August 30, 2015

Defending Allies and Avoiding Hypocrisy

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When someone we like and possibly even respect as a worthwhile contributor to secular activism is shunned, boycotted, demonized, and/or publicly shamed, we tend to come to this person's defense (here's an example of something like this from a few years ago). As we come to such a person's defense, we might believe that some of what he or she has said could have been said better or that he or she made some mistakes along the way and might even owe some apologies. But many of us oppose the application of social pressure by those seeking to marginalize such a person.

One question worth asking ourselves is why we tend to oppose such efforts. Do we oppose these efforts just because we like the person at whom they are aimed, or do we oppose these efforts because we believe that they are misguided, counterproductive, or even dangerous to freethought regardless of the target? Are these tactics wrong when they are directed at a member of our group but perfectly fine for us to direct at a member of their group, or are they things we should avoid altogether?

I am of the opinion that attempting to suppress the free expression of ideas is problematic regardless of who is doing it to whom. I also think that the application of social pressures aimed at marginalizing individuals (e.g., seeking to damage someone's reputation through public shaming) for saying things with which we disagree is problematic regardless of whether it involves them doing it to us or us doing it to them.

This means that I oppose the efforts of some college Muslim groups to prevent Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking on their campus. I oppose these efforts not because I agree with everything Ali says but because I find such efforts to be misguided, counter to freethought, and even dangerous. Similarly, I oppose the efforts of some atheists to prevent PZ Myers from speaking at conferences to which he has been invited. I oppose these efforts not because I agree with everything Myers says but for precisely the same reasons I mentioned in the previous sentence.

When we express opposition to the application of social pressure to punish those who express ideas we do not like, there is something important that sometimes gets lost. Publicly expressing disagreement with the ideas someone has expressed is not the same thing as the application of social pressure to suppress their expression. The expression of disagreement or criticism is not shunning, demonization, boycotting, shaming, or anything of the sort. The expression of disagreement or criticism does not seek to harm or marginalize anyone. Defending the free expression of ideas does not obligate us to consider all ideas equally valuable.
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