Tag Archives: racism
In Sunday’s Atlantic, James Fallows “Just for the record: anti-Mormonism is bigotry, too.”
To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry. Exactly as it would have been to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity. . .
But for people to come out and say that they won’t back a candidate because he’s Mormon and therefore a “cult” member is no better than saying “I’d never trust a Jew” or “a black could never do the job” or “women should stay in their place” or “Latinos? Let ’em go back home.” Maybe it makes things more “honest” for people to be open about their anti-Mormonism and…
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Let me first describe what I consider to be anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia.” “Islamophobia,” properly construed—and of course I’m the construer—is simple bigotry against Muslims: dislike of an individual simply because he or she adheres to Islam. Now if that individual has invidious beliefs: oppression of women, hatred of gays, favoring murder for apostates, and so on, then I see no problem with disliking such a person. While far more Muslims than we think have such views (see the recent BBC poll), it’s simply unfair to dislike someone before you know their views, simply on the basis of what religion they claim, and even more unfair to write off or discriminate against everyone who adheres to a faith.
That, however, is different from writing off the faith as a whole, which I see as perfectly valid and not a form of bigotry. Islam, like all religions, is a delusion, its beliefs about the cosmos…
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Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.
Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.
Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.
Hanson has pushed the myth that vaccination causes autism, and wants a royal commission into the “corruption” of climate science, declaring that “Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money”.
At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group who deny anthropogenic climate change and insist the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.
Conspiracism in public life
This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.
But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the 90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians,” Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.
Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” are advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt disassociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”
One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.
Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.
In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the Prime Minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.
Should Gove get the gig, his counterpart across the pond come January 2017 may well be one Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism (and has given voice to suspicions that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that Ted Cruz’ father was involved the Kennedy assassination).
And of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Denis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a Commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.
All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics,” the condition in which political discourse is no longer constrained by norms of truth-telling. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem. To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth, and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it. Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.
But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?
Naïve Reason won’t save us
One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:
Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.
You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology.” But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language, and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either. Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully-formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history, and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.
Distributed knowledge and trust
While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise is nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.
Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, and so you have to take more and more on trust. Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.
The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave.” If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge, and the reliance on others it involves.
That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.
But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.
Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities, and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.
Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second fifteen minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.
On Sunday I came across an article in the International Business Times, reporting a posthumous publication by slain Charlie Hebdo editorial director Stephane Charbonnier. The book, completed two days before the attack that killed him and nine of his colleagues, denounces the western media, politicians and those commentators who mute their criticism of Islam for fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’. “By what twisted logic”, Charbonnier writes, “is humor less compatible with Islam than with any other religion? … If we let it be understood that we can laugh at everything except certain aspects of Islam because Muslims are much more susceptible than the rest of the population, isn’t that discrimination?”
In the knowledge that the poor man is now dead, a victim of religiously-motivated killers, and with news of the Melbourne arrests dominating the headlines all weekend, I found the article both poignant and pertinent.
And then, driving in Brisbane on Sunday morning, I listened to an ABC radio discussion of the Melbourne anti-terrorism operation. The main theme of the discussion? Was it appropriate to interrogate Islam’s messages, or was the Victorian premier who had that morning declared that these young men are “not people of faith. They don’t represent any culture. This is not an issue of how you pray or where you were born… this is simply evil: plain and simple”, correct to steer public attention and anxiety away from the islamic connection?
We all understand the reasons why our politicians urge caution in addressing the issue of Islam and its interaction with democratic, secular cultures such as Australia’s. No-one wants to see moderate muslims scapegoated or blamed for the crimes of a few extremists.
We understand that the particular interpretation of the Quran which fuels the global jihad is not shared by muslims as a whole. There are extreme Christians too, and Hindus and even Buddhists, who advocate violence in the name of their respective deities. The history of Christianity is awash with conquest and innocent blood. The non-violent, non-extremist practitioners of these religions are not responsible for the crimes of the past, or for the actions of present-day radicals on the periphery. The same point applies to muslims, many of whom have spoken eloquently and forcefully against jihad.
We also know that those young men and women, often from secure middle class, moderate backgrounds, who choose to join the jihad do so for many reasons other than the religious.
But for that reason, too, analysis of Islam’s vulnerability to such hijacking should not be interpreted as an attack on muslims as a whole, or as ‘islamophobia’. On the contrary, as Charbonnier writes, failure to scrutinize Islam in the media and elsewhere, in the same way that we should scrutinize all religions and belief systems, is itself a kind of discrimination. It patronises Islam to say that its adherents are too sensitive to be treated with the same intellectual rigor and scrutiny as, say Christianity or Scientology.
Reluctance to draw attention to and satirise the absurdities of Islam – and all religions are absurd in their own ways – will in the end breed more public anger than it prevents. Moreover, it is an important sign of acceptance of democratic political culture that Islam’s leaders, even if they disapprove of what is said, should embrace the satirist and the heretic alike, without feeling the need for a fatwa. Christians had to swallow Life Of Brian, after all, though many church leaders called for bans. How offensive would we think it today, had bishops and cardinals called for the deaths of the Monty Python team?
So let’s be clear. Critiquing Islam in the media and elsewhere is not ‘islamophobia’.
It’s not racism, since being a muslim has nothing to do with ethnicity.
It’s not anti-muslim, since many muslims are critical of the extremists in their ranks, and ashamed of how the name of their religion has been tarnished.
It is, rather, a legitimate and increasingly necessary engagement with a uniquely (for our time) toxic variant of a belief system which, whether or not one disagrees with its tenets, can easily coexist with secular society in the same way that other religions do in a multicultural society. Anything less than vigorous, skeptical media discussion of those beliefs, including its still-medieval attitudes to women and homosexuality, does moderate muslims no favors.