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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Signing stuff (2): Baggini on the UK papal visit

Here's a letter that was signed by many highly admirable people from the UK. I was not asked to sign it, and nor should I have been - this was very much a letter to be signed by British worthies, protesting the Pope's state visit to the UK. So there's another reason not to sign something: in the circumstances, you might not be an appropriate person to do so. Most of the things I'm asked to sign could be signed by almost anyone, but as an Australian I'm not really an appropriate person to be signing a letter to be sent to British newspapers and addressed specifically to this kind of political choice.

In the event, it's signed by:

Stephen Fry, Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Susan Blackmore, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Ed Byrne, Baroness Blackstone, Ken Follett, Professor AC Grayling, Stewart Lee, Baroness Massey, Claire Rayner, Adele Anderson, John Austin MP, Lord Avebury, Sian Berry, Professor Simon Blackburn, Sir David Blatherwick, Sir Tom Blundell, Dr Helena Cronin, Dylan Evans, Hermione Eyre, Lord Foulkes, Professor Chris French, Natalie Haynes, Johann Hari, Jon Holmes, Lord Hughes, Robin Ince, Dr Michael Irwin, Professor Steve Jones, Sir Harold Kroto, Professor John Lee, Zoe Margolis, Jonathan Meades, Sir Jonathan Miller, Diane Munday, Maryam Namazie, David Nobbs, Professor Richard Norman, Lord O'Neill, Simon Price, Paul Rose, Martin Rowson, Michael Rubenstein, Joan Smith, Dr Harry Stopes-Roe, Professor Raymond Tallis, Lord Taverne, Peter Tatchell, Baroness Turner, Professor Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC FBA, Ann Marie Waters, Professor Wolpert, Jane Wynne Willson

That's a pretty impressive list!

If I'd been British, and if I'd been asked to sign the letter, would I have done so? Very likely I would. I'd want to scour it carefully to make sure I really did agree with everything in it ... but say I decided that I did? Would I have any other reason not to sign it?

I raise this because Julian Baggini, who is both British and a valued contributor to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists , was given an opportunity to sign it and declined. Now, I'd understand this if he disagreed with the sentiments in the letter, or even if he generally agreed with them but found something there that he was just not prepared to put his name to. I think that's quite legitimate. It's also quite legitimate to explain your misgivings or reservations privately to the person who has asked you to sign up. Indeed, it's okay to explain them publicly.

But I'm at a bit of a loss to understand what was going on in this case. As far as I can see, Julian doesn't have any objection to the letter's content and would have been prepared to sign it if there hadn't been enough other people already doing so: "If only a few people were [protesting] I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition." As far as I can see, his reasons amount to the claim that signing would have been divisive.

I have a lot of time for Julian, and I think his essay in 50 Voices is well worth reading. I don't mind that his stance towards organised religion is more conciliatory than that of some atheists and religious sceptics. There's certainly room for a range of viewpoints, and my own experiences witth organised religion are not vastly different from his - a mix of benign and not so benign.

But I find it very odd that someone would decline to sign something that he doesn't really disagree with and might have signed in slightly different circumstances ... and that he'd then publicly criticise the document that he might have signed. Of course, he has -and should have - every legal right to do so; but what did he think he was achieving apart from putting his own allies on the defensive and creating further confusion and division within his own ranks? If you're going to think so damn tactically, rather than concentrating on whether you actually agree with the content of a document, what's the tactical advantage in writing a high-profile piece in which you criticise your allies (and don't, subject to one point below, express any specific reservations about the document itself)?

It's all very puzzling. I hope Julian will think a bit further next time he's tempted to do something like this. He's shown a tendency lately to want to distance himself from his allies in a way that can only provide succour to his intellectual and political opponents. That's not the kind of division he should want to create. Conversely, it's healthy to express your views on issues where you really do disagree with opponents, and especially if those opponents currently wield vast power and influence. That is the kind of division - a  difference of views - on which liberal democracies thrive. Talk of things getting "ugly" is inaccurate and inappropriate when all that is going on is expression of a viewpoint (and not even in some viscerally powerful way such as by destroying opponents' flags or symbols).

Providing he actually agreed with the letter, I still don't understand why Julian couldn't sign it. If his real point is that he disagreed with the demand that the entire papal visit be cancelled, while agreeing with other points, why not concentrate on simply saying that very clearly as the main focus of the article? It's an arguable point, but it gets lost in the rhetoric.

As it is, Julian has written a piece that makes things worse - especially for his own allies, but also generally - by talking about the signatories to the letter as if they are stirring up violence, or on the path to doing so. No - what they are doing is exercising their right to free speech, which is generally a civilised alternative to making your point through violence. Liberal societies provide freedom of speech to provide an avenue for strong feelings and principled viewpoints to be expressed publicly but non-violently.

That's what the signatories to the letter were doing. They were not stirring up violence or trying to make things get ugly, or even naively acting in a way that was likely to have such an effect. Questioning their propriety or prudence merely adds to the idea that there is something illegitimate about strong criticism of religion ... and lends assistance to the decidedly ugly idea that violence is an understandable, inevitable, or somehow forgivable, response to criticism. No it isn't; free speech is a key value in Western societies, and violent responses to it are totally beyond the pale of toleration. We may understand how violent people think in an abstract, intellectual sense of "understand", but we must insist that this way of thinking will not be treated with any toleration or leniency if it's expressed in action.

Julian Baggini is definitely one of the good guys, but he's tied himself in knots on this occasion, and, once again, I hope he'll think it over before too many more occasions like this come up in political life.


Greg Egan said...

That's a pretty impressive list!

I recognise many of these names, and some of them are people whose achievements in various fields I happen to admire ... but so what?

If someone has made a good argument not to grant the Pope a state visit to the UK, then let that argument be judged on its merits. It gains nothing by having celebrities' names stuck at the bottom. If there's one thing worse than the argument from authority, it's the argument from largely-irrelevant fame.

Now, don't get me wrong, if Angelina Jolie or Nelson Mandela can get someone sprung from a dictator's prison or bring attention to a neglected social issue, all power to them. But if the Guardian really chose to publish this letter based on the list of signatories rather than the content, that's awfully sad ... and it's even sadder if any reader's ultimate thoughts on the issue somehow depend on whether or not they'd be agreeing with Stephen Fry.

Russell Blackford said...

Unfortunately, I think we live in a world where both of those things are true - a letter is more likely to be published if it carries the signatures of famous people, and many people Out There make up their minds on issues not so much on the merits of arguments as on whether the position is endorsed by someone they admire (often for something irrelevant). I wish it wasn't so, but that's the situation we have to work with.

But what do you think about Julian's op.ed. piece, Greg? That was what I was really trying to focus on. The rest was more to give the background.

Russell Blackford said...

lol, I just realised that the "That's a pretty impressive list!" was my exclamation, not yours; i.e., you were quoting me (while silently correcting a typo that I made, which I've now fixed in the original). I was just exclaiming at what a high-powered list someone managed to assemble. That doesn't entail that the views expressed are correct or that the arguments are sound. I certainly wasn't meaning to suggest anything like that.

Greg Egan said...

But what do you think about Julian's op.ed. piece, Greg?

It's not terribly coherent. I do agree with him that in principle there can be situations where all atheists are doing is inflaming religious groups' sense of persecution while actually being taken seriously only by themselves -- but while I'm not impressed by the look-at-us-we're-famous list at the bottom of this letter, the letter itself made some reasonable points.

But he's there in Britain, and I'm not. If he felt the debate there over the visit had entered a counterproductive phase, that's a point worth making. Perhaps in this context the letter seemed like the last straw to him, and so he gave it a disproportionate focus when he was really just thinking that the whole thing had degenerated into a brawl. However right one's position, unless you're talking about, say, lives in imminent danger, there is always such a thing as overkill.

J. J. Ramsey said...

From what Baggini has said in his recent piece and what he said earlier about the destructiveness of the New Atheist movement, he'd much rather see the more reasonable religious ally themselves with the reasonable non-theists and pit themselves against the decidedly unreasonable extremists--emphasis, obviously (!) on the reason. Instead, he's seeing the protest against the papal visit as, to put it in his words, "another round of atheists versus the faithful," which is not something with which he wants to be associated.

Ophelia Benson said...

Another aspect of this is that it's somewhat mystifying that Baggini decided not to sign the letter because too many people were signing it, when of course there are far more people bending the knee to the pope than there are signing that letter.

Jerry Coyne said...

I don't get the guy at all. He says he would have signed it if there were fewer people, but, as you said, then goes out of his way to criticize it.

And is there anything inherently WRONG with being divisive. Were we supposed to cozy up to the segregationists (whom we wanted to persuade) so that we would not be divisive about civil rights? Were women supposed to avoid strong criticism of chauvinists to get their rights?

Ever great advance in human rights and liberties has involved divisiveness. Good Lord, Baggini would find our Declaration of Independence divisive: after all, it catalogues a list of strong criticisms of the king!

J. J. Ramsey said...

Coyne: "I don't get the guy at all. He says he would have signed it if there were fewer people, but, as you said, then goes out of his way to criticize it."

Baggini never criticizes the sentiments in the letter itself, so to say that he "goes out of his way to criticize it" is misleading. Rather, he sees the letter as being used in the service of an anti-theist movement rather than as, say, something that brings disaffected Catholics together with the secularists against the Pope.

"Were we supposed to cozy up to the segregationists (whom we wanted to persuade) so that we would not be divisive about civil rights?"

Bad analogy. Remember that Baggini would rather see the battle lines as pitting the generally reasonable against the unreasonable, rather than the non-theists against the religious. If Baggini were to apply a similar scheme to racial civil rights, then he'd want to see white and black anti-segregationists working together against segregationists.

Russell Blackford said...

He certainly goes out of his way to criticise the signing of the letter, though. That worries me more than if he'd nitpicked the letter itself. As far as I can see, his real objection is that the letter overreaches in arguing for cancellation of the entire visit. That might be an arguable point, but it gets lost in the stuff about contributing to things to things turning ugly, etc. That really does seem to show a kind of over-fastidiousness. If I believed that the letter was generally correct but asked for too much, and I had media access, that's what I'd say ... not that the letter is contributing to ugliness, unrest, and so on. I think that's over the top.

Bruce Gorton said...

The major problem here is his position is essentially a form of ad populum mixed with "don't rock the boat."

That a large group believes something doesn't make it false anymore than it makes it true. It is ultimately irrelevant.

Rocking the boat is kind of the whole point to a protest. If less people had signed the document it wouldn't be better to sign, it would just signal a less effective campaign.

Which is to say his argument paints himself as being less than admirable. He would be willing to say he wants change - if there was less of a chance of it actually happening.

Finally, as to the point of this becoming godly versus godless, well, sometimes things will work out that way. Sometimes tribal lines to overrule things like "They fuck children" and sometimes they don't.

If we refuse to act on the assumption that it will be off putting to the religious, without giving them the chance to be put off - then quite frankly we end up never acting.

And we end up doing those religious people a disservice. If we never stand up, we never give the religious the chance to stand with us.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Bruce Gorton, it's tempting to try to fit Baggini in a nice, neat scheme with the stalwart, outspoken atheists on one side and the awful religious and their fellow travelers, the faitheists, on the other (as some of the commenters on B&W seem wont to do). However, if Baggini didn't want to rock boats, he wouldn't be saying things like, "There are many people who can see the appeal of the sermon of the mount, but they have no idea what a man in a dress has to do with it."

I suspect that part of the problem is that he thinks that the New Atheist movement is mean-spirited and somewhat batty (hence the comparison to Pastor Jones), so he wants to keep it at arm's length.

Kirth Gersen said...

I can understand Baggini's stance, and it almost makes sense, from the standpoint of a view that most sensible Catholics don't approve of things like molesting children, consigning people to HiV, and referring to their fellow citizens as "Nazis."

The flaw in his logic is that those sensible Catholics have either already left the Church, or have distanced themselves from the Pope and consider themselves, as my mother-in-law now does, not as "Catholics" but as "Members of the Catholic Comminity" -- people who might go to mass occasionally and who genuinely like their local priest, but who view the Pope himself with mistrust and scorn. To reach those people, overt criticism of the Pope can't really hurt anything.

On the flip side, those who would find a protest divisive are the exactly the ones that Baggini would consider "extremists" on the religious side -- people who are frantically doing mental gymnastics to reconcile a visibly evil, immoral organization with the infallible "Vicar of Christ on Earth" stuff they want to believe. For those people, backing off relieves some of the pressure on their cognitive dissonance. Protesting of the Pope by otherwise reasonable people, on the other hand, while hardening the stances of some, might cause others to break.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"To reach those people, overt criticism of the Pope can't really hurt anything."

Yeah, but remember that Baggini would like to see those people join in the anti-Pope protest. The problem is not overt criticism of the Pope, but rather that the criticism is coming predominantly from those who share a common lack of belief in God, rather than a larger mix of faithful and non-theists opposed to abetting child rapists. I suppose that you can say that Baggini would like to see a wedge strategy of his own play out, where moderate believers are actively encouraged to separate from and even oppose extremists within their own faiths.

Kirth Gersen said...

"Yeah, but remember that Baggini would like to see those people join in the anti-Pope protest."

I'd like to win the lottery, too. These people have, for the most part, been indoctrinated their entire lives into the belief that the Pope is infallible. Even if they don't like what's going on, the conditioning against overt public criticism can be almost impossible to overcome. Even the ones that have distanced themselves from the Church still won't cross the "You Must Respect Religion" line.