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Threat Assessment I: A Vivid Spotlight

When engaged in rational threat assessment, there are two main factors that need to be considered. The first is the probability of the threat. The second is, very broadly speaking, the severity of the threat. These two can be combined into one sweeping question: “how likely is it that this will happen and, if it does, how bad will it be?”

Making rational decisions about dangers involves considering both of these factors. For example, consider the risks of going to a crowded area such as a movie theater or school. There is a high probability of being exposed to the cold virus, but it is a very low severity threat. There is an exceedingly low probability that there will be a mass shooting, but it is a high severity threat since it can result in injury or death.

While humans have done a fairly good job at surviving, this seems to have been despite our amazingly bad skills at rational threat assessment. To be specific, the worry people feel in regards to a threat generally does not match up with the actual probability of the threat occurring. People do seem somewhat better at assessing the severity, though they are also often in error about this.

One excellent example of poor threat assessment is in regards to the fear Americans have in regards to domestic terrorism. As of December 15, 2015 there have been 45 people killed in the United States in attacks classified as “violent jihadist attacks” and 48 people killed in attacks classified as “far right wing attacks” since 9/11/2001.  In contrast, there were 301,797 gun deaths from 2005-2015 in the United States and over 30,000 people are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.

Despite the incredibly low likelihood of a person being killed by an act of terrorism in the United States, many people are terrified by terrorism (which is, of course, the goal of terrorism) and have become rather focused on the matter since the murders in San Bernardino. Although there have been no acts of terrorism on the part of refugees in the United States, many people are terrified of refugees and this had led to calls for refusing to accept Syrian refugees and Donald Trump has famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

Given that an American is vastly more likely to be killed while driving than killed by a terrorist, it might be wondered why people are so incredibly bad at this sort of threat assessment. The answer, in regards to having fear vastly out of proportion to the probability is easy enough—it involves a cognitive bias and some classic fallacies.

People follow general rules when they estimate probabilities and the ones we use unconsciously are called heuristics. While the right way to estimate probability is to use proper statistical methods, people generally fall victim to the bias known as the availability heuristic. The idea is that a person unconsciously assigns a probability to something based on how often they think of that sort of event. While an event that occurs often will tend to be thought of often, the fact that something is often thought of does not make it more likely to occur.

After an incident of domestic terrorism, people think about terrorism far more often and thus tend to unconsciously believe that the chance of terrorism occurring is far higher than it really is. To use a non-terrorist example, when people hear about a shark attack, they tend to think that the chances of it occurring are high—even though the probability is incredibly low (driving to the beach is vastly more likely to kill you than a shark is). The defense against this bias is to find reliable statistical data and use that as the basis for inferences about threats—that is, think it through rather than trying to feel through it. This is, of course, very difficult: people tend to regard their feelings, however unwarranted, as the best evidence—despite it is usually the worst evidence.

People are also misled about probability by various fallacies. One is the spotlight fallacy. The spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all (or many) members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. After an incident involving terrorists who are Muslim, media attention is focused on that fact, leading people who are poor at reasoning to infer that most Muslims are terrorists. This is the exact sort of mistake that would occur if it were inferred that most Christians are terrorists because the media covered a terrorist who was Christian (who shot up a Planned Parenthood). If people believe that, for example, most Muslims are terrorists, then they will make incorrect inferences about the probability of a domestic terrorist attack by Muslims.

Anecdotal evidence is another fallacy that contributes to poor inferences about the probability of a threat. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. This fallacy is similar to hasty generalization and a similar sort of error is committed, namely drawing an inference based on a sample that is inadequate in size relative to the conclusion. The main difference between hasty generalization and anecdotal evidence is that the fallacy anecdotal evidence involves using a story (anecdote) as the sample.

People often fall victim to this fallacy because stories and anecdotes tend to have more psychological influence than statistical data. This leads people to infer that what is true in an anecdote must be true of the whole population or that an anecdote justifies rejecting statistical evidence in favor of said anecdote. Not surprisingly, people most commonly accept this fallacy because they want to believe that what is true in the anecdote is true for the whole population.

In the case of terrorism, people use both anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization: they point to a few examples of domestic terrorism or tell the story about a specific incident, and then draw an unwarranted conclusion about the probability of a terrorist attack occurring. For example, people point to the claim that one of the terrorists in Paris masqueraded as a refugee and infer that refugees pose a great threat to the United States. Or they tell the story about the one attacker in San Bernardino who arrived in the states on a K-1 (“fiancé”) visa and make unwarranted conclusions about the danger of the visa system (which is used by about 25,000 people a year).

One last fallacy is misleading vividness. This occurs when a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence to the contrary.

People often accept this sort of “reasoning” because particularly vivid or dramatic cases tend to make a very strong impression on the human mind. For example, mass shootings by domestic terrorists are vivid and awful, so it is hardly surprising that people feel they are very much in danger from such attacks. Another way to look at this fallacy in the context of threats is that a person conflates the severity of a threat with its probability. That is, the worse the harm, the more a person feels that it will occur.

It should be kept in mind that taking into account the possibility of something dramatic or vivid occurring is not always fallacious. For example, a person might decide to never go sky diving because the effects of an accident can be very, very dramatic. If he knows that, statistically, the chances of the accident are happening are very low but he considers even a small risk to be unacceptable, then he would not be making this error in reasoning. This then becomes a matter of value judgment—how much risk is a person willing to tolerate relative to the severity of the potential harm.

The defense against these fallacies is to use a proper statistical analysis as the basis for inferences about probability. As noted above, there is still the psychological problem: people tend to act on the basis on how they feel rather than what the facts show.

Such rational assessment of threats is rather important for both practical and moral reasons. The matter of terrorism is no exception to this.  Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. For example, spending billions to counter a miniscule threat while spending little on leading causes of harm would be irrational (if the goal is to protect people from harm). There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear that is unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals, there is also the damage to the social fabric. There has already been an increase in attacks on Muslims in America and people are seriously considering abandoning core American values, such as the freedom of religion and being good Samaritans.

In light of the above, I urge people to think rather than feel their way through their concerns about terrorism. Also, I urge people to stop listening to Donald Trump. He has the right of free expression, but people also have the right of free listening.

 

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Trumping Along

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, many people laughed. He even managed to create some bipartisan agreement among my liberal and my conservative friends: they generally believed that while Trump would be good theatre, he would either fade away or implode in a magnificent and huge manner. As Trump kept Trumping along, many of my conservative friends began to sweat just a little—while they are often dedicated conservatives, the idea of a Trump presidency was not very appealing. My liberal friends tried to reassure themselves that if Trump was picked to run against Hillary, a Democratic victory was assured. However, I could tell they were sweating a little. Now that it is the second week of December and Trump is Trumping along, I am sure that at least some people are waking up in the middle of the night, visions of President Trump trumpeting in their heads.

Since expert pundits and establishment politicians predicted that Trump would not go the distance, it is certainly worth considering why he is doing so well. While primarily a matter of politics and psychology, there are also matters of philosophical interest here.

One major factor in regards to Trumps success is that the Republican party and conservative strategists created an ecosystem that is nearly perfect for Trump. First, there has been a sustained attack on reason and intellectuals. For example, Obama is derisively described as professorial and thinking too much. Trump does not create the impression that he is thinking too much and is regarded more as the school bully rather than the professor. This seems to be a factor that is hurting Bush—he is a man who thinks and grasps the complications of politics.

Second, there has been a narrative of weakness leveled against Democrats and there have been unfavorable comparisons made between Obama and “strongmen” like Putin. Trump nicely fits the “strongman” model—he is brash, full of bravado, bullying and loud. While this stick was mainly used to beat Democrats, Trump has gleefully employed it to bash his weaker Republican opponents, such as the “low energy” Jeb Bush.

Third, there have been subtle and not so subtle uses of race in political scare tactics and manipulation. While people do have race issues and fears that do not come from the politicians, the use of race has helped forge a space for Trump. He also has a very effective narrative in that he is engaged in the culture war against the politically correct culture. Trump is willing to take this fight beyond lines that most institutional Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Dick Cheney, are unwilling to cross. It is worth noting that some blame the political correctness machinations of some Democrats for helping Trump out here.

Fourth, there has been a repeated narrative of attacking the establishment. For the most part, this has been mere rhetoric—establishment figures say they are going to go (back) to Washington to fight the establishment. But they usually just settle in. Trump is a genuine outsider to politics and he is clearly willing to go hard against the establishment. This is not to diminish the fact that people also have their own reasons to be angry at the establishment—mainly because of what it has (and has not) done. If America had been better governed, Trump would probably not have made it past the first few months. While this is a dagger that the Republicans like to use to stab the Democrats, it works great against fellow Republicans.

Fifth, there has been an ongoing war against the “liberal media” which has trained many people to reject the mainstream media as biased and lacking in credibility. Since one role of the media is to vet candidates and to call candidates out for lies, this means that Trump has an easy reply to any criticism from the media—even from the conservative media (such as Trumps bouts with Fox).

Sixth, while the use of scare tactics (the fallacy of offering as “evidence” for a claim something that is intended to cause fear and thus motivate acceptance) is as old as politics, the conservatives have beaten the drum of fearing foreigners for quite some time (Democrats also take turns at the drums of fear and panic). Trump is just devouring this fear and growing huge.

Another major factor in Trump’s success is the very real dissatisfaction of Americans. While the economic recovery has returned most of the wealth that the richest people lost, the majority of Americans are still suffering from the enduring economic scars. There is also the fact that wages have stagnated and the lower economic classes (that is, most of us) are worse off than our predecessors. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out for decades, there is grotesque economic inequality in America.

While Americans have been conditioned to dislike socialism and love capitalism, people cannot help but feel the impact of this inequality. As such, they need to reconcile their economic worries with their ideology—they need someone to blame other than the rich. While Americans are mostly reluctant to blame those who are clearly responsible (those who benefit from the inequality and those who serve them so well), they feel that someone must be to blame. Trump has been able to tap into this dissatisfaction, as many a skilled demagogue has tapped into economic dissatisfaction before him.  In fact, what is somewhat surprising is that it took so long for a demagogue to arise.

A third factor in Trump’s success, as noted above, is the fear many Americans feel in regards to safety. After the Cold War ended, a narrative of terrorism was lovingly crafted to scare Americans—helped by real terrorism, of course. The United States also faces the fear caused by repeated mass shootings and high levels of violence. This creates a deep well of fear that Trump can draw from repeatedly.

When people are afraid, they tend to reason poorly and act stupidly in very predictable ways. One part of this stupidity is that people often seek a leader who is loud, confident and promises that he will solve the problems, usually using means that most others initially regard as morally unacceptable. This willingness to act in such ways is often seen as strength and, in many cases, can actually match the views of those who start following the leader. Trump knows how to deal and how to put on a show and a second aspect of stupidity in this area is that people are drawn to the safety theatre rather than to the rather dull and complicated things that actually enable people to be safe.

Trump could very well ride the wave of fear and dissatisfaction through the primaries and emerge as the Republican candidate. While the professional pundits claim that Trump would be trounced in the general election, his numbers are not that bad. Also, the hallmark of the professional pundit seems to be being consistently wrong. So, get ready for Trump 2016.

 

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Trump & The Muslim Ban

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has found what seems to be a winning strategy: when a poll shows that he might be losing his lead, he makes an outrageous statement. His poll numbers then rise. On December 7, 2015 Trump said that the United States should forbid all Muslims from entering the country.

In making his statement, Trump asserted that “…the hatred is beyond comprehension” and that the ban must last “…until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses…” He apparently thinks that Muslims “…believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.” Since Trump is the leading Republican candidate, his remarks carry significant weight. As such, they demand serious consideration.

There are three main areas in which Trump’s proposal needs to be assessed. These are the legal, the moral and the practical. I will start with the legal.

While I am not a constitutional scholar or a lawyer, Trump’s proposal seems to be unconstitutional. There is no legal precedent for applying a religious test for admission to the United States and, most importantly, it would violate the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment. As such, even if such a law were passed by Congress, it would almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court. Since I am not an expert in this area, I would certainly defer to those who know this field.

As might be expected, the morality of Trump’s proposal depends on what sort of moral theory is used to assess it. Those who hold that morality is based on Christianity would presumably accept the command of Leviticus: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” This would seem to forbid such exclusion. Naturally, it could be objected that this command does not apply to Muslims—the challenge is providing the scriptural support for this claim. It could also be pointed out that the text is about the foreigner residing among us and, as such, does not forbid preventing the foreigner from coming here to reside. This sort of loophole is best debated by religious scholars.

For those who prefer ethics not based on religion, one standard approach is to consider the matter from the utilitarian standpoint. This would involve considering the harms and benefits of such a ban, weighing them, arguing that morality is a matter of consequences and then drawing the appropriate conclusion. This also brings in the practical assessment of the plan by considering its effectiveness or lack thereof.

Given what Trump says, he seems to think that the ban would protect Americans from harm. In one sense, he is right: if no Muslims are allowed into the country, then the Muslims that are kept out cannot harm Americans here. Americans would just face the usual dangers from everyone else and each other—and the leading cause of violent deaths of Americans is, of course, other Americans. As such, the increase in safety would be incredibly small.

There are numerous negative consequences to consider, such as the harm that would be done to refugees fleeing wars as well as the many Muslims who come to the United States to engage in peaceful, productive and beneficial activities such as working, learning, teaching, and being tourists. There is also the harm that would be done to the Americans who benefit from these activities. In practical terms, this could be measured in dollars lost. In moral terms, it could be measured in harms done.

In addition to the domestic harms, there is also the harm to America’s reputation. To impose such a ban on Muslims would be to throw down and stomp upon our claims of religious tolerance and religious liberty. We have claimed that we will take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses that yearn to breathe free. To refuse to allow people into the country would repudiate these words. This is said to be the home of the brave. To impose such a ban would be to make this the home of the fearful and the intolerant. The harm to our reputation in the world would, I believe, be quite serious and would greatly offset any alleged gain in safety from the ban. This can, of course be countered by arguing that either the impact to our reputation would be insignificant or that it would be outweighed by the alleged gain in safety.

Finally, this sort of ban would be a propaganda gold mine for groups like Daesh. It would serve as excellent evidence for the claim that the West is at war with Islam and would serve as a powerful recruiting tool. Those banned from entering the United States would also have resentment against America, resentment that could in some cases be fanned into the flames of radicalization. This would, ironically, put Americans at greater risk. This could also be countered by arguing that such a ban would not have the claimed effect or that the positive impact of the ban on safety would outweigh the negative.

Given that the proposed ban is unconstitutional, immoral and would be ineffective as a means of providing protection (but very effective as Daesh propaganda) it should be evident it is an awful idea. In fact, its mere proposal is already harming the United States.

 

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Trump & Truth

As this is being written at the end of November, Donald Trump is still the leading Republican presidential candidate. While some might take the view that this is in spite of the outrageous and terrible things Trump says, a better explanation is that he is doing well because of this behavior. Some regard it as evidence of his authenticity and find it appealing in the face of so many slick and seemingly inauthentic politicians (Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are regarded by some as examples of this). Some agree with what Trump says and thus find this behavior very appealing.

Trump was once again in the media spotlight for an outrageous claim. This time, he made a claim about something he believed happened on 9/11: “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

Trump was immediately called on this claim on the grounds that it is completely untrue. While it would be as reasonable to dismiss Trump’s false claim as it would be to dismiss any other claim that is quite obviously untrue, the Washington Post and Politifact undertook a detailed investigation. On the one hand, it seems needless to dignify such a falsehood with investigation. On the other hand, since Trump is the leading Republican candidate, his claims could be regarded as meriting the courtesy of a fact check rather than simple dismissal as being patently ludicrous.  As should be expected, while they did find some urban myths and rumors, they found absolutely no evidence supporting Trump’s claim.

Rather impressively, Trump decided to double-down on his claim rather than acknowledging that his claim is manifestly false. His confidence has also caused some of his supporters to accept his claim, typically with vague references about having some memory of something that would support Trump’s claim. This is consistent with the way ideologically motivated “reasoning” works: when confronted with evidence against a claim that is part of one’s ideologically identity, the strength of the belief becomes even stronger. This holds true across the political spectrum and into other areas as well. For example, people who strongly identify with the anti-vaccination movement not only dismiss the overwhelming scientific evidence against their views, they often double-down on their beliefs and some even take criticism as more proof that they are right.

This tendency does make psychological sense—when part of a person’s identity is at risk, it is natural to engage in a form of wishful thinking and accept (or reject) a claim because one really wants the claim to be true (or false). However, wishful thinking is fallacious thinking—wanting a claim to be true does not make it true. As such, this tendency is a defect in a person’s rationality and giving in to it will generally lead to poor decision making.

There is also the fact that since at least the time of Nixon a narrative about liberal media bias has been constructed and implanted into the minds of many. This provides an all-purpose defense against almost any negative claims made by the media about conservatives. Because of this, Trump’s defenders can allege that the media covered up the story (which would, of course, contradict his claim that he saw all those people in another city celebrating 9/11) or that they are now engaged in a conspiracy against Trump.

A rather obvious problem with the claim that the media is engaged in some sort of conspiracy is that if Trump saw those thousands celebrating in New Jersey, then there should be no shortage of witnesses and video evidence. However, there are no witnesses and no such video evidence. This is because Trump’s claim is not true.

While it would be easy to claim that Trump is simply lying, this might not be the case. As discussed in an earlier essay I wrote about presidential candidate Ben Carson’s untrue claims, a claim being false is not sufficient to make it a lie. For example, a person might say that he has $20 in his pocket but be wrong because a pickpocket stole it a few minutes ago. Her claim would be untrue, but it would be a mistake to accuse her of being a liar. While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, for Trump to be lying about this he would need to believe that what he is saying is not true and be engaged in the right (or rather) wrong sort of intent. The matter of intent is important for obvious reasons, such as distinguishing fiction writers from liars. If Trump believes what he is saying, then he would not be lying.

While it might seem inconceivable that Trump really believes such an obvious untruth, it could very well be the case. Memory, as has been well-established, is notoriously unreliable. People forget things and fill in the missing pieces with bits of fiction they think are facts. This happens to all of us because of our imperfect memories and a need for a coherent narrative. There is also the fact that people can convince themselves that something is true—often by using on themselves various rhetorical techniques. One common way this is done is by reputation—the more often people hear a claim repeated, the more likely it is that they will accept it as true, even when there is no evidence for the claim. This is why the use of repeated talking points is such a popular strategy among politicians, pundits and purveyors. Trump might have told himself his story so many times that he now sincerely believes it and once it is cemented in his mind, it will be all but impossible for any evidence or criticism to dislodge his narrative. If this is the case, in his mind there was such massive celebrations and he probably can even “remember” the images and sounds—such is the power of the mind.

Trump could, of course, be well aware that he is saying something untrue but has decided to stick with his claim. This would make considerable sense—while people are supposed to pay a price for being completely wrong and an even higher price for lying, Trump has been rewarded with more coverage and more support with each new outrageous thing he does or says. Because of this success, Trump has excellent reasons to continue doing what he has been doing. It might take him all the way to the White House.

 

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Why Paul Ryan is Not a Hypocrite

Paul Ryan acted quite rationally in imposing conditions on the Republicans of the House in return for running for the position of Speaker. After all, they wanted him to take the job far more than he wanted it, thus putting him into a strong bargaining position.

A devoted family man who returns home from Washington every weekend to spend time with his wife and children, it is no surprise that one of his conditions is that he will not give up his family time. Despite the fact that his condition seems to exemplify traditional family values, he has drawn criticism from the right. The more vocal attacks have, of course, come from the left. The main accusation is that Ryan is a hypocrite because his insistence of maintaining a work-family balance starkly contrast with his voting record. To be specific, Ryan has relentlessly voted against bills that would assist working Americans to have a better work-family balance of the sort he insists on having.

On the face of it, the charge of hypocrisy would seem to stick since Ryan seems to be acting inconsistent with his professed values. Interestingly, the hypocrisy could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Ryan’s action of insisting on a work-family balance is inconsistent with his stated beliefs about bills that would allow improved work-family balance for employees. A second is that Ryan’s actions of voting against such bills is inconsistent with the values implied by his action of insisting that his “employer” grant him the desired work-family balance.

While it is certainly tempting to say Ryan is in error when he opposes improving the work-family balance for others while insisting on it himself, this would be a case of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or what a person says is inconsistent with his actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite. But being a hypocrite is different from being in error. For example, a heroin user who says that using heroin is unhealthy does not thus prove that using heroin is actually healthy. As such, showing that Ryan is in error would require more than just pointing to an alleged inconsistency between how he votes and what he insists as a condition of taking the job of speaker. That said, an accusation of inconsistency does have some moral weight.

One legitimate way to criticize Ryan is to argue that he is not consistently applying a principle. A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates the principle of relevant difference. This is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Criticizing someone on the basis of inconsistent application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations whose differences do not warrant the different application.  In the case at hand, it is generally assumed that Ryan’s principle is that people should have a work-family balance. He applies this principle to himself by insisting that being Speaker of the House will allow him his family time. But, he is inconsistent because he does not apply the same principle to other workers—as shown by his consistently voting against bills that would ensure that employees had more family time.

When a charge of inconsistent application is made, there are various responses. One is for a person to change her actions so they are consistent. So, for example, Ryan could start voting in favor of bills that allow more family time to employees. This seems rather unlikely.

A second way is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference between the situations. In the case of Ryan, if it could be shown that there is a relevant difference between him and other people that entitles him to be granted the work-family balance that he has voted to deny others. And to get that balance from other people who have also voted to deny it to others. It could, for example, be argued that the Speaker of the House position, like other high positions, should come with benefits denied to those of lesser status. To use an analogy, a university might have a principle that employees who perform their jobs well get a bonus. If there is a shortage of funds, the university might grant bonuses only to administrators and justify this by arguing for a relevant difference between administrators and everyone else. It is clearly possible to disagree with such claims of relevant difference and other employees would be likely to do so.

If being Speaker of the House grants a relevant difference that warrants the difference in treatment, then Ryan is no more a hypocrite than a university president would be for handing out bonuses to administrators on the basis of a relevant difference—even if she denied bonuses and raises to the faculty. The challenge is, of course, to justify the alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to eliminate the apparent inconsistency by arguing the attributed principle is not the person’s actual principle.  For Ryan to be a hypocrite in this case, he must hold the principle that explicitly states or at least entails that employees are entitled to the sort of work-family balance he wants. However, Ryan does not seem to hold to such a principle. Rather, he has espoused what can be regarded as an explicitly selfish value system. As Amanda Marcotte contends,  Ryan seems to be acting in accord with his values which are largely those argued for by the philosopher Ayn Rand. This view was laid out quite clearly in her Virtue of Selfishness  in which she argues in favor of the moral theory of ethical egoism. This is the view each person should act in his or her own self-interest and is contrasted against moral altruism, which is the view that a person should at least consider the interests of others. Altruism is also exemplified by the injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself and the Golden Rule.

It is in Ryan’s self-interest to have the family time he wants, so his principle would simply be that he should receive this family time. Under ethical egoism of the sort explicitly embraced by Ryan, he would be acting in a moral manner—by attempting to maximize what is of value for him.  This principle does not entail that other people should receive a guarantee of an improved work-family balance. So, when he votes against bills to allow employees a better work-family balance, he is not being a hypocrite. He is being perfectly consistent with his value system.

If he is a proper ethical egoist, he would also accept that other people should act in their own self-interest—this is what distinguishes the moral theory of ethical egoism from simple selfishness (which is not a moral system). As such, he should accept that other people should try to get the work-family balance they desire. But he should help them only on the condition that doing so would be in his self-interest, which he clearly thinks it is not. As such, if he is an ethical egoist, he is not a hypocrite—under that moral system he would be acting morally. If, however, he subscribed to a more altruistic moral system (such as the sort advocated by Pope Francis), then he would seem to be a hypocrite. After all, he is not loving his neighbor as he loves himself.

 

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Syria & Russia

Apparently following the lead set by Hollywood, Putin is remaking the classic cold war series. After getting things started in Ukraine, he has switched to that zone of endless conflict that is the Middle East. While Russia has long supported the Assad, Putin has sent Russian military forces to shore up the crumbled regime. Russian jets have already hit targets in Syria and Russia has tried to tell the United States to stay out of its way. The US has declined to abandon its operations, but has agreed to discuss steps to “de-conflict” the operations. That is, to coordinate with the Russians to avoid dogfights between American and Russian combat aircraft.

The conflict in Syria has been largely to Russia’s advantage in that the refugees fleeing to Europe have caused conflict among the European nations that threatens to damage or even destroy the union. The influx of refugees has also strengthened the right wing nationalist parties in Europe. These parties are often seen as being on reasonably good terms with Putin and any advances they make are a plus for him.

Given the value of keeping up the flood of refugees into Europe, it might be wondered why Putin is finally intervening. The easy and obvious answer is that he believes he has something to gain by this intervention. This does seem to be true—Putin does stand to gain.

First, Syria is Russia’s only real foothold in the Middle East. Syria is a Russian ally and plays host to a Russian naval base in Tartus. Having Syria collapse completely would cost Russia an ally and make maintaining a military presence very difficult.

Second, Russia has its own substantial Moslem population and is worried about terrorism. It is currently estimated that around 2,000 Russians are fighting for ISIS in the Middle East and Putin is no doubt concerned that they might return to cause trouble in Russia. Put bluntly, he can simply kill them in the Middle East and solve that problem.

Third, by acting on the world stage Putin hopes to create the impression that Russia is a major player again. The cynical might regard this as Putin engaging in “look at me! Look at me!” behavior, but even the cynical must acknowledge that it is working—the United States and other nations now have to deal with Russia and that gets Putin into the media spotlight.

Fourth, Russian adventures in Syria pull the eye of the media cyclops away from Ukraine and to Syria, thus providing Russia a media shadow in which to operate.

Fifth, Russia gets to boost its reputation by looking tough relative to the United States. It has been claimed that Russia’s initial attacks did not hit ISIS but targeted anti-Assad forces that are backed by the United States. Putin is confident that the United States will not shoot down Russian planes to protect the pitifully few US backed rebels. This allows Putin to poke the US in the eye with no risk—it would, after all, be stupid for the US to get into war with Russia over a handful of rebels.

While Russia sees the potential for gain via this intervention, there is the blindingly obvious fact that things always go wrong in the Middle East. Pundits are already making the obvious reference to the last Russian adventure in the region—the meat grinder that was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While Putin has emphasized that Russia will be engaged only in an air campaign, interventions often escalate and both the United States and Russia have shown a willingness to jump into quagmires. Should Syria turn out to be a quagmire, this will be bad for Russia. Cynically, it could be good for the United States in geopolitical terms. It would, as always, be horrible for the people who live in the quagmire.

A second possible problem for Russia is that its intervention in the region will make it into a Junior Satan or even a Co-Satan to the original Great Satan (that is, the United States). Russia could find itself subject to increased attention from foreign terrorists and also domestic unrest from its own Moslem population. This, clearly, would not be a plus for Russia.

A third possible problem is that the intervention could go badly and damage Russian prestige. For example, Russian pilots might be captured and executed by ISIS. As another example, the Russian bases of operation might be overrun and captured, which would be a blow to the reputation of Russia.

A fourth problem is that backing Assad might have a negative impact on Russia’s relation with other countries. However, the countries that are likely to be upset by this are countries that already have poor relations with Russia.

While analogical reasoning is inductive and thus subject to the usual practical problem of induction (namely that the premises of an inductive argument can all be true and the reasoning strong, yet the conclusion can be false), the history of the Middle East has shown that such interventions always end badly. As such, it seems reasonable to expect that Russia’s intervention will slide into disaster. That said, perhaps Putin can pull it off and make history.

 

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A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

Note: I am cross-posting this from my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. The Cogito post referred to is the one that I republished here a couple of days ago.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn’t expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court’s decision doesn’t yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it’s difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle’s exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with “clean hands”, in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough – I’m not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view – which the court also seems to have stated – he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman’s views are, as far as I’m concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can’t stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It’s troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I’m a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there’s something that has not been revealed – e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence – it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it’s a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left – traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech – now seem to believe that we should be using the state’s coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me – more than ever in the last few days – is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I’m appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we’re going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

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The people we don’t want to stand with: Free speech – again – and the troubling case of Troy Newman

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In previous Cogito posts, I have defended freedom of speech, interpreted in a broad, non-legalistic sense. For example, I have defended Peter Singer’s liberty to express his controversial views on issues at the beginning and end of life. As I’ve acknowledged, I am sympathetic to Singer’s viewpoint, but I would also wish to defend philosophical bioethicists who argue for positions differing greatly from mine.

But what if we’re dealing with individuals whose views are, by my lights, truly extreme and deplorable? In responding to such outliers, what sorts of lines should we draw? The current controversy in Australia over anti-abortion campaigner, Troy Newman, brings those questions into focus.

Newman banned from Australia

As has been widely reported, several Labor politicians recently requested that Newman be prevented from visiting Australia for a ten-day tour under the auspices of Right to Life Australia. The request was subsequently granted, and Newman’s visa was cancelled under the Migration Act.

In a further twist, he travelled to Australia on a United Airlines flight, only to be detained by Australian Border Force officials at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. As I write, he is taking action in the High Court in an attempt to avoid deportation. Whether or not this proves successful, Newman has been turned into a something of martyr, not to mention a cause célèbre, for his views.

Going to extremes

Troy Newman is president of an American anti-abortion organisation called Operation Rescue. According to press reports, he has advocated the death penalty for carrying out an abortion (which he regards as a form of murder) in his co-authored book, with Cheryl Sullenger, Their Blood Cries Out. Perhaps even more troubling, he protested in 2003 at the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill – not because he opposes the death penalty (he evidently does not), but because he saw some justification in the murders committed by Hill in 1994. Hill’s victims were the doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and the doctor’s bodyguard.

Generally, however, Newman does not appear to advocate direct violence by private individuals. He claims to have no intention of inciting or promoting such acts. Rather, he says, he wants to prohibit abortion through the legal system.

For the record, I certainly don’t regard abortion as murder, or even as something that merits social condemnation. In addition, I oppose the death penalty even for murder. As I see things, furthermore, women’s reproductive rights are required for the large-scale and ongoing social transition rightly demanded by the feminist movement. Thus, my substantive views on abortion could scarcely be more different from Newman’s.

In the past, I have been pleased to say that I stand with Peter Singer when attempts are made to prevent him speaking. Like many other people throughout the world, I also used the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie when the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by Islamist terrorists and many of its staff were murdered. Indeed, I still support Charlie Hebdo. In an article published in Free Inquiry, however, I noted that things would be somewhat different if Charlie Hebdo really were a racist, and otherwise vicious, publication as claimed by many of its critics. In those circumstances, we might defend its legal right to publish; surely, however, we’d be less comfortable about using slogans that express solidarity.

To say the least, I am not comfortable about expressing any solidarity with the likes of Newman. Outright expressions of solidarity suggest, if not overall approval, at least an implication that someone is a valued participant in public debate. Judging by reports, Newman’s ideas are so repugnant that I’d not want to give any impression of somehow being on his side or of valuing his contribution to discussion in the public square.

A liberal response

But does it follow that Newman should be prevented from touring Australia to promote his political views?

He is free to express them in his own country, the United States, so actions such as those taken by the Australian authorities cannot totally silence him. Nonetheless, he is being prevented from delivering his message to an Australian audience in the way that he has chosen (and which might be effective). We can assume that he and his affiliated organisations would not be interested in the planned tour unless they expected it to win hearts and minds (or at least to boost the zeal and morale of the local anti-abortion tribe).

It’s futile, then, trying to argue that stopping his Australian tour has no implications related to free speech. Newman and his associates are being denied platforms that are otherwise available to them and are clearly important to their plans. This restricts their ability to spread opinions and arguments about the legality or otherwise of abortion, and about what penalties should apply to it if it’s illegal.

Newman and his associates should be able to express their views publicly. I still maintain, as I’ve said in regard to other cases such as that of Geert Wilders when he sought to visit the UK, that the public authorities should bear a heavy burden before they can justify interfering with the liberties of individuals in response to things that the individuals have said, or in an effort to pre-empt things that the individuals are likely to say.

As I acknowledged in respect of the decision (duly overturned) to keep Wilders out of the UK, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right. However, as I quickly added, that distinction is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel from one country to another for peaceful purposes such as tours involving lectures and media appearances.

I am not doubting that there can exceptional situations, particularly where there is a very high risk of imminent violent lawlessness. But so far as I am currently aware, there is little, if anything, in the way of evidence that Newman planned to cross the line into inciting private acts of violence against any specific abortion providers or even against abortion providers as a general class. It appears to be his practice not to call for the commission of violent acts except under the authority of the law, i.e. as punishments when someone is convicted of a crime.

Despite Newman’s past statement in defence of Hill’s murders, there is no evidence that he planned to urge murders, or any other acts of private violence, while in Australia. But if I’m wrong about that – if some convincing evidence exists that he was intending to incite or promote private violence – I at least hope that the facts will become available to the public as a matter of urgency.

For now, it appears that the ban on Newman’s entry to Australia was solely or largely because of his views as to what the law should be in respect of abortion. In short, he was banned solely or largely for advocating political views deemed by the Australian federal authorities to be intolerable.

I do not feel conflicted, therefore, in stating clearly that Newman should not have been denied a visa solely or largely for his political views. Nor should his publications, including Their Blood Cries Out, be censored or prohibited. He should have a legal right to express even extreme, repugnant, outrageous views on public policy relating to abortion. This is quintessentially political speech, which merits especially strong legal and social protection from political suppression.

I would like to see views such as Newman’s pushed to the margins of what is accorded any credibility in a modern liberal democracy such as Australia. But it’s a further, far more drastic, step to attempt to suppress his views by political force, or to punish him for them. That is manifestly authoritarian. Even if it survives a High Court challenge, this step should not be taken by any government of a modern liberal democracy.

Ironies

One irony is that Newman is, himself, a blatant authoritarian. He seeks criminalisation, and suggests harsh punishment, for what should – at least in my view of the world – be very private choices. Thus, we see a hardline authoritarian activist turning into a poster boy for free speech. Well done, Australia! Newman is now well placed, in his future efforts, to invoke a liberal understanding of the role of the state that he does not profess in his own activism.

Fine distinctions can be made within liberal thought as to when, how, and how far we must tolerate the intolerant. Newman can, however, easily cut through all of that. As events have unfolded, he can claim, quite accurately, that he has been treated in an illiberal manner during his efforts to enter Australia and promote his ideas.

Blocking his proposed tour may even have perverse results: the eventual effect will be to give more publicity to his views than if he had simply been allowed to travel and speak relatively quietly.

Complications

It does not follow that someone as divisive as Newman would be an appropriate choice as, say, a university’s graduation speaker, or as someone to receive an honorary degree. More generally, freedom of speech does not require access to highly privileged platforms and other honours. Normally, however, it should give some protection against being excluded from entry to an entire country where you are scheduled to speak.

It is also worth insisting that there are limits to the concept of free speech. At its foundation is the right to express ideas on general issues, which certainly includes political issues such as the legality of abortion. It does not follow that the ideas can be expressed at any time, in any place, or in any manner whatsoever. I cannot, for example, express my opposition to a disliked politician’s election by burning down her house.

Keeping someone out of an entire country because of what he might say on general issues (or for what he has said in the past) is illiberal. It does not follow that it would be illiberal to prevent him from publishing false, serious and defamatory allegations about a particular individual, perhaps in his own efforts to silence an opponent. Issues to do with free speech are not simple and they are not best handled with absolutist zeal.

In the current situation, Newman and his associates should have the right to give speeches and lectures calling for the prohibition of abortion and proposing criminal penalties for it. They should have the right to publish books, articles, and blog posts, to send letters to newspapers, to organise peacefully among themselves, to give interviews and to conduct peaceful political demonstrations.

It doesn’t follow, however, that anti-abortion campaigners should have the right to get up close and personal in harassing women who are going about their business obtaining legal abortions. There is much to be said against the more oppressive tactics adopted by many anti-abortion campaigners in Australia and elsewhere, and I think some emphasis should be given to this even while decrying state action to suppress political ideas.

Final thoughts

In a recent article in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill makes the case – quite correctly – that free speech does not apply only to people who agree with you. While that is fine as far as it goes, O’Neill may be too impatient in dismissing a view that he quotes from one of his previous readers: “it is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with.”

Surely there’s something correct in that quotation. Part of the difficulty is that no one can fight every individual battle that arises over freedom of speech. I can insist as a general point that my opponents should have freedom of speech, without having the time and inclination to put up my hand for each specific opponent who runs into difficulties.

It is natural and justifiable to give priority to people who have something to say that seems intellectually attractive or socially valuable, or to people who are suffering disproportionately over speech that at least seems innocuous or reasonable. In my case, I don’t have the time or energy to argue on each particular occasion for the free-speech rights of each homophobe or jihadist or racist, of every particular crank or extremist or bigot of some kind, who gets into trouble over some deplorable message.

Yet, if we never defend the free speech of specific cranks, extremists, and the rest, that itself conveys a message: it looks as if we support freedom only for the expression of ideas that we personally like or see as having some merit. On this occasion, then, I am having my say about someone whose views I clearly dislike. This is an appropriate occasion to speak out, since it involves illiberal action by the authorities in my own country.

For all that, Newman’s ideas should be opposed strongly and relentlessly on their merits. Although he may not directly incite violence, extreme anti-abortion campaigners like Newman add to an environment in which women’s reproductive rights are difficult to extend further and are always vulnerable to being cut back. Furthermore, it’s an environment in which many women may feel (and even be) unsafe in seeking to exercise their rights.

We should not try to suppress political ideas, but there is still something very disturbing about Newman, and I can at least understand the urge to keep his message out of Australia.

With that in mind, I’ll conclude by urging that we defend and extend abortion rights – and that we take further initiatives to protect women from violence or harassment for exercising their rights. Their reproductive freedom is essential to their autonomy as individuals, and also to our society’s transition to gender equality.

Freedom of speech is important, but so is reproductive freedom. To the full extent that I can, I stand with women who need it.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Obligations to Refugees

As this is being written, large numbers of people are fleeing conflict and economic woes in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. As with past exoduses, some greet the refugees with kindness, some with indifference and some with hate. As a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics regarding obligations to refugees.

One way to approach the matter of moral obligations to refugees is to apply the golden rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. While most of those who read this are living lives of relatively good fortune, it is easy enough to imagine one’s living falling apart due to war or other disaster—human made or natural. In such circumstances, a person would almost certainly want to be helped. As such, if the golden rule has moral validity, then help should be rendered to the refugees.

One objection to this claim is that people should solve their own problems. In the case of Syria, it could be contended that the Syrians should stay and fight. Or, at the very least, they should not expect others to do their work for them. In the case of those trying to find a better life elsewhere, it could be argued that they should remain in their home countries and build a viable economy. These are, of course, variations on the usual “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” arguments.

One could also advance a house analogy. Imagine, if you will, that the neighbors down the road are fighting among themselves and wrecking their house. Some of them, tired of the conflict, show up at your door and insist that you put them up and feed them. Though it might be awfully nice to help them, it could also be said that they should put their own house in order. After all, you have managed to keep your family from falling into chaos and they should be able to do the same. There is also the concern that they will wreck your house as well.

This analogy, obviously enough, assumes that the fighting and wrecking began in the house and that no outsider assisted in inflicting the conflict. If, for example, people were just jammed arbitrarily into the houses and then subject to relentless outside interference, then the inhabitants would not bear full responsibility for their woes—so the problems they would need to solve would not be entirely their own. This would seem to provide a foundation for an obligation to help them, at least on the part of those who helped cause the trouble.

If, as another example, the house was invaded from the outside, then that would certainly change matters. In this case, the people fleeing the house would be trying to escape criminals and it would certainly be a wicked thing to slam the door in the face of victims of crime.

As a final example, if the head of the household was subjecting the weaker members of the household to domestic abuse, then it would also change the situation in relevant ways. If beaten and abused people showed up at one’s door, it would be heartless to send them back to be beaten and abused.

Interestingly, the house analogy can also be repurposed into a self-interest argument for taking in refugees. Imagine, if you will, a house of many rooms that were once full of people. Though the house is still inhabited, there are far fewer people and many of them are old and in need of care. There is much that needs to be done in the house, but not enough people to do it all.

Nearby are houses torn with violence and domestic abuse, with people fleeing from them. Many of these people are young and many are skilled in doing what needs to be done in the house of many rooms. As such, rational self-interest provides an excellent reason to open the doors and take in those fleeing. The young immigrants can assist in taking care of the native elderly and the skilled can take up the slack in regards to the jobs. In this case, acting in self-interest would seem to coincide with doing the right thing.

There are, of course, at least two obvious counters to this self-interest analogy. One is the moral problem of taking in people out of self-interest while letting the other houses fall into ruin. This does suggest that a morally superior approach would be to try to bring peace to those houses. However, if peace is unlikely, then taking in those fleeing those houses would seem to be morally acceptable.

Another is a practical concern—that some of those invited in will bring ruin and harm to their new house. While this fear is played up, the danger presented by refugees seems to be rather low—after all, they are refugees and not an invading army. That said, it would be quite reasonable to consider the impact of refugees and to take due care in screening for criminals.

 

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Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National – France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right – and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National – so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister – perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism – but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products – whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines – for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover – much less appreciate – complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt – e.g. in writing posts like this one – where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.