Free Speech – A Culture of Tolerance

Tara Henley’s recent podcast episode with Danish free speech advocate Jacob Mchangama was fascinating and encouraging. A quote from Orwell came up that I hadn’t heard before, and it’s worth emphasizing:

The relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

The fact that free speech is not just a legal matter is a vitally important one, because those who restrict free speech to the minimum legal interpretation are actively undermining—wittingly or not—the culture that actual free speech depends on.

Mchangama brought up the example of Athens, which enjoyed a cultural free speech called parrhesia which, Mchangama said, “means something like fearless or uninhibited speech.” Although there was no legal basis for parrhesia, it “permeated the Athenian democracy” and let to a “culture of tolerance”.

Clearly a culture of tolerance is not sufficient. Just ask Socrates. But at the same time legal free speech rights aren’t sufficient, either. The historical examples are too numerous to cite, especially in repressive 20th century regimes that often paid lip service to human rights (including the late-stage USSR). The laws were there on paper, but a lot of good it did anyone.

The Death of Socrates - Wikipedia
When the culture of tolerance wanes and there’s no legal recourse…

Mchangama went on to say that “if people lose faith in free speech and become more intolerant than laws will reflect that change and become more intolerant.” So fostering this culture is vital both to preserve the rights on paper and to ensure those legal rights are actually honored in the real world. So, “how do we foster a culture of free speech?” Mchangama asked. His response, in part:

It is ultimately down to each one of us. So those of us who believe in free speech have a responsibility of making the case for free speech to others, and do it in an uncondescending way, and also one which doesn’t just rely on calling people who want to restrict free speech fascists or totalitarians… [We must] take seriously the concerns of those who are worried about the ugly sides and harmful sides of free speech.

This is a tough balance to strike, but I want to do my part. So let me make two points.

First, the popular line of argument that dismisses anything that’s not a technical violation of the First Amendment is unhelpful. Just as an example, here’s an XKCD cartoon (and I’m usually a huge fan) to show what I mean.

The problem with this kind of free speech minimalism is that its intrinsically unstable. If you support free speech but only legally, then you don’t really support free speech at all. Wittingly or not, you are adopting an anti-free speech bias. Because, as Orwell and Mchangama observe, a legal free speech right without accompanying support is a paper tiger with a short life span.  

Second, the question isn’t binary. It’s not about whether we should have free speech. It’s about the boundaries of tolerance—legal and cultural—for unpopular speech. To this end, Mchangama decries use of pejoratives like “social justice warrior” for those who want to draw a tighter boundary around what speech is legally and culturally permissible.

I’ve used the SJW term a lot. You can find plenty of instances of it here on this blog. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with it because I don’t want to use a pejorative, but I wasn’t sure how else to refer to adherents of the post-liberal “successor ideology.”

Maybe that decision to use SJW was understandable, but I’m rethinking it. Either way, the reality is that I’ve imbibed at least some of the tribal animus that comes with the use of the term. I have—again, you can probably find old examples here on this blog—characterized my political opponents by their most extreme examples rather than by the moderate and reasonable folks who have genuine concerns about (in this context) how free speech can negatively impact minorities.

I am not changing my position on free speech. Like Mchangama, I strongly believe that the benefits of a broadly tolerant free speech culture greatly outweigh the costs for the disempowered. But that doesn’t mean there are no costs.

Admitting that it’s a tradeoff, that critics have legitimate concerns, and that the question isn’t binary will—I hope—make me more persuasive as a free speech advocate. Because I really do believe that a thriving culture of free speech is vitally important for the health of liberal democracies and everyone who lives within them. I do not want people to lose that faith.

The Dying Art of Disagreement, or how to disagree well.

Excellent NYTimes op-ed by Bret Stephens worth the full read, but here are some key passages.

To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere.

What a lovely way to think of it.

Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.

These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries.

Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.

In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.

[Emphasis mine.]

According to a new survey from the Brookings Institution, a plurality of college students today — fully 44 percent — do not believe the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects so-called “hate speech,” when of course it absolutely does. More shockingly, a narrow majority of students — 51 percent — think it is “acceptable” for a student group to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. An astonishing 20 percent also agree that it’s acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking.

Well that’s bitterly disappointing.

That’s because the case for same-sex marriage is too often advanced not by reason, but merely by branding every opponent of it as a “bigot” — just because they are sticking to an opinion that was shared across the entire political spectrum only a few years ago. Few people like outing themselves as someone’s idea of a bigot, so they keep their opinions to themselves even when speaking to pollsters. That’s just what happened last year in the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, and look where we are now.

Shaming people doesn’t generally change their minds; it only makes them more difficult to identify, predict, or actually persuade.

One final point about identity politics: It’s a game at which two can play. In the United States, the so-called “alt-right” justifies its white-identity politics in terms that are coyly borrowed from the progressive left. One of the more dismaying features of last year’s election was the extent to which “white working class” became a catchall identity for people whose travails we were supposed to pity but whose habits or beliefs we were not supposed to criticize. The result was to give the Trump base a moral pass it did little to earn.

It’s a game two can play but it’d be great if no one did.



Campus Free Speech Crisis a Myth?

The WaPo has an article claiming that there is no free-speech crisis, and providing stats to back up the claim. The article did not convince me. Here’s why.

It’s Not Just About Free Speech

The decline of free speech on college campuses is not the root problem; it’s a concerning symptom of a broader malady. In particular, the folks who are concerned about this issue[ref]And it’s a long list, including folks from left, right and center, which I’ve researched in pieces like this one.[/ref] posit that there’s a tendency of a radical minority to shut down political discourse as a political tactic. Although a lot of problems in the country are bipartisan, this one isn’t. It’s a peculiarly left-wing malady that reflects a growing contempt by many on the modern left for the values of liberalism that once defined it. I mean liberal in the old sense of the word, as in emphasizing individualism.

This isn’t an accusation from the outside, by the way, it’s an avowed element of one of the core intellectual components of Critical Race Theory. One definition states flatly that “CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy.”[ref]This isn’t some random, convenient definition I found. It’s the #2 search result for “critical race theory” and comes from the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Not sure Kimberlé Crenshaw, the founder of Critical Race Theory itself, had anything to do with it, but she is a professor at the UCLA law school.[/ref]

So it’s not that there’s this explicitly anti-free speech trend in college campuses. It’s that there’s a virulent new ideology that uses attacks on free speech as a first resort.

Not All Speech is Equal

This being the case, looking for general survey results that attack free speech is misguided on multiple levels. First, it’s possible that the anti-free speech crowd are too small to register much in surveys but still powerful enough to create a climate of fear. In fact, that’s basically exactly what people concerned about this issue are saying. Second, even if you can get a survey with enough granularity to pick up on this minority, they aren’t opposed to free speech in all cases, but only in some cases. If you ask them about the wrong cases, you won’t measure anything at all.

Bearing that in mind, what kind of survey does the WaPo piece rely on? One that asks whether or not gay people should be allowed to give a speech. I kid you not. That, and an example about an anti-American Muslim cleric, are the leading examples. If you wanted to design survey results to be willfully blind to the actual concern, you couldn’t do better than this.

What are We Trying to Measure?

Speaking of willfully blind, the last section[ref]I’m skipping the second section because my problems with it are minor in comparison[/ref] cites research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that there were only 35 no-platforming attempts in 2017 with only 19 being successful. So, “In a country with over 4,700 schools, that hardly constitutes a crisis.”

The meaningless of this statistic is impressive, given that Jeffrey Adam Sachs went to the trouble of finding and citing a dataset, but apparently not copy-pasting it into Excel to do some super-basic charting. Your first question might be, “Well, 35 attempts in 2017 doesn’t sound too bad, but is there a trend?” That would be anybody’s first question, I’d think, and here’s what that chart looks like:

Well, gee. There’s an upward trend if ever I saw one. And remember, we said that this was an ideologically-biased trend. FIRE helpfully sorts the no-platforming attempts into left and right, so what does that breakdown look like?

We’ve got a more or less flat line from the right, and a pronounced, multi-year upward trend for the left starting a little less than 10 years ago. It’s almost as though all those people who are worried about a disturbing new anti-free speech trend coming from the political left might have something in the data to substantiate their concerns! Again: the same dataset that Sachs cited (but apparently didn’t really look at).

This doesn’t go directly to Sachs’ claim that 35 incidents out of 4,900 universities isn’t enough to care about, but that’s a questionable assumption if ever there was one. First of all, I’m curious as to what Sachs’ threshold is. How many times do left-wing radical have to shut-up speakers they don’t like in specifically the places ostensibly designated for discussing controversial, diverse ideas before it becomes a problem?

And then there’s the fact that this doesn’t reveal anything about how many controversial speakers never get invited at all because administrators don’t want to deal with protests? Counting free speech in terms of protests is fundamentally a strange concept. I would expect both a libertarian utopia and an Orwellian dystopia to have essentially zero protests, so what does the absence of protests say about free speech? Only that it’s not an issue. When it’s as prevalent as the air we breath, no one protests. And when it’s completely repressed, no one protests.

But when free speech is in a transitional period–away from or towards repression–well that’s when I’d expect to see a spike.

And keep in mind: there’s a lot more going on than just no-platforming. One of the most important functions of no-platforming is not only to dissuade controversial speakers from visiting the campus, but to create a climate of ideological intolerance and intimidation that keeps ordinary students from speaking their minds, something that is going on, as Sachs concedes: “Very conservative students also tend to report that they are less comfortable expressing themselves in the classroom than very liberal students.”

Final Thoughts

Some folks might not like that I’ve singled out the left in this piece, especially when I try to be even-handed. I get that. I do try to be even-handed. That’s not going to change. This post doesn’t represent a new, angrier, more partisan turn for me. This just happens to be one, specific, exceptional case where the cards don’t break evenly. The left has a bigger problem here.

But that doesn’t mean the right doesn’t have one! You could easily say that Trump’s populism and the entire Alt-Right is nothing but the right’s attempt to catch up with the left’s new-found identical politics. And you’d be right. And, lamentably, the right is a fast learner in this regard. It could very well be that–shortly–the right will have caught up with its own radical fringe of anti-free speech zealots.

Whether or not you call this a “crisis” is just semantics. What does seem evident is that there is a rise in no-platforming protests, that it is stemming primarily from the left, and that it is happening at the same time as a tide of research indicates ideological discrimination on campuses is widespread and pernicious for both students, professors, and research. For more on that, just check up on the Heterodox Academy’s problem statement.

Speaking on campus and the ctrl-left

Update: the full text of the speech is now online on its own post.

My university is home to a controversial Confederate War memorial.

It is a bronze sculpture of a college student carrying a rifle, commemorating the students at my university who left their studies and went to fight in the American Civil War for the Confederacy. On the base are three inscriptions, the middle of which shows the student in class, hearing the call of a woman representing duty urging him to fight. The side inscription speaks of honor and duty.

The statue has always been controversial, but recent events have brought the controversy back.

The university is holding an open panel, inviting the general public to share their thoughts. You just had to register, and the first 25 get to go.

Well, I have some thoughts on the monument, and I wanted to share them. So I signed up, and I wrote a speech (exactly 3 minutes in length), and I’ve been practicing it. On Wednesday, I anticipate getting to deliver the speech.

I would be pretty foolish to not be worried. Actually, on an issue this incendiary, I am pretty foolish to want to speak out at all.

For starters, there’s a chance my talk could anger white supremacist groups.

I am a white man with pale skin and reddish/blondish hair. I am married to a beautiful woman from Costa Rica, with caramel skin and these gorgeous black eyes you can just get lost in. We don’t have children yet, but we are both excited to meet them. I know they will be beautiful, like their mother. I hope my daughters look like her, with her dark skin and dark eyes and her raven black hair.

If you listen to what white supremacist groups actually say these days, then you’d know this is their raison d’être. They refer to it by the moronic title “white genocide” — the “diluting” of the “white race” through marriage of white people with people of other races.

Me and my family are the main thing that white supremacists march against.

In the speech I have planned, I think I make it clear that I consider the cause of the Confederacy in the American Civil War to be an unworthy cause — it was certainly not worth the lives of the men who died for it.

That might anger white supremacists, who would already have reason to despise my family.

But, I’m not afraid of angering white supremacists; they’re evil, but they don’t frighten me. Because I know they are a powerless group of isolated and outcast individuals with little to no social standing in their own communities, who are resorted to anonymous online forums for human contact. They are pathetic, and I’m not enough of a coward to shrink away from shadows in a basement.

White supremacy is, of course, evil. It cost me nothing to say that, and means nothing when I do say it, as everyone either agrees with it already, or is a white supremacist and doesn’t care what society thinks about them.

White supremacy is also stupid. It is lazy thinking. It is the kind of mental shortcut that the feeble-minded rely on. It is the sort of excuse that the weak-willed cower to, lacking the testicular fortitude to face their own inadequacies. It’s the kind of pseudo-intellectualism the internet is famous for, citing poorly analyzed statistics, when all it would take is meeting one normal, middle-class African American to see the fatuity of it all — that blacks and whites are the same race, because there is only the one race of Adam.

My comments might make them mad, but what are they going to do? Make memes about me?

There is also a chance my speech could anger Progressives on the ctrl-left. Actually, probably a much bigger chance. And that does scare me.

It scares me so much that I’m actually considering if I even want to speak at all. I have a speech written, and I’ve been practicing it, and I’ve shopped it with a number of friends, and I’ve made edits and timed it perfectly. But I’m thinking of not doing it at all.

I’m afraid of what the ctrl-left could do to me.

What is the ctrl-left? The label is a take on the alt-right designation, though the ctrl-left have been around for a lot longer. Maybe since the Bush administration. They are a political activist class — that is, they are a class of people with nothing else to do but be politically active. They are employed in universities, shutting down conservative voices. They are employed in news stations, selectively editing narratives and choosing which stories to give press time. They are employed at online opinion magazines, and spend all day opining on politics and culture. They are employed in Starbucks, and then spend 14 hours a day on twitter and tumblr investigating the lives of people they disagree with, trying to have them removed from their jobs, or shut down their youtube, facebook, or twitter to prevent them from sharing in electronic public forums. They are employed in tech companies enforcing “community standards” with bans and post removals, which on platform after platform seems to conveniently mean removing opinions on the right of American politics.

The ctrl-left, in essence, want to control what you are allowed to say, and punish you when you say what you are not.

The most recent explosion of this movement has been in antifa, the group of emotional children using acts of literal street violence to suppress and silence dissident voices in the public sphere — which is to say, they are a group of fascists. These jackbooted thugs have been taking to the streets, punching people in the face, smashing up their campuses in temper tantrums, setting fires, and generally acting exactly like the goosestepping authoritarians they are in order to stop people from saying anything that they don’t think people should be able to say anymore.

This latest expression of the ctrl-left doesn’t particularly worry me. I can take physical violence. I can take being punched in the face, or maced, or beaten with a club. I would consider it an honor, actually. Make my day.

What does worry me are the online Social Justice Warriors in the ctrl-left who have nothing better to do with their lives, apparently, than to seek new ways to punish people for wrongthink.

I work in academia. Tenured professors cannot get fired for refusing to attend their own classes for two years, but tenured professors have been fired for daring to injure the precious emotions of the ctrl-left. I’m a mere, lowly teaching assistant. I could lose my job, or be dismissed from school. I could be made unhirable in colleges and tech companies.

If my speech offends the wrong person, they could look to dig up all kinds of stuff on me.

It wouldn’t even be very hard to dig up stuff on me. For most of my life, I was a pretty terrible jerk. Just ask anyone who knew me in high school. Since high school, I have been slightly tolerable. If you had nothing to do but look for reasons to say crap about me, you could find crap to say about me. And the ctrl-left has absolutely nothing else to do.

But even if they can’t find dirt on me, the very act of disagreeing with their orthodoxy is a firable offense. They have power in universities and companies to crush whoever displeases them; and not only do they have it, but they use it.

I know this, so I generally go about my day and just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut. My fellow students don’t have to keep their mouths shut, because they affirm the accepted dogmata of our thought guardians.

I let them talk and express opinions I disagree with and laugh at people who think the exact things I think and endorse ideologies I completely reject and say nothing, because I just want to get out of here alive, get my PhD, and maybe once I have a job I can rely on, maybe then I’ll be able to breathe again.

And the crux of the story is that I’m just sick of it. I am sick and tired of shutting up. I am done with being expected to receive with full docility the ramblings of this tumblr magisterium. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t speak my mind without retaliation and blowback, while others can express their politics unafraid.

I’m done. I’m done being shut up.

Realistically, I can probably expect nothing. I’m probably over-worrying myself. It’s unlikely anyone will really take notice. It’s an indoor event with a few dozen speakers, and who really wants to attend a meeting like that unless you’re speaking? Local news might pick it up, and they might run two seconds of my three minute speech (probably selectively edited to make it sound like I’m saying something completely opposite of what I’m saying), and then that’s probably it. Maybe some person I know might notice and say something, maybe a student would say they heard I spoke or something, but that’s about it.

In a rational universe, maybe that’s all there needs to be about it. I can just say what I think, people can hear it and agree or disagree with it, we can have back-and-forth, and then we go on our merry ways.

But this is not a rational universe, so who knows what I can expect.

(Authors’s Note and General Disclaimer: These are not the only two groups of people with opinions in this country. There are people opposed to the monument who are not part of the ctrl-left and who want civil dialogue and peaceful protest to lead the change. There are people in favor of the monument who are neither white supremacists nor part of the alt-right, and who want all people to be treated with the dignity due all human individuals. There are people on the left who also champion free speech, such as the ACLU, because free speech is not a partisan concern but the birthright of humanity. I know these people exist, because I know them; they are my family and friends and neighbors. With all of these people, I hope to see the American spirit of passionate but nonviolent engagement in the marketplace of ideas continue to drive political discourse. To the ctrl-left and alt-right, I pray that God has mercy on you and grants you repentance from your hatred, violence, and folly.)

About the University of Chicago and Free Speech

University of Chicago, Harper Library. Photo by Rick Seidel. (CC BY 2.0)

Let me give you some background: I’m one of those guys who is very skeptical of the impact of contemporary social justice activists[ref]The more common term is “social justice warrior,” but I’m not using it because it’s intentionally pejorative.[/ref] on free speech. One of the most-read posts I’ve ever published to Difficult Run was my manifesto on the topic: When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice. I stand by it.

So when news broke that the University of Chicago had sent out a letter to students warning them that there’d be no “safe space” or “trigger warning” shenanigans, you might think that I’d feel a little sense of triumph, or at least relief. And don’t get me wrong, it is (for the most part), a good letter! For example:

[O]ne of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression… Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

First, there are some substantive problems with the letter, which Ken White (writing at PopeHat, which has long been critical of social justice activists) detailed in a post two days ago: How The University of Chicago Could Have Done A Better Job Defending Free Speech. It’s a good post, and you should read it. White presents a model of what a thoughtful, principled defender of free speech would have clarified in the Chicago letter.

Second, and this is what I want to focus on, is the broader context. And the broader context is that “thoughtful” and “principled” sadly do not describe the most prominent voices who have been critical social justice activists. Consider Breitbart, which has long been on the vanguard of combating the social justice activists and is becoming the focal point of the alt-right movement. Well, kudos to Breitbart for getting that right, but they also happen to be deeply in the pocket of Donald Trump (Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon just came on board as the new campaign manager) and have a penchant for catering to the least thoughtful and least principled audience on this issue.[ref]I’ve recently written about that as well.[/ref]

To some extent, this is unavoidable. Although it’s a war fought with words and reputations rather than a war fought with bullets and lives, it’s still a very nasty fight. Truth–especially as it relates to nuance, moderation, or context–went out the window a long time ago as far as the mos zealous combatants are concerned. I’ve watched first-hand as people who entered this arena with the noblest of intentions were radicalized by the vicious attacks (often directed not only at thems and their livelihoods, but their spouses and children) to the point where they now engage in the same kind of spiteful attacks that they used to decry. It’s been so sad to watch. There’s a feeling of tragedy to it all. I’m not being judgmental. I don’t know if–had I lived through the stresses that they faced–I could have done any better.

Does it give me second thoughts? Does it make me reconsider whether my own position–very, very suspicious of social justice activism and it’s impact on free speech and also on actual social justice–is warranted? Yes, it does. But then I read a piece like this one from Vox: UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power. In it, Kevin Gannon baldly defends the practice of students rising up to protest unpopular speakers:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos.

Well no, in fact, calling Murray a “racist charlatan” and characterizing his career as being centered on “social Darwinist assertions that certain ‘races’ are inherently inferior to others” (as Gannon writes in his piece) is exactly what I’d expect from an “intellectual gestapo.” Murray is controversial, of course. Some of my most vivid memories are from my sophomore high school English class where we analyzed an article-length version of his most controversial book, The Bell Curve. Was it comfortable to focus on the theory that there are persistent racial differences in IQ? No. And, I should note, our teacher was an African American woman. But I learned more from her in that classroom than from any other teacher I’ve ever had. She taught me that confronting uncomfortable arguments is what education is all about. If that’s not part of your “community’s ethos”, then your campus needs a new community ethos.

The logic of conflict is brutally simplistic: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The temptation to go along to get along is highest when there’s some noble ideal (like free speech!) apparently hanging in the balance. But it’s a temptation to avoid.


I really wish I had a side I could join a side without reservation. I’d love it if the conservatives were the good guys and the liberals were the bad guys. At this point, I’d love it almost as much if I could have one of those road to Damascus political conversions and decide that the liberals were the good guys and the conservatives were the bad guys. But it’s just not so, and that’s never been more clear than in these days of fear-mongering, nativist ignorance of the Trump candidacy.

As a writer, I always want to have a clever ending. I want to wrap up a post with a keen and penetrating insight that will impress people. But I don’t have one of those for you today. Sometimes the truth is banal, and the trick lies not in discovering it, but rather in implementing it. So here’s my conclusion: please, be decent. Stop turning political ends into justification for hostility towards people who believe differently than you do. Stop using principles as rationalizations to be uncharitable or to shade the truth. Stop making ideals into excuses.

We’re never going to all get along. We’re never going to all agree. We’re never going to find the ultimate compromise that makes everyone happy. It’s always going to be a struggle, living with each other down here on Earth, but it doesn’t have to be as nasty as it is today. It won’t be perfect. But it could be a little bit better.

Modesty is more than just clothes

do-what-i-wantWhile reading through a Facebook argument on modesty (my time could have been better spent, I know), I realized that for those who hate modesty, their arguments are equivalent to those who hate political correctness (that’s not the right phrase, anymore, right? I can’t keep up.) The argument is pretty much summed up by “What I do isn’t about you and doesn’t affect you, and if it does affect you, fix yourself, not me.” It’s a very come-together, selfless, flower-and-rainbows kind of argument, amirite?

Often I see the same people who argue against modesty also argue for an end to offensive speech, and vice versa. But really both groups of people have picked their preferred form of modesty, will accept no less, and think your form of modesty is oppressive, wrong, and maybe even evil.

The truth is modesty covers both dress and speech because it covers appearance and behavior. And, like it or not, modesty is intertwined with respect. Because what we do and say affects who we are and also affects the way people perceive us. (Clearly our dress is only a small part of what we do.) We aren’t just inanimate blobs floating around that no one can see or hear (and therefore never be offended by us). To say our speech or our dress doesn’t matter because “I’ll do what I want” is not going to engender a polite society.

This is not to say you should be assaulted for what you wear! (I know this is a particular pet peeve of the anti-modesty crowd.) And, similarly, you should not be assaulted for what you say. [ref]I’m pretty sure assault does not fall under the umbrella of modesty.[/ref] But respect goes both ways, and certain places and people require an amount of appropriateness in both dress and speech. [ref]I love my friends “do not use your underwear as an accessory” version of modesty. I haven’t come across a good, simple saying for speech yet.[/ref] I think you should be modest for nice people not for the scum of society.

I also don’t think we should spend much time policing one another (this is my hope that the internet shuts up, I know, very likely). There are always lines to be drawn. But if you really cling to wear whatever you want/say whatever you want or cover every inch/zip your lip, you’re probably being too inflexible and should chill a bit. puritan Nicely dressed meteorologists don’t need to put a sweater on, but we don’t need to see celebrities naked (or even nearly-naked) selfies (sorry, no link). College graduates don’t need protection from Secretaries of States from politically different administrations, but women should not be harassed online for doing their jobs.

Overall, if you spend any time on the internet, you should realize that many aspects of our society could benefit from a little modesty. But that doesn’t mean we all need to become Puritans.


Ahmed and Charlie

994 - We are Charlie
Over at Times and Seasons, Walter van Beek has an article in which he shares one of the most popular reactions to the murder of 12 at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo: We are all Charlie. He’s getting some pushback in the comments. I’m torn. On the one hand, I agree very strongly with the commenters who are pushing back. Charlie Hebdo was, by my standards, a vile and disgusting publication. I do not wish to identify myself with it. And yet I wish very  much to identify myself with the principle of free speech, and also express some solidarity with those who are reeling in the wake of this traumatic event. Is there a way to do both?

Mormons have our own perspective on this, especially given the overwhelming popularity of The Book of Mormon musical. It’s long been fair game in the United States and elsewhere to make comments about Mormons that one would never make about most other religious groups. We don’t generally enjoy these kinds of attacks, but we don’t protest them either. We tend to just make the most of it and get on with our lives. As a Mormon, I support the right of  Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone to publicly deride and mock my faith. But it doesn’t mean I have to identify myself with them.

Well, it turns out that there is an alternative to the “We are Charlie” sentiment. And it is “We are Ahmed.”

Two of those killed, 42-year-old Ahmed Merabet and 49-year-old Franck Brinsolaro, were police officers…Merabet was himself Muslim.

Merabet, then, died at the hands of one of his own — albeit its fanatical and dangerous minority. It is especially and darkly ironic given that the gunmen allegedly shouted, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” The name “Ahmed” shares linguistic roots with “Muhammad,” and the prophet was sometimes referred to as Ahmed.

He gave his life to protect Charlie Hebdo’s right to ridicule his religion.

Ahmed’s example[ref]I hope it is not assuming to much to presume that he wasn’t an avid fan of Charlie Hebdo, but was just there doing his job.[/ref] shows it is possible to bypass identification with vulgar and demeaning expressions of free speech and still give utmost dedication to the principle itself. I don’t have to like what everyone does with their free speech to be passionately dedicated to the ideal of free speech itself. There is a way to eschew vitriol and still defend the principle of those who chose to spew it. Ahmed showed us that example, and so I can say “We are Ahmed” with far less reservation than I could say “We are Charlie.”

A Bird that is Always in Season: Journalism and Violence in the Old West



An Armed Neutrality
An Armed Neutrality

In his post on the increasing intolerance towards dissenting opinion from both sides of the political divide in the USA, Nathaniel said that I wish someone could tell me it’s gonna get better–or at least that it’s been worse–because it’s kind of lonely and scary to feel that not only have the loonies taken over the asylum, but they broken down the walls, invaded city hall, and took over there, too.

Well, I’m happy to oblige. It has been worse. In the Old West- from St. Louis to San Francisco- free speech often came down to how well you could throw punches or wield a Bowie knife. As David Dary chronicled in his 1998 Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West, newspapers in the West were highly partisan, deeply personal, and frequently inflammatory.[ref]I’ve drawn the material for this post from chapter six, Pistol-Packin’ Editors.[/ref]. While they covered important issues such as the evils of slavery, the reporting often devolved into an editorial feud where each side smeared the character and reputation of the other. Tempers flared, and if the offensive material was not retracted, then it typically resulted in a duel, if not outright murder.

Susan B. Anthony’s lesser-known brother, Col. Dan Anthony, carried two large horse-pistols with him throughout his career as an editor in Kansas. He had good reason, as he was frequently attacked by his opponents for articles he published, and even survived an assassination attempt, as well as other attempts to prevent certain stories from being published.

With characteristically dry wit and black humor, Ambrose Bierce described this occupational hazard of journalists.

The restrictions of the game law do not apply to this class of game. The newspaper man is a bird that is always in season; sportsmen and pot-hunter alike may with assured impunity crack his bones with a bullet, or fill his skin with buckshot. . . Although the American public will not deny itself the pleasing pageant of some blameless citizen accomplishing serpentine contortions under the editorial pen, neither will it inhibit the flight of the blithe bullet through the editorial body.

The trends that Nathaniel outlined are certainly concerning, and ought to be reversed or halted, but things could always be worse. Some sort of comfort, I suppose.

Silencing Dissenters or: The World Gone Mad

This post will be a little bit more free-form than what I usually write. So buckle up, we’ve got some ground to travel.

What The Elders Know

I read a story as a kid that stuck with me. It was about a team of 1990s archaeologists who decided to excavate a 1950s landfill just to get an objective measurement for what ordinary, everyday life was really like 4 decades before. When they dug up the trash, they found human remains. Skeletons. First it was just a couple, and they thought it might have been mob violence, but then they found more and more. Something horrible had happened in this town, just 40 years ago. But it was forgotten to history. The elderly folks of the community, the only ones who would know the secret of what had happened, came to the digging site and stood staring at the excavation. Saying nothing. Whatever had happened, no one would ever know because they never broke their silence.

At the time, the story mostly just made me reconsider what we know, really know, based on our limited first-hand experience. But it also planted this idea of a group of people who are bound together by some common knowledge that they have that nobody else does.

I realize there’s a sinister spin to that tale, and that’s not what I’m going for. It’s just that idea that there are experiences that no one can tell you about. You can’t understand unless you’ve  been there yourself. And, if you have been there, no explanation is necessary. From what I understand, combat is like that. I’ve read books, like On Killing, that describe some of the effects, but it’s really just enough for me to know that I don’t really get it. And, as a non-military guy, never will. Veterans understand something I can’t comprehend.

In my experience, being married is like that, too. Marriage, for me and my beloved wife, has been really, really hard at times. From talking to our close friends we’ve learned that that’s pretty common.[ref]At least, among the sort of people we are likely to be friends with, I guess.[/ref] All the couples that I know well enough to have discussed this with describe going through harrowing bad times that shook their faith in themselves, their spouse, their marriage, and pretty much everything they believed in. And nobody warned us. Nobody told us how bad it could get, and probably would get. I think partially that’s because we just forget–the bad times are already receding into memory for me–but I think it’s also just because you can’t convey what it’s like to someone who hasn’t been there. And you certainly can’t simultaneously convey how much it’s going to hurt and how much it’s still going to be worth it. There’s just nothing to say.

It’s true of raising kids, too. There are a lot of parenting jokes, and even before I was  parent I more or less got them, but the most traumatic, mundane experiences of being a parent–like the sheer terror of holding a little baby that is sick and can’t tell you what’s wrong–there’s just absolutely no way to convey that feeling to someone who hasn’t been there. There’s deep connection between parents that crosses pretty much every other social boundary you can think of. I’m reminded of Jerry Holkins’ description of the birth of his son. Holkins writes often excessively vulgar comics about video games for a living. He’s a West Coast atheist with a troubled family history who jokes about porn, who never went to college, and who has a multi-million dollar company that runs giant conventions in Seattle, Boston, Australia, and now San Antonio. So, other than that we’re both geeks, we don’t have a lot in common. But when he described the way he felt after watching his wife deliver their son, I knew that there was one deep, defining experience we had in common:

I am not trying to jostle for primacy over the birth act, the utter valor of which is indelible – I’m fairly certain the credit is going to the right people. There is, however, a parallel experience that I never hear much about, something amazing and profound about the helplessness, the desperation of events which are perhaps a million long miles beyond your control. I just want to find other fathers and, looking at them across the aisles in the grocery store, hold my right fist aloft. I am with you.

There are lots more experiences like this, as well. I think of all the times I got advice from mentors–friends and family with more experience than me–about life decisions. What to study in school, whether to buy a house, what to do with my career, how to follow my passions. Time and time again I’ve found that some of the most important advice was always the advice that, no matter how much I earnestly wanted to learn from these people, I just couldn’t follow. I couldn’t follow it because I couldn’t even understand it. It didn’t compute. I might have thought I understood, but I lacked the perspective and the context to see when and how it applied in my life. I only figured out, years and mistakes later, what it was that they had been trying to tell me.

All of this means that the older I get the more I respect my elders. They’ve been there. They’ve been through a lot of the big experiences but also just the accumulated weight of life under uncertainty. They’ve been on the ride longer. The highs, the lows, what changes, what stays the same. I think they know things, things that maybe I won’t be able to understand until I get there myself. My father’s father passed away too young. As the years go by, I find that I miss him more. Not less. I wish he were here.

Maybe he could help me make sense of this crazy world.

Sound and Fury

Let me be clear about what I mean when I say “this crazy world.” I mean the world is full of people who hold such absolutely wildly divergent opinions and perspectives that if you try to get out there and really understand what’s motivating them all your brain feels like it might break under the strain. Humans handle complexity primarily through abstraction. We find patterns, drop the details, and hold onto the narratives. But when the thing that interests and concerns you is precisely the narratives and paradigms that other people are seeing the world through, abstraction is easier said than done.

Here, enough generalities, lets get to some specifics.

Just a few hours ago, a friend posted an article from Mother Jones about How Gun Extremists Target Women. It starts with the experiences of Jennifer Longdon, a woman who uses a wheelchair because she was permanently paralyzed when a random assailant shot her and her fiancee for no apparent reason.[ref]The shooter was never caught.[/ref] Since becoming a vocal advocate for more gun control laws, she has been spat upon, cursed at, threatened, and even had some guy jump out of the bushes at night and spray her with a realistic-looking water gun. My friend’s comment when he posted the article was just, “Wow. Um, wow.” I guess he believes this is accurate of a small but vocal minority of gun rights activists? My first reaction was that, hey, I’ve been involved in this movement for years (only loosely, but still) and I’ve never seen any behavior like that.

Except that, hours later, I realized that I kind of had. On one particular gun forum I used to hang out at things got way out of hand in a heated debate and next thing you know people are trying to use the real world to intimidate their ideological foes, everything from digging up personal photos to threatening civil and criminal action. I don’t think death threats were involved–and none of the participants were women–but it was ugly enough that I still have screenshots saved on my computer more than 5  years later just in case I ever need to defend myself.

Let’s move on rather than analyze. What else have we got? Oh, how about this gem from the Daily Mail about how a respected climate scientist with over 200 publications joined the board of a skeptical organization (the Global Warming Policy Foundation) because:

I thought joining the organisation would provide a platform for me to bring more common sense into the global climate change debate. ‘I have been very concerned about tensions in the climate change community between activists and people who have questions.

So, he tried to bring some reason and cross-partisan talk to a contentious and serious debate? Big mistake. Next thing you know he’s being harassed online and it got to a point where an American co-author of a paper pulled out because he refused to be associated with someone who was associated with a skeptical organization, even if the person had joined the skeptical organization to try and temper it. Not good enough. Professor Lennart Bengtssen lasted a grand total of three weeks in his new position before the pressure forced him to resign.

Or how about the rash of colleges that have withdrawn invitations to commencement speakers because students protested against allowing anyone who was insufficiently ideologically pure to contaminate their ears. It’s gotten to a point where The Daily Beast[rerf]Not exactly a bastion of conservative sensibilities.[/ref] published an article with the headline proclaiming that The Oh-So-Fragile Class of 2014 Needs to STFU And Listen to Some New Ideas. Olivia Nuzzi writes about how Christine Legarde (head of the IMF) got uninvited from Smith College’s commencement in the same month that Condoleeza Rice pulled out of a speaking gig at Rutgers. (Nuzzi doesn’t mention a third example that we covered at Difficult Run: Brandeis decided that Ayaan Hirsi Ali didn’t deserve an honorary degree after all.)

Wait, wait. There’s more. How about Neil deGrasse Tyson slamming philosophy–yes, the entire discipline of philosophy as ‘useless’. A quick review of his comments is instructive. He frames it as an objective, and pragmatic stance (i.e. non-ideological) but seems to lack the philosophical sophistication to realize that far from brushing philosophy off, what he’s actually doing is engaging in a purge of the wrong kind of philosophy. Materialist reductionism? That’s fine. It’s just all those other kinds of philosophy that are useless. I guess he has so dogmatically accepted his own particular philosophical stance that he’s forgotten it isn’t an unyielding element of the fabric of the objective universe. It’s just the particular brand of philosophy he happens to prefer.

Meanwhile, the UN is trying to get pro-life perspectives classified as “torture.” No, really. The Center for Reproductive Rights submitted a letter stating that:

CRR respects the right of each individual to freedom of religion and acknowledges the importance of religious institutions in the lives of people, including the role they may play in ensuring respect for human dignity. As with any party to an international human rights treaty, however, the Holy See is bound to respect, protect, and fulfill a range of human rights through its policies and its actions. As such, this letter focuses on violations of key provisions of the Convention against Torture associated with the Holy See’s policies on abortion and contraception, as well as actions taken by the Holy See and its subsidiary institutions to prevent access to reproductive health information and services in countries around the world.

So, freedom of religion is a nice idea, but if it entails opposition to abortion then you’re in contravention of the Convention against Torture. Uh… OK?

And, as long as we’re hitting pretty much every hot-button issue of the day, let’s move right along to gay rights and Hollywood’s Sex Abuse Cover Up. Describing the wall of silence about growing allegations of sexual abuse of children by Holywood elites, conservative writer Andrew Klavan observed simply that:

If these [people accused of pedophilia] were conservatives, if these were priests, if they were religious people, this would be a huge story. But as it is, it’s gonna get swept under the rug unless more people come forward.

The article describes sexual abuse detailed by Corey Feldman (of Boy Meets World) in his new memoir, abuse that started when he was 11, along with allegations of abuse against director Bryan Singer and then an absurdly white-washed version of history in the film Kill Your DarlingsThe film is supposedly a biopic centering on Lucien Carr, who assembled the original Beat Generation. It portrays Carr’s professor David Kammerer as a kind of mentor and possible romantic interest. The reality? Kammerer was a pedophile stalker who sexually abused Carr to such an extent that, when Carr finally fatally stabbed his tormenter with a Boy Scout knife, the history of abuse convinced the judge to be lenient in sentencing him. That history–the real history, according to Carr’s family–is swept under the rug. Maybe this is about preserving the image of the gay community during the height of the gay rights movement, but hey: Hollywood has been a safe haven for child rapists of the heterosexual persuasion too, so maybe it’s just a generic “Your rules don’t apply here,” kind of thing.

I started with a kind of anti-conservative example, then moved onto a series of anti-liberal examples, so now let’s get back to conservative nuttiness. This YouTube video hails from 2007, so it’s not new, but it was stomach churning for me to watch.

In it, a Hindu guest chaplain tries to offer the opening prayer in the Senate when he is shouted down by Christians saying stuff like “forgive us Father for allowing the prayer of the wicked which is an abomination in your sight.” You’d think folks who tend to think God had a hand in founding this nation might have more reverence for the principles of tolerance and religious freedom that went into it. Well, I’d think that. If I weren’t so cynical.

Here’s what these examples all seem to have in common to me. It’s not about politics. It’s not even about a particular issue. It’s about the idea that we shouldn’t be tolerant of views that contradict our own. It’s about the idea that we should squelch views that we disagree with, rather than engage them. Gun rights proponents issue death threats to paralyzed women who disagree. Climate scientists sabotage the careers and reputations of one of their own when he so much as appears to depart from the orthodox view. College kids block speakers who might disagree with them from being able to speak. The Catholic Church (and, by extension, anyone who is pro-life) gets labeled as a torturer in contravention of international norms and human decency. Hollywood directors silence their critics and rewrite history to protect the reputation of favored groups and individuals. Christians won’t even let a man pray just because he has a different faith.

Look, I’m on all sides of these issues (and maybe off the charts on a couple of them), but that’s just my point. It’s not about the issues. This is not civilized, rational, healthy behavior. Here’s my absolute favorite one, though. It delves deep, deep into crazy town to showcase a meeting of Anarcho-Syndicalists getting shut down because Students of Unity refused to allow one of the anarchist professors to speak. (Warning: video has lots of swearing.)

I actually got curious to figure out what was behind the kerfuffle. Apparently Students of Unity are mad that anarchist Kristian Williams wrote some stuff that included “survivor shaming” and “survivor doubt” and that constitutes “violence.” Williams isn’t feminist enough, and needs to be “accountable for all the people who feel unsafe by the words [she chooses].”[ref]I am not sure these people understand what the word ‘violence’ means.[/ref] I did a little Googling to find the offending piece. It’s called The Politics of Denunciation. It’s absolutely fascinating and spooky to read, because in it Williams writes against exactly what I’ve been describing. She takes a stand against those who try to pre-empt differing views from ever being expressed at all.

The particular target she has in mind is the idea that a survivor of an attack (like sexual assault) must be the only voice allowed to speak at all:

Under this theory, the survivor, and the survivor alone, has the right to make demands, while the rest of us are duty-bound to enact sanctions without question. One obvious implication is that all allegations are treated as fact.

So what she’s saying is that, “Hey, just because someone accuses someone else of sexual assault, it doesn’t automatically mean that whatever that person said is automatically true and that no other perspective is relevant.” Seems pretty tame. But the more general argument she makes is that quashing differing views is a bad thing to do:

While attempting to elevate feminism to a place above politics, the organizers’ statement in fact advances a very specific kind of politics.  Speaking authoritatively but anonymously, the “Patriarchy and the Movement” organizers declare certain questions off-limits, not only (retroactively) for their own event, but seemingly altogether. These questions cannot be asked because, it is assumed, there is only one answer, and the answer is already known. The answer is, in practice, whatever the survivor says that it is.

It seems like a very obscure, tiny, fringe discussion, but it’s actually not. It’s the same pattern as every single example I’ve expressed so far. Someone claims to be above politics (like Neil deGrasse Tyson is above philosophy) but in fact they are just trying to elevate a very particular political statement beyond question and thereby silence all dissenting views. Williams argued that we should make room for multiple viewpoints. And for that she and her whole panel were shouted down and silenced.

Nowhere To Turn

It may seem that I’m focusing on some weird, esoteric issues. And I’ll definitely admit that what dragged me down this rabbit hole in the first place was my attempt to delve deeper into the SFWA controversy I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  That, in turn, spawned the article that I wrote about trigger warnings. I took a mostly conservative view in those posts because that’s who I am, but maybe the saddest thing about this whole controversy is that, from where I’m standing, there are no good guys and bad guys. I’d love to just toss my hat in with the conservatives and feel like I have a home, but I can’t. I can’t because–much as I have no beef with folks like Wright, and Torgersen, and even Correia–the more I dug into what Vox Day had said (and he’s the conservative who really got the liberals angry in the first place) the more I decided that a lot of what the liberals said about him is true. The central allegation is that he’s a racist, and it’s based on comments that he made about an African-American writer N. K. Jemisin. So I found the blog post in question, and I read it. Here’s the money paragraph:

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence to be found anywhere on the planet that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support from those white males.  If one considers that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilized after their first contact with advanced Greco-Roman civilization, it should be patently obvious that it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do the same in less than half the time at a greater geographic distance.  These things take time.

In other blog posts, Vox Day denies being a racist. I can see he might be trying to get off on a technicality, something like “it’s not about race, per se, it’s just that civilization takes time, and Africans have been exposed to (Greco Roman) civilization for a shorter period of time.” Yeah, I’m not buying it because Vox Day is obviously not arguing in good faith. He talks about the “greater geographic distance” it would take for Africa to become civilized (let’s just not even touch that one for a moment) when the person he is calling “half-savage” was born in Iowa.[ref]Wikipedia[/ref]

So there’s your microcosm of what is wrong with the world. We’ve got just enough folks like Vox Day to enable folks like the Students of Unity who shouted down Kristian Williams to feel justified in trying to intimidate anyone into silence who disagrees with them.

And that’s why I want to ask those old folks–those elderly men and women with decades’ worth of life lessons I haven’t experienced yet–is it always like this? I wish someone could tell me it’s gonna get better–or at least that it’s been worse–because it’s kind of lonely and scary to feel that not only have the loonies taken over the asylum, but they broken down the walls, invaded city hall, and taken over there, too.

Because, yeah, I’d love to chalk this up to upstart young idiots not knowing any better and how every generation always thinks the generation after them is going to destroy the world. And that might work for all those stories of college undergraduates protesting against speakers they don’t want to hear or Students of Unity shouting down anyone they don’t like, but Vox Day is not a kid. The gun control opponents who spit on Longdon are not kids. The Center for Reproductive Rights is not, to my knowledge, run by kids. The Christians who shouted down the Hindu chaplain didn’t sound like kids. These are grown ups, in theory at least, and they are occasionally in positions of real power.

And  yeah, every generation thinks the world is going to hell in handbasket once the next generation starts to take over, but every now and then they’re right, aren’t they? Sometimes the sky is falling.

Me, I guess I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing. I’ve got my views, and they are mostly conservative, but I also believe in tolerance and intellectual diversity. Maybe it’s foolish and naive, but I like the idea of having noble ideological adversaries that I oppose, but that engage in a fight that has rules and principles. So, although it’s not as loud or as exciting or as clear-cut as what other sites can offer, that’s what we’ll keep doing here at Difficult Run.

One More Thing: About that Right to Free Speech

XKCD recently had a comic about the right to free speech.

Mouse over text: “I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.”

Technically, of course, it’s correct. But it’s a deeply disturbing view. The right to free speech has always been more than a strict legalism in American culture. It’s always been about more than just the freedom from government censorship. It has always involved a culture of tolerance. A view that not only is the government legally prohibited from regulating speech, but also that we as Americans ought to relish our chaotic, free-wheeling, marketplace of ideas. No, there’s no law that says people have to listen to you and there never should be. No, there’s no law that protects people from being free from other people telling them that they think their speech is crap. And again: there never should be. But when a bunch of people get together and use their own freedom of speech to silence someone they don’t like: it’s a violation of who we are as Americans even if it’s not technically a violation of someone’s legal rights.

Randall Munroe (author of XKCD) is right on the letter of the law, but he’s wrong on the spirit. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line, and I’m not saying we should never boycott. We have a comment policy here at Difficult Run, after all. Communities need to regulate what is and is not considered acceptable for that community. But I just wish that tolerance–real tolerance of genuinely conflicting ideas–was something that more communities would actively choose to embrace. Not because the law requires them to do so, but just because it’s the right thing to do.


On Ordain Women Being Confined to Free Speech Zones

Twice a  year the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds a General Conference, which consists of 4, 2-hour meetings for the general membership of the Church to attend at the giant conference center in Salt Lake, at church buildings around the world, or even from home via Internet and other sources. In addition to the general membership meetings, there is a Priesthood meeting for men and boys 12 or older and a combined meeting for women and girls as young as 8. Last year, at the Fall General Conference, the feminist Mormon group Ordain Women staged a protest at the male-only meeting. OW seeks to have women ordained to the Mormon priesthoods (there are two orders), but their request was denied and they were barred entrance. The incident made headlines, which seems to have been the purpose.[ref]I base this on both the language used (e.g. “Priesthood Session Action”) and also on the explicit emphasis placed on the publicity the event garnered: ” The images of us watching men and boys walk in instead of us and of each of us asking for permission to enter are powerful.” Alternatively, just look at the cameras and reporters in the pics.[/ref]

Mormon Conference

OW plans to repeat their action again at the upcoming April General Conference, and this has provoked a preemptive response from the Church. An official statement that was released to the public makes two important statements. First, it states that male-only ordination to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods is “a matter of doctrine.” This draws a deliberate contrast with the racial priesthood ban which the Church rescinded in 1978 and further repudiated in a statement earlier this year. That practice was never based on any canonized revelation, and is now[ref]Original version said “had been viewed” which implied to some folks that it was always seen as just policy. That’s not accurate, and it’s not what I intended to convey.[/ref] viewed as a matter of policy (transient) as opposed to doctrine (permanent). The new statement even went farther and specifically disavowed the folk theology that had grown up around this policy: “None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”

This new statement on race and the priesthood is part of a major, but quiet, new initiative in how the Church talks about its own history and other sensitive issues. It is, in that sense, a sign of progressiveness in the Church. I, and many others, applauded the document when it came out. So it is very telling that the Church chose to refer to this document (however obliquely) in their response to OW. Referring to a new, progressive document conveys the message, “This far, and no farther” more powerfully than a reliance on an older or more traditional source would.

Which brings us to the second, and more controversial, statement:

If you feel you must come and demonstrate, we ask that you do so in free speech zones adjacent to Temple Square, which have long been established for those wishing to voice differing viewpoints.

The formal statement has drawn headlines of its own weeks ahead of the OW demonstration. Kate Kelly, the founder of OW, is quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as stating flatly:

We have nothing in common with those people [referring to other demonstrators in the free speech zone]. They are seeking to destroy the church. We are not against the church — we ARE the church.

The idea that the Church has chosen to ostracize OW members is widely seen by supporters of OW as victory for their movement. A raft of blog posts from prominent Mormon women, like Jana Riess, have come out stating that the Church is behaving like a bully. Riess writes:

There is something deeply symbolic about yesterday’s statement, for it reveals what the Church apparently thinks of the feminists within its fold. We, as faithful and active members of the Church, are being lumped together with the same anti-Mormon protestors who routinely crash General Conference and shout that the Mormon religion is of the devil. These protestors have started fistfights with conference-goers and even stomped on or burned temple garments.

In line with characterizations like these (although not necessarily as an endorsement of them)[ref]Kristine pointed out in a comment to this piece: “I said nothing about the merits of either side’s case; I was asked to opine on the way the media would respond, and I did.”[/ref], Kristine Haglund, another prominent Mormon feminist, called the decision a “PR disaster for the church.” She went on o say that “Goliath is never going to get better press than David — the optics are terrible.” That’s all I intended folks to glean from her quote, that it was a bad PR move, but I [/ref] On Facebook I’ve seen friends express similar twin feelings of deep hurt at being excluded along with a sense that soon the tide will turn in their favor and the members of the Church will come to see OW as the good guys. I think both of those reactions are mistaken.

2014-03-19 Unjust JudgeFirst, while my heart goes out to those who feel stunned and betrayed by this announcement, I’m afraid they may have set themselves up for tragedy. The movement for female ordination often models their approach on scriptural precedents like the parable of the importunate widow, but this is a very high-risk approach to activism. But this parable is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it is about a widow and therefore someone who self-evidently has a valid claim.[ref]The parable is more commonly known as the parable of the unjust judge.[/ref] Is it “self-evident” that we ought to ordain women? Obviously most Mormons don’t think that it is. Second, it seems like a serious mistake to apply the parable to conventional PR pressure tactics targeting the leaders of the Church instead of prayer to God. I’m not suggesting that OW should only pray about this and nothing more, but I am suggesting that enlisting this parable as a justification of conventional protests is a mistake. Unfortunately both these elements, the believe that female ordination is self-evident and also the belief in scriptural justification for their tactics mean that OW may have not really prepared themselves for the possibility that the Church simply isn’t going to go their way. I’ve often seen Mormon feminists pronounce total confidence in both the rightness and the inevitability of their cause. In light of such great expectations, there is simply no way that the Church could offer a definitive “no” that would not feel crushing.[ref]By contrast, I have often seen folks who oppose female ordination express a willingness to adapt if God reveals that to be the course for the Church. It seems this has emboldened the OW movement instead of encouraging them to consider their own back-up plans.[/ref]

Meanwhile, however, Mormon feminists often do not seem cognizant of the fact that their requests would cause just as much pain to fellow members as they themselves feel today. If they feel excluded by this statement, imagine how categorically and totally traditional Mormons (who vastly outnumber Mormon feminists) would feel were the Church to repudiate their faith and their convictions by instituting female ordination. There genuinely are two sides to this issue, and those who oppose female ordination frequently do so because of their own equally sincere convictions about what it means to be a Mormon woman. I understand that being asked to stand next to anti-Mormons may feel like symbolic ostracism. Does OW understand the extent to which, if their requests were granted, huge numbers of Mormons would feel just as betrayed? It may be asking too much while the sting is still fresh, but feelings of hurt and betrayal should eventually be examined in this context. This story ends with broken hearts, no matter how it ends.

Second, and for a great many reasons, I do not think that the Church’s statement will result in a significant shift in Mormon perception of OW. It’s important to step back and realize that OW does not even speak for all Mormons who feel dissatisfied with the status quo as it relates to the priesthood and gender issues broadly defined. As I’ve written before, the word “conservative” takes on strange connotations in a religion that is dedicated to ongoing revelation. Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother, but we know very little about Her. Mormons believe that there are other scriptures beyond the Book of Mormon, but we don’t have them yet. We believe that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”[ref]9th Article of Faith[/ref] In a broad vista of possible futures, the movement to ordain women to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood orders is one tiny possibility that does not have broad support even among Mormons who look for forward to further light and knowledge.[ref]I also suspect that the Bloggernaccle is something of an echo chamber for a relatively radical Mormon minority.[/ref] In fact, one of my chief disagreements with OW is precisely that it seems completely deaf to the possibility of a genuinely new and uniquely Mormon resolution to the questions it raises, seeing instead only the conventional secular redress.

What’s more, however, the Church’s statement isn’t in any way a proactive attack on OW itself or its members. This is not some kind of sequel to the September Six. As quick as folks are to draw comparisons with the civil rights struggle and other forms of oppression and persecution, the Church has actually done nothing as it relates to OW generally. It has only specified that if you want to come to Temple Square for the purpose of protesting the Church General Conference you have to do so in the area that has been designated for that purpose. In other words, the statement does intimate that the aim of OW runs counter to the doctrine of the Church, but the only action the Church is taking is a specific, limited, response to a single, contained tactic of OW that causes even generally supportive Mormons consternation. This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.

Mormonism is an incredibly open-minded faith because of its atheological nature, and I do not believe that the statement from the Church presages an offensive against Mormon feminists in general or even specifically against OW. Lots of Mormons believe lots of things, and lots of Mormons think that other Mormons are crazy for the things they believe.[ref]Welcome to humanity/[/ref] When it comes to behavior, we’re a pretty rigid Church, but when it comes to philosophy it’s pretty much every man or woman for himself. And I like it that way. I like the big tent approach to philsophy coupled with firm stances on ethical actions. But there is a difference between “all people are welcome” and “all ideas are accepted.” No matter how much we as individual members may love our Church, it is ultimately not up to us to define what the Church believes. It isn’t really our Church at all. Every religious tradition must decide for itself which beliefs are essential, which beliefs are somewhat optional, and which beliefs are banned.[ref]As a general observation, I think religious traditions are always more tolerant in this sense than the individual members within that tradition wish they would be.[/ref]

I certainly don’t want to get out ahead of the prophets and declare this answer conclusively resolved based on one sentence from one public relations statement. So I am not going to try and argue that the Church’s position on female ordination is as central as, for example, the divinity of Christ or the Atonement. It isn’t, and it never can be. But I do think that proponents sometimes fail to appreciate the extent to which a commitment to gender essentialism and traditional gender roles is a deep part of our culture, history, and doctrine. Unique teachings that define Mormonism, like the centrality of the family to exaltation, are inextricable from teachings like gender complementarity. These beliefs have been reaffirmed recently with the proclamation on the family. And they seem to be at odds with OW’s particularly severe and uncompromising vision of gender egalitarianism.

There will always be some members of faith traditions who find their treasured convictions on the wrong side of the boundaries of their faith. That is an awful predicament to find oneself in. Historically, some in that position have ultimately been in error, but sometimes it is their particular faith tradition that has made mistakes. (Sometimes both, of course.) That is why, even if the Church gets increasingly explicit about male-only ordination as a matter of essential doctrine, I will sympathize with those who cling to their beliefs and their conscience. I think they are wrong, but (in this possible future) I hope that all those who find themselves in that position realize that they are loved and wanted and welcomed even if one or more of their beliefs have been categorized as out of bounds. I hope they find a way to live with the tension between their competing beliefs (a tension we all feel to some extent at different points in our lives) and remain within our community.