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Morality of Provocation

On the 「Burn a Quran Day」 event planned by a florida pastor (likely to be copied by other groups):


  • Free speech
  • Cultural sensitivity and norms in different parts of the world
  • Missions
  • Facts
  • Responsibility
Basic facts: The Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL is organising an event to burn copies of the Quran, under the direction of one of their pastors, Terry Jones. This has ties to a broad islamophobic populist undercurrent in parts of American society right now. To his credit, BushJr took steps to stem this when he was president; without a conservative president to restrain them and given some media that drag the level of thought of those who listen downwards (from radio to television), conservative populists have embraced conspiracy theories and dangerously inaccurate perceptions of the past and present. This event is a manifestation of that, one of potentially many.

Free speech: It should be permitted to burn the Quran, as well as any other book. Free expression is foundational for western society, and the right to criticise social norms, even in a charged and agressively symbolic way, is part of how we are. It is a good thing to be able to do this, provided it is based on the broad principles of open criticism and applies as well to bibles, torot, the American flag, the constitution, and other respected works. It is not acceptable as an expression based on narrow foundations, only broad ones.

Cultural sensitivity: It is insensitive, but cross-cultural meaning often is as these are battles of ideas and norms. By doing this act enough, like with the Jyllands cartoons, we begin to move other parts of the world (potentially) towards our norms, provided we state clearly that this is based on broad principles, not expression of narrow identities as part of an asymetric system. It is, however, provocative and dangerous, particularly in how it is being done. This may be how criticism often looks when it is real. Can we hope to make a world where people are still bothered by criticism at this level but will not react violently to it? Huntingtonの「Clash of Civilisations」 versus Mohammad Khatamiの「Dialogue Among Civilisations」 - neither is entirely accurate, and values will continue to flow across borders even as acts echo into places different from where they were spoken.

Missions: The act endangers our engagement in many parts of the world, although hopefully there is some understanding of the pluralism in our society - the west permits broader public dissent and autonomy than do many parts of the world. In some countries, it will be hawks eager for confrontation with the US that will lead protests, in others, presumably those who don't understand our variety and expressive individualism. The danger is real, but we would wound our traditions to stifle them much every time a similar situation arises.

Facts: This particular protest is being done by groups who care little for dialogue. It is a genuine expression of a lot of people with loose relation to the facts, a tenuous and often terribly incorrect notion of history, and rabid xenophobia. It was made more possible by terrible educational failures in our country. Nontheless, intelligent versions of this protest are imaginable, and they would receive likely the same response.

Overall: This is deliberate and ugly provocation based on xenophobia and misunderstanding. It is also an expression that is permitted in our culture, although those permitting it are not likely doing it in the spirit of open criticism - I've dropped feelers onto conservative message boards asking for it to be compared to burning of the American flag and with rare exception there is support for burning the Quran and protecting the flag. The lack of understanding of what is being criticised makes their protest instinctual, not intellectual or principled. Tension of this sort is inevitable so long as the west retains its traditions of allowing criticism extending into mockery of all norms and other areas retain sensibilities that mandate protection of image, honour, and faith. Must we be respectful? No - the option should remain open to perform this kind of critism - political pluralism and individual expressiveness are important to us. However, we should be intelligent about it, and it is appropriate to counterprotest such events, particularly to either point out the deep misunderstanding and xenophobia on which this protest is actually built or to make a similar point by burning bibles or flags so the proper context is understood. I condemn the ignorance in this actual protest as well as the attitudes of those performing it without condemning the broader idea of protests involving this act.

Statement: As seculars, we do not believe in gods, and hold christianity, islam, judaism, and the various other faiths in the world to be factually incorrect. However, we recognise that there are usually potentially good life philosophies and interesting works on morality present in the followers of these faiths and/or their theological/philosophical foundations. For forms of these religions that seem are not deeply harmful, we commit to primarily rely on means of dialogue that are most broadly persuasive rather than offensive, to keep our criticism intelligent, and not to dehumanise those of religious belief nor to be pointlessly combative with them. Our ideal transformation is not to conquer by the sword nor to deeply shame those of faith - we primarily seek to convince, and in doing so we do not desire to do too much enflame the pride nor insult those we would change. We also do not envision or require a quick transition towards our perspective. There are circumstances where principles of western civilisation suggest that we act symbolically to retain our traditional ability to fight concepts of lese majeste and to press our value of open criticism into other societies - we remain willing to do so, but only as a general principle rather than in a society that protects some symbols and not others. Any such acts must be established in broad context, be carefully targeted and well-informed, and ideally happen alongside friendlier ties so as not to provoke uninformed responses.

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