Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Warning: A very boring political post but something I had to get out of my system. It is rambling and incoherent but once it's said it's said and I can move on with other things.

"The issue of incitement to religious hate is a tiny part of a much broader pattern that we are attempting, collectively, to put together, to create a society where cohesion, tolerance and understanding are natural, where people can settle their differences in ways that don't develop hate and where people feel free to be able to express sensible views and have sensible arguments." - David Blunkett as Home Secretary.

I realise Blunkett hasn’t been Home Secretary for a while, but this isn’t about him. As some of my more moustachioed readers may be aware, I don’t buy into slippery slope arguments. That’s not to say I don’t know a dangerous idea when I see one. The Race and Religious Hatred Bill is dangerous, not because of where it might lead us, but because it is founded on the above, very dangerous, ideas. We’re back on John Stuart Mill again folks;

1. There has never been a really good idea which seemed ‘sensible’ when it was first uttered. This is a hackneyed truism that all nutty fringe groups wheel out when accused of being… nutty fringe groups. However, it is true. It isn’t the case that because the slave-abolitionists were treated as nutcases, today’s nutcases will be tomorrow’s heroes, but some of them may well be. Some of them have got to be, after all, unless this is the absolute peak of civilisation (please God no). There will be new ideas and it seems unlikely that we’re all going to see the sense in them the minute they come out. Even if this wasn’t the case, who is to say what is a sensible view and what is extreme?

2. Often people who expressing extreme views touch upon an element of truth or an important point even though in its entirity their argument doesn't stand up.

3. Even when people are totally wrong, by challenging our arguments they keep them fresh and vital.

These three points can be illustrated rather well with the case of the Animal Rights Movement. There was a time when received opinion did not consider animals to have any moral significance. One interpretation of the Bible puts us in the privileged position of stewardship. Descartes compared animals to automaton without any true experience (they didn’t think therefore they weren’t – oh really Descartes was a tit). It seems very strange that we could ever imagine that animals didn’t have feelings, including those of fear, pain and distress. Isn’t it glaringly obvious?

Now it could be that in the future, we come to realise that it is wrong to treat animals as property and to kill them for food at all, just as we now understand that it is wrong to treat human beings as property to be used, abused and discarded at will. For most people this does not seem like a sensible idea at the moment, but given the cultural turnaround we have made over not entirely dissimilar matters, it is surely not beyond the realms of imagination?

Even if it is perfectly okay to kill animals for food, that is not to say that much of what the Animal Rights Movement says is not entirely valid. One of the reasons I abandoned vegetarianism is that after three months of academic study on the issue and perhaps one too many essays by Peter Singer, it occurred to me that I wasn’t morally disgusted at the idea of killing a wide-eyed fluffy bunny and eating it for my tea. In fact it may be fair to say that Peter Singer instilled me with a zoocidal blood lust but that’s beside the point. However, I also realised more than ever that the way we ‘process’ our meat products is morally reprehensible. My fluffy bunny suffered perhaps a moment’s anticipation and a single instance of pain after a happy life hopping about in the fields *. My Kentucky Fried Chicken had a far worse fate.

And sometimes they get it completely and utterly wrong. One conclusion that Peter Singer’s particular warped brand of utilitarianism leads him to is that some animals have a greater moral status than tiny human babies and some severely impaired adults. This is not even partially correct, but by making such an assertion he challenges us to consider what it is that makes a person worthy of moral consideration and whether indeed there is a hierarchy. By saying “The grass is pink” we are forced to consider how it is we understand the grass to be green.

No this of course has nothing much to do with religion as such, but religion is a just another point of view. Of course religion may be interconnected with ethnicity and culture and when people use the word ‘choice’ they over-simplify the situation. I could not choose to be a Catholic because I could not persuade myself to believe what Catholics believe. My friend Mary could not chose to be an agnostic because she could not persuade herself to believe what I don’t believe. However, there are many other points of view we would find similar difficulty in adopting, none of which are related to my ethnicity or upbringing.

When Mary decided to become a nun I was horrified. But the thing I kept finding myself comparing it to was a friend getting married to someone that I vehemently disapproved of. I might even use the word hate. I hate what I perceive to be the misogyny of the Catholic church, I hate the way that I watch the doctrine sustaining the poverty, over-population and disease pandemics in the Third World upon which it depends to keep the masses faithful. I hate a Church that forbade the Catholic women in Bosnia to use oral contraceptives during a period they were subject to mass-rape, a Church that protected child abusers within their own ranks etc, etc. I don’t hate Catholics; a large proportion of my family are Catholic and many of my friends. They are good people. But that machine, that Church, is fairly abhorrent to me.

[Naturally I didn’t put it like this to Mary. All I could do was to express my disapproval and then go on to offer my full support. She is my friend and her happiness is paramount to me.]

Now, the Pope is a regular reader of this blog and doesn't like it when I say such things. However, simply by out-lawing my feelings - or the expression of them - would not change anything. The only way I could be dissuaded is if somebody sat me down and put me right about any misconceptions I have, argued with me. Of course it might be I like to hate Catholicism and I’m not going to listen, but then, what does this matter? If I were to attack priests or desecrate Catholic graves, I would be breaking existing laws. If I were to rally an angry mob outside the homes of Catholics I would be breaking existing laws. Freedom of speech has always been conditional; you can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre and direct incitement to violence has always been a crime.

But at the end of the day, conflict is natural. Cohesion is not. The law is not about surpressing nature, but about creating a society where everyone is free to express themselves as much as possible without impinging on the freedom of others to express themselves. When Isaiah Berlin talked about liberty he kept reiterating this fact with the concept of The Final Solution; the utopian idea used by very many political and religious movements that through a restriction of certain freedoms, we would all come to see things the same and live in harmony. It is a useful term to bear in mind.

And what are we left with after we have out-lawed ideas that make us feel uncomfortable? Does it stop the bad guys? The previous Incitement to Racial Hatred laws (race at least being something you can’t help) leave us with this:

“The British National Party exists to secure a future for the indigenous peoples of these islands in the North Atlantic which have been our homeland for millennia. We use the term indigenous to describe the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe. The migrations of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse and closely related kindred peoples have been, over the past few thousands years, instrumental in defining the character of our family of nations.” - First paragraph of the Mission Statement, British National Party web-site.

Apart from the fact that the Norman Conquest brought vast numbers of French people onto our soil, the following decades established the first Jewish communities in the UK. There had been Jews here before, but not communities. Thus the cut-off for immigration ends a thousand years ago. Translation:

"We exist to secure a future for the white non-Jewish people of this country."

Fortunately, you’d have to be really thick not to notice the absence of the Romans. But then, what have the Romans ever done for us? Well, there was the aquaduct…

* I didn’t actually catch and kill a fluffy bunny with my bare hands. I just realised I could if I was hungry enough. And could run fast. And didn’t actually look the thing in the eye as I broke its neck. And hadn’t just read Watership Down.


Anonymous said...

I am indeed a great fan of your blog, my child. I especially enjoy the poetry. I must however object to your portrayal of the Catholic Church. We mean well, you know?

You are quite right however about the importance of freedom of speech. As a former member of the Luftwaffe, I know all too well about the dangers of totalitarian ideologies.

And when in 1996 I said that Heavy Metal was the instrument of the devil, I meant as in, the devil has all the best tunes. That was until I listened to Ozzy Osbourne's No More Tears album, at which point I realised that there is much to be said for an eternity of Cliff Richard.

Spiritus sancti, compos mentis, gloria gainer in excelsis dei.

Marit Cooper said...

I have long suspected (based on my meager knowledge of history and the nature of the powers that be) that this would be an opportune moment to infringe our liberties and impose some restrictions. While we are busy worrying about terrorists and fundamentalists, they sneak in a few laws that tie our hands behind our backs. I mean it’s not like they don’t have the media in a tight grip already, is it?

In the seventies and early eighties doctors still performed surgery on infants without anesthesia, based on the argument that infants couldn’t feel pain. They claimed that the reason they cried was that they were cold and hungry, not because they were cutting into them with scalpels! People believe all sorts of things. In some parts of Africa it is believed that if a child, whilst being born, touches the mother’s clitoris, it will die, hence the need for female circumcision. Hey, don’t get me started. Personally I’m not racist at all, I just despise narrow minded bigots of all creeds and colours, regardless. If they could create a law that cured plain old fashioned stupidity I’d be all for it >:)

pete said...

Blimey Goldfish that was some post. It has given me plenty to think about and I have never read anything by this P. Green bloke but I will do now.

I am an on and off non-meat eater. But it is hard when you are a fussy eater in extremis. Only eating very few things that grow in the ground, under 5 to be precise. All hail to Heinz beans and tomato soup.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, Blair and his acolytes terrify me. Anybody with a sense of mission and a conviction that he is right, in his position, would terrify me.

My dislike of killing animals for food is, in part, based on the suffering inflicted on the animal before and during death, but it is also kinda theological. If you think about it historically, what are human beings? We have existed as a species for only a few million years, and as a dominant speices for only a few hundred, with the advent of technology. In marked contrast to other animal species, such as the dinosaurs, who dominated for hundreds of millions of years, and didn;t even have pop-guns.

I accept that it is expedient for us to domesticate and kill other animals, but I do not accept that it is because we have some kind of a right to do so through our superiority. What superiority?

This idea is based on Jewish theology, subsequently taken over by Christianity and Islam, that Man was made, uniquely, in a God's image, and was given the earth as his property. Fine, if one believes that and if one accepts the duties and obligations that membership of such religions places upon him/her.

What makes me unhappy is those who assume these God-given rights over other creatures, while blithely ignoring or flouting everything else inconveniently connected with that God. Heads I win, tails other animals lose.

marmiteboy said...

My ex-girlfriend was and almost certainly, stil is a very pious Catholic. It was her very being and touched upon everything in her life. I once said to her that her religion was an important part of her life and she snapped back (rather forcefully I might add) that it WAS her life.

Now I have no particular problem with that but the teaching (some may call indoctrination) she received did not leave any scope for anyone elses belief. She once gave me an ultimatum that I attend church with her. I went twice even though I'm a complete non-believer and she could understand why I didn't believe. It wasn't a moralistic view point either she was just completely phased by it. It impinged on everything in our relationship,from sex before marriage to her never having any money to buy food or pay the rent 'God will help me' she used to say, well his mysterious ways can be easily explianed by the mugs i.e. me and her friends who had to bail her out.

This kind of believe isn't exclusive to the cathoilc church but it is very dangerous. Poeple with that amount of piety just believe some higher being will help them itn their hour of need and therefore thank their Lord when they are hepled out and not the person helping them. Maybe I'm being unfair because of my experiences but what some religious people do in the name of there faith is quite appalling. I don't need to go on about the wars fought about who's religion is right and who is in league with the devil.

As for the BNP well Nick Griffin is in court today for inciting racial hatred. Lets hope he goes down. He does not proport free speech. f he was in power only white Northern European Protestants would get it, provided who believed in exactly what he did. He is a dangerous man and should be treated as one.

Blimey Goldfish you have started us all off. Cheers ;-)

The Goldfish said...

Charles – I agree with you and have never bought those argument. The same kind of crap was used to justify slavery and still is used to justify the subjugation of women throughout the world - like you say, often by those who have nothing much else to do with the God who awarded such privileges.

I found the entire subject of Animal Rights a difficult one when I came to study it (I was trying to do a Philosophy degree). Nobody seemed to think as I thought. On the one hand you had Singer and others who were saying “Animals are people too” and on the other hand you had folks like Roger Scruton who in one essay stated that horses loved to race especially when they won pretty rosettes.
I came to the belief that I was much cleverer than any of the great minds whose work I was reading because I was the only one who realised that animals are not like people. A fox can no more be murdered by dogs than it can be described as a cunning and sadistic chicken-killer. These words belong to us, to our behaviour and experience.

I am inclined to take a virtue ethics approach. Jeremy Bentham* said, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" Since it is obvious that animals do suffer, and suffering is A Bad Thing, then we must not cause it unnecessarily. Beyond this lies the complex matter of what is and is not necessary, and how bad a Bad Thing the suffering of animals is relative to other Bad Things. But that is my starting point.

* Jeremy Bentham had so much sympathy for the fact his cat had been born a cat with only limited capacity for pleasure that he allowed it to sit in the chair by the fire while he sat in a draft. His favourite was a cat called Langbourne, who was then renamed Sir John Langbourne, and still later the Reverend Sir John Langbourne, D. D. Which suggests the father of utilitarianism was a few bricks short of a load.

The Goldfish said...

Marit – you are quite right. Unfortunately people don’t it applies to them because most of us are unlikely to voice anything that counts as an extremist view – at least not now. And I’m afraid it counts for something that the terrorists who are particularly feared are supposedly Muslim and likely to have a different colour skin. The idea of being held in custody for ninety days without charge is a fairly terrifying prospect, but nobody’s going to do that to me because my skin is white as snow (actually it is today, yuck!).

I hate to use the term ‘politically correct’ because people often apply it to perfectly egalitarian policies, however there is a growing culture where however deeply feelings run, we are being forbidden from expressing views that offend other people. I do believe that we should respect one another and try to get on, but all is lost if we lose the right to piss one another off.

Marmite - I too have met Catholics and other Christians (though it must arise in all religions) who are similar to your ex. For such people, religion is a kind of security blanket. They are the most vocal yet inarticulate defenders of their faith.

But then there's folks like my Mary and also my paternal Granny who are very conscientious in their beliefs. They talk about them openly, allow them to be challenged. They never pass judgement on other people and they have both supported me on my path in life which includes my living in sin with a divorcee. In fact much more than my own atheist parents did at first. They are both prepared to entertain the idea that there are many different ways of living a good life.

However, like you say, absolute belief that is never challenged is a very dangerous thing. The very extremism that this government is anxious about is likely to be promoted by a situation where arguments are forbidden. Even though this bill refers specifically to hatred people are likely to shy away from any open criticism of religions.

It would have an effect similar to forbiding the discussion of the social or medical model on Ouch!

Pete – the trouble with a diet of baked beans is that on the one hand you are preserving living things and on the other you are likely to be adding to the hole in the Ozone layer that threatens us all. ;-)

Anonymous said...


It's not so much that animals are people too, as that people are animals too.

Man makes a big deal about possessing intelligence - other species managed to dominate for millennia without, as far as we know, anything like human intelligence. It took a meteor to wipe out the dinosaurs and most other species around at the time; our intelligence looks like to achieve the same end without any help from outer space.

So what price intelligence?

I am old enough to have observed repeated redifinitions of what puts us above other animals. At one time it was language - then proper observation of other species proved that some do, in fact, possess language. Then it was tool-making. Again, that was based on pure ignorance of the natural behaviour of other species, not only primates. I wonder what the definition of innate superiority involves now?

pete said...

Hi Goldfish, I really eat only a few things and this has caused many contretemps with past partners.

I detest all manner of green leaves cooked or no, whom am I to deprive veggies of their foodstuffs. This woman who shall remain nameless presented before me (as way of a challenge) a whole boiled Birds Eye briquette of spinach with an egg on top and called it eggs Florentine. I would have rather drank from the Arno! She said if I loved her I would eat it. Spinach is the work of the Devil! Don't get me started on Brussel Sprouts. However as an aside there is a brilliant flash sketch named Parp on the eclectech site. Cannot beat beans though;-)

The Goldfish said...

Charles, I think you misunderstand. I don't believe it is a matter of innate superiority but innate responsibility.

For example, there is an injured cat at the side of the road. It is in great distress and has been rendered unable to walk.

Lassy the dog walks past, then Flipper the dolphin and finally Skippy the bush kangaroo. How do they respond to the injured cat? How is it right for them to respond? There's no right or wrong about it. Sometimes non-human animals behave in what we'd call an 'ultruistic' fashion, but they are not 'evil' for failing to do so.

Charles the man walks by, and commits a moral offence if he trundles past and ignores a distressed animal. Knowing this particular man, he will probably personally take the animal to the vet, and if it turns out to be a stray, it may well find itself with a home and food for the rest of its life. If it was me, the best I could do was contact the RSPCA and keep it safe until they arrived. But I couldn't not do anything.

This is the crucial difference between people and (as you rightly correct me) other animals.

Please don't confuse this argument with the idea that we are better than other animals because we are good and faithful to our mates (!) and read books; there is no superiority because the two things are inappropriate to compare.

Only we have responsibility
for the other animals we interact with because through our powers of reason (or intelligence), communication and our technology we have the power to chose to do relieve their suffering, cause their suffering or just let them get on with it either way. That is both th extent and limit of our unique position.

Otherwise, as you say, we're nothing special. Well, except for some of us. ;-)

The Goldfish said...


"If you really loved me you'd eat a plate of spinach."

I don't think I have ever heard that one before, but it has provoked my dirty joke for the day;

Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men were sitting in the garden.

Bill said to Ben, "Flobbadobba-blobbadob."

Ben replied, "If you really loved me, you'd swallow."

pete said...

Brilliant! R.O.F.L. as they write. ;-)

Made my day!

Anonymous said...

Goldfish, I see where you are coming from, but I myself find it difficult to agree to the term "responsibility", because that rather begfs the question, responsible to whom?

I prefer to think in terms of humans having, uniquely as far as we know, free will, ie choice of action. I can choose to be altruistic or not, my cat cannot. You may feel this is a bit of semantic quibbling.

The Goldfish said...

Well as I see it, free will creates moral responsibility. To ourselves, to other people, to other non-human animals and the environment; to all those who might be effected by our actions.

Why are you such a decent fellow?

I realised Philosophy wasn't for me when I had to write an essay about if I was the last man on Earth and knew for certain that there was no-one else alive, whether it would be okay to take a blow-torch to the Mona Lisa.

It wasn't that I couldn't write the essay, I just despaired of having to do so.

James Medhurst said...

As a atheist, I find myself in a curious position with regard to the incitement to religious hatred bill, in that I support it to some extent. You can choose your religion but then some would say that you can choose your sexuality and that does not make it OK to express hatred against a group of society. And crucially, Jews are already protected by race hate laws but Muslims are not. We also have rarely used laws on blasphemy that protect Christians but no other religious groups at all.

Hatred is about expressing violent dislike towards people, not towards institutions or ideas. This bill will not ban people from criticisng the sexual politics of religious fundamentalism but perhaps it will force them to acknowledge that not all religious people can be tarred with the same brush. Maybe they will even see that there is no real difference between Christians, Muslims and atheists who oppose sexual equality. What they have in common is their misogyny not their religion.

I used to believe in freedom of speech but the problem is that it has become framed in such a way that you cannot even criticise the speaker without supposedly infringing it. David Irving infamously claimed that to call him a 'Holocaust denier' for denying the Holocaust was a breach of his fundamental rights. In modern society it is generally frowned upon to call someone an 'evil neo-Nazi c***', even if it is true, which gives the people to whom that applies too much freedom to express hatred without being criticised.

I believe that laws do not always exist to be strongly enforced but to express the values of the society in which we live. For instance, I would not want a 14-year old to be prosecuted for having sex with a 13-year old girl but I do not support the lowering of the age of consent. Children need to be protected from over-zealous moralising but they also need to be protected from exploitative sexual relationships at a young age. The age of consent does not always acheive this but it surely has at least a small beneficial effect.

I don't expect the charge of incitement to religious hatred to be prosecuted very often and those whom it is used against will almost certainly deserve it. However, I hope that it will express the values of the nation. The tolerance of other cultures is fundamentally British just as the tolerance of other religions is fundamentally Christian.