On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.

There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.

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Lady Parts Justice

I’m a big fan of abortion. When politicians say “nobody’s pro-abortion,”* I’m the guy who says, “Fuck you, buddy. I’m pro-abortion.” Anyone who wants an abortion should be able to get one, and I’m not interested in attaching excepts to that statement. Any time a woman wants an abortion and gets one, that’s a win for freedom. Like most anyone, I have various emotional reactions to certain kinds of abortion, some of which seem particularly distasteful, but merely being uncomfortable with something just isn’t an acceptable justification for banning it.

Apparently nobody’s told the GOP that, though, because they keep trying to pass harsher and harsher restrictions on abortion services all over the country. It’s to be expected, I suppose, as a natural consequence of their legal inability to outlaw abortion for religious purposes. (That, unlike having tax money go to birth control, would be a violation of the First Amendment.) Since the Constitution and the Supreme Court have both been entirely clear on the illegality of these bans, they’ve been increasingly trying to do away with abortion by making it practically impossible to get one. That’s a damn problem, and I can’t even conceive of how they still have voters.

(Oh wait. Yes I can: religion. “God says abortion is killin’ babies, so it’s wrong. Let’s support the GOP’s attempts to remove a woman’s right to control her own body to please Jesus!” Yawn.)

That’s why I’m incredibly pleased to see this video:

That video comes to us care of Lady Parts Justice (seriously, check them out), the brain-child of one of the minds behind the Daily Show (aka the best news show on television—and it’s not even a news show). The Daily Show uses humor to connect with people. It takes incredibly serious issues and, almost as if by magic, makes them significantly less depressing. It makes being informed entertaining. Not only does it feel good to know stuff, it feels good to laugh, so combining the two is an excellent strategy for spreading an important message.

And this message is important.  Republicans—and some Democrats, yes, but mostly Republicans—are busily fighting their “culture war” against the liberal, uh, reality, and abortion is just one such battle. As with so many other strategies undertaken by the GOP, the war on choice is an attempt to use government to impose their religious values on the rest of the country. Sadly, however, most Americans don’t appear to be terribly concerned with this marriage of church and state. I find it incredibly hard to maintain apathy in the face of this kind of injustice, but it seems the majority does not share my perspective. (What a shame that is!)

This campaign seems like the perfect way to bridge the gap. The crusade against women’s liberty has been underway for a good many years now, and we on the left are still playing catch-up. Making it fun to fight back against oppression is a great idea, and I commend the people over at Lady Parts Justice for their efforts. I look forward to seeing more of this kind of thing from them. The conservative Christian political wing deserves to be mocked. Turning women into cattle is not okay. The war on rationality is not “legitimate.”

*Okay, sure. Some politicians take the “nobody wants to see more abortions” route. This might be true, assuming you mean “let’s prevent unwanted pregnancies instead of terminating them.” I’m all kinds of in favor of promoting open access to birth control, but not at the cost of restricting access to abortion services. We need both.

Respect my Freedom to Boss You Around!

I’m really sick of believers insisting that their right to religious freedom allows them to force their doctrines on everyone else. Believers: Stop it! What, you don’t think this happens? How about this crap as an example?

Some schools have decided not to allow girls to be offered the vaccine, which protects against a virus spread through intimate contact which causes cervical cancer. They have cited ‘strict Christian principles’ and that the girls ‘do not practise sex outside marriage’ and so do not need the vaccine.”

This is the sort of child abuse that Richard Dawkins rails against—the presumption that the children of religious parents will just magically share their religious beliefs. “Mommy and daddy are idiot literalists, so I’m an idiot literalist too! Yay!” No. This paradigm isn’t even remotely acceptable. For one, parents don’t always send their kids to religious schools because they’re explicitly religious; sometimes, parents do so because the schools have a better reputation than public schools, and neither the parents nor the children actually practice the school’s preferred religion. All of that aside, do you know how successful “Don’t have sex!” sex education is for kids? It completely isn’t.

Most people will have sex before they die. Most people will either sleep with more than one person or sleep with someone who has slept with more than one person. (Feel free to disagree if you’re in some weird situation where most of the people you know deviate from this statistic.) What does this mean? It means that denying a vaccine because “true” Christians don’t have sex with anyone at all ever except for their spouse is completely, hopelessly wrong.

In sum, this boils down to the school announcing, “We’re adopting a hostile stance to our students to actively punish any girl who has sex for violating the brand of Christianity that we’re trying to impose on her.”

The UK isn’t alone in this, of course. I wrote previously about Catholic resistance to birth control coverage even for non-Catholics. This hasn’t gone away. These Christians still want to impose their absurd stance of contraception as an immorality on everyone else. When government agencies have illegally endorsed Christianity by giving preferential treatment to Christian services or hosting Christian iconography and secular organizations have lobbied to have these violations of everyone else’s religious freedom, the Christian persecution complex has kicked into high gear. They should be free, those who object to secular governance say, to have their religion displayed in public spaces, without even the slightest consideration of what effect this will have. The message implicit in these sorts of government-sponsored religious displays is that the US government endorses that religion above others (hint: it doesn’t and may not). More globally, however, the message is loud and clear: “My religion is superior, and you should obey it.

“Religious freedom” does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that you are permitted to force me to abide your dogmas. In case you were wondering why I get angry about the pervasive infection of politics by religion, all of this (and more!) is why. You should probably be angry too.

Secular Morality and the Foundations of Governance

Religious morality is anything but. When compared to evidence-based approaches, dogmatic adherence to scripture is less productive at best and more likely to be actively destructive. There is no good reason to prefer religious doctrine over scientific approaches. History overflows with examples where religious solutions to problems have succeeded only in making the situation worse, and knowingly perpetuating this pattern is indefensible. If there were any evidence for god claims or any good reason to believe one religion were true, this might not be the case. Thankfully, there is no such evidence, so we have no compelling reason to construct anything but secular models for society. (To the circular argument that says, “the Bible must be true because the Bible says the Bible was written by God, so God exists like the Bible says, so we have to obey God exactly how the Bible says,” I respond only with this.)

What would a society based on secular values look like? To paint that picture, we must first identify the foundational guiding ethic. Here’s my attempt at doing so:

  1. That which does no harm is not bad and must not be forbidden.
  2. That which contributes to the betterment of society is preferable to that which does not.
  3. That which causes harm must resisted and responded to in proportion to the harm done.

I can’t think of anything to add to this list, but there might still be ways to improve it. (I’ll update it as suggestions merit revision.)  These rules govern the relative morality of any given action or policy, and a society that sought to pursue them as core considerations of governance would be superior to one adhering to an alternate agenda.

What follows is a somewhat long-winded consideration of good governance. This might not be everyone else’s cup of tea, but I got into a somewhat lengthy discussion of politics earlier today, and I’d like to assemble my thoughts on the subject.

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