Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Costly Speech

One of my friends, as I've mentioned, is a Palestinian-American. She is currently going after a post-graduate degree and has long been involved in issues of interest to Arabs. For those of you who are wondering, no, that doesn't include carbombs. Honestly, if you thought that, I have to wonder what the fuck you're doing on my blog. I tend to be mean and insulting, but I'm not as fiendishly prejudicial as all that.

In any case, she spent some time in Israel/Palestine this past summer and was asked to deliver a talk on her experiences. To say that she has managed to stir up controversy is something of an understatement. She has been asked to change the title of her talk, which is apparently too controversial for the delicate sensibilities of her fellow students. I understand that the title included the phrase "...a people imprisoned," which might sound controversial, but given Israel's new "Wall Plan," I think it was probably reasonable. To say my friend is livid is an understatement, particularly given the frequency with which Israeli speakers visit her campus, and the openly political manner in which Israeli law and politics are taught in classes. Not to take sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (There's plenty of time for me to piss people off by doing that, I don't need to rush myself) but what the hell is so bad about letting the Palestinians tell their side of the story as they want to tell it?

This was particularly striking given recent events over on the Raving Atheist. I'll be the first one to admit that RA is a caustic guy... frankly, so caustic it makes me look like the voice of sweetness and rationality by comparison, but he's also pretty good about mixing in factual objections with his amusing ad hominem attacks. Still, individuals who are vocally atheist have a lot to look forward to in our society, as the ongoing, and entirely bizarre, discussion with Pete illustrates. I can sympathize with RA's experiences- I spent much of my high school career locked in single-combat with the Southern Baptists. One boy spent hours every day (during my long stay on the bus) trying to convert me. He was not conspicuously successful. Another boy declared when I was a freshman that, by our senior year, I would accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. By our senior year, he was a devout agnostic, and I was considering buying my own copy of Origin of Species. Hey, I'm not evangelical about being an atheist, but I can be fairly effective when provoked.

I guess I've been thinking about speech and censorship, too, because of Seraphim's most recent post over on Megatokyo. She discusses the number of different books that have been challenged or banned throughout history. In many cases, these books are considered classics of literature, philosophy, or even religion. Check out the Forbidden Library if you're curious.

It seems to me that everyone loves having a right to free speech. We all love getting to express our opinions freely, and openly. The problem only comes when other people, who just might disagree with us, get the same priviledge.

I believe in holding public speakers and intellectuals to standards of factual accuracy, and demanding honesty from people, but I don't believe in constraining what people can say. I think it's dangerous, as well as unhealthy, for a society to restrict people's right to speak. Does this mean I support the porn industry? Well... support is too strong a word, but I don't oppose it.

I simply see no reason why anyone, on any side of an issue, should be afraid of someone else's right to disagree. What reason for fear is there? If you have the power to impose laws restricting speech, then you certainly have enough popular support to disagree publicly with your opposition. Further, if someone is speaking lunacy, why should we prevent them from doing so? It's both educational, and fun, to point out just how loony they actually are. What is my entire series "The Insanity Parade" based on, after all? It isn't that I'm not sympathetic to the social program of people who believe in political correctness, I just think that their approach to the problem is too expensive to be borne.

Now someone is probably wondering, given my views on free speech and atheism, if I oppose the teaching of creationism in schools. Well, the answer to that is: no. I don't oppose the teaching of creationism. I think telling students about creationism during their social studies or religion classes/lessons is just fine. Where I draw the line is "creation science," which is only a "science" in the same sense that shoving ten pounds of dynamite up your ass makes YOU a rocket. Creationism is non-scientific, as is "Intelligent Design" theory which has all of the creationism, with none of the intellectual honesty. Like I said: I'm a tremendous supporter of free speech, but I'm also a supporter of honesty and factual accuracy. Creation "science" is possessed of neither.

It is appropriate to wonder about education and free speech, though, because I think my views carry through into my teaching. I like to tell a story about when I TA'ed a gender section. On my first day I was delighted to discover that I had an ultra-Libertarian in my class. It isn't that I'm Libertarian, although I have sympathies with the doctrine, I just enjoy a good argument. He was constantly disagreeing with the authors in our readings, and advancing ideas that were pretty far from the political mainstream. The beauty, though, was that every time he opened his mouth, people started talking. They argued for the readings, they argued against the readings, they brought in outside material, they brought in personal experiences, they got down and dirty with the issues in gender and how they're relevant. What could be better? I'm sure most of them came out of class with their views of gender largely unchanged, but that's hardly new. If, on the other hand, they came away from class with an ability to think about gender as a flexible, and pervasive, social system, then I think I accomplished something much more important. As teachers at the college level I don't think our role is to drill information into our students- it's to teach them new and more useful ways to think about the world. Active debate, which requires disagreement, is an excellent way to do that. Besides, why should we as instructors fear debate with our students? We have graduate degrees, they don't even have undergraduate degrees yet. If we don't know more about the subject than they do, we really need to consider a change of career.

In an open forum for public debate the worst thing that happens is people walk away better thinkers. In a way, I'm grateful for my experiences with the southern baptists in high school. Without that constant opposing force I never would have really figured out what I believe. As I like to say, we grow not through consensus, but through conflict and challenge. Thank you, Southern Baptist Christianity, for making me the devout atheist that I am today!

Think about all this tonight when you watch the presidential debates. Is there any part of those debates that wouldn't be made better if the candidates didn't have to worry about saying something that might be construed as inappropriate? Is there any way that a raucous debate, instead of the scripted slap-fight we usually get, wouldn't be a better way to see the candidates? This is the greatest danger that Kerry faces tonight- that Bush will avail himself of his right to free speech, and Kerry will tread softly, hoping not to offend too many people. There's a line from the television program The West Wing that goes, "The American people like guts... and Republicans have got 'em." I sincerely hope that tonight John Kerry can show the nation that Republicans aren't the only ones. It all comes down to speaking honestly and clearly, and letting the chips fall where they may. It all comes down to free speech.

If you want to contest what someone says, then contest what they say, but don't contest their right to say it.

The speech you save, might just be your own.

It has come to my attention of late that my blog has gotten distressingly serious. I mean, two days ago I wrote an entire post about statistics for crying out loud! Pretty soon I'm going to start publishing accounts of travel through areas under military occupation!

Hmmmm.... now there's a thought.

Anyway, I miss those bright days when I unleashed my insulting humor upon the unsuspecting internet, and hope to fumble my way back there soon. I figure I had better- if I ain't careful I'll start to take MYSELF seriously, and that just won't be good for anyone.

So does this mean that my posts might start being entertaining again? ("Try 'entertaining period'" some of you are thinking) Well, my intentions are rather biased and inconsistent estimators of my actions, and the muse has been a bit capricious of late, but... who knows? I have to be funny just by accident sooner or later.


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