Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Media HugBox: A Collegiate Demonstration

Several weeks ago, curiosity brought me to read the most recent weekly paper of my former employer, The Watchdog. Inside, I found an article by one Ghina Mubin which argued that while what the murderers of Charlie Hebdo did was deplorable, a portion of the blame lay squarely on the shoulders of the content creators of the French publication. The heart of the Op/Ed--if one could say it had a center somewhere in the meandering path of assertions--read as follows:

"What the Charlie Hebdo magazine did was extremely inappropriate. France should not have been OK with publishing the images. Muslims see the prophet as a living example of how they should live. Frankly, even drawing the prophet isn’t OK. By portraying him in a negative way people could get a different image of who the prophet is,  and be even more confused on what the religion contains, Islamophobia is prevalent in the modern day world. When the cartoon was published, Charlie Hebdo encouraged ignorance and bigotry towards Islam. Shooting people is completely wrong and the shooters should be apprehended, but we must fix the causes and address the motives of these criminals.  We should learn from tragedies like this.
It’s not a surprise that the cartoon was published in France. France has been popular in the media for their secular campaigns such as trying to ban women from wearing the veil. This totally violates the right to practice whatever beliefs they hold. Lately, people have been using this tragedy to justify this propagandic “freedom of speech.” This is the same propaganda the Nazis used during World War II to make the citizens believe they were doing right. Freedom of speech and hate are two different topics; mixing the two together creates tension. The gray area in between is where people start to argue. To me, this sounds more like “freedom to hate”  or “freedom to be prejudiced” which sounds like a trigger to more violence, hate crimes and conflict. If France doesn’t acknowledge the “right to practice your religion,” then how can they be responsible to determine “freedom of speech” versus hate."

Behold, your tax-dollars at work, incubating the future of our great nation.

Initially, I was actually less appalled by the author's conclusions than by the almost satirically poor structure of the argument (if only slightly), and the reflection of this on the paper as a whole. As a point of reference and comparison, I remember that the very first piece I wrote as a member of The Watchdog staff was heavily vetted and fact-checked before being published, and the Editor in Chief had strongly suggested that I changed a word so as to soften the impact on Bellevue College's "diverse student body." I forget which word was the offending one, but the paper went so far as to add a disclaimer to the bottom of my article when I declined to make the change, redundantly distancing itself from what were mostly just statements of fact. This is a step noticeably missing in Ms. Mubin's train of mostly fact-free opinions.  Her journalistic failings, however great or maybe because of their grandiosity, were shorter in stature than its' entertainment value was tall, and so I did the only ethical and moral thing: I shared it for the enjoyment of my friends and acquaintances.

Additional comments edited out (This was the complete and total extent of my communication with Tockey on the subject; my views are my own, and do not reflect his, so please don't fire him)
Among the entertained acquaintances was Brian Tockey, whose name is not redacted because he is a writer and editor for the star publication of this post. He is also among a small number of contributors for whom I have tremendous respect, both for his intelligence and his writing abilities. Although I am proudly no longer a student at Bellevue College, the suggestion stuck with me for a few days. Ultimately--motivated equally by boredom and by the sheer will to exercise my right to join the conversation in the paper that I was paying for with my taxes--I decided to write a response. The paper states in its' print version that it will publish all letters to the editor, and under such a promise of inclusion, how could I resist, especially after personal send-off letters like these?

So here is the Letter to the Editor, in full:

"Unlike the Fatwa against author Salmon Rushdie in 1989, or the murder of Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has received an avalanche of publicity and outcry from the public at large. The majority of this outcry has been leveled at the violence carried out by Muslims against the secular publication, and a wonderfully large portion of that anger coming from the Islamic community itself. But there is another outcry aimed against the satirical editorial; the cartoons, this group says, incite the violence.
Among the latter group, I’m unsurprised to see The Watchdog staff in their editorial from January 27th. They are a professional group of media students, after all, and the media has placed itself mostly in the company of the censors, refusing—in this age of visual journalism—to show exactly which cartoons were causing this crises, all the while publically pondering if they had “gone too far this time.” Exactly like the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon riots and murders from a decade ago, and exactly like the Salmon Rushdie affair. 
I am pleasantly surprised to see that Ghina Mubin personally opposes shooting people (a view not shared by Mohammed, who himself had many poets like Abu Afak and others who mocked him killed). But the issue at hand is not the moral quandaries of murder, nor is this letter addressed to Ms. Mubin. It has rather to do with the subject of freedom of speech, which Ghina correctly points out sometimes includes “freedom to hate.” How else could a tolerant, liberal school like Bellevue College permit, let alone support, an ideology that preaches that homosexuals are transgressors and abominations? Or that unbelievers are to be fought until they willingly submit to a peaceful, second-class citizenship? I am no theologian, but I have read the Quran. For myself, the explicit calls to hatred, condemnation, and violence towards unbelievers should be a far greater outrage against our finely tuned moral sensitivities than any cartoon imaginable. 
The experience of being hated, for gays, Muslims, atheists like myself, or anyone else, is a subjective one. Two years ago, for example, BC’s own Yoshiko Harden talked to students about how calling a black person “articulate” was actually a racial micro-aggression, regardless of the intent of the speaker or the most obvious meaning of the sentence. In a world where a simple compliment can be racist, a cartoon can be “Islamophobic,” and—one can’t ignore the corollary—a religious text can be homophobic and sexist, freedom of speech and freedom of religion both necessarily imply a freedom to hate. And why shouldn’t it? I happen to hate rapists and murderers myself, and reserve the right to say so. 
As Ghina’s failure to research reminds us, Nazi-style censorship—not free speech—is the first step towards tyranny. To the Watchdog staff, I wish to remind you that freedom of speech and of the press is the platform on which you stand. Tread carefully when undermining yourself."
"Why," you may ask, "are you publishing this on your own blog? Why not wait for the paper to post it like a normal person? They do promise to publish all letters to the editor, after all." True, and if their promise (unfortunately only verifiable in person or print, not digitally) were kept, than this post would not exist, or at least not in this lengthened form. But--and I'm sure you will be shocked and surprised by this--they appear to be dragging their feet on actually following through. And to clarify what feet-dragging looks like here, I submitted the above on February 12. One cycle passing would be understandable enough. Space fills up in an Op/Ed section; I know, I used to organize and edit them. Two,  however, shows either incompetence or put-on forgetfulness, perhaps motivated by political disagreement, but more likely motivated by fear. Who knows for sure. But the most important character trait for a news story or an Op/Ed is timing. Writing a mediocre piece at the cusp of the subject's relevance is far better than writing a masterpiece well after it has died down. The Watchdog staff's failure to grasp this would be just as condemning as their understanding, so I won't bother speculating. I'm not waiting anymore in any case.

One final observation: in the extraordinary lag-time between my submission of the letter and its non-publication, another headline related to violence and Islam came, this time in the reverse form from the usual. Three Muslims were shot to death by an atheist man in Chapel Hill, NC. Here, if there ever was one, is the perfect "man-bites-dog" story the media so craves. How did The Watchdog choose to cover it? See if you can guess the direction they take before you read it. In case you need a hint, here's a star quote:

"Movies such as “American Sniper” are promoting this type of bigotry and hate towards Muslims."

Indeed. Anyone who watched the film knows it's basically pro-atheist propaganda too.


*Update: Within several hours of posting this, Aaron did get back to me with the intent to publish my letter. I informed him that I had already published it elsewhere (here), and would completely understand if The Watchdog chooses not to publish it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Diversity Delirium

"Ferguson Day 6" (Wikimedia)
Forbes began an article on the benefits of diversity in the workplace with a line from author Steven Covey: "Strength lies in differences, not in similarities." This is certainly true when differences function as compliments, like having a full array of skills on a football team rather than a whole line-up of quarterbacks. But is this true when differences exist for their own sake? Diversity is "critical" and "essential," says Ms. Walter of Forbes, because it breeds innovation. That it certainly does, but that's not all it breeds. Methinks in our exuberance we have forgotten why diversity is valuable.

1859 was a great year for diversity, being the year that John Stuart Mill published his famous essay On Liberty. His defense of free expression was, at its core, a defense of diversity. But it was full of rhetoric and metaphors about battlefields and war. His imagining of "diversity" was not a rainbow of opinions about government, wealth-distribution, and foreign policy all sitting around a campfire singing kum ba ya. Diversity meant bloody combat between ideas, often to the death. His philosophical purpose in opposing censorship within his polemic was simply to even the playing field so that the strongest argument would more consistently crush the weaker ones. This has been a wonderful innovation for humanity because before Mill's proposal to throw ideas into the meat-grinding melee of public debate, the ideas were attached to tribes of real human beings. Differences--"diversity"--meant war. Now the ideas could die instead of us, so long as we were willing to accept the winning idea. In other words, diversity is valuable in a Darwinian sense; it speeds up the process of evolution by turning up the speed of natural selection (not a pleasant process for the ill-adapted and the weak). But if ideas are tested instead of humans, and we allow our beliefs to go through the furnace of natural selection, it means that, other factors notwithstanding, we don't have to, and we get peace and better knowledge in exchange for our wisdom.

Unfortunately, our feel-good friends on the left have forgotten that diversity is a fundamentally bloody affair, and in their forgetfulness, have replaced ideas with people again in the glorious gladiatorial bloodbath that is evolution. Instead of diversity of thought, it is diversity of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and culture that they're striving for. This has happened because, in a truly acrobatic feat of logical inversion, diversity has become associated with peace.

The logic goes more or less like this: diversity is good (assumption), but more importantly, racism and cultural bigotry (like "Islamophobia") are bad, and diversity fights against bigotry by getting people used to being around other. This works because racism and bigotry, which are prevalent problems in our society (assumption), is caused by unfamiliarity and fear (assumption).

In this way, diversity becomes a path to happy and cooperative coexistence, a view that is held with religious zeal, and in the name of this view, heretics are publicly crucified. If only their assumptions were true...

Thinking that diversity itself is the goal, rather than a means to the goal, they make matters even worse and insist that people not change from their religion and culture of ethnic heritage. As I've written before, freezing people in their natural cultural state and proactively treating them differently is all that multiculturalism is. What would happen to their beloved diversity if we rejected "inferior" cultures and religions? Here begins the unraveling of Mill's vicarious conflict of ideas, and the return of conflict between actual people.

There is one way that this utopian rainbow-world can work, of course. We can refuse to take our own views seriously. You know, the ones that have been personally entwined with us through race, gender, religion, and whatever other identity-marker that can be concocted for the fetishization of diversity for diversity's sake. The conflicts between people then become mere "differences" of no significance or importance. So all cultures are equally valid; all religions are equally true, and atheism is just another religion. Morality, values, even truth are subjective. Nothing really matters, except for nothing mattering (for diversity). But even if this nihilism could be universally enforced--a prospect that I shall generously call "highly unlikely," particularly when certain religions are involved--then the value of diversity in the pursuit of higher experience and productivity becomes a moot point anyways. Why care about diversity if all values and cultures are equally valid?

What's wrong with war, for example? What's wrong with exclusion and hatred? Aren't those just a different but equal value? Or are we playing fast and loose with circular reasoning, and not thinking things through?

To be fair, there is a kind of enjoyment in the raw experience of variety. I suspect that this is what most college students are referring to when they talk about the "experience of diversity," particularly in their first few years or in their tax-funded party-trips abroad. Different food, different clothing, different languages, different customs, different architecture, different geography; all of these things are exhilarating because they are new. But in these moments of exhilaration, we aren't sitting down to haggle over how to deal with the Middle East, or tackle the root causes of poverty, or even make a business decision or finish a team project. More often than not, differences in values and culture create conflict in these circumstances, obstructing rather than assisting the creation of a better final product or decision. This is not to say that we cannot be inspired by other cultures; to the contrary, we should actively seek them out, and traveling has always been considered a vital part of the classical education for this reason. But inspiration from another culture is an acknowledgment of value that the culture contributes, not value for mere existence. This is, by definition, at the expense of some other culture, at the very least by exclusive act of discreet selection. Taking the best of all cultures and rejecting the worst is precisely the goal of Mill's combative vision, and the antithesis of universally respectful multiculturalism (you often see this laid bare in charges of "cultural appropriation" from the acrobatic abstracticians of academia). Acceptance of another culture's ideas is not so much "diversity" as a victory on the etherial battlefield of ideas. "Diversity" means there's still two or more conflicting values or beliefs, engaged with each other or staring each other down over the innumerable corpses of previous ideas that didn't quite make it.

In short, Diversity + Proximity = War. This we cannot change; what we can change is what kind of war we want it to be: one of ideas, or one of guns.

This thesis has matched my own observation at College, where the Associated Student Government was a balkanized archipelago of various identity interest-groups, often distrustful of each other, however held together in solidarity by the promise of school money and perks in return for playing nice with other children. It also matches recent research on the subject, and follows the observations not only journalists with the honesty of retirement, but of virtually every thinking statesman and intellectual prior to John Stuart Mill.

And here's the thing: war is okay, so long as the soldiers getting systematically dismembered and disassembled are the ethereal kind, rather than the corporal. It's even good; it makes us wiser, mentally agile and smarter, and does this very quickly, all with no cost to us but our emotional connection to bad ideas. But "diversity" is coming to be accepted as good for its own sake, in pursuit of a multicultural utopia of acceptance. Today's diversity-advocates tie people to what makes them different and locks them there, making conflicts between ideas necessarily into conflicts between people and arguments that were once causes for mere disagreement and debate into causes for violence. Resentment and distrust are building between religions, races, and cultures, and the priests of multiculturalism can't see it, partially because most Americans have been extraordinarily gracious in pretending not to really care about their own values in mixed company. But the predictable repetition of events like the Ferguson riots and the murders of the writers at Charlie Hebdo force ordinary citizens into an awkward position: the academia-media-government Leviathan is fanatically insisting that diversity is a great strength, while reality is saying the opposite with gunshots and fire. The double-think can only last so long.

The way I see it, we basically have four options:

1. We can reject "multiculturalism" and re-learn the functional kind of diversity under the lost guidance of JSM.
2. We can reject diversity and enforce a culture of nihilism.
3. We can reject proximity and join sides with the various racial and religious nationalists.
4. We can go to war.

I'd personally love to go with option one, but progressivism seems dead set on the path towards either nihilism or war in pursuit of a non-existent option five (universal peace, prosperity, fairness, wealth, and fulfillment to all people and otherkin). At this rate, they might manage both in our lifetimes, but you can be sure they'll be the last to know.

"Getting it Wrong" (Wikimedia)