So my fellow SBer PZ is in all sorts of hot water with Catholics over a blog post. I didn’t really want to poke my nose into this, but there’s been so much noise about it, that it’s really unavoidable. But I think I’ve got a rather different opinion on this than most bloggers I’ve seen so far. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to be making any friends by posting this. But people keep asking, so I’m going to open my big mouth, and tell you what I think.
You see, I think that both sides are assholes. Obviously, the people making threats take the prize as the biggest assholes, but a huge margin. But this isn’t a situation where a bunch of wackos went on an unprovoked rampage against a blogger; PZ deliberately provoked this mess.
As you must have heard by now, the whole kerfluffle started when some student at a University in Florida got into a fight with the local church over a piece of communion wafer. That led to a lot of Catholic folks becoming very upset, because
the communion wafer is deeply meaningful to devout catholics. Some of those folks went beyond upset and crossed right over into the realm of profound insanity – claiming that taking the wafer was the equivalent of (or even worse than) kidnapping a child. And some folks went so far as to send death threats.
So far, you’ve got a typical story of loony religious types freaking out over
something thoroughly trivial. Yeah, the wafer’s got a lot of significance to them. But
at the end of the day, it’s a cracker.
Then, PZ chimed in. And in his inimitable fashion, he went way overboard,
deciding that merely flaming the stupidity of this wasn’t enough. Instead, he
flamed the stupidity of it, and then asked his readers to send him
communion wafers, so that he could desecrate them on film, and post the images to his website.
As you would expect, this caused the wackos to go absolutely ballistic. PZ has received death threats, and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has used it as an excuse
to get lots of attention calling for PZ to be fired.
Like most other folks who’ve spoken up about this, I agree that the folks
threatening PZ are a bunch of raging assholes. And I agree that whatever your religious
beliefs, becoming violent over a non-violent action taken by someone else is absolutely, unquestionably wrong. In fact, it’s more than wrong, it’s downright batshit insane. The people making threats should, if possible, be tracked down,
and get visited by the police. Threats of violence aren’t just wrong – they’re criminal, and they should be treated as such. The people making threats should be prosecuted.
When it comes to the whole “Get PZ fired!” thing, I think it’s nuts. If you could
show that he’s discriminating against religious students, or otherwise mistreating
religious students in his classes, or in any part of his role as a professor at UMM,
that would be appropriate. But no one is plausibly claiming that. People who know PZ in
person all say that he’s a pleasant, softspoken guy, who would never abuse his students.
Privately, he might think that they’re a bit crazy; but no one has ever plausibly
claimed that he’s ever done or said anything inappropriate to students at UMM on the basis of their religion.
But: I think that PZ is an asshole when it comes to religion, and I think that
he deliberately provoked this shitstorm. He didn’t just say something offensive; he made a very deliberate effort to provoke people. I think this whole mess is the result of
a very deliberate, calculated action on his part.
What PZ did wasn’t just say “These people are nuts”. That would be offensive, but
perfectly within the realm of civil discourse. He didn’t just say that it’s just a damned cracker, and getting hysterical over it was stupid and foolish. That would be offensive, but perfectly within the realm of civil discourse. He didn’t just say
that people who compare stealing a cracker to kidnapping a child are total fucking loonies. That would have been fine. That probably still would have caused some amount of shitstorm, but nothing near the scale of what we’re seeing now.
What he did was solicit people to steal communion wafers, and send them to him, so
that he could desecrate them and post images of that on the web. Now, PZ’s a really
smart guy. It’s not like this reaction is something that no one could have predicted.
Anyone with half a brain would realize that going over the top that way was guaranteed
to create a crazy reaction. He knew when he posted it what kind of reaction it
would provoke. And he went ahead and did it – because he wanted to provoke that
I think that people have an obligation to behave in certain ways for civil society
to function and survive. People who deliberately provoke others for no purpose beyond the malicious joy of provocation should be recognized as the obnoxious assholes
that they are.
I’m not saying that everyone should pussyfoot around in order to avoid every
offending anyone else. There are lots of things that offend people, but that are
appropriate and reasonable things to say. Saying that religion is silly is deeply
offensive to some people – but for anyone who thinks that religion is silly, there’s
nothing wrong with saying it. And if other people think that you’re an idiot for saying
it, there’s nothing wrong with them saying so, either.
But you shouldn’t deliberately provoke people. There’s a big difference between “I think it’s stupid to complain about how someone abused a cracker”, and “someone please go bring me some of those crackers from a church so that I can
desecrate them, and post pictures of it”. The latter, in my opinion, is not acceptable behavior. It’s being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole; provoking people not to make a point, but just for the sake of provoking them. It’s petty, childish,
pointless, and obnoxious.
Now, obviously, people are allowed to do things whether I think they’re acceptable or not. I’m not arguing that what I consider unacceptable should be illegal,
or in any way actionable. But when you go out of your way to provoke people, when you deliberately do something to offend and hurt them, when you very deliberately and calculatedly say something that’s going to produce an emotional response, then you shouldn’t pretend to be surprised when you get that response, and people react badly. When you do that, you should expect that people are going to react badly. You should expect it, because you deliberately provoked those reactions. PZ went out of his way to provoke a shitstorm. And now he’s complaining about the crazy things that people are doing. Well, duh… He went out of your way to
piss off and provoke a bunch of people that he knew are irrational loonies; what did he expect?
That doesn’t mean that it’s OK for people to threaten him. It’s not OK to send him death threats. It’s not OK to try to get him fired from his job. That’s all, obviously, absolutely unacceptable, and I think that the people threatening PZ should get a visit from the police, and be punished appropriately for making threats.
But when PZ did the rhetorical equivalent of walking up to a hornets nest and whacking it with a stick, he shouldn’t have been surprised when the angry bees came buzzing out after him.
So PZ deliberately acted like an outrageous asshole. The reaction of people to his outrageous assholery is completely unreasonable – over the top to the point where it would be comic if it weren’t so dangerous. The reaction of loonies to his
outrageous assholery make PZ look squeaky clean and rational in comparison. The
people reacting to him are nothing short of insane. It’s terrifying to see
such a vivid demonstration of just how close to violence many people are – that
an offensive blog post can provoke people to sending death threats is
And then, there’s Bill Donohue. Donohue takes the term “raging asshole”, and
basically redefines it by example. Donohue is an lunatic who’s made a career out of
finding things to be offended over, and running around screaming in violent outrage
every time he finds one. He’s a vile, disgraceful excuse for a human being. It’s
an absolute crime that he’s managed to present himself as some kind of
spokesperson for the American Catholic community. It’s even worse that he
gets treated by our dreadful media as some kind of reasonable voice in the
public square. Bill Donohue belongs in a mental institution, not in front
of a television camera being presented as a respectable community leader.
But still… This whole thing is largely a manufactured uproar. You’ve got a bunch
of insane assholes on one side, like Bill Donohue, screaming threats. And on the other
side, you’ve got a guy who gets his rocks off on provoking the loonies, basically
doing the rhetorical equivalent of painting a target on his ass and handing out rocks.
It’s stupid all around.