Thursday, April 25, 2013

Supertruth, a definition

Joseph Goebbels famously said, "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth."

This statement isn't technically accurate, of course, but it carries heavy meaning. A more accurate rendition would read: "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes a supertruth."

I've been using the word "supertruth" for a few months now, and to my knowledge, I made it up. It's a very useful term, and my purpose in this short post is to define it. So...
Supertruth, n.: A proposition held as true regardless of its actual validity.
Immediately upon reading this definition, we see what Goebbels was getting at in his famous utterance of how propaganda works. He was stating that uncritical acceptance, even to the point of defending a falsehood, is something that humans are prone to, and indeed something we are so prone to that we can be manipulated into doing it rather easily.

Supertruths form the bases of religions, political ideologies, and, indeed, much of how we get around on a day-to-day basis--as they close the gaps between our lack of actual confidence and our self-assuredness. Dogma, for what it is worth, is a class of supertruths--those that proceed from an authority. The connotation, generally, is "propositions held above any examination of their truth-value." Another popular word related here is that supertruths possess a certain amount of "truthiness."

Supertruths, it should be noted, can actually be true. For example, to draw from a popular political topic currently, "firearm ownership prevents crimes." This, no doubt, is true in many cases, but that's usually not why many people accept it. It also, of course, sweeps an awful lot under the rug, oversimplifying a complex issue, because the sense of control provided by accepting the statement is worth more than the actual validity of the statement. No doubt, many people would still maintain this supertruth even if it were demonstrated to be entirely false.

Another class of realms in which we will find many supertruths that may actually be valid are those where we cannot have complete knowledge due, usually, to complexity. Significant examples of such realms include economics, health/well-being, nutrition, and morality--fields that are still at least significantly arts, even if science is making inroads upon them.

On the other hand, supertruths, of course, need not be true, and often they are not. "Jesus lives (or saves)!" for example, is sheer nonsense, and yet billions maintain it. "Islam is a religion of peace" is another good, relevant example with massively significant consequences.

The examples of supertruths are myriad, so I don't intend to elaborate more on them here. This piece is merely intended to be a definition of a term I'm finding very useful. Therefore, I also do not intend to delve into the complex psychological and social reasons that human beings are so ready and insistent upon holding (and failing to re-examine) supertruths.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The three faces of Islamophobia

Islamophobia is a term that's flying around a lot lately. Some of this is warranted. Some of this is not. Unsurprisingly, it seems that those throwing it around--or brandishing it--the most are not taking the time to distinguish between the variety of meanings locked up in that word. It has a few of them, and from within that lack of clarity come at least three faces that are rather mashed together and yet really shouldn't be. I write this to hopefully offer some clarity on the matter to spur better thinking, better use, and proper direction of the term.

First, the dictionary: "Islamophobia, n.: Extreme or irrational fear of all Islamic persons."

Anyone paying attention will notice that this definition is accurate, seems to apply, and yet isn't exactly how the term seems to be used, given that it's applied equally to a number of different targets, some of whom quite clearly do not exhibit such a fear. Further, the fear is hardly the problem, even if it gives rise to the problem. The problem is bigotry, when it arises, which is actually a hatred, not a fear, of Islamic persons for the reason that they are Islamic persons. For that phenomenon, I suggest the term Islamomisia, which actually means hate... maybe.

The problem even here is that Islamomisia could easily be taken to mean a hatred of Islam, which raises a distinction that is critical. Islam is a religion. Religions, though believed, espoused, and practiced by people, are not people; they are sets of ideas and behaviors that arise thereof. It is perfectly possible to be Islamophobic or Islamomisic in the sense of hating the ideas without hating, fearing, or prejudging a single person or group of people. Still, following the dictionary definition of Islamophobia (taken from Google here), I'll let Islamomisia define the prejudicial hatred of all Islamic persons. Note, please, as was unfortunately highlighted by the recent bombing in Boston, that this implies nothing about race. This point will also be important later. Islam is, of course, a religion, not a race.

The three faces of Islamophobia, or Islamomisia

To cut straight to it, I'll enumerate three phenomena here wherein the term "Islamophobia," often meaning Islamomisa, gets used:
  1. There is a genuine prejudice against Islamic people held by many people, notably in my experience in the United States, that genuinely could fit the definitions of Islamophobia and Islamomisia. It is worth noting that most of the people who present this genuine prejudice are right-wing Christians, often fundamentalists, and their hate is often inappropriately tied to race, with horrible and tragic consequences. As sad as it is to say, this behavior from that group is entirely to be expected, however deplorable it is. They tend to hate everyone that isn't them, if we haven't noticed. To be thorough, this phenomenon occurs in people outside of the right-wing Christian demographic as well.
  2. There is a misapplication, usually opportunistic, of the term "Islamophobia" from Islamic apologists and some too-relativistic leftists onto (usually scholarly) critics of Islam--a set of ideas they don't want examined. The opportunism contained in this misuse of the term intentionally takes advantage of the too-easy tie in the minds of liberals to racism or bigotry, with copious examples of this behavior ready from group 1 (above), even though they don't apply to critics of the religion of Islam, including the Qur'an or the Hadith or the specific behaviors of any of its members. This misapplication is used to shut down criticism and is the primary meaning of the term that (usually scholarly) critics of Islam have in mind when they say that Islamophobia is a made-up term used to give undeserved protection to the tenets of Islam.
  3. There is a misapplication, sometimes opportunistic, of the term "Islamophobia" used by Westerners far on the Left. While I think this usage is sometimes opportunistic, I think it is appears more often as a conflation of the ideas expressed in groups 1 and 2 (above). When opportunistic, the conflation is intentional. Though I intend to lay no indictment of intentions on anyone, this usage of the term is flying heavily from the far Left lately and has reached enough prominence to have been published in Salon, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera, in pieces that, so far as I can tell, border on libel in their unfounded accusations of bigotry.
These are the three faces of Islamophobia. The first group here is unable it seems, for whatever reasons, to distinguish between race and religion, and so real problems associated with racism arise. The second group is happy to blur the distinction between race and religion because, at least in the West, to be branded a racist is an ad hominem that effectively renders someone's opinions irrelevant, and the opportunists know it. The third group is varied, but it seems populated with many people who, for whatever reasons, appear all too ready to jump from religion of Islam to Muslim to "brown people" (their term, as I've run into it several times). The key thing to notice about these three faces is that they're all using the same word (or have it applied to them, as with group 1), but it doesn't mean the same thing in all three cases.

Speaking of group three, they've become quite the witch hunters lately too. It's well known that something appears to crop up an awful lot when we're looking for evidence to confirm that which we want to believe (Cf. Jesus on grilled cheese), and lo and behold, these folks are finding more and more "evidence" for it everywhere they look! The analogy to witch hunting hardly ends here. Witches at one time were guilty, once named, until proved innocent. We see that going on here. A monetary or social reward for finding witches helped to find an awful lot of them. What a way to get a viral piece written or get some notoriety in the "atheist community" it is to take on one of the big "New Atheist" "leaders" with a heavy accusation that would marginalize them. Of course, there are no witches. Making this situation all the more ugly is the fact that there are Islamophobes--who surprisingly enough appear to be beneath much significant commentary on the attack circuit (see social reward suggestion in previous sentence).

Is there an Islamophobia problem?

Yes, rather unequivocally. Some prominent folks have said that the term is made-up, and in its origins it may very well have been. I don't know, and I'm not concerned to find out just now (but would be interested). Certainly, though, it applies to group 1, mostly made up of "right-wing nutjobs." These people, some of whom hold positions in the United States government (probably in other governments as well), are actually prejudiced against Muslims--they are Islamomisic and possibly Islamophobic as well.

It does no one any good, so far as I can tell, to try to deny that this problem exists--as it clearly does. Unwarranted anti-Muslim (and anti-Sikh, and anti-"brown people") prejudice, discrimination, and violence have occurred, are still occurring, and will continue to occur. Those, like Dawkins and Harris, who have argued that Islamophobia is a made-up term fell afoul of this error and were raked over more coals than they deserved for making the mistake. Those who raked them might note that outrage, name-calling, and potentially libelous publications are a very, very bad way to capitalize upon point out an error that may have been nothing more than oversight or cognitive capture.

That real Islamophobia exists is not acceptable, and it is a significant social equality problem that will require quite a lot of work and time to change. Living down South, I can note that it is a very real problem, very common in some areas, and sadly unlikely to change anytime soon. This seems like a good time to remind everyone that this year, in 2013, a high school in Georgia is having it's first (racially) integrated prom, and there is significant resistance to that! It doesn't make it okay; it's just a statement of how it is, a note of how much work remains to be done. Doing that work poorly by accusing the wrong targets of crimes they didn't commit doesn't help at all.

Are the "New Atheists" Islamophobes?

I see no evidence to apply this term to these people, specifically meaning the big names lately accused (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and a handful of others (Salman Rushdie, anyone?)). As the term "Islamophobe" carries a charge of bigotry, which is intensely damaging to someone's reputation, personal and professional, I feel that significant and clear evidence needs to be produced to make such a pronouncement. Indeed, this is rather the basis of the modern legal system in the West which has set a model for justice to aspire to: innocence until proven guilt.

These "New Atheists" are famous for writing criticisms of religions, sometimes scathing ones. Those criticisms are of ideas or, at times, of individuals whose guilt is proven. I have read a great deal of their work, some of it that challenged my thinking significantly, and not a single piece ever gave me the impression that they were making bigoted statements against entire demographics of people. As to race, Hitchens frequently even argued that there is no such thing!

Sam Harris's discussion of profiling, which is becoming something of an icon in this shitstorm, was mostly a discussion of statistics and limited attentional resources, along with the sheer ridiculousness of seeing whether certain people might be terrorists (e.g. a three-year-old child and an infirm couple far advanced in years). A key thrust of his argument was that it does no one any real favors to weaken security so that a standard of extreme(ly ridiculous) equality is conveyed. In fact, it's dangerous. Importantly to my discussion, that essay does not contain or constitute significant or clear evidence of anything remotely close to a charge of bigotry. To levy that charge without sufficient evidence is irresponsible and potentially libelous--which is rightly illegal. Please note well: If people are actually bigots, they should be noted as such, but the burden of proof lies on the accuser. Do not forget that. Ever. It is important.

Now, there are people who would very much like for the "New Atheists" to be Islamophobes--but an accusation of any individual without evidence would not be appropriate. A list of general categories from which we might expect them would certainly include many if not most Islamic apologists (particularly fundamentalists), their Christian detractors, some on the far-left who believe in extreme(ly dangerous) cultural relativism, and left-wing writers--including atheists--who want the reputation that would come from tackling a great. Let them produce real evidence, then, and let them beware pareidolia--and libel suits.

It bears noting here that however much someone may disagree with Sam Harris's profiling piece or his other thoughts, there is not sufficient evidence at all to jump to any indictment on his part of "brown people" or even of Muslims in general. It disgusts me to even have to have typed that. Again, though, if someone wants to prove it, let them prove it. And if someone wants to believe it, let them remember the burden of proof, presumption of innocence, and their commitment to evidence-based thinking. We can't expect so much out of opportunistic Islamic apologists, but we can expect more out of freethinking writers in the West.

Do the "New Atheists" contribute to real Islamophobia?

This is far harder to say. The answer is, however, very probably not--at least not much. As noted previously, it is probably uncontroversial to point out that a majority of true Islamophobes, especially in the U.S., are right-wing Christians. It's probably equally uncontroversial to point out that that faction of these people aren't likely to be reading Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. These people are in an ugly quandary, even if they're practiced at cherry picking, if they are reading Harris or Hitchens, etc.: to use them as anti-Islamic sources they have to agree openly with noted atheists who also levy heavy criticisms of Christianity. In my personal experience, which is anecdotal, of course, most are not reading anything like Harris or Hitchens, however, and are simply content in their bigotry.

There are a lot of people yelling about Islamophobia. There's a lot of confusion about it. There are a lot of accusations flying about that border on (or are) libel for the purpose of character assassination. I'd urge people to commit to a higher standard before being so careless with such things. At least, for goodness's sake, aim it at those who are actually doing it, using evidence to establish the fact and only accusing people whose guilt can actually be demonstrated! There are more than enough examples to go around without having to resort to wanton accusations laid because of a disagreement of opinions that have nothing to do with actual bigotry.

Do remember, though, if yelling about Islamophobia is the narrative someone needs to maintain their sense of the world: no amount of yelling about Islamophobia, warranted or otherwise, will make Islam a true set of ideas.

Edit (5-21-2013): A commenter pointed out that the term "islamomisia" has been in use for some time now, perhaps since 2001. A quick search of the term uncovers a discussion about it from 2007, at least, so please don't make the mistake of believing that this term originated with me, and pardon that I didn't look to see if my suggestion on terminology had already been employed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dear Glenn Greenwald, Maybe you can teach me to liberal

Dear Glenn Greenwald,

You've stirred up a pot of shit lately via your exchange with Sam Harris about Islam(ophobia). I've been watching this play out, reading sets of commentary from both of you, observing the back-and-forth, watching people argue on behalf of your case (since I already agree with Harris's I looked at less of that), and reading through your Twitter feed on occasion. What I've determined is that I'm apparently doing my liberaling wrong, and I'm hoping you can set me straight.

To introduce myself briefly, I'm pretty damned liberal. I'm highly educated, and I live in the Southeastern US, which makes me something of a sore thumb around here. I'm told pretty frequently about how communist and socialist I am (actually, I'm neither, I just support a progressive tax structure, believe in global warming, and want to keep creationism out of the science classroom), what a threat to my nation I am, and how I'm not wanted in this country because of my political orientation. I thought I was liberaling pretty well, studying subjects like economics and political theory in my spare time while keeping abreast of science, all while giving people the chance to prove themselves on who they are, not what they are, but lately, I'm questioning my liberal core. You are the reason, Mr. Greenwald. I don't think I'm liberaling right anymore, and watching your discussion with Sam Harris, also a liberal, really started to convince me of that.

Something today really got me curious about wanting to ask you about this, about how to liberal correctly. Earlier today, you tweeted on Twitter about the Boston Marathon bomber(s). Of course, you're mostly responding to the hysterical right wing in America and their incessant claims that "terr'ist Muslins" are to blame. I feel that you might be confusing these folks with other targets of your criticism on "Islamophobia," most notably Sam Harris and some of the folks defending him. Anyway, here's what you tweeted:

This is where I'm lost. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but didn't you just lump everyone with "mental illness" together regardless of their individual situations or personalities? I know that liberals are really against doing this kind of thing, lumping people together and making blanket statements about the whole when a more nuanced argument is necessary, as you've readily proved by repeatedly pointing out that Harris is a bigot for criticizing Islam and daring to suggest that statistically effective methods, like profiling in certain security-based circumstances, might produce a better result than ignoring statistics altogether while consuming enormous amounts of resources to achieve a far worse result that essentially no one is happy about.

Here's the part where I get even more about this. Sam Harris criticizes the teachings of Islam, the tenets of a religion that people, more or less, choose to be a part of (or do they?). But it looks like you're pointing out that the bomber may have just been someone with a mental illness, which not only provides absolutely no useful information in this circumstance, but particularly is something beyond that person's capacity to choose. Since the first of the preceding points is likely to be unclear, let me note that since anyone who would blow up a bunch of innocent people isn't operating in the normal frame of mind, we could define entire swaths of "mental illness" as the willingness to take part in this behavior. I suppose we have to be careful, though, since a nontrivial proportion of Muslims does this, claiming motivation by their religious beliefs, which we shouldn't conflate with their race. Is that right? Or must we conflate it with race? Or only when we want to make a particularly liberally point?

So liberals are supposed to blame things like "mental illness," no matter how stigmatizing, damaging, useless, unfair, and beyond someone's control, but they cannot point out that problems could arise from someone who subscribes to particular facets of an organization--one that they could choose to leave at any time if they so desired--well known to be involved in perpetrating this kind of crime as an artifact of believing the things at the center of their organization? Mental illness is such a convenient label, though, isn't it? It makes the perpetrator into a victim, and it makes it easy to point fingers at our shoddy state of mental healthcare. It's far easier to do that than to untangle and challenge the belief system of one of the most reactionary, dangerous religions on the planet, isn't it?

Are you seeing where I'm lost? I feel very much like I'm, as a liberal, supposed to only criticize groups of people for holding bad ideas for bad reasons, ones that reliably produce bad results, if it is beyond their control to hold them, as with mental illness. This is hard to make sense of, which is presumably why I'm feeling like I'm not too good at liberaling and am writing you for advice.

Now, speaking of conflating things, as a good liberal, am I supposed to do like you're doing and conflate the reactionaries, who are mostly Christians (SHH! Racism...), with the carefully nuanced scholars? As a liberal, am I to realize that careful explorations of difficult issues is essentially on par with the yammering of embarrassing fools? Do I do that because it's useful to make the point or for some better reason? Like if I quote-mine to call Sam Harris an Islamophobe and then link to an article to indicate that Islamophobia is a real problem, I should choose some hillbilly Republican (Christian, shh... racism) from North Carolina ranting on his "terr'ist Muslin" box to make my point, right? That's how to be liberaling the right way? I just want to be clear.

Another question, while I have you: are you aware of the work Harris has done regarding free will? He has some pretty interesting things to say about mental illness and justice. Of course, I don't think he said anything there that can be opportunistically misconstrued into a claim of being bigoted against "brown people," so I understand if you haven't familiarized yourself with that aspect of his work. I'll give a quick primer--not that I'm necessarily an expert in this field.

It seems to be the current state of research that we don't have this "libertarian free will" that seems to sit at the middle of a lot of beliefs in the West. Harris put together quite a little piece about this, in case you haven't seen it (it is called Free Will), indicating that we may indeed be acting on prior causes below and beyond our conscious awareness or abilities to choose. When these actions include heinous crimes, then we have a pretty serious question in front of us about how to handle the matter since, in a real sense, the perpetrators are also victims of circumstances.

I'm having a very hard time sorting out how to be liberal correctly with all of these complicated factors. So far, I've figured out following you guys that it's apparently not okay to blame Islam (a set of ideas) for anything, however many Muslims use the doctrines of that religion to do horrible, violent, oppressive things (how many women in Islamic nations were beaten for Allah while I wrote this or while you read it?--SHHHH, racism!), because that might be insensitive to "brown" people (which makes no sense since Islam is a religion not a race or color). Evidently this restriction includes even avoiding asking people to question the ideas at the center of that religion as ideas because it's "phobic" to their racial identity to do so. On the other hand, I can blame whatever I want on "mental illness," which is certainly something millions or billions of people suffer from without ever committing any crimes, particularly any violent ones. Can I note that these people did not choose to become mentally ill, cannot choose to become mentally well in most cases, and cannot examine any set of precepts that have very little foundation in reality and yet form the basis of their mental illnesses? How do I liberal myself correctly around these questions?

Now here's where I really get lost, and I'll cut this correspondence after I ask. What if the religions are actually sometimes causing the "mental illnesses" that lead to these kinds of problems, like back in 2001 when [don't talk about it specifically because it might be racist] happened? What if, in fact, the religions are "mental illnesses" of a particular kind? I'm pointing particularly at the hardcore fundamentalist kinds here. At what point do I stop being a responsible "liberal" in blaming "mental illness" and start being a "bigot"? Is it when I name the "mental illness"? Is it when I suggest that having that particular "mental illness" might be a significant source of leading to a particular kind of problem? Is it when I point out that defending the context in which that "mental illness" exists, spreads, and damages minds in consequential ways might be a real problem, even if it only manifests (reliably) in a small percentage of people infected with it?

I really appreciate your time and attention. I look forward to your reply, so I can get back to being as liberal as I'm supposed to be.

Sincerely and with kind regards,
James Lindsay, Ph.D.