In the Sunday Times letters page today (not available online, sorry), Cilla Webster takes issue with Ben Trovato’s open letter to Errol Naidoo regarding E-Tv’s screening the Naked News. That’s fine – she can have her view, as can Naidoo, regardless of how stupid those views might be. But Webster’s letter does allow for a quick and easy demonstration of the ‘false cause’, or ‘correlation, not cause’ fallacy. Webster writes:
A few years ago a 12-year-old boy in a township nearby me was sitting in his grandfather’s chair, watching the e.tv late porn movie. There was a hit out on the grandfather and the child was killed instead because he was watching porn. It was a tragedy for the parents.
I’m sure it was a tragedy for the parents, and the boy was no doubt somewhat alarmed when the gunmen (or whatever) came in for the hit. But the story – or at least this account of it – is a tragedy for reason also, in that it picks an arbitrary detail of the story as being the ’cause’ of the boys death. He was killed because:
He was at home.
He was sitting in his grandfather’s chair.
The killers were mistaken as to where the grandfather was.
The chair was in a particular position, which perhaps didn’t allow the killers to spot that the grandfather looked mysteriously small, and young, before pulling the trigger.
The child was watching TV.
To say that porn caused the boy’s death is laughable, and trivialises a sad story. His death was correlated with watching porn, but there is no causal connection. For there to be one, it would have to be the case that it is impossible for the child to not have been in that chair, at that time, under any other circumstance. Watching the news, for example. Or even, watching some gospel programming.
These are the sorts of reasons why we can’t take people like Naidoo seriously – not because their conclusions are obviously nonsense (porn could be bad for gender relations, or contribute to some harms), but because their arguments, and their evidence, show few signs of having ever given the matter a moment’s thought.
Free speech is not the only value that democratic societies subscribe to. Nor does, or should, our commitment to free speech always have to trump competing values such as national security or personal dignity. But the principle of free speech nevertheless stands in need of exceptional, and exceptionally strong, counterarguments in cases where we are told that it is not permissible to broadcast or publish any particular point of view.
This commitment to an open marketplace of ideas rests on the belief that each person should have access to the points of view in circulation, so that he or she is able to exercise their right to moral independence by considering the ideas themselves. As Mill reminds us, compromising free speech costs us both the opportunity to hear things that are true, which can help to correct errors; and also to hear things that are false, where the truth is strengthened by “its collision with error”. Continue reading “Responsible reporting: At what cost?”
Last Saturday, in an act of flagrant disregard for the faiths of others, Pastor Ray McCauley had planned to promote his brand by exploiting paranoia around tourist safety at the World Cup. Unfortunately for Pastor Ray, a heart attack meant that he could not attend. But while tickets for the “National Day of Prayer” for a safe World Cup might as well have been accompanied by homeopathic remedies for xenophobia (which would be equally effective), the event still raises questions. Firstly, why do we need his god to help out with policing those pesky foreigners and other threats to World Cup harmony, like Ivo Vegter? Is Ray saying that the other gods aren’t up to the task or even – sotto voce – that they may not exist? Continue reading “The Internet and cell phone pornography bill”