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Controversial Opinions; or Free Speech

Taken from the Westboro Baptist Church's website with permission on January 6, 2013.
Only the people who really hate Philistines can ride on top.

Panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, is Juvenal’s now common idiom for the means to appease the people. Full bellies and something obnoxiously loud -yet meaningless- will keep the vulgar masses quiet, and in this glorious 21st century, neither are in short supply. But a populace distracted by loud but tolerable circuses is not concerned with true free speech, they are concerned with those trolls that defy the majority. Recent examples abound. The Westboro Baptist Church, the film the Innocence of Muslims, and atheists and antitheists in general, who so annoyingly scrutinize our religious opinions. It takes sober thought to realize the importance of defending these aggravating examples of free speech. In the next few days I’ll argue for the defense of the right to be heard for each of these groups, beginning with the least redeemable; Westboro.

People do not have the right to prevent others from offending them. If someone insults you in public, no moral person would defend your right to use violence in any fashion to . Yet this is exactly what we would have our government do. If we restrict the marketplace of ideas we enforce the majorities’ views with force, rather than reason. Any proposition that denies the right to speak to the Westboro is something that must be opposed as a matter of principle.

Westboro attracts attention by saying outrageous things. They are, in the intertubes lingua franca, trolling. They certainly believe the things they say, as they can be backed up by scripture, but that doesn’t detract from the only reason they make the news; they are hitting America’s soft spots. It is tempting to silence these fools with the weight of the law, as that is the easiest solution. A simple majority shows up for an election and then our police force recovers our peace of mind. But in doing so we have extended our government’s reach, albeit slightly, on the only area of free speech that matters, that is, the controversial part.

The ease of a legal solution to this problem does not make in the best solution; and there are alternatives. The Patriot Guard Riders will counter-protest quietly and respectfully anywhere the Westboro dares to show up, and without any legal ramifications. There was a similar result at the funeral of a fellow former resident of Holland, a Navy Seal named Daniel Price, thousands lined the streets with flags in a touching, if slightly jingoistic, display of solidarity.*  The turnout was helped in part by the foreknowledge of Westboro’s presence, and any harmful effect they could have had on the family of the deceased was negated.

I hope I have made a case against legally doing away with unscrupulous opinions. Everyone entertains unpopular opinions. People on this blog are likely to have one of the most hated of them: that of the nontheist. But this kind of independent persuasion makes discussions and life more interesting. Allowing dissent will create, by the process of argument, new opinions that are a closer approximation of observable evidence. And anyone who questions the popular theistic conceptions of the godhead appreciates closer approximations of reality. But unfortunately,  the government is not the only entity capable of suppressing unpopular opinions, and I will come back to that in the next essay.

 * The local report on Daniel Price’s funeral can be found here.

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How Not to be a Bad Atheist

In this great skeptical movement of ours we have had the opportunity to grow complacent. Of course, being the enlightened intellectuals that we are, we have not squandered this opportunity. Here are some problems I have with public skeptics I’ve watched.

1. Regarding Logical Fallacies

So you took a Logic class and you are now entitled to win arguments, I understand. But the point of those informal fallacies you learned was not to be able to relate them in the middle of a conversation and expect your opponent to understand your jargon. Explain to them in the midst of your argument with a counterexample, do not simply accuse them. The ultimate fallacy is strange idea that the first one to mention fallacy wins the argument. For example, if someone calls you an asshole, which if you’re like me is not at all a rare occurrence, do not say “Hah! That, my mere plebeian opponent, is an Ad Hominem informal fallacy. Had you been considerate enough to memorize that section of our textbook, you would be qualified to continue this conversation, but seeing as you are unfit, I will have to claim this verbal challenge for myself!” Instead, agree with them as you are, in fact, an asshole! But then go on to say “but I don’t know what that has to do with the efficacy of duct tape in improving survival rates of patients with gunshot wounds in the neck!” In doing so you explain to the commoner what an Ad Hominem is, without risking associating yourself with those amateurish logicians who apply their informal fallacy education as if it was a weapon.

2. Regarding Gender

So you’ve come out of the metaphorical closet of atheism and stepped into the literal light of day. Suddenly a new creature appears, a female who dares speak her mind in public! Worse yet, you’re attracted to her! Now, before you criticise feminism with your newfound skeptic methods in order to impress her, consider the facts for yourself, on your own time. Otherwise you risk making unintentionally controversial statements. How can you explain your problems with the theory of Patriarchy if your audience is busy criticizing your use of pronouns?! But there is another audience I’d like to address on this matter. Atheist feminists. Take it easy on us. Many of us are trying not to be sexist, and agree with many of the sentiments of feminism. Being a part of a disenfranchised group does not put you above criticism. The most common manifestation of this silly glorification of disenfranchisement occurs with the phrase “as a…”. For example: “as a woman, I think I better understand the irreparable damage an immature atheist can cause to my gender, and thus conclude that anyone who makes such blunders must be burned on a suitably phallic stake.” Though I would applaud your sense of irony, I would remind you that your argument from authority is everyone’s least favorite valid form. Because I said so.

3. Regarding Defining Atheism

Atheists are people who do not believe in God. That’s it. Don’t try to ascribe additional progressive goals to them. It is possible to be a sexist atheist. Don’t go around arguing what atheists should or shouldn’t do, by arrogantly titling your blog posts things like “How to be a Good Atheist” or presumptuously assuming your atheist audience will be interested in your advice about relating to the minority of public atheists. Even though atheism can and should serve as a platform for additional progressive discussion, we should not try to insist anything but disbelief should be a part of “real atheism.” Thanks for your time.

-Luke Smithems