Who is silencing whom about what?

By Vic Rosenthal

Everyone by now is sick of hearing that critics of Israel are ‘silenced’ by accusations of antisemitism. As Melanie Phillips recently said (listen to Phillips’ wonderful speech in Melbourne here), it seems like one can hear nothing but attacks on Israel lately.

However, this raises an interesting question: are there really cases in which accusations of hate speech cause debate on an important issue to be shut off, or silenced, as Mearsheimer/Walt, Jimmy Carter, Alternative Jewish Voices, Brit Tzedek, ad infinitum are saying?

The answer is definitely yes, although it’s not the critics of Israel that are silenced. And as Phillips suggests, it is due to a blurring of definitions that leads to an unjustified broadening of our concept of intolerance and intolerant speech.

Let’s start with a paradigm case of intolerance. Here in California, a store owner refuses to hire a prospective employee of Mexican descent because, he says, “Mexicans are lazy and they steal”. Everyone agrees that this is a case of intolerance and that it’s reprehensible.

Why? For at least two reasons:

The characteristics being attributed are moral characteristics, and a person is assumed to have a choice about how he behaves. Therefore it is not a fact about Mexican-ness that a Mexican is moral or not, it’s a fact about individuals which individuals have the power to modify. So this kind of discrimination is unjust.

It’s also unjust to discriminate on the basis of characteristics that are not objective properties of a person. So if I said “I won’t hire Mexicans because I just don’t like them” this is obviously a statement about me and not about Mexicans; so it’s unjust. Lazy’ and ‘larcenous’ are only in part objective concepts; they also tell us a great deal about how the person applying them thinks about the subject.

Now suppose that I’m recruiting marathon runners. Suppose I have a choice between southern Europeans and Kenyans. I pick the Kenyans, sight unseen. Is this unjust discrimination? No, it’s just a reasonable generalization from experience. I know that many great runners come from Kenya, and it is quite probable that there is something about the genetics and environment of the Kenyan population that makes it more likely that a Kenyan will be a great runner than, say, an Italian. There is no moral concept and no subjectivity involved.

A third way in which a concept may be inappropriate for generalization is if some idea of ‘worth’ or ‘deservingness’ is built into it. For an egregious example, consider “the President should be a man because it’s fitting that our leaders be men”.

Here’s a real example of the latter two issues: Dr. John Bardeen argued that race affects intelligence by looking at IQ test scores. He was accused of racism. Was what he wrote actually racist? Certainly if he had said that race affects the ability to live in hot (or cold) climates, it would not be racist. The problem is that ‘intelligence’ as we commonly use the word is not entirely an objective concept — there is a degree of approval that is implied by saying that someone is intelligent and disapproval of the opposite. There is also an implicit granting of privilege to the more ‘intelligent’ among us (other things being equal, should the more or less intelligent person be President?). If anyone thought of intelligence as nothing more than the ability to do well on certain tests there would be no problem, but of course the tests are supposed to measure something, something which attributes value to the person.

The distinctions above are not always easy to make, so many people have made their lives easier by simply assuming that any kind of generalization on the basis of race constitutes intolerance. But this is obviously false.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. There are laws against discrimination which say that other things being equal, one must not show preference on the basis of race, sex, gender identification, religion, ethnic origin, etc. in such things as housing, employment, public accommodations. These are good laws because there is no reason — except prejudice — that those characteristics should make a difference in the specified context. But what seems to have happened is that people have conflated the already too-broad prohibition of generalizations with the categories from these laws and have come up with the following:

Any generalization on the basis of race, sex, gender identification, religion, ethnic origin, etc. constitutes intolerance. And to asserting such a generalization is intolerant speech, which is not allowed (some countries actually have laws prohibiting some kinds of intolerant speech, but in the US it’s just forbidden by social convention).

As a result, it is considered intolerant to criticize elements of a religious belief, even if those elements are highly political, or even if they directly contradict the values of the broader society. I think it should be clear where I’m going with this.

There are elements of Islam, such as the status of women, the treatment of non-Muslims, and the imposition of Muslim values on the larger society, which directly contradict the values of Western democracies. And there are positions held by a great many Muslims (for example, the belief that violent actions are justified when Islam is ‘insulted’) that are unacceptable and should be criticized.

Phillips uses the UK as an example of a nation that is under a great deal of pressure to conform to the demands of a Muslim minority and to change the fundamental nature of its society to do so (e.g., to allow family issues of Muslims to be governed by sharia, to allow women to testify in court with their faces covered, etc.). However, open discussion of these issues can not take place because it is viewed as intolerant. So the nation continues to move in the direction of more and more accommodation to Muslim principles.

This is a direct result of speech critical of Islam being silenced, and debate about the response of the nation to the Muslim minority being cut off.

We need to understand that critical discussion of religious beliefs is not a priori intolerant, and that — especially when believers imply that the larger society must change to accommodate them — it must not be silenced, but rather encouraged.

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