Sunday, May 3, 2015

Questions of fact are questions of ethics

I’ve been sort of stewing about this oped by Caleb Crain since I read it. On the one hand, it’s not a bad piece - it makes some cogent points, including about the need for humility in interpretation, and concludes with a worthwhile call to do some investigating:
Instead of ending with a peroration, I'm going to end with a request for empiricism. I don't think you can know where you stand about PEN and Charlie Hebdo unless you've made a judgment about Charlie Hebdo's humor. And if you haven't been living in France and following the news there, I don't think you'll be able to do that fairly at a glance.
On the other hand, I believe it misrepresents positions like mine, which have argued for empiricism all along; and that in making its distinction between questions of fact and questions of ethics it pushes aside the need for an ethic of fact-finding.

If one theme has been consistent in my writing here over the years – about religion, accommodationism, animal liberation, psychiatry, Evolutionary Psychology, environmentalism, corporate and government spin,… - it’s the importance of the ethical and political dimensions of epistemology. I’ve argued over and over again that movements for social justice will never, never be served by an approach to knowledge that isn’t based fundamentally on an active search for and use of a reasoned and caring evaluation of the evidence. Those approaches that grant respect to seemingly positive, convenient, or comforting beliefs that lack a foundation in evidence, or to the practice of faith itself, are completely contrary to humanist values and goals, and will always serve oppressive forces in the long run.

And that’s what I’ve emphasized all along in regard to the responses to the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff (which is something quite different from Crain’s claim that the argument of my “side” has been that it should be “obvious” that the drawings aren’t racist). I’ve objected to the fact that some people have continued to approach facts unethically, in two senses. First, they’ve chosen to remain willfully ignorant about the history, motives, targets, and cultural context of Charlie Hebdo and refused to engage with those who have more knowledge, all while making outrageous claims about the magazine and its murdered staff. Second, several appear to hold that blasphemy and religious debunking themselves, either concerning minority religions in a specific context or in general, are inherently bad – gratuitous, cruel, unnecessary, and irrelevant (!); and that faith claims and faith as such should be accorded respect.* These choices can’t be separated from the ethical and political questions surrounding CH – they’re fundamentally and unavoidably ethical and political.

We can and should openly discuss and debate how best to go about publicly debunking falsehoods. But we should never lose sight of the urgent need to do so – especially when those myths determine and destroy the lives of millions of people – or of the need to challenge cultural respect for claims or beliefs based on anything other than a thoughtful and reasoned evaluation of the evidence. I hope Glenn Greenwald wouldn’t object to the public criticism or mockery of US imperialism, militarism, authoritarianism, or Christianism, despite the fact that many poor and marginalized people here hold dear to their patriotic and religious beliefs.

* In this, they’re aligned with the Right, whether they acknowledge it or not. The various religious (and non-religious) rightwing movements and governments around the world fully support walling off faith-based beliefs from criticism or mockery, and this inevitably extends to other institutions like the state and the military.

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