The electronic edition of the Spring 2012 issue of The Gadfly is now available:
(More info and links to individual articles coming soon…)
While the commentariat was busy debating the politics of Lincoln, Django Unchained, and Les Miserables, a surprisingly radical film slipped under the critical radar in the form of Pitch Perfect, a comedy set in the world of collegiate a cappella. Ten months after the eviction of Zuccotti Park ended the glory days of the Occupy movement, and only weeks after Christopher Nolan tied the language of the 99% to the Terror, this light-hearted flick continues the debate over the possibility of more democratic kinds of political organization.
To be sure, classifying Pitch Perfect as even a middlebrow film is quite a stretch. The plotting follows standard Hollywood formulae; the concept is borrowed directly from the most earnest series on television right now, Glee; and the acting, aside from Rebel Wilson’s performance, is solidly forgettable.
And these aesthetic critiques don’t even address the reactionary sexual politics at play in the film. There’s slut-shaming galore, and a deeply problematic handling of the only queer character. Say what you will about the politics of Glee, but at least it doesn’t portray lesbians as constantly leering at other women, creating tension in an otherwise pristinely hetero group.
But despite its flaws, this film adds up to something much more than conservative kitsch. Rather, if we strip the plot down to its schematic elements, we find it to be a re-telling of the ancient story of old, broken forms of self-organization that must be replaced — the story, that is, of revolution.
The narrative is structured around two warring a cappella groups, the all-female Barden Bellas and the male Treblemakers. If we read each group as a polis, a group of citizens who must organize themselves, then at the outset both groups solidly fit the classical mold of tyranny: each is run by an iron-fisted senior and his or her trusted lackey. For the Treblemakers, this model works excellently, as the narcissistic Bumper leads the group to victory after victory. The Bellas aren’t so well-off: Aubrey refuses to innovate beyond the tired songs that the Bellas have always performed, and the group consequently suffers in competitions.
Dramatic tension appears with the protagonist Beca, who has a winning strategy for the Bellas, but cannot implement it under the conservative leadership of Aubrey. Those of us on the Left are familiar with Beca’s dilemma: a better way of organizing society is so obvious, but those who benefit from the old power structures block its implementation at every turn.
And the equally hierarchical organization of the Treblemakers turns out to be just as problematic, as Bumper abandons the group to “sing backup for John Mayer.” A cult of personality may work as long as the figure of the dear leader holds things together, but falls apart with the disappearance of that keystone.
As vertical organization lands both the Bellas and the Treblemakers in crisis, a young new leader steps up in each to offer a solution. Aubrey cedes power to Beca (with the plaintive question, “What do we do, Beca?”), and Jesse, Beca’s counterpart in the Treblemakers, assumes leadership of his group.
Both offer a new path for their respective groups: a move away from vertical hierarchy to a more democratic mode of organization. Jesse invites the character who embodies those left out by Bumper’s exclusionary rule back into the Treblemakers, and each group’s performance in the climactic finale includes more members of the group than ever before, rather than relying on one or two stars. In a Hollywood ending complete with a kiss, the revolution is tidily completed: democracy replaces tyranny, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The first method has proved immensely successful (see: the Frankfurt School). But as I’ve insisted elsewhere, building on what critical resources are available to you, no matter how meager, is always a better strategy than trying to construct a politics ex nihilo. By all means, we must condemn the ways this film perpetuates oppression based on gender and sexuality — but this critique should be paired with an honest assessment of the positive political message latent in the story.
A paean to leaderless-ness and consensus-based decision-making this is not. But as critics on the Left, we have two options when faced with a cultural product such as Pitch Perfect (or the Harlem Shake): we could lazily write it off as mindless trash that distracts from political engagement, yet another mass-produced artifact of the capitalist machine. Or we can undertake the more difficult task of cultivating its implicit political possibilities, drawing out its latent critiques of the very order that produced it.
Mass art isn’t going anywhere. And we, as leftists, can respond to this fact with either standard elitist scorn (enjoyable but pragmatically worse than useless) — or with a willingness to see the radical political potential in these cultural artifacts. I choose the latter.
Gadfly’s resident leftist, Evan Burger, wrote a piece for Jacobin magazine on work, leisure, and the right to be lazy. Drawing on Hegel, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and (of course) Marx, Evan articulates the Left position that we should be fighting for better work, not less work. Check it out!
By the time this article is published, the meme of the Harlem Shake will almost certainly have passed through oversaturation into the realm of backlash — a stage as essential to the life cycle of a pop culture phenomenon in the internet age as the larval is for the butterfly. However, the question still remains to be asked: can we draw any political insight from this infinite string of insipid videos? Or is it just another expression of the decadence of our television-addled society, another way to distract ourselves from the much more serious business of fighting for liberty, equality, fraternity?
First, a little background. The full story, as always, can be found at Know Your Meme, but in summary, the meme started with a YouTube video made by a vlogger named Filthy Frank featuring four people in costumes dancing to the eponymous song by trap artist Baauer. Fascinatingly, the video only vaguely follows the rigid form of the memetic videos it spawned: all four characters dance in costume from the very beginning; there is no cut at the drop; and the slow-motion segment is entirely absent.
The fact that these features only appeared with the response videos that soon followed, where the meme’s form was solidified, reinforces the central thesis of the kind of cultural criticism undertaken here: that products of pop culture follow the same trajectory as those of high culture, with the important difference of being more democratic. In the basic trajectory of a myriad of influences converging in an ill-defined form crystallized with subsequent iterations — which paradoxically allow for an even greater degree of creativity — we are telling the story of every meme, as it was originally defined by Richard Dawkins, from hip-hop to the sonata; from the sitcom to the novel.
And here we see the first stirrings of the political in the Harlem Shake epidemic: its profoundly democratic character. At both poles of creation and consumption, these videos were in their very essence mass art. Anyone with internet access could enjoy them, and anyone with a webcam or smartphone could make one. This was a deeply open community — like 4chan, but without the self-hatred and semi-ironic bigotry.
But community is essential to this meme in a much deeper way; each video depicts a given community coming together for some good old-fashioned silliness. A Harlem Shake video of one is not a Harlem Shake video at all. The joy of this meme is its communal nature — itself an attack on the individualism undergirding all of American life. This communality in itself is only as revolutionary as, say, the joy of the football fan in attending a game. But as Peter Frase recognizes when he finds the radical potential in sports fandom, any escape route from the nihilism of the cult of the individual is at the same time the path to an emancipatory politics.
Let’s examine this particular joy a little more deeply. The Harlem Shake clearly drinks deeply from the ancient wine of Dionysius — the post-drop milieu of these videos cannot be described as anything other than orgiastic. Again, the ancient Bacchic rites were necessarily communal, as Bataille has explored thoroughly, but the Harlem Shake meme adds another layer of critique to this tradition by incorporating absurdism into its very constitution. The pleasure of watching these videos is the sheer silliness that takes over in Act II. And as we have known since Weber and the Surrealists, undermining rationalism’s death grip on our society is itself a radical act.
And finally, we find ourselves in a position to properly assess the revolutionary potential of this meme. Each of these videos depicts quotidian life in advanced capitalist societies at its most soul-crushing (the office, the army, the empty hedonism of dorm rooms) — only to be interrupted by a fierce, communal, democratic, absurdist joy. This is, of course, precisely the promise of radical politics: escaping the dead end of life as Nietzschean last men by a complete overhaul of how we relate to each other and ourselves. If depicting this possibility isn’t a revolutionary act, I don’t know what is.
After writing this piece, I discovered that a number of very smart people have written articles on the racial politics of the Harlem Shake meme. The charges of the appropriation of black culture are well-taken; as Drew Millard wrote for Vice,
But whenever I look at an Internet full of (mostly) white people doing a bastardized version of a dance that has the same name as another dance (and lest we forget, is named after fucking Harlem), and they’re doing that dance to Trap, a style of EDM that took the name (and some sonic signifiers) of an already-existent style of hip-hop that had a very specific set of sociopolitical implications, and people aren’t finding it at least a little problematic, it makes me feels like I’m taking crazy pills.
I fully agree with Millard that this meme cannot be discussed without addressing race and cultural appropriation.
But I’m less sure about the argument these articles have made that the meme has somehow damaged the value of the original dance. Millard again: “‘The Harlem Shake’ as a meme ruined ‘Harlem Shake’ as a song and it’s threatening to eradicate the actual Harlem Shake from popular memory, or at least make it hard to find on YouTube.” I’m sure Millard understands the significance of his last clause — if the worst we can say the meme did to the original dance is that it takes two more seconds to find it on YouTube, then I think we can safely say that this was the most benign case of cultural appropriation ever seen.
I agree more with Tamara Palmer at The Root, who lambasts the meme, but admits, “If this wave starts to wind down, the original Harlem Shake may be able to be reestablished in its proper light, and the originality displayed in so-called shake cyphers can get its due.” Internet memes are by their very nature transitory, unable to outlast rich cultural traditions of dance and music. The simple fact of the matter is that bad dancers dancing badly have never stopped good dancers from dancing well. When Palmer worries that “the damage may already be irreversible, as [the term “Harlem Shake”] has been all but stripped of its cultural context and meaning,” she has bought into a wrong-headed notion of artistic purity — cultural products are instead complex palimpsests, preserving what has come before even as new layers of meaning and associations are laid on top of that original material.
Ultimately, I have to agree with Millard when he writes, “I know it’s fun for the people doing it, and uploading a video of you and your friends wiggling around to the same song as other groups of friends makes everybody feel a little less alone in this desolate, unloving universe.” We cannot and should not ignore the fact that this meme appropriates black culture in deeply problematic ways — but we should be equally cognizant of the huge political potential of communal expressions of joy.
by Jay Hyun Kim
Divine intervention: some people see it as interference in their affairs, others as intercession on their behalf. Even a modern man unyielding in his rational perspective of the universe and dismissive of the irrationality of divinity in antiquity cannot ignore the perennial question that has always captivated mankind: the existence of god. The relationship between gods and men has defined what it means to be human. Every philosophy, religion or study of life has dealt with this issue in one way or another. In particular, Buddhism and Stoicism present not only a fascinating contrast but also a remarkable overlap in their respective approaches in reclaiming life. The Buddhists regard the so-called ‘fate’ as a common misconception of what is perfectly logical, the law of causality. Simply put, a cause brings about an effect; an action produces a reaction. Therefore, in actuality, we are in control of our lives. There is no need to fear unpredictable outcome based on divine intervention or capricious interference from fate. On the other hand, the Stoics acknowledge the presence of Fate or Fortune (Fortuna) in mortal lives. However, they teach the student how to overcome it through the power of philosophy.
The gift of human intellect to contemplate on the divine elements and extrapolate the meaning of human existence from them has been utilized by only a handful of men, most of them philosophers. This is precisely the reason why Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations cherishes the sublime experience of the one investigating the divine realm:
“To men immersed in day and night in these meditations comes understanding of the truth pronounced by the god at Delphi, that the mind should know itself; and there comes also the perception of its union with the divine mind, the source of its inexhaustible joy. For contemplation of the power and nature of the gods spontaneously kindles in human beings a passion to attain immortality like theirs; the soul, when it discerns how all things in the universe are linked one with another by a chain of interlocked destined causes, a process which is governed by reason and intelligence and renews itself to all eternity, begins to nourish the conviction that it could not be true that its own life is just limited to this brief span upon earth.”
One of the most pressing questions to philosophers from the antiquity was: “Are human affairs inherently subject to divine intervention?” By studying the universe and its operation under divine supervision, philosophers hoped to learn more about human nature grounded on a firm belief that human nature was a part of universe as a whole . Naturally, understanding the divine role in mortal lives is essential to happiness. People cannot predict whether the gods will be favorable to them or not. This uncertainty engenders a constant fear in their lives. As a result, countless cults and religious institutions were established in antiquity to provide some assurance to people that they can win divine favor, however whimsical it maybe .
On the other hand, various philosophers endeavored to liberate people from the fear of the unknown which is directly linked to the fear of death. This line of thought gradually leads to a psychological habit of mankind to attribute anything illogical or inexplicable to the divine sphere. In defining human life in the universal framework, men naturally give birth to the concept of Fate, a divine, mysterious force that shapes and determines the course of mortal lives. Then, we blame all our undesirable events as ‘misfortunes’ dispensed by an evil and cruel God. Some of us fall into despair and surrender to this irresistible and unfathomable entity. But on the other hand, we have an unquenchable thirst for favorable divine intervention. We pray, we hope, we believe, and we expect that some supernatural force will mend things and bring us closer to ultimate happiness. To realize this sincere wish, we engage in various activities that occupy our lives (religion, philosophy, poetry, art, music, sports, love, friendship, family, wealth, honor, prestige, power, etc.) In the end, human happiness cannot be found without making sense of the divine intervention in human affairs.
The Buddhist understanding of life teaches us that the universal principle to which all living beings are subject can be most aptly described as the law of causality (karma). It explains that a cause simply brings about an effect, and this principle applies to all human affairs regardless of time and place. Therefore, what one has done brings about what one is now (past to present); what one does now brings about what one will be (present to future). Thus, so called ‘divine intervention’ or ‘Fate’ is simply a mechanism through which the law of causality operates. Buddhist thought admits that for most people it is difficult to trace this chain of events in their lives to understand the present, past, and future. Hence, such ignorance induces them to subscribe to the notion of divine intervention and suffering arises from the inescapable idea that human affairs are out of one’s control. Therefore, Buddhist spiritual cultivation focuses on nurturing one’s ability to generate good karma through thought, speech, and action. Once the practitioner has purified his bad karma and is steadfast in performing good deeds, he contemplates on the universal truth that even the vicious cycle of suffering (samsara) can be transcended. The cycle of samsara is the ceaseless suffering one undergoes when he is still subject to the law of causality (karma). However, when he has fully realized through his non-dualistic lens that there is no discrimination between good and bad, he is freed from the cycle of samsara and thus is liberated from suffering. Buddhism through logical reasoning demonstrates that what we in our ignorance see as fate or divine intervention is in reality a consequence of our own actions. Once we realize that our lives simply operate under the universal law of causality, we are resolved from the fear of death and no longer view ourselves as powerless in control of our lives. Instead, we become responsible for our own actions, and happiness becomes something that is a product of our own behavior.
In Stoic thought, human beings are integral members of the universe (cosmos), and human nature is a part of the nature of the universe. Furthermore, human happiness is living according to nature. Now , the most characteristic feature of human nature is virtue. It is the perfect quality of the mind. Since the mind perceives everything and its impression dictates all human emotions and opinions, the mind is the seat of human happiness. Virtue is the perfect quality of the mind. Philosophy is a cultivation of virtue. Therefore, a man of virtue is happy. The Stoics also concede that many things which we pursue in life with passion are properties of Fortune. It also follows that they are subject to her whim, and therefore the Stoics label them as ‘preferred indifferences’ and instead focus on virtue which is the only true possession of men. The Stoic understanding of human nature is directly correlated to Stoic ethics which always encourages its students to strive for what is actually in their control. The Stoic sage is a truly happy man because he has withdrawn himself from all the distractions and indifferences which haunt other men and has cultivated virtue, the only prerequisite for happiness. Seneca, in his dialogue portraying the ideal Stoic sage, emphasizes the power of philosophy in making a firm stance against the ceaseless onslaughts of Fortune:
“The wise man is not subject to injury. Therefore, it does not matter how many weapons are thrown at him since none can pierce him. Just as certain stones are so hard they are impervious to iron, and adamant cannot be cut or split or worn away, but actually blunts whatever impinges on it; just as some things cannot be consumed by fire, but even when engulfed by flames retain their shape and hardness; just as certain cliffs, jutting into the sea, break the force of the waves, and though battered for untold ages show no signs of their fury; so the mind of the wise man is unyielding, and has acquired such a degree of power as to make it as safe from injury as the things I have mentioned.”
To the Stoics, Fortune (i.e. divine intervention) was not so much a perpetual enemy of mankind as a worthy opponent who puts the philosopher’s virtue and strength of character to test . The relationship between virtue and fortune in the Stoic system of thought reflects the conventional theology at the time in Greece and Rome where gods were worshipped based on the common belief that divine beings constantly intervened in human affairs. In a way, the Stoics were trying to transcend the divine intervention and through philosophy transform themselves into gods. For , Seneca proudly proclaims that a true Stoic sage rivals the gods and differs from them only that he is limited in time. Stoicism, unlike Buddhism, recognizes the role of Fate (Fortuna) in human affairs but reminds us that we can overcome divine intervention through cultivation of virtue and ethical life style. Philosophy as a whole becomes the antidote for fear of death.
What is strikingly similar in these two schools of thought is the emphasis on mental fortitude in face of Fortune (i.e. divine intervention): the Buddhists call it spiritual cultivation, the Stoics call it virtue. Either way, only the true master of his mind can call himself happy. Of course, Buddhism and Stoicism are part of a perennial tradition of humanity that seeks an escape from divine intervention. Whether one spends his lifetime constructing a shelter from fate built on wealth, power, and prestige or cultivates invulnerability of the mind from the blows of fortune, he is a fugitive of fate. Some have tried to win the favor of the gods through worship while others have tried to make a bold stance against them, but they both realize that human life is inevitably inseparable from the gods: our lives are defined by the relationship with the divine. With the divine looming in the background, we all seek refuge from suffering and search for a haven called happiness.
In an episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (5/16/2009) dealing with the topic of genetic enhancement, host Nigel Warburton poses a thought experiment to his guest, philosopher Allen Buchanan, in which Warburton takes a pill that enhances his memory and coordination, enabling him to learn a guitar composition that had previously proven beyond his ability. Warburton worries that such a shortcut might devalue his musical accomplishment. Buchanan’s response to this is that Warburton would proceed to find new challenges, elevating his struggle with the instrument to a higher plateau. While I think Buchanan is probably right, I also think Warburton’s experience as a musician would be positively enhanced, largely because there is something essentially rewarding in playing guitar well. There are deeper questions to consider here regarding our experience of performing and listening to music, as well as the social implications such a pill would bring. Before addressing those, it’d be helpful to look at what we mean by “genetic enhancement.”
Genetic enhancement is, essentially, the manipulation of genetic material in an organism for the sake of extending that organism’s capacities in some way. Manipulation can occur at the earliest stages of conception or near the end of life, and can be isolated to an individual, or can become part of one’s heritable genes. It’s difficult to determine exactly what counts as deliberate manipulation. Choosing a mate with desirable heritable traits, for example, could be seen as an attempt to genetically enhance one’s potential offspring.
One might argue that a lack of control disqualifies this as genetic enhancement. However, this doesn’t pose a challenge when one considers that there are no guarantees for the scientist in the lab either, as well as the potential for prenatal screening that would make it possible for couples to terminate pregnancy at very early stages until a desirable prospect is reached. Consider also the fascinating case of the deaf lesbian couple from Maryland who have twice managed to deliberately conceive a deaf child with the donated sperm of a deaf man with a long family history of congenital deafness. Some might argue that this doesn’t seem like enhancement, but for this family, deafness was valued over audition. As genetic manipulation technology improves, it’s not hard to imagine parents attempting to increase the likelihood of traits like eye color, height, sexual orientation, and moral disposition. With all this in mind, let’s flesh out the thought experiment we began with so we can take a closer, more nuanced look at it.
Let’s suppose that the guitar piece requires an intermediate level of technical proficiency, and that the Genetically Modified Guitarist (GMG) is willing to practice a reasonable amount of time, has spent some time taking lessons from a competent instructor, and possesses physiologically capable arms and hands. His inability to learn the piece, then, is due to a lack in one or more capacities that can be enhanced. To illustrate this, imagine if his fingers were shaped in some idiosyncratic way that made it difficult to play the guitar. Genetic intervention within the realm of imaginable possibility will not cause his bone structure to reform itself. Indeed, his genes might very well have been designed to grow perfect guitar fingers, but some external influence caused his fingers to form oddly when he was a baby. With all this in mind, let’s examine one plausible scenario in which GMG is enabled to learn the piece.
GMG pops the pill; there is a cassette that is carried by tiny robots to a slot in an engineered, gene-free chromosome that was put there when GMG was first conceived. Acquiring these new memory and coordination genes, however, doesn’t suddenly enable GMG to play the composition, or at least not well. For that, he will need to develop the muscles in his fingers, develop greater dedication to those fingers in his brain’s motor cortex, and so on. If the pill gives GMG the potential to develop to an advanced level, this would best be done under the guidance of an instructor, or at least with a conscious effort to avoid technical errors that can impede skill development. For example, if GMG’s former lack of strong coordination has led to bad technical habits, such as tensing the shoulders, the pill is unlikely to erase them. Another necessary feature that’s unlikely to come from the pill itself is intrinsic motivation. This very well might eventually arise from his newly developed skills. Indeed, I’ve known many a would-be musician to give up in frustration at their inability to advance much beyond a beginner stage. The praise and sense of accomplishment that come with excelling at something result in all sorts of reinforcements to keep at it.
Is GMG’s experience of playing the piece of music devalued given the intervention of the pill upon his naturally ungifted DNA? It seems clear to me that the answer is: No, the experience is not devalued, rather it is in fact increased. Mind you, a lot of this depends on the fact that he wished to play a piece of music beyond his ability. Many guitarists are perfectly content learning a few chords, and need not develop beyond that to be happy with their experience. GMG, however, wished to enjoy the kind of experience that a naturally gifted musician would experience, and, really, what is the difference? A naturally gifted musician still must practice, still must have functioning fingers, and still must have motivation.
The fact that GMG acquired his gifts from a pill rather than from his parents doesn’t devalue his experience of playing guitar any more than it would be the case for a gifted musician who required correction of issues such as arthritis, tendonitis, or memory loss resulting from some degenerative ailment. Nor is there a remarkable difference in the case of naturally gifted guitarists who take the pill as a short cut or to further enhance an existing gift, as here the plateau principle Buchanan mentioned would take effect, given that reaching their full potential as guitarists is not going to be possible without rigorous practice. This is also true in the case where the technique is already developed, and the pill doesn’t intervene genetically with a cassette, but instead allows for a temporary burst of heightened memory and coordination, or, to put it another way, attention. Again we could be talking about caffeine, a drug that we readily accept as a performance aid, such as for students and doctors. Its use in sports is contentious, given that it has been shown to increase performance, but, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, to ban it poses too many complications given its ubiquity.
All of what we’ve been looking at so far deals with but one aspect of musical performance, the technical, though I think there’s an even more important question to be asked about GMG’s experience: What are the implications of performance or gift enhancement for the aesthetic component of his playing experience? This is an impossible question to answer. Why? Because it’s impossible for anyone to answer, gifted or not, enhanced or not, due to the elusive, unquantifiable combination of qualities that go into our aesthetic experience of music. These qualities make our emotional – or otherwise desirable – experience of music possible, and are constituted by features that are biological, cultural, and related to personal experience. Without this sort of experience, GMG’s mastery of a piece of music is merely technical, rote, and, ultimately, empty.
GMG is functioning as performer and listener, and will need to draw upon those things that make a positive aesthetic experience more likely. This includes phrasing, tone, intonation, tempo, vibrato, dynamics, and other considerations. The masterful deployment of this toolkit contributes greatly towards the creation of a moving musical expression, and is the result not just of being freed by the constraints of technical limitations, but also of artistic gifts that are not themselves technical. This is true of whatever sort of music GMG might play, whether blues, classical, jazz, punk, heavy metal, or folk. GMG’s overall experience, then, will depend on the extent to which technical mastery is itself for him a thing of beauty to behold, and to which his newly-acquired skills allow him to express whatever innate artistic gifts were being held back by this lack of technical skill.
We begin to think of GMG’s experience of himself as performer and listener, but how might the fact of his having used modification to acquire his skills affect the reception he receives from other listeners? Would his fans revise their view of him for the worse were it to be revealed that he had acquired his gifts from a pill? Like so many of the questions related to modification, it depends on the scenario. We do know that there are many instances in which an artwork’s origin can affect our experience of it. For example, masterful forged paintings that are hailed as brilliant, once exposed as fakes, lose their appeal. I think that ultimately, though, particularly once the technology becomes more common, GMG’s gene modification might only turn off fans in cases where non-modification was considered an essential genre feature, such as in the case that a subculture of non-modification purists emerges.
In general, however, I think that GMG’s modification would be accepted due to the aforementioned heightened playing field, and due to the fact that technological enhancement of musical technique have been accepted for generations, whether in the case of improvements made to instrument design, or in the case of compositing multiple takes in the recording studio into one fantastic performance. Also, there’s that elusive combination of qualities that transcend technique, which poses a serious challenge to scientists, who, in order to engineer a “good art” gene, would first have to know what “good art” is.
Indeed, just as they have done with aesthetic philosophers, artists will consistently challenge whatever operational definition gene scientists might give to “good art.” For many artists, challenging these sorts of definitions is in their job description. This puts theorists constantly a step a behind artists, which makes sense given that, in order for scientists and philosophers to define “good art,” they must have existing examples to guide them. Their observations about art come after instances of the creation and experience of art, not before them. So, it seems the best that can be done is to engineer and enhance capacities that tend to aid people in making some (preexisting) notion of “good art.”
But let’s suppose scientists make an array of “good art” types available. This would ultimately prove nothing more than a novelty, like a more sophisticated version of a computer program that makes creating visual or musical art easier, and, like those programs, would still only result in the best work at the hands of the people with the most ingenuity and developed creative/artistic sensibilities. And, furthermore, artists will still come along to challenge whatever types are in circulation, resulting in more and more types, but likely getting no closer to the meta-type that allows for creativity to be possible. A result of this could be to make soul-stirring artistic achievement all the more mysterious and valued.
Let’s take that improbable step forward, and imagine that scientists figure out, based on the workings of the brain – e.g., how it is that the brain is susceptible to the cultural cues that contribute to our experience of music – the meta-type that results in transcendental creative innovation. In other words, that explains the underlying creative pathologies that, within our species, have formed, and have allowed audiences to love, the music of Mozart, The Notorious B.I.G., Slayer, ancient Chinese music, and so on. The next step for artists, then, might be to challenge even this drawn-in-brain-tissue paradigm by endeavoring to utilize principles of neuroplasticity to reform the brain so that it can have new experiences, such that defy what scientists think they have explained about our experience of art.
Perhaps this could be achieved through highly sophisticated virtual reality programs, which some thinkers view as a way to evolve humans in radical ways removed from the vicious process of natural selection. For example, our perceptual experience of pitches could be changed by making it possible to temporarily effectively cross one’s neural pathways for synesthetic effects, thereby adding to one’s experience of sound an experience of taste or color or numbers. This is looking far into the future, of course. At this point it would be helpful to look at a nearer and more likely future to consider for a moment its social ramifications.
By now I’ve argued that, once available and affordable to the average person, genetic enhancement would be more or less irrelevant to our continued enjoyment of music as listeners, and would allow many people to experience the thrill of playing a challenging piece of music, an essentially rewarding experience in its own right. However, perhaps not everyone would be able to afford it. For or those who can’t, while this is unfortunate, it’s no more unfortunate than our current state of affairs, in which topnotch music lessons, quality instruments, and pretty much everything else involved with being a professional musician is very expensive.
One might argue, though, that genetic enhancement differs significantly from access to better equipment, since this new technology has the potential to double the cognitive capacities of one’s children, but would be affordable only to the wealthy, thereby creating even greater class-based inequality than those that already exist. However, I think that these concerns do not outweigh the potential benefits of such technologies. Eliminating life-saving gene therapy based on a principle of limited access would make about as much sense as eliminating any other life-saving medical procedure for the same reason. I don’t think that the societal effects of genetic modification will play out in any way that is significantly different than other forms of enhancement have in the past. Cognitive enhancement is nothing new, having already come about in the form of intelligence expanders like literacy and computers. Just as computer technology was once the prized possession of a select few but now is increasingly available to all, so too will the pill form of cognitive enhancement.
Interview with Michele Moody-Adams (Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory, Columbia University) conducted by Krishna Hegde and Clava Brodsky:
Gadfly: We thought we would talk about affirmative action from three different perspectives: first from a liberal democratic, second as public policy and administration, and then third from the point of view of the law. So for the first question: it’s always tricky to interpret the application of equality of opportunity in policy as making accommodations. Do you see affirmative action as essentially saying that total equality is, then, actually unfair?
Moody-Adams: I do, of course, think that people’s situations and circumstances sometimes mean that equality isn’t a matter of treating everybody exactly the same. How that plays out in individual cases, given other considerations that might have stake in a particular case, will be a complicated issue. And I happen to think that affirmative action is as complicated as it gets. I started out opposed to it when I was young and then started to think that properly limited, with a time frame and an awareness of some of the proper compensatory efforts, it would be an important thing. I also never thought affirmative action went far enough when it came to genuine pursuit of equality of educational opportunity. There were some people, who would not be ready, even with the accommodations, to take care of some educational offerings because of where they had come from [i.e. their previous educational experiences]. I think the rise of certain middle class minorities might not have existed if not for affirmative action. The celebration and support of diversity in schools is a good thing, but there were a whole lot of people who were left out in the 70’s and 80’s. There was a point at which even someone like MLK said we need to turn our sights to a different kind of social action. That’s where I would stand now. I would never belittle the gains that were made as a consequence of affirmative action. But I think that at some point in the not-so-distant future it needs to come to an end. We need to be thinking about other ways of promoting equality of educational opportunity that are more robust.
Gadfly: You speak positively of timeframes. Some timeframes contain quotas (i.e. once this many high level positions are occupied by minorities the position can end) and other specify a number of years for a policy. Can you specify which types of timeframes you are interested in promoting, and how we determine said number of years?
MM-A: By timeframes I’m talking about the 25 year time frame in Grutter v. Bollinger; affirmative action could never be something that went on forever, for all kinds of reasons. If there’s an argument that affirmative action is still needed, it might in fact be that something else is needed either additionally or instead of affirmative action. For me a timeframe is a point in time; it’s not about quotas or numbers. It’s about a point in time when you stop and assess the consequences and merits of what’s happened, and I think that we’re getting close to the point where we should see a whole category of impoverished (and not all minority) students, who were never touched by anything affirmative action had to offer. This is true especially of private colleges, but also of selective public institutions like University of California or University of Texas.
Gadfly: Do you think that’s the changing face of affirmative action? That it’s moving from something race-based and transformed into something that’s more focused on socioeconomic status?
MM-A: Is Affirmative Action transforming into that? I’m not sure. If we do want to be more attentive to the needs of the socioeconomically disadvantaged people, whoever they are, is Affirmative Action the thing that will do that? I’m not sure. So you asked about intervention: I believe there are two things that higher education professionals, whether faculty members or administrators or whoever, should be thinking about: 1) what is the role we should play in creating a cadre of well educated young people, who go out into the world ready to help in the world in any way they can? That may mean, in some instances, hoping to train some people. So I still support Teach for America, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I think you need to be training people to be teachers long-term. In some instances, then, you have to give them some leeway when it comes to loans and educational costs. Now Columbia has no loans for people who get aid, but many universities and colleges lack that policy or have had to go back on that policy. This means that at some of these schools where it’s been deemed too expensive, some people can’t make the choice [to become teachers] because they fear that they won’t have enough money.
What intervention can we create in higher education beyond Columbia that would go nationally, that would create a whole cadre of talented young people to say: you know, Teach for America is one possibility, but what about a career and life in teaching? Another thing I think we need to support is research. I don’t write so much of this in my Chronicle piece, but better research is needed to support early childhood education. There’s a Nobel winner at Chicago, James Heckman, who has been challenging critics of programs like Headstart and people who claim early interventions don’t matter. In fact there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they do. The challenge, of course, is how to do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the liberties of families too much; in a way that doesn’t disrespect cultural traditions and that also treats families as partners in early education efforts.
That’s a very big task, but that’s another place where the right kind of research and the ability to translate research could be an effective intervention in higher education. Part of me thinks—this is harsh—that affirmative action was almost too easy. Some people of minority background or women from certain backgrounds are in the middle class, who might not be there if not for affirmative action. But it was never substantive and broad enough: it was a narrow view of what kind of fix was required. It means that we have to start thinking differently about the kind of privilege we have.
This brings me to another point about intervention: we talk about private and public institutions, but every public institution raises money from private donors. And every private institution gets money from public funding. Columbia, for example, doesn’t pay taxes because it is a non-profit. We get money from the government to do research and Pell grants etc. The boundary between public and private has always been fluid, so even in an institution like Columbia we have a duty to think about our relationship to the rest of the country and the world. Knowing how much benefit we get from public funds, how can we not sense that we need to give something back?
Gadfly: When you speak about educating students to teach, isn’t the criticism that you’re using people as a means to an end still apply? The idea of diversity may treat students as a means to an end.
MM-A: If people are choosing to become teachers and you offer them a way to make that choice real; you’re not using them, you’re actually helping them realize their…self-realization, as an end in themselves. I’m not of the mind that you have to force some students at Columbia to go become teachers. I’m of the mind: look at all this interest in TFA. Those students, who weren’t accept accepted into the program, might actually really thrive in a career in teaching and might be able to bring something to the task that hasn’t been fully valued. If we could make it financially feasible to go into a profession where you can’t expect to make a six-figure salary the first year, that would be a public service, not a requirement. It would become an option that people really felt they previously couldn’t choose.
Gadfly: Affirmative action, then, sounds less like a policy couched in terms of diversity and more in terms of a public service: giving back to the community outside the university. It sounds like we need to bring in more people so that they then can go back to their communities. So, for example, if we look at the Core: we bring in a diversity of perspectives to learn from the western tradition and then disseminate it to so that it reaches a broader swath of people.
MM-A: I think diversity is a wonderful thing, and there may be actually a need for more diversity: more political opinions, for example—we shouldn’t all agree. But the political will to fight for affirmative action has, for a variety of reasons, weakened. So we come with a new argument couched in terms of diversity. But (a) it’s not the same goal, and (b) because you’ve simply replaced affirmative action talk with diversity talk, you end up looking for the same people and treating them as if they’re only here to represent specific communities. And of course they never do because people are individuals and some will be representatives of a community and some will just want to be themselves. The danger of talking about affirmative action in certain ways is, in this context, that’s when it treats people merely as a means. A person can bring a distinctive perspective, but that can’t be the only reason for bringing her to school. Her enrichment, her growth and her self-realization—are all relevant concerns. I do really worry how the language of justice was supplanted by the language of diversity. That was terribly unhealthy.
Gadfly: It seems that if we speak solely in terms of diversity—solely in terms of “different perspectives”—then we fall into the trap we were trying to run away from in the first place. We’ve cordoned people off into their respective communities.
MM-A: It’s not clear how this kind of notion of being wedded permanently to color-conscious policies through affirmative action could ever get you beyond color-consciousness. I’m willing to say it was the lesser of two evils for a finite period of time. But if you remain wedded to the idea of color conscious policies as a policy with no end in sight, I do not think that as a nation we could ever get beyond the color conscious problem.
The political will is running out, and when it does and we haven’t thought of anything else, then we’re really in trouble. What’s the substantive—and I think better—alternative to affirmative is really looking more deeply at what is demanded for equality of educational opportunity.
Affirmative Action always involved some ambiguities in our culture. We knew racism was wrong, but we didn’t know how to fix its consequences. So we went for a solution that may have had some value, but we now realize it can’t be the permanent response.
by Jamila Barra
Schools, the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire argues, all too often function like banks; at these institutions, the teacher is understood as the holder of something valuable – knowledge – which she deposits into the account of the student’s mind. In this pervasive model of pedagogy, the teacher is the only active agent, while the student remains a passive receptacle. The information transmitted from teacher to student is fixed and, in a sense, dead: just as a banking transaction doesn’t fundamentally change the bank account, the money deposited or the account holder, so the teacher, student and knowledge transmitted, in this model, remain the same as before the teaching.
But this isn’t the only way that teaching and learning can take place. In fact, one alternative exists on our own campus, in the form of the Writing Center program at Barnard. Here, we can see what an “education as the practice of freedom” (in Freire’s words) could look like in concrete daily experience. At its best, this program represents a revolutionary and liberating practice in academia, and a true intervention both in the writing of the students who use the Writing Center and in the lives of the Writing Fellows.
Writing Fellows characterize themselves as working peer-to-peer, collaboratively and non-directively. And, perhaps most importantly, their work is fundamentally based on questions. What does that mean and what does it look like? To work peer-to-peer and collaboratively means that there is no hierarchy between the fellow and the writer. The program assumes that the fellow doesn’t know anything more than the writer; in fact, often the fellow knows much less, since fellows are not assigned based on their academic field. It is true that the fellow generally has been recruited as a very strong writer herself, and has had some serious training to become a fellow. But we believe that none of this puts the fellow in any position to tell the writer anything. This surprises many first-time visitors to the Writing Center. Fellows are constantly asked, “How should I do this? What should I write?” but no fellow will ever tell her writer what they should do. We assume no authority. Instead, when asked a question like the two above, most fellows will find a question to throw right back.
Some students are initially frustrated with this response. What’s the use of going to the Writing Center if they won’t tell you anything about your writing, or writing in general? The poignant point is of course that the fellows won’t tell you because you don’t need to be told. It goes without saying that the fellow should never willfully keep useful knowledge from the writer or obstruct her access to resources that she needs, such as good explanations of grammar rules. However, fellows do base their work on the assumption that they don’t know any better answer to the writer’s assignment than the writer does. We can give them no directions; that’s why fellowing is non-directional.
There is another even more fundamental sense of non-directionality at work in the Writing Fellows program: the non-directionality of certain questions. Since Writing Fellows don’t tell or direct, their main tool is the question – think of Socrates: “I do not teach, I question.” The alternative to the Banking Model of education lies in the kind of question that Writing Fellows ask and in the attitude that must accompany those questions. They make fellowing a revolutionary practice, a genuine intervention in academia. Further, the question-based attitude that a fellow must adopt towards the writer in order to be able to ask these questions is valuable and applicable in all of life.
To explain the kind of question that Writing Fellows use, let me draw on some examples. A common problem at the Writing Center is that it’s simply unclear what a writer’s paper is about. If we were following a directive strategy, we would tell the writer that she needs a thesis statement and that she needs to tie all her arguments to that statement in a logical manner. The non-directive strategy is to ask, “What do you really want to express in this essay?” This question allows the writer to consider her paper as something that springs from her own motivation, something she has ownership of.
Sometimes this question doesn’t lead anywhere, because students have become convinced that their professor doesn’t care about what they care about and that their grades will suffer from that disparity. They’re looking for the “right” answer. When a writer and I get stuck here, I ask hypothetical questions: “If you weren’t writing for your professor, what would you write?” This is an intervention in authority; authority concerning the writer’s writing is shifted from the professor to the writer. Often, hypothetically exploring an argument leads the writer to realize that her thoughts are, in fact, relevant to the prompt and might very well be acceptable to the professor. The hypothetical question frees writers from boundaries that they have learned from the conventional hierarchical structures of education. For example, I could ask a writer, “What if you did use ‘I’ in your paper? How would that change it?”, which communicates that their own conscious decisions determine what their paper will look like, not some fixed rules about writing or some innate quality of being a good or bad writer.
Fellows ask open-ended questions: they never have a yes-or-no answer. The most productive questions are open but specific, take the writer seriously as the author of their paper, do not point towards any one answer and are able to adapt to the writer’s way of understanding the questions. It’s difficult for fellows and yet absolutely necessary to desist from their own opinions and from assuming authority. When a conference feels like it’s getting stuck, it becomes tempting to offer the writer a way out if we see it: an obvious way to bring her arguments to a central point. But the most rewarding conferences happen when the fellow resists that temptation, fully trusts in the knowledge and ability of the writer, and helps the writer reach conclusions that the fellow could never have thought of. It’s fundamental in peer-to-peer work to allow someone else’s logic the same validity as our own.
Because we assume that the writer does have a proper logic and is a reasonable agent in their writing, the mistakes she makes must also have a logic behind them. For example, rather than tell a writer that the “logical connectors” in her writing (words like “therefore”, “thus”, “however”) are confusing and don’t make sense, I ask her why she’s using them. It turns out someone told her years ago that she shouldn’t write the way she speaks, but should try to sound professional, which fed her insecurity about writing and about being taken seriously academically. Especially for women and students of color, whose identity is bogged down with stereotypes about academic performance, these insecurities can negatively affect their performance in very concrete ways. In this case, the writer and I reflected on the quality of her spoken expression, which was clear and articulate compared to that of her writing, which in this particular paper was muddled and confusing. The writer came to the conclusion that she liked the way she spoke and that she had all the resources to identify “unprofessional” expressions in her writing.
For the fellow, asking questions like these and asking them exactly when they are necessary takes a great amount of concentration, sensitivity and attention to the writer. Essentially, the goal in any conference is for the fellow’s interest in the writer to be louder and more persistent than their internal critic. When the writer brings up something that doesn’t seem relevant or interesting at first glance, we ask: “Why is this important?” Neither do we tell them that it’s not important enough, nor do we ask, “Why is this important to you?” We ask, “Why is it important?” because the basic premise is that whatever the writer chooses to write about is important: not personally or relatively important, but plainly and simply important and worthy of consideration in the academic discourse.
This attitude is fundamentally different from the Banking Model, in which the teacher is the ultimate arbiter of what content is worthwhile in the academic setting. The importance that the fellow presumes in the writer’s work allows the writer to understand themselves as full and empowered participants in an academic community and to write to the very best of their abilities. Perhaps ironically, this revolutionary pedagogical approach often translates into success by the standards of mainstream academia. When the writer is invested in a paper, she can effectively make its importance clear to the professor, and receives higher grades than papers that the writer feels no control over.
The attitude that fellows practice in formulating their questions and the work they do through those questions is a real-life example of what Freire calls an education of liberation. As such, it is a revolutionary practice. While Writing Fellows have no power over the syllabi and grading standards set by teachers, much less the general structure of education, they do have the power to help writers take ownership of their education and to understand it as fundamentally different from a transaction of teachers handing knowledge to passive students. In the Writing Fellows Program, this liberating, subversive practice has actually found an institutionalized foothold in academia. Fellows and writers work together to construct, within the traditional academic structure, an education that is based on the immediate interaction of one person with another about something that is important.
And here we see that the significance of the work that the Writing Fellows program does extends far beyond writing and even education. The Writing Fellow attitude of sincerely believing in the importance and validity of another person’s thought, and of directing our full attention towards the development of that thought — isn’t that the attitude we want to have all the time? We experience human relationships as mere transactions not just in our classrooms, but throughout our daily lives. By analyzing the way in which Writing Fellows’ questions create and enforce positive and empowering relationships between people, we learn to intervene in our transactional way of living and actively practice the attitudes necessary for a freer, more collaborative world.
by Sam Ballantyne
The recent film The Innocence of Muslims incited a series of mob attacks on US embassies across the Muslim world; on this continent and on our campus, the movie sparked numerous lectures and academic talks. Many in the West drew a connection between those various European laws which restrict denial of the Holocaust or display of swastikas to those Muslim blasphemy laws, which prohibit movies like The Innocence of Muslims. Our own Dean Peter Awn, in an eloquent lecture reflecting on the events of those weeks, cited the French Gayssot law and noted that state restrictions on speech were hardly ‘a Muslim thing.’
This essay thus began as an exploration of relation between the Muslim prohibition of blasphemy and those European laws that ban denial of the holocaust – but, finding no useful equivalence, set out to define the principle which separates them.
A few notes. First, the comparison of the protests to laws is unfair. Though blasphemy is banned in every Muslim-majority country, the violent protests and attacks were illegal – and unpopular, as crowds made clear the next day. Laws can only be fairly compared to other laws, so a more accurate comparison would have been between the French Gayssot law and Egyptian blasphemy law: I’ll return to this later.
In the course of this, I’ll look at some of the relevant laws in Europe and the Muslim world. I’ll look at the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the two tests that it sets up to determine when freedom of speech can be restricted. I’ll argue that only one of these two tests is sound, and that the other restricts some of the most necessary and reasoned speech. Fleshing out applications of that sound test, I’ll argue that European hate speech laws pass the test and Muslim blasphemy laws don’t.
Let us begin with the French. The Gayssot law, passed in 1990, criminalizes Holocaust denial in a round-about way: it makes it an offense to question the existence or size of the category of crimes against humanity as defined by the London Charter of 1945. In essence, it protects the findings of the Nuremberg tribunal from challenge. At the time, anti-racism legislation was proving insufficient to combat the rising tide of anti-semitism (manifested mostly in pamphlets, journal articles and interviews wherein louts voiced their skepticism over the ‘official’ account of the holocaust).
The most significant legal challenge came from Robert Faurisson, a professor of literature at the University of Lyon, who was removed from his post as a result of his public writings on the Holocaust: exemplified by “The Diary of Anne Frank: Is It Authentic?” His trials with this law have been such that he was awarded a medal of courage by noted human-rights advocate and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Faurisson brought his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which reviewed it under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He went armed with a single, strong argument: the French law elevated the Nuremberg findings to ‘dogma,’ when in fact it was demonstrably flawed. True enough, certain Nuremberg conclusions have turned out to be flawed. Russia, to cite one example, had in the aftermath of the war effectively pinned the Katyn massacre on Germany.
This defense is telling. Faurisson was not prosecuted for scholarship relating to the Katyn massacre: he was not defending his right to blame the Russians, but rather something else. For in fact, France does not prosecute academics for examining the record on Katyn – nor for that matter, nearly any of the seemingly bottomless quantity of Holocaust scholarship that goes on year after year.
The French government’s case was equally simple. Every time racism was allowed to express itself publicly, the public order was immediately and severely threatened. The argument runs something like this:
The holocaust was a massive, state-lead genocide, in which the elected French government was massively collusive: majority rule, rather than minority right, had been absolute. In the wake of this, a check needed to be put in place against anti-semites winning democratic elections again. For what if they were to win again? Would they be allowed to take power? Would the Republic fall? Or would we wait to see how it played out? It is easy to see how public order was threatened by public anti-semitism: it exposed the government’s tenuous respect for individual rights.
This argument is grounded in history, and it casts hate-speech laws as a restriction on the state. Yet this set-up of Faurisson as a dangerous radical whose ideas threaten France is ridiculous. The French government actually had and has very little skin in the game. Faurisson is no Zola. Freedom of speech laws were designed to restrain government against its critics: Faurisson is not in any useful sense a dissident. (Had the French government allowed him to blabber on in his bilious way, his ire would have remained focused exclusively on the Jews and their defenders).
The Faurisson case at the UNRHC makes for a frustrating read. If the establishment of internationally recognized human rights – how to articulate them – was the challenge and triumph of the mid-20th century, the question of our time is no doubt to articulate with equal clarity the limits of those rights. Not because the rights themselves are truly dangerous, but because without a clear limiting rule, states will limit rights when they see fit.
Thus, 1996 saw a missed opportunity to settle this question once and for all. Rather than argue their cases directly, both sides argued sideways to their true positions: Faurisson argued for the right to some speech – namely, historical investigation of the war crimes committed in WWII – was limited by the same law which persecuted him, and that the law should be abolished. (This notwithstanding the fact that he himself was clearly uninterested in real historical scholarship.) France had to argue that this sad shadow of a man, reviled where not ignored, posed a serious threat to public order. Both arguments are transparently daft.
In the end France won her argument. The commission, noting that it was not in a position to criticize French law in the abstract, rejected Faurisson’s argument. His fine was 21,000 francs (€3,200).
Germany and Volksverhetzung
My colleague focuses most of his ire on German law. Having devoted so much time to French law, I will only note a few items in comparison, for I will later hold that both the French and German laws are reasonable by a very simple – and internationally recognized – test.
It almost goes without saying that if such a law is reasonable in France, it is reasonable in Germany. The latter, after all, had elected history’s most famous fanatic, which then perpetrated history’s most famous genocide. It was Germany who had twice brought the world to industrial war.
The most relevant German law, Volksverhetzung (hate crime law), is too long to quote in full. Section 130.1 is representative:
Whosoever, in a manner capable of disturbing the public peace:
1. incites hatred against segments of the population or calls for violent or arbitrary measures against them; or
2. assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population
In a community that feels threatened by the majority, a relatively limited number of crimes can have an outsized effect, as members of that community feel scared to participate in the public marketplace of economy and ideas – something in which the state has a vital interest. One murder which takes place in a climate of fear can be stultifying. It took relatively little violence, for example, to suppress the American gay rights movement throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.
Thus: the German law. Those Jews who returned to live in Germany after WWII faced an entirely rational fear of the society at large. Those masses who but years before had engineered their annihilation were now once again the builders, bakers, politicians, and teachers of the new Germany. It would not take much to make going outdoors feel dangerous and participation in the public forum out of the question.
We have seen that France and Germany both have typical examples of hate-speech laws on their books. But what of the redcoats and their benign, venerable theocracy?
Indeed, it is in Britain and her former colonies where we can find true Western blasphemy laws. Though Britain repealed hers in 2008, Canada, New Zealand and others still have laws on the books, which make it an offense to publish a blasphemous libel. This libel was understood to mean against the Christian God and prosecutions were uniquely in this vein.
These laws were largely forgotten in the course of the 20th century. But not entirely. And as multiculturalism took root in Britain in the second half of the 20th century, this lead to some ugly double standards. The government was petitioned to prosecute Salman Rushdie for blasphemy in 1989 – it declined, politely, arguing that the blasphemy laws were a historical relic, meant only to protect Anglican beliefs. Indeed, in 1977, the British government had prosecuted a travel writer who publicly read The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, a poem from the point of view of one of (apparently gay) Jesus’ persecutors. Critical lines include:
As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms-
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
but well hung.
The original recitation, on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, led to the prosecution and near-imprisonment of the poet and publisher. Yet, the case was a controversial one, and it was clear that the public will to prosecute such harmless speech was waning. In 2002, the reading was repeated and the poem republished. Lo: there were no prosecutions.
Britain was, at least within her family of nations, the last to abandon such stupid laws. Canada last prosecuted a citizen under these laws in 1935; Australia in 1919; New Zealand in 1922; America in 1838. While the absence of political will to expunge them is of some interest, the unenforced blasphemy laws themselves cannot be considered a part of the states’ protections of religion.
Indeed, one may look at the ongoing despotism of the Anglican church and the rising atheism of Great Britain and conclude that Kipling had it right a century ago:
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
So: why the British exception? In an era of European integration, is Britain an outlier, liberalizing its speech laws as Europeans restrict theirs? Not really.
It is high time I elucidated the principle which divides these two sets of laws. First, as you have no doubt caught on, we’ve been discussing two sorts of laws: Holocaust-denial laws (now understood as a category of hate-speech laws) and blasphemy laws.
As I mentioned earlier, there are two provisions in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which outline the legitimate restrictions on freedom of speech. Article 5.1, which is general to the entire covenant:
Nothing in the present Covenant may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms recognized herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the present Covenant.
Thus, states may restrict rights and freedoms when they are aimed at the destruction of other rights and freedom. And article 19.3, which is directed specifically at speech:
The exercise of the rights… carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
The difference between these passages! The first is so clear, so simple, so sound. The second, so vague: speech must respect the reputations of other? I suspect most of my speech fails to meet this criteria: how often do I defame city transportation employees? How often Crack Del?
We can see now how article 5.1 of the Covenant, which allows the restriction of any right or freedom aimed at the destruction of any other right or freedom, clearly supports the European Holocaust-denial laws. In certain circumstances, where minorities communities feel threatened by the majority and are right to do so, hate speech limits the extent to which they can participate in public life. This is a fundamental freedom, and the destruction of it – which is the intent and effect of hate speech – is not protected. These hate speech laws are also very narrowly drawn – it isn’t enough for instance, to simply express hate: the statements must come out of a context of violence.
Furthermore, there is a condition, which has to be met for this definition to be relevant. The community in question must have reason to fear the society in which it lives – indeed, this should be established as a matter of judicial fact. This notion is thus fundamentally grounded in historical reality.
It’s long been understood that my faith, or lack thereof, is not threatened by yours, and vice-versa. Indeed, whether you think Mohamed a prophet or a fraud, Jesus a king or a queen, it has no bearing on my right to free exercise. Those benighted souls who take it upon themselves to remind subway-goers about the late Savior do not impede my atheism. Nor, apparently, does my atheism have any effect on them. Indeed, it is substantively inadequate to the task of destroying the rights and freedoms of others.
I’ve outlined a moment where it is appropriate to place restrictions on speech: when it is aimed at the destruction of others’ rights and freedoms. I’ve noted that denials of historically factual genocides, in a context of recent violence and widespread anti-semitism, constitute an obvious threat to the ability of Jews to take part in the public forum. It should go without saying that this principle is not similarly applicable to the protection of a majority community. This is overwhelmingly the case in the Islamic world, where countries like Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco combine majority rule with majority right.
Islamic Blasphemy Laws: an overview
The states that make up the Muslim world are nearly all theocracies. Had I more patience for this sort of thing, I would refer to them throughout this paper by their full names: the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Arab countries are different – People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, or the Arab Republic of Egypt – but “Republic” only in name, as nearly all note early in their constitutions that Islam (not just Allah) is the source from which these law are derived. Turkey is a shining exception; and the former governments of Syria and Iraq were both Baathists who aspired to some sort of secular socialism, however terribly.
This combination of religious authority with state authority is obviously pestilent. A state founded on one religion cannot be truly tolerant of those who do not share its assumptions. Omar Khayyam, writing in Persia in the 12th century, felt as much:
And do you think that unto such as you; A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew: God gave the secret, and denied it me?– Well, well, what matters it! Believe that, too.
Muslim states pursue blasphemy through either Sharia law – that heady blend of Quranic interpretation, scholastic consensus and medieval logic – or legislation. Nearly every Muslim majority country has laws on the books which make it a crime to criticize, ridicule, or defame Islam. Though there is too much relevant legislation to quote here, we have instead a plethora of actual cases – prosecutions based on these laws. It is to these which I will refer.
The extreme example is, as is so often the case, Pakistan, which punishes blasphemy by death, and which frequently celebrates those thugs, who take this brutish bit of nonsense to heart.
In 2005, Mohammad Younus Shaikh was fined and sentenced to life in prison for a book, which claimed that the Quran did not mention stoning as a punishment for adultery. As of writing, Asia Noreen Bibi, a Christian woman, awaits execution for blasphemy. Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl, awaits trial.
Nor are these laws or the prosecutions they engender unpopular. A cursory read of the Pakistani headlines following Malala Yousafzai indicated that the debate was not whether campaigning for women’s rights was acceptable, but rather whether it was so unacceptable that it justified her assault and murder. The Pakistani public polls routinely as the most thuggish in the Muslim world. According to a study by the Pew Research Forum, only 63% consider free elections important to a democracy. Uncensored media is considered important by a mere 28%. Witness also the celebrated murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, politicians who bravely challenged the blasphemy law.
Iran is no different. Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi was arrested in 2006 for advocating separation of religion and state. In 2007, eight students were arrested for claiming that no humans, including Mohammed, are infallible. In 2009, a blogger convicted of criticism of religious leaders died in prison.
Egypt’s law actually protects all three monotheist faiths from ridicule, though the law is applied only in Islam’s defense. Coptics and Ahmadiyya – a reformist branch of Islam – are the most often targeted.
The most striking pattern to emerge here is the use of the blasphemy law to oppress minorities and dissidents. Reformists across the Muslim world are time and again accused of blasphemy against Islam – the exception being Malaysia, where opponents of the government are accused of sodomy. Where it is minorities being oppressed rather than dissidents, the charges are often taken up by politicians as an ethnic or religious wedge.
So we see here why section 5.1 of the ICCPR is so overwhelmingly superior to section 19.3 and the difference between Western and Islamic censorship. European states have the intention of protecting minorities, and the argument of preserving public order. Islamic states have the intention of preserving public order and the argument of protecting Islam.
The preservation of public order, when it is read to mean the legitimation of the present government, is an aim that has justified the repression of many of history’s most crucial thinkers. Socrates would not have passed muster. Nor, indeed, Mohammed. It should thus be cast aside as a test for speech.
Documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were triumphs of modern liberalism. It is always curious to see liberals – among whom I count myself, on Sundays and in the days leading up to American elections – back away from these towards relativism. They should have no illusions about the thuggery that lies behind these blasphemy laws. Not for nothing do Western secular countries speak of minority right and majority rule. Religious and ethnic majorities do not need protection from minorities, and governments do not need protection from critics.
The maintenance of public order and the reputations of others only require protection from the most extreme assaults: public incitement to violence, or libelous fraud. These protections all flow from the simplest principle, that we have certain rights and freedoms except when we aim them against the rights and freedoms of others. No further principle is required.
by Russell Parker
Following the recent attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi leaving a U.S ambassador dead, hate speech and blasphemy laws have been hot button issues on the international stage. News junkies and close followers of the “religious wars” know too well that these recent flare-ups follow in a long line of conflicts from the last two decades. The publishing of Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, Salman Rushdie’s 1988 Satanic Verses and even South Park’s playful teasing at religious figures of all kinds have given rise to an international discussion regarding state intervention into speech and expression rights.
Serious discussion about today’s speech issues has to be prefaced with the relevant historical cases. Germany’s strict speech laws, produced in the wake of World War II, are some of the most contentious in the West, and for good reason. For context, here are some of the strictest excerpts from the German criminal code: Section 130 reads, Hate speech may be punishable if against segments of the population and in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace including racist agitation and anti-Semitism. Subsection 3 makes Holocaust denial illegal. Section 86 forbids association with the Nazi party, and section 86a does the same for the use of the swastika and other banned symbols punishable with jail time.
The rationale, in brief, behind such strict laws is that they look to protect holocaust survivors. The Nazi party committed genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and initiated a war of aggression that encompassed the globe and took the lives of millions of young men and women. It is acceptable then to punish anyone who expresses support for such a movement, or wishes to see its membership rise again. Roused by Nazi rallies and propaganda, German lawmakers often argue that these laws protect the wellbeing of Holocaust survivors and their children who suffer from the memory of genocide.
The atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II are unforgivable and anyone who feels a deep sense of revulsion for Nazi sympathizers is justified. The crimes committed in Germany were, at the time, sanctioned by the Nazi state. Laws and legal procedure could change on a whim to further the political goals of the party’s ethnic cleansing. Although it would be ridiculous to accuse today’s German government of disrespecting the rule of law to that same extent, the heavy handed anti-Nazi legislation sets a precedent for restricting political rights and bending the law to satisfy expedient political goals. Maybe these laws were the best short-term remedy for a people torn apart by ruthless genocide, but looking forward, to a time when the suffering of those who lived through World War II is no longer a factor, the justification for laws violating political rights falls apart. Even with the best of intentions, sacrificing both rights and the rule of law for the sake of sensitivity may prove to have done more harm than good. If a self-proclaimed member of the Nazi party violates Germany’s libel laws, which apply to every member of every creed, then they should be tried. There need not exist a second crime linked to the association with a mostly bygone hated political party.
For the most part, criticisms of Germany’s hate-speech laws focus on the fact that they are a rolling back of political rights for the body politic simply to punish and suppress a political group with an extremist ideology. Seventy years after World War II, the laws themselves undermine their own intention, to heal, unify, and strengthen the German people. A nation needing to make these kind of special exceptions in their legal code will only sit back and watch their legal system slowly buckle under the hypocrisy of upholding political liberty and restricting it all the same. The stringent limitations on political rights created by the Nazi laws weaken the German law’s ability to protect German citizens from political abuses and runs counter to the international democratic argument that is so important in today’s global world.
The Nuremburg trials, the international effort that set that set about punishing the Nazi war criminals will help shed light on the contemporary legal issue. Charles E. Wyzanski, legal scholar and philosopher of law, made a name for himself by criticizing the Nuremburg trials. He noted that ex-post facto law created to punish the Nazi’s, and the trial set up to carry out its faux justice, threatened the very idea of the rule of law. Wyzanski argued, the belief that law could repair the damage done by the Nazis was a mirage. There existed no precedent in international law to try the Nazis, no extant statutes on genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. It was all made up for the trial and applied as though it was legitimate law. The tribunal system was also a gross misapplication of due process and although the tribunal achieved the much-needed punishment the Nazi’s deserved, it may also have had unintended consequences for domestic legal systems. Wyzanski suggested that rather than pursuing justice by legal means it would have been more honest to execute the Nazis by executive order or some other political means. It would have been clear that this was a political solution and not a legal one.
In hindsight, the Nuremburg trials lay the foundation for the International Criminal Court and the tribunals at Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but their unintended damaging effects may be evident in today’s German hate speech laws.
Law created to deter certain kinds of political thought not only is an assault on the freedom of thought, it robs the law of political neutrality. Supporting violent action or genuine hate-speech should fall under the scope of the law, as it does with libel and slander, but support for a political movement is not a simple affirmation of such views just as support for abortion isn’t necessarily supporting the murder of doctors. The law shouldn’t bend to political will so easily, and that is what makes the rule of law so powerful. If the law starts playing politics, it becomes just as fickle as politicians.
Not only is preserving the integrity of law central to the protections of citizens at home, but hypocritical laws like those in Germany also weaken the national image abroad. Countries like Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, which are struggling with their own democratic identities, see legal hypocrisies like those in Germany and find reason to clamp down on speech in their own countries. After the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, leaders from around the world convened to deliver speeches at the annual U.N General assembly meeting. Notably, Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, called for stricter speech restrictions around the world with particular sensitivity to religious sentiment. Although this call for stricter freedom of speech may differ from Western values, the discussion of rights and freedoms is on the table. If the West wishes to have its opinion respected, it must have a viably consistent position reflected by the national laws of nations like Germany, France and the U.S. The Nazi laws on the books in Germany weaken the argument for true democratic reforms that the West can push for in places like Egypt and Libya.
Generations after the Second World War has ended, Germany should show to the world that it has emerged stronger, more independent and unharmed by the musings of the delusional and psychopathic. At the same general assembly to which Morsi gave his address calling for stricter speech laws, President Obama explained why Americans fight and die for American-style freedoms of speech: “We [fight] because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities. We do so because, given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”