less cause to question their competence in effectively performing the task of deciding what to classify and how to do so. Incompetence – at least from the perspective of those who wish to view artworks or movies – is hardly more reassuring than significant lapses in judgement.

So it’s not just that the FPB have made a ruling that’s likely to survive even internal appeal processes, never mind court challenges. The issue is also that the chilling of free speech or artistic expression can happen by degrees, and can be disguised by the motivation of “protecting the children”. Because, framed in those terms, who would dare complain? If you do complain – at least once protecting the children is understood in the terms of folk like Naidoo – you might as well confess to being a paedophile.

Morality Religion

Finally: recognition as a ‘homosexual activist’

Thank you, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without the help and support of my cats, Mogwai (pictured), Mr Jones and Mot. I must of course also thank the Family Policy Institute, and particularly its leader, Errol Naidoo, for bestowing this honour on me. The reason for Errol bestowing this honour on me is at this stage slightly ambiguous, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume he means “homosexual activist” in both possible senses. Here’s an extract from his latest emailed newsletter:

Homosexual activist, Jacques Rosseau [sic] has slammed the Film & Publication Board for its association with Family Policy Institute. Apparently, my work to protect children from exposure to porn on TV and the internet is considered “censorship” a crime worse than the social degradation of children.

While I’m grateful, Errol, I do need to point out a couple of problems with the reasoning of your selection committee in bestowing this honour on me. First, it’s not quite true that I’m a “homosexual activist” – instead, I try to be an activist against idiocy of various forms, but particularly the sorts of idiocy that results in discrimination. Yours, for example. But also gender or racial discrimination, or giving one particular religious viewpoint undue attention when it comes to deciding on matters of public policy.

Second, the most important reason for mentioning you in that column was to say that the Film and Publications Board shouldn’t be endorsing homophobes. As a state body, you’d think they had a duty to respect the provisions related to equality in the Constitution. So, when some religious creep (not all religious folks count here) calls homosexual behaviour unnatural and immoral, and threatening to “the family” (the families that homosexuals are in don’t count, of course), you’d think they should distance themselves from you. But no – you’re listed as a “useful link” on their website (but without any text saying something along the lines of “This link is useful if you want to know what a bigot looks like”).

Third, I’m fully in support of protecting “the children” from undue harm. But you’ve never (and nor has anyone else) demonstrated that the children will crack the two pin codes required to view porn late at night, nor that there is good reason to swallow your doomsday-ism about the harms that result from pornography in any case. The evidence is inconclusive, and until you can get God to talk to us herself, rather than through folk like yourself, I’ll rather not base public policy decisions on your say-so, thanks.

The rest of the newsletter consists of the usual self-congratulatory detail related to how he’s saving civilization through setting up urgent meetings to discuss stuff. Or sometimes, waiting to see if people are willing to meet with him:

I am waiting on confirmation to meet with the DG of Communications, Ms Rosey Sekese and the CEO of ICASA who are currently in Cape Town to discuss the urgent need to amend legislation to specifically prohibit pornography on TV and to install filters on the internet to block online porn.

It’s a good thing that not even any Christians I know take him, or his organisation, seriously. Except, that’s not quite right: they do take him seriously to the extent that they see him as an embarrassment to their faith, and as very bad PR for Christianity in general. Replace “faith” with “species” in the previous sentence, and the Christians and I are in full agreement.

(A pdf of the full newsletter, in case you want to read more. But there’s no good reason to.)

Morality Religion

Errol Naidoo: remove religion as example of unfair discrimination from the Constitution

Errol Naidoo’s latest Family Policy Institute newsletter indicates quite a remarkable change of mind, at least if I’m correctly reading between the lines. In one section of it, he appears to be arguing that religion should not merit any special protection from discrimination under South Africa’s Bill of Rights. Here’s (part of) what he has to say:

There is a proposal to remove the ‘sexual orientation’ clause in the Constitution. This clause in the Bill of Rights serves only to provide homosexuals the power to demand special rights.

Homosexuals are protected as human beings in the Constitution like every other citizen. The sexual orientation clause provides special protections and privileges for their sexual preference and more importantly, provides legal sanction to penalise anyone who disagree with their lifestyle.

The clause in question (9.3) reads as follows:

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

So, following Naidoo’s logic, if the “sexual orientation” clause only exists to “provide homosexuals the power to demand special rights”, it’s surely also the case that this is true for the “religion” clause (and all the others), and he’d have section 9.3 read something like “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly of indirectly against anyone”.

This might be the first, and only, time that I can say he’s on to something which isn’t completely crazy…


While you’re at it, take Holomisa to the HRC

Take a look at the responses offered by Patekile Holomisa to Chris Barron’s questions in this weekend’s Sunday Times. I addressed his views in a Daily Maverick column reposted here, wherein I drew attention to the fact that his retrograde attitude towards equality seemed no less – if not more – offensive than dos Santos and Tshidi, whose racist tweets have recently caused such upheaval in the Twittersphere. (As a sidenote, the report on their “reconciliation lunch” with Mmusi Maimane is a wonderful example of how low journalistic standards can sink – “Dos Santos, who had plastered her face with make-up and pink blush” & “Thamane, 22, it has emerged, is not even a model” being two choice examples).

Holomisa has poked his head out of his cave for long enough to confirm that our suspicions are not at all unfounded, and that freedom is quite alright, so long as it’s according to cultural norms. And who defines cultural norms? Well, “traditional communities and traditional leaders”, apparently – except, that’s not quite true, because if you’re a gay person then your sexual preferences are “not part of our culture”. So, that leaves us with traditional leaders as the arbiters of cultural norms. And guess what – they’re all male, and will continue to be so, especially if the Traditional Courts Bill passes, and even if it doesn’t, because that’s the current status quo.

Gays and lesbians do what they do “despite of their culture”, according to Holomisa. But yet, this magnanimous man says they should be protected – “they can’t be assaulted, or raped or killed. According to the culture.” No, Holomisa, that’s not the only reason – it’s also according to law, which (currently) recognises sexual orientation as illegitimate grounds for discrimination. And one of the reasons for having this in law is that despite what you think the “cultural” rules are, people are discriminating against gays and lesbians. And exactly those people who you think define cultural norms are themselves frequently homophobic.

So it’s a cop-out to say that it’s “not because of the culture that they’re being assaulted and raped and killed. The culture doesn’t say they must be assaulted and killed and raped.” Because when “the culture” says “let’s remove the protections for gays and lesbians from the Bill of Rights” – as you are doing, Mr. Holomisa – then it is because of “the culture” that people are being assaulted and raped and killed. Because you know it’s happening, and you know it’s sometimes because of homophobia. And one way to change “the culture” is to put people in jail, often and always, when they assault, rape or kill (for whatever reason, but including as a result of homophobia).

Another way to change “the culture” is of course to tell people to stop doing these things. But that strategy isn’t working out too well, is it?

Daily Maverick Morality Politics

Racist models: apparently worse than homophobes in the legislature.

As submitted to Daily Maverick

In May 2011, a 13 year old lesbian was raped in Atteridgeville, Pretoria. We can’t say for sure whether this rape was an attempt to cure her of her lesbianism. But in June of that same year, Noxolo Nkosana was given a clear signal that her lesbianism was part of the motivation for her assault by two men, who reportedly taunted her with shouts of “Hey you lesbian, you tomboy, we’ll show you”. Then they did “show her”, stabbing her twice with a knife.

Nkosana was not raped, but Noxolo Nogwaza from KwaThema township near Johannesburg was less fortunate in being stoned, stabbed and raped by eight men in April 2011. She died as a result of these injuries. Many similar stories could be told, and have motivated increasing pressure on the government to consider recognising corrective rape as a hate crime.

Corrective rape is of course not the only threat faced by lesbian and gay people in South Africa. The Out LGBT Well-Being (Out) and UNISA Centre for Applied Psychology (UCAP) community survey (pdf) conducted in 2003 revealed widespread verbal and physical abuse motivated by homophobia, but also the finding that 62% of those who encountered such victimisation did not report their experience to the police.

In her 2004 paper Arranging Prejudice: Exploring Hate Crime in post-apartheid South Africa, Bronwyn Harris suggested that “Institutionalised heterosexism and homophobia, combined with negative social attitudes towards lesbian and gay people, create the conditions for hate crime and the reluctance to report it to the authorities. An important reason for this is the tendency towards the sensational, dramatic and exceptional, by the media. This selective bias in media coverage contributes to a tendency not to notice or report ordinary everyday experiences of hate victimisation”.

I doubt that the situation has changed much since then. After all, why would you think the police would care when those higher up the food chain include a homophobic Chief Justice, and a President who believes that “same-sex marriage is a disgrace to the nation and to God” – so much so that he’s willing to appoint a homophobic ambassador (Jon Qwelane) to a country (Uganda) that considered a bill legislating the imposition of the death penalty or life sentences on homosexuals?

Meanwhile, The House of Traditional Leaders have submitted a proposal to the Constitutional Review Committee, suggesting an amendment to section 9 (3) of the Constitution, which reads “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex … colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth”.

It might come as no surprise that The House of Traditional Leaders is well-stocked with members of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa). The Constitutional Review Committee of the National Assembly, who will consider the proposed amendment, is chaired by ANC MP Patekile Holomisa – president of Contralesa.

For a little insight into Holomisa’s attitude towards social justice issues, consider his response to the Traditional Courts Bill, currently the subject of a public participation process. The bill, he says “is being rammed down our throats by a government that is half-hearted on the issue of traditional leadership and a government that is half-hearted in its support of traditional authority”.

An assortment of 20 or so civil society groups and individual activists also don’t like the bill, and stand in support of the UCT Law, Race and Gender Research Unit’s submission to Parliament. As their submission makes clear, the proposed bill “overtly privileges the interests of traditional leaders over those of other rural residents, in particular rural women”.

The bill removes checks and balances on the power of traditional leaders, eliminates women from decision-making, and allows forced labour as punishment. You can never ask for legal representation in matters before a traditional court, and there is no mechanism for opting-out of the system. Clearly half-hearted in its support of traditional authority, then, in that it stops way short of the public floggings that one might imagine Holomisa to think a minimally acceptable power to be enjoyed by himself and his fellow Neanderthals.

Over the last 17 years, the Constitutional Review Committee has rejected every proposal made to it for amending the Constitution. This one – to remove sexual orientation as grounds for protection against discrimination – has somehow made it through to being put forward for deliberation in the National Assembly. Simultaneously, the protection offered by the Bill of Rights on the grounds of sex or gender would seemingly be ignored in traditional courts.

It is surely beyond the realms of possibility that either the Traditional Courts Bill or the Constitutional amendment in question will be passed. But the fact that it’s possible for anyone to think it reasonable to propose them, or to defend them, is cause for shame on the part of those that do, and anger in the rest of us.

And we do get angry – the people of Twitter, for example, spent an entire day being angry about a racist airhead, many going so far as to report her to the Human Rights Commission. Somehow, though, what’s trending on Twitter seldom gives one the impression that human rights are at stake when women, gays or lesbians are told they’re less human than the rest of us.

Daily Maverick Morality Politics Religion

The JSC hearings on Mogoeng Mogoeng

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

While I intended this column to be a follow-up on my thoughts on Slutwalk, dealing more generally with the topic of gendered epithets and why they are generally wrong, that will have to wait. Because as a colleague put it, I have ‘no infrastructure’ following a recent double-dip round of burglaries, and more than a tablet computer is required for the research needed to do that topic justice.

Morality Religion

On respect, and whether Errol Naidoo is a fool

I’ve previously argued that people deserve respect, rather than the ideas that they might hold. Intuitively, this seems relatively uncontroversial, in that there seems no reason to respect the point of view that the Earth is 600 years old, or that the folk wisdom of superstitious folk from centuries ago should guide our lives in the 21st-Century. But note that to say people rather than ideas deserve respect doesn’t necessarily mean that all people deserve respect. It’s entirely possible that the totality of what you know about a person indicates that their confusions or malice run so deep that it’s difficult to find anything good to say about them.

This still wouldn’t preclude certain forms of respect for that person. You would still want to hear what they had to say, and attempt to judge it objectively – not only do people change, but they could also surprise you by revealing things you didn’t know, or hadn’t thought important. As much as efficiency demands that we apply a discount to the expected value of what certain people say, to blindly assume that they are always wrong, and not worth paying attention to, is an arrogance that might lead us into complacency and error.

However, this does not stop certain people from (generally) making little sense. How do we describe these people? In the case of Errol Naidoo, I described him as a ‘fool’ when Tweeting a link to a Sunday Times interview with him regarding his call to boycott e-TV for their screenings of Naked News. Regular readers of Synapses would be aware of Naidoo’s homophobia, his knee-jerk moral hysteria founded on (very) selective evidence, his contribution to the threats directed at students involved in the 2009 Sax Appeal controversy, and so forth. Read the Sunday Times interview for yourself: does he appear to be someone who is weighing evidence objectively, and looking for the root causes of social ills? Or does he appear to be a myopic moral reactionary, guided by missionary zeal to always allow his values to determine what the rest of the country is allowed to watch, and do?

I’m happy to call him a fool, because that’s a useful summary of a person who generally holds foolish views. Yes, according to me – and of course I might be wrong. And a commitment to treating people with respect would mean that I should be open to contrary evidence, whereby he might indicate that he is someone worth listening to on some subjects. I have not seen any such evidence to date, and this is why I’m comfortable calling him a fool.

Other self-identified skeptics disagree, though, apparently of the view that everyone merits respect, even those “whose actions and beliefs disgust me”. What would “respect” mean in a statement like that, beyond what I’ve conceded (being open to contrary evidence)? Not calling them names like “fool”? Tolerance has its bounds, and some of those bounds are perfectly legitimate. Consider Mengistu – should we simply critique his arguments, or are we allowed to call him a callous thug, or a madman? There are plenty of examples of characters like him, where some sort of summary term – which could well be abusive – fits their characters and motivations perfectly. Does “respect” entail never using these terms?

Of course, one can misuse terms of abuse. That is a separate argument, which would require my being corrected regarding the evidence that I think merits describing Naidoo as a fool. The possibility of mis-applying such terms does not mean it’s impermissible to ever use them, though. The appeal for such restraint is motivated by tolerance and openness to correction, and these are often good things. But they are also often the sorts of motivations underlying claims to refrain from judgement. But we need to make judgements, so as to be able to say that racism, sexism, genocide, female genital mutilation and so forth are wrong.

The real question is whether our judgements are sound or not. Determining whether they are requires us to subject them to scrutiny – not to avoid making them. A version of “tolerance” or “respect” that forbids us from saying that illiberal and homophobic men – camouflaged by the piety of religion – are fools is one that puts us on a slippery slope to not being able to make any judgements at all – and this is a version of respect that we should have no part of.