Monday, 23 February 2015

Not in my name

Today New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key announced in Parliament that New Zealand would be sending troops to Iraq to help the US fight the Islamic State. There was no vote.

I could really just finish with that. When you look at the other parties’ responses it’s pretty clear why National didn’t risk putting it to a vote. The aim, Key says, is to protect “the rule of law”, which he identified with “the international rules-based system”. I’m not sure whether I’m alarmed or relieved that he didn’t claim to be acting for “democracy”. Was that because he thinks you can have the rule of law without democracy? Or was the irony of sending people to die for democracy without a vote just that little bit too uncomfortable even for him?

Here’s the thing, if you don’t see the problem. Every system of government is “rules-based”. Slavery was “rules-based”, with rules like “Slaves must not run away” and “Slaves may not be taught to read”. The Nazis had all sorts of rules – about who could marry whom, about what you could say about the Führer. There is no reason in principle why rules shouldn’t coexist comfortably with hideous violence. The question that matters is whether the rules are devised by the powerful or by the people.

But given the disgraceful behaviour of the New Zealand police at the Auckland Pride Parade on Saturday, I’d say the people who run our country have long since forgotten that.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Atheism is not a vaccine against bigotry

The three victims of the Chapel Hill shooting

A couple of days ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a guy called Craig Hicks walked into the house shared by his newly-married neighbours Deah Barakat and Yusor Mohammad and shot them and Mohammad’s visiting sister Razan, killing all three. Hicks’ immediate inspiration for the act seems to have been a parking dispute. Would he have done the same over a disagreement with his white neighbours, his neighbours with north-western European names, or his neighbours whose ancestors had lived more than two generations in the US? If so, it would break the nauseously familiar pattern that so far his crime seems to instantiate. Us-and-Them thinking cannot be uprooted from the human psyche; all the more urgent that its shoots be plucked off at first sight.

There’s a twist. As well as their skin colour, ethnicity, and provenance, the victims were all Muslim. That’s not the twist. Hicks advocates right-wing politics and opposes gun control. That’s not the twist either. The twist is that Hicks is an atheist, indeed a “New Atheist”, a devotee of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. It’s looking like his atheism was part of the parcel that led him to think shooting someone is OK if they’re Muslim and nick your parking space.

New Atheism is one of multiple crowds that I hang out on the fringes of. I’m not a big fan of Harris or Hitchens and my opinion of Dawkins has taken a pounding in the last couple of years, but I still admire Daniel C. Dennett and Steven Pinker, and I applaud Stephen Fry’s stance on God in the recent viral YouTube video. I could distance myself from Hicks by doing some Us-and-Themmery of my own – redneck! gun-nut! libertarian! patriarch! – but that wouldn’t be honest. His crime has no bearing on the existence or otherwise of God, but it has punctured the protective bubble of self-praise that New Atheists have blown up around ourselves, part of which was that New Atheists don’t blow that sort of bubble.

So here goes. No, violent aggression against people seen as “other” did not come into the world with religion. Most of today’s major religions became major by harnessing it, but it predates them and, if Hicks is anything to go by, will survive their demise. No, rejecting supernatural beliefs does not make you immune to it. Yes, reason is one of the antidotes, but for that to work you have to commit yourself to the use of reason as your sole means of persuasion. Using the word “reason” as a badge of superiority won’t cut it.

Yes, Islam is a religion, not a race. Yes, some of Islam’s sternest critics are former Muslims. Yes, they include leftists like Maryam Namazie as well as neocons like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yes, one can leave Islam through mental effort. No, that doesn’t make it OK to harass Muslims for being Muslims. Yes, everyone should have the right to free speech. No, that doesn’t mean Muslims have to stop complaining when people trash-talk them. Actually that’s kind of the opposite of what it means, when you think about it. Yes, false beliefs can be harmful. Yes, clinging to beliefs beyond the warrant of the evidence is therefore dangerous. No, that doesn’t mean it should be punished, except insofar as rational debate constitutes punishment.

No, Islam does not contain qualitatively nastier ideas than Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. Yes, there is historical contingency as well as present geopolitics in the tangle of contributing factors that help explain why majority-Muslim countries nowadays are trailing the rest of the world on violence and human rights. Yes, particular readings of the Qur’an are part of the tangle. No, there is no sense in which they are “core beliefs” of Islam but the phobia of Jews, heresy, and Satan were not “core beliefs” of Christianity well into modern times.

Yes, 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo shootings were committed in the name of Islam. No, that doesn’t mean every single Muslim is more violent than every single non-Muslim, even by a tiny degree. It means, at most, that (at present) the proportion of people who are violent is slightly larger in Muslim populations than in other populations. If that justifies shooting Muslims, then the same logic mandates the extermination of men; the prevalence of violence among men is orders of magnitude greater than the prevalence of violence among women (and chronically so). No, Muslim immigrants into non-Muslim countries are not all sleeper agents of the global caliphate waiting for a signal to convert everyone by the sword. Not even mostly.

No, Muslims are not responsible for what other Muslims do just because they’re Muslims. That Enlightenment humanism stuff? That stuff we talk about, where you get judged by your individual actions, not the characteristics of a set that you happen to be a member of? That applies here too.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Whakamanatia te Tiriti

Imagine with me that you’ve got new neighbours, and they’ve offered you some kind of contract to let them use part of your property. Let’s say, just for the sake of the example, that your house has a garage and theirs doesn’t, but they have a car and you get by with a motorbike. So when they move in they knock on the door and ask if they can use your garage. You’re a bit dubious at first, but they come back the next day with a contract all drawn up that says they’ll give you regular payments for maintenance, they’ll always leave you room to store your motorbike in there, and if you need the garage for anything bigger all you need to do is ask and they’ll park on the street that day. You check and double-check the small print and it’s all legit, so you sign.

The following morning you awake to the sound of your neighbours converting your garage to a sleep-out for their teenage son. You run out, waving your copy of the contract and shouting angrily. They smile indulgently and produce their original version of the contract, with your signature impressed on it through carbon-paper. It’s written in their native language, and in translation (they explain) it gives them complete right of ownership over your garage in exchange for a small weekly payment. They apologize for having badly translated it when they gave it to you. But you signed, and they’ve started the weekly payments, they say, so the garage is theirs now.

Morally, you’ve been swindled. How about legally? If you took them to court, what would you argue? Supposing – at this point the analogy gets a little frayed, but we’re approaching the real thing a bit closer – supposing it turned out they belonged to a completely separate jurisdiction, so that you had to recourse to international law. What then?

As a matter of fact, international law has a well-recognised principle devised for this exact situation. After all, when two nations sign a treaty it’s quite likely that the signatories will be seeing it in two different languages. The principle that has been adopted in all such disputes is called contra proferentem, which is Latin for “against the one bringing it forth”. What this means in our analogy is that since you didn’t have any input into formulating the terms of the contract, the version you signed in your language is the only official version. The other one is null and void; you never signed that one! The fact that it was older, and contained the drafters’ true intention, is legally irrelevant.