Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The New Blasphemy Laws

When is a racist slur not a racist slur? For one, when it is pronounced by a hip-hop artist in a recording. The same applies to sexist comments, to insulting and degrading epithets. Hip hop artists receive special dispensations.

Presumably, the issue involves malicious intent. The issue has arisen because New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet fired a reporter for saying the wrong word, even though he was simply quoting the term as it had been used by someone else. Baquet, who is not a moral philosopher, decided that using the word was a firing offense, regardless of intent.

As Prof. Paul Bloom explains, in in order to make some sense of this nonsense, the Times reporter was not the only victim of what we are now calling cancel culture:

A journalist at the New Yorker was fired for exposing himself in a Zoom call; another lost his job at the New York Times for quoting a racial slur; an employee of the centrist Niskanen Center in Washington was fired for tweeting a joke about Mike Pence being lynched; an actress was removed from the cast of “The Mandalorian” for allegedly anti-Semitic posts on Instagram. In all of these cases, the accused parties denied malicious intent. Suppose they were telling the truth. Were they treated unjustly?

Many think the answer is obvious. We shouldn’t blame people for accidents, for mistakes and for actions that they didn’t know were wrong at the time.

For his part, Baquet mumbled something incoherent about his firing, explaining that intent matters-- after basing a firing decision on his sense that intent does not matter:

After an initial claim to the contrary, New York Times editor Dean Baquet told his staff in discussing the incident there, “Of course, intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism.” And Times columnist Bret Stephens—in a piece rejected by his own paper but then published in the New York Post—wrote, “Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention…It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage. A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference.”

To shed some clarity on this debate, we need to introduce two concepts-- blasphemy and forgiveness. On the one side, some words have now risen to the status of blasphemous, and that means, unforgiveable. Recall that French high school teacher Samuel Paty was decapitated on the street for having shown caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in class. It’s a one and done view of blasphemy. It violates all of our own jurisprudence about blasphemy.

The tragic irony here is that Paty did not do what he was said to have done. A teenage high school student made it all up, to cover up a problem of her own. So, we reject the one-and-done approach because we oppose lynching. We prefer due process of law and the presumption of innocence. It might be criminal law and it might be civil law. But we reject summary justice. Or at least we used to do so.

As for forgiveness, you will recall that Christ said that only one sin was unforgivable, that was-- blaspheming the Holy Ghost. Without entering too deeply into a theological debate about what that means, we will quote the eminent Church doctor, Augustine of Hippo, to the effect that the only unforgivable sin is impenitence. 

This means, if I may, that someone who has committed a sin and who recognizes his action as sinful and who confesses and does penance for it, is considered to be penitent. It is less about his state of mind and more about his actions. He is saying that he did not sin on purpose, but that even if he did, he now sees that he was wrong to do so. However difficult it is to read anyone’s mind, and to try to establish intent in that way, being penitent says that the action was not intended. 

Of course, confession is private behavior. It only occurs between a penitent sinner, his priest and God. This has meant that an individual can sin, repent and be forgiven-- only to go out and sin some more. Surely, there would have been no institutionalized adultery in Christian countries if people had not been able to find a way to flout the seventh commandment-- that is, to repent for the sin and to feel sufficiently cleansed to do it again. I will leave to others the question of whether or not this bespeaks impenitence.

Repenting is not quite the same as apologizing. Consider the example Bloom offers:

To take a milder case, if you spill your coffee on my laptop, it matters a lot to me whether you did it on purpose. But even if it was a totally unavoidable accident, you should apologize and perhaps offer to help pay for the repair. Outcomes matter even in the absence of intentions.

The purpose of the apology is to repair a public reputation. With your apology you are saying, not only that you did not intend to spill the coffee, but also that you will not do it again. An apology contains an implicit or an explicit vow not to repeat the action. You are saying thereby that the action does not reflect on your character and that you want it to be forgiven, in the sense that you want it to be erased from your record.

In this sense, an apology, accompanied by either compensation-- paying for the repair-- or withdrawal from polite society, erases the action. In Biblical terms, from Ezekial 18, it means that your act will be forgotten. When we are dealing with misspeaking, especially with using a word that one did not know to be offensive, an apology ought to lead to forgiveness. 

In the current cultural climate, many people seem to believe that using certain words, even with no intention to cause harm, constitutes blasphemy. And that we can never forgive the dereliction.

Obviously, this flies in the face of our legal system, both our criminal and civil codes. After all, even in the case of a murder, be it a homicide or manslaughter, we assume that the perpetrator is innocent until proven guilty. Again, we do not lynch people. Still, by all appearances we have reached a cultural crossroads where we have created new blasphemy laws, which means, we worship new gods about whom it is an unforgivable sin to speak ill. These new gods defy Western religious and juridical principles.

Bloom explains that we all distinguish between intention and outcome. Obviously, if you shoot an arrow in the air, and it accidentally penetrates someone's skull, your action does not bear the same onus as it would if you had aimed before shooting. The act might not be homicide, but you are certainly going to be held responsible for your action.

We have far more difficulty inferring intention than we do outcome. We can make an inference about what you intended to do-- it’s also called premeditation-- but we know the outcome to a higher degree of certainty.

Bloom explains:

Intentions are hard to infer and easy to lie about. Outcomes are observable by third parties and can form the basis of impartial judgment. And outcomes—the death of a child, a ruined laptop—are what matter. Indeed, it’s likely that we worry so much about intentions only because they are clues to future outcomes. If you intended to knock over my coffee, it raises the chances that you might do it again—or worse—in the future. But even in the absence of malice, we should attend to bad outcomes. If you get sick from undercooked meat at a restaurant, you probably don’t want to return, regardless of the chef’s good intentions.

Importantly, Bloom emphasizes that when we consider intention, we are saying that we want to know whether you are likely to commit the same offense again. In other words, ought we to believe that your action tells us something about your character, which suggests that we should be wary of dealing with you, or does it count as an aberration?

As for outcomes, consider this point. In the current cancel culture, we have somewhat reversed the order of intention and outcomes. We do not know whether a word quoted by a Times reporter will cause negative outcomes for the young people who heard it. Some of them believe that even hearing it caused damage because it triggered a negative emotional response. But, just as we cannot easily ascertain intention-- unless we can read minds-- how do we know that your witness to your anguish is not just something you made up to gain a cultural advantage or to hurt someone you do not like?

But then, the reasoning goes, racist epithets, over the course of history have produced numerous bad outcomes, from slavery to segregation to other manifestations of racism.

Thus, certain words, spoken today, perpetuate pre-existing injustice and must be excised from the language. Of course, this implies that institutional racism has been caused or perpetuated by the use of certain words and that eliminating them from the language will give rise to a new world of justice.

The problem, as the Times reporter discovered, is simple. In order to know which words we should never speak, we need to think, if not to speak the words. As Dostoevsky once pointed out, if someone tells you that you must not think about polar bears, that under no circumstances should you think about polar bears-- the more he insists the more you will find it impossible to think of anything but polar bears.


KCFleming said...

Being white while speaking is proof of malintent.
Whiteness is Original Sin, for which there is no forgiveness.

Me? I say the hell with it.
I’ll refuse to participate in the madness where possible and work-to-rule where not.

Sam L. said...

Spilled coffee? I am reminded of Don Knott's "shakey" nervous act from years ago. Also, old magazine ads about "coffee nerves". I don't drink coffee.