Way, way back in September of 2005, a Danish newspaper published some cartoons depicting Muslims and their prophet, and in response, thousands of Muslim extremists responded with varying degrees of threatened and actual violence. As you all know, this resulted in a storm of media coverage around the world, including pretty extensive coverage in the American media. This coverage resulted in several important and, it seems to me, pretty productive discussions on a wide variety of relevant issues, including self-censorship among journalists, the double standard that exists when criticizing religion (as opposed to other world-views, such as the political), anti-Arab racism xenophobia in Europe, and Denmark in particular, as well as the inappropriatess and unacceptibility of the violent reaction of tens of thousands of Muslims across the Muslim world, which resulted in death and destruction.
I think several conclusions can be and were drawn from that discussion, such as that the cartoons were inappropriate, that self-censorship isn’t inherently bad, but that people shouldn’t be forced to self-censor for fear of their lives or the lives of others, that religion should be open to criticism, but that such criticism shouldn’t be gratuitious, racist, or trade in overgeneralizations, that anti-Arab sentiments are rampant in Europe and the U.S. (duh), and that certain Muslim extremists will use any excuse to behave violently and incite others to do so as well. In the end, Denmark, with its Dansk Folkeparti right-wing xenophobes came off looking pretty bad, but Muslims came off looking much, much worse. Their behavior, and the resulting coverage and discussion of it, was perhaps that strongest indictment of Islamic extremism and its ability to infect the minds of people throughout the Muslim world that anyone could have produced. In this case, it was difficult not to see that many Muslims — and in this case, it wasn’t just a few extremists, but huge mobs of people — were behaving very badly in the name of their religion.
In addition to media coverage and frank discussion, there was another response in both Europe and the U.S. to the Muslim reaction to the cartoons, though. This response came almost exclusively from right wing groups (e.g., the Folkeparti’s youth wing) in Europe, and right wing bloggers in the U.S. (e.g., Michelle Malkin). And as you might imagine, given who was involved, this response didn’t involve discussion, but instead used one-upmanship and look-at-me tactics like holding contests to produce even more offensive anti-Muslim/Arab cartoons, or reproducing the cartoons over and over and over again to accompany xenophobic anti-Arab rhetoric. These reactions were, at best, counterproductive. They added nothing to the discussion, and repeatedly illustrated how widespread anti-Arab racism is in the west. A pretty good rule of thumb is that if you want to show that someone’s being a giant ass, it’s best not to try to be one yourself.
The lesson I’m trying to convey is that in cases like that of the Danish cartoons and the response to them, there are two paths one can take: frank, reasoned discussion, or circus-like attention-whoring, and only one is truly effective. While the former causes people to actually think about what’s going on, in all its complexity (and let’s face it, the Danish cartoon situation was very complex, raising all sorts of social, political, ethical, and religious issues), whereas the latter may preach to the choir but is harmful more broadly.
Which brings us to 2008. Last month, as you all know, a student at the University of Central Florida got into a bit of trouble because he took a communion wafer, first back to his seat, and then back to his apartment. Catholics were none too happy about this, and at first responded by filing formal complaints with UCF, and then, once that piece of pond scum Bill Donahue got involved, harassing the poor kid and even issuing death threats. The reaction of Catholics in this case hasn’t been as extreme as the reactions of Muslims in the case of the Danish cartoons, obviously, but if it hasn’t been of the same magnitude, it has turned out to be of the same type: a violent reaction to perceived religious insults. This is unacceptable, and we’d have done well to display their reaction far and wide, and make it clear what Bill Donahue’s role in it was, because inevitably, while the kid may have come off looking like a bit of a naive jerk, the Catholics would have come off looking much, much worse, and we might actually have been able to rationally discuss some of the issues that this case raises (like that double standard mentioned earlier in the post). Once again, we had a choice: rational discussion, or the juvenile attention-whoring characteristic of right-wing xenophobes.
Let’s go back to 2006 for a minute. That’s when I joined ScienceBlogs which, at the time, billed itself as the “world’s largest conversation about science.” Granted, at the time there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of science on ScienceBlogs (science comprised something like 30% of SB’s content), but ScienceBlogs was (and is) a product of Seed Media Group, whose motto is “Science is Culture,” and apparently many of the early ScienceBloggers just forgot the science part and focused on the culture (in the form of politics and religion). Now, Seed has been great over the last year and a half or so, more than doubling their blog total, and many of the blogs they’ve added are almost exclusively science-oriented. But Seed’s biggest blog, the one to which everyone else in the network is inclined to link if they want a traffic boost, and which therefore can have a big influence on the content of the entire network, long ago ceased to be about either science or conversation. Instead, it became a prolonged self-aggrandizing, attention-whoring rant (it’s likely not a coincidence that the proportion of rant to science, and the tone of that rant, grew in proportion to the blog’s traffic).
Now, if we were to take ScienceBlog’s self-description as a conversation about science seriously, we might be inclined to believe that ScienceBlogs would be the home of a rational discussion what happened with the UCF student and the idiot Catholics who harassed him. But in all likelihood, before we started to believe that, we’d be reminded that ScienceBlog’s biggest name is not interested in conversation or rational discussion, and so we would not be surprised that instead of taking the broadly effective route, that blogger chose instead the juvenile tactics of right-wing xenophobes, in order to show that he is, in fact, the biggest, baddest, most anti-religious atheist in all of the intertubes, and to get all sorts of attention both from his loyal epigones and from religious nuts (it’s probably not a coincidence, as well, that the blogger in question is planning on publishing a book sometime soon). There has been a resulting discussion, of course, but instead of focusing on the Catholics and their abominable behavior, the discussion has been about our biggest blogger and his nonsense.
There are dozens of reasons to criticize the behavior of that blogger, perhaps the most salient of which is that it’s never OK to gratuitously attempt to hurt the feelings of large groups of people, with no other reasonable end but to hurt their feelings, but I think the most tragic consequence of said blogger’s behavior is that it pretty much cuts off any discussion of the real issues, and diverts the attention to him. And I find it sad any time the opportuntity for rational discussion of important issues is undercut by adolescent nonsense. And I also find it sad that ScienceBlogs, supposedly a bastion of reason, “the world’s largest conversation about science,” long criticized for being overly liberal in its political orientation, is dominated by an illiberal, anti-intellectual ass whose idea of a rational response is to emulate Michelle Malkin or the Dansk Folkeparti’s youth movement. I feel ashamed to be associated with it, and him.