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Calling it justice doesn’t make it just

Barack Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s new king Salman
Credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Apparently in the uproar over beheadings committed by ISIS, some have noticed that America’s ally Saudi Arabia has committed quite a few of them as well:

The escalation of the war against the Islamic State was triggered by widespread revulsion at the gruesome beheading of two American journalists, relayed on YouTube. Since then, two British aid workers have met a similar grisly fate. And another American has been named as next in line by his terrorist captors. Yet, for all the outrage these executions have engendered the world over, decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where “punishment by the sword” has been practiced for centuries. 

In an article published today, a representative of Saudi government actually attempted a defense of this:

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told NBC News that Saudi criminal punishments were legitimate because they were based on “a decision made by a court” rather than ISIS’ “arbitrary” killings. . . “When we do it in Saudi Arabia we do it as a decision made by a court,” he said. “The killing is a decision, I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this.”

ISIS regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law.

Al-Turki said that “ISIS has no legitimate way to decide to decide to kill people,” adding that “the difference is clear.”

 “When you kill somebody without legitimate basis, without justice system, without court, that is still a crime whether you behead them or kill [them] with a gun,” al-Turki said, referring to ISIS’ killings.

“Arbitrary” means “random, without reason.” If ISIS “regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law,” then ISIS’s killing are not arbitrary– they are based on Shariah law. When the Islamic State murdered French mountaineer Herve Gourdel in the mountains of Algeria, it was to threaten the French into ceasing airstrikes on the area. That is not arbitrary. When they beheaded beheaded Raad al-Azzawi, a TV Salaheddin cameraman, east of Tikrit in Iraq, it was claimed to be in retaliation for the TV station “distorting the image of Iraq’s Sunni community.” That is not arbitrary.

Is it legitimate? Is it just? No, of course not. It’s barbaric and inhuman. But is that because it doesn’t take place within a “justice system”? Within a court?

Saudi Arabia’s “justice system,” as it happens, is also based on Shariah law. As it happens, it also hands down brutal sentences.

Now, Mansour al-Turki does have a point– when you kill someone without legitimate basis, it’s still a crime regardless of how you kill them. Although in Saudi Arabia, it’s not at all uncommon for people to be killed by the “justice system” without legitimate basis. But for just a moment, let’s look at a case where someone wasn’t killed:

A Saudi Arabian man suspects his five year old daughter of losing her virginity. He forces her to get an examination, then brings her home, where he repeatedly rapes her, and beats her to death with a cane and cables. He crushed her skull, broke her back, ribs and left arm, and burned her in several places. The Saudi royal family prevents him from being released after only a few months in jail and a fine, and a court eventually sentences him to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes. However, he pays her mother blood money ($270,000 – a boy would have been worth double that price), and is released after only a couple of years.

This case is intended to be in contrast to another case of another person who wasn’t killed– at least, not yet– but has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes with a whip, for the “crime” of apostasy. Raif Badawi. According to Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme,

Badawi – who founded “Saudi Arabian Liberals”, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures. . . “Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Barbaric? Yes. Inhuman? Absolutely. Exceptional in any way to Saudi Arabia’s “justice system”? Nope.

Whatever the reason for the timing, the wave of executions at the same time as jihadis in Iraq and Syria were beheading captives has brought new scrutiny to the practices of a country whose values are so different from those of its Western allies. While Saudi Arabia has joined U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and has deployed its senior clergy to denounce militant ideology, its public beheading of convicts, particularly for non-violent or victimless crimes like adultery, apostasy and witchcraft, is anathema to Western allies. “Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

So if ISIS were to establish its own courts, and refer to the proceedings of those courts as “justice,” and claim that this makes their own barbarism “legitimate,” could we expect the Major General Mansour al-Turki to agree?  I suspect not.

I suspect that even he knows that.

Maybe somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that barbarism is in how you kill someone and what you kill them for.

That torture is barbaric regardless, but especially in judgment of the content of a person’s speech.

That legality is not morality, and just because an appointed group of human beings in a particular society says that something is wrong, doesn’t mean that it is. That appointed groups of people are not, all things being equal, necessarily any better arbiters of morality than any individual human being on his/her own– and in fact, sometimes they’re worse.

That enforcing religious rules as laws may not inexorably lead to barbarism, but it will always punish apostasy over immorality, and therefore the enemies of that faith rather than those of the state.

Okay, yes, he wouldn’t agree to that. But nevertheless, the contradiction is clear. Don’t even try to defend it, Mansour al-Turki. You cannot.

And neither can we Americans. If Saudi Arabia is our ally, we will be judged by the company we keep.

In the virtue stakes, reverence leaves empathy at the starting line

In France, individual citizens run a satirical magazine, the Charlie Hebdo, which publishes cartoons making fun of Muhammad among countless other current world leaders and historical figures.

In retaliation, terrorists storm the office and murder 12 people at that office, as well as five more at a kosher market. As far away as Sudan, angry mobs attempt to swarm French embassies, and people call upon the government to expel their French ambassador.

In Saudi Arabia, people are imprisoned, tortured, and even beheaded by the government for such victimless offenses as apostasy and “sorcery” on a regular basis. That same government arrests a blogger, Raif Badawi, for blasphemy and he is sentenced to suffer ten years of imprisonment and 1,000 lashes with a whip, at a rate of 50 per week.

In retaliation, Americans trickle out to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Houston and politely wave signs asking for Raif Badawi to be freed. Nobel laureates from various places around the world gather to jointly ask Saudi Arabian academics to join them in vocally condemning Badawi’s imprisonment and torture.

Now, I’m absolutely not saying that we should adopt the tactics of terrorists and ransack and pillage Saudi Arabian embassies, or anything like that. I am, rather, asking the following:

Why the hell can’t the West seem to muster even a fraction of the same outrage concerning the ongoing torture and murder of human beings for exercising their freedom of speech, as some Muslims are able summon concerning the fact that some people, somewhere in the world, feel that the same freedom protects their right to make the occasional joke at the expense of religion?

Odds and ends– blog redesign/freeze peaches for sale

So, two things to mention here.

First, hey look! New blog design. I’ve been wanting to change it for quite some time to something more clean and minimalist, and am pretty happy with how things are now. Though I do talk about personal issues from time to time, this isn’t Livejournal and I wanted to veer away from that “diary” appearance where the set dressing can distract from the performance. Please let me know if there are problems with the font style (although I really like Calibri and would hate to change) or size in terms of readability.

Second, I have finally placed freeze peach pendants for sale on my Etsy store. In fact, they’re currently the only thing for sale on that store– I’m hoping to add new items in the next month or two. At Skepticon 7 in November people really seemed to like them, which made me resolve to go back home and make more. But December was fraught with holidays and travel and financial issues, as always, so it took a while longer than expected to get my stuff together. But now it is– kinda. Anyway, we’ll see how they sell and if they’re popular enough I’ll make more batches. Here’s what they look like:

They’re all made individually, so each one is unique– the peaches face different directions, sometimes there are small bubbles, etc. But each comes in a one inch “ice” cube of cured epoxy resin, with a cadmium/nickel bail on the back attached to a 17″ black rubber cord with a molded clasp. That’s a length I like– not too long and not too short– but you can swap it out of course for something else if you’re so inclined. This is so that if you’re just dying to wear your freeze peach the instant it arrives, you can. Hope you like.

When doxing is okay

Doxing (from dox, abbreviation of documents), alternatively spelled doxxing, is the Internet-based practice of researching and broadcasting personally identifiable information about an individual. — Wikipedia

In some cases, this “research” involves simply looking at the email address from which a message came, and including it rather than expunging it when you publish (“broadcast”) the content of that email. Many bloggers have a stated policy of doing this– if you email them, you accept that the content of your message and the email address might be made public on their blog.

Alanah Pearce, an Australian video gamer reviewer (via video blog), recently gained international attention by tracking down and contacting the mothers of the frequently underage boys who were sending her rape and death threats via email, Facebook messages, Twitter, etc.

I’m okay with these things.

I think what Pearce is doing is awesome, actually. Frequently when I see someone saying horrible things on the internet, I wish there was a way to find out if their loved ones could see it. Whether they know that their family member is, in their spare time, using that time to harass people, espouse bigotry, and in general be a despicable human being. I feel simultaneously a sympathetic horror for what this woman is going through, and a desire that couples generally would hang out in the same sorts of internet spaces as their spouses, and parents as their children.

But I would never try to enforce such a thing, because sometimes privacy and anonymity are very important and must not be violated. If you’ve been following Gamergate, you know that quite well. You might know that Felicia Day’s personal information was published on the internet shortly after she wrote an essay expressing concern about that exact thing. You might know that Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian have both fled their homes after internet harassers published their home addresses and expressed an interest in paying a visit.

Some people refrain from even sharing their names online, because they are whistleblowers or fear other kinds of recrimination from their employers, because they are trans or gay but not openly so, because they are atheists but not only so…..there are all kinds of reasons why a person might not be doing anything wrong, but not want every aspect of his or her identity made known.

That’s why doxing such individuals is wrong.

Rebecca Watson, noted skeptic and feminist who has been experiencing harassment and threats online for years because of these things, published an essay on Friday entitled Why I’m Okay with Doxing. That’s not the type of doxing she was talking about.

The type of doxing she was talking about is the kind I mentioned earlier– publishing the name and/or email address of people who made this information available themselves in the process of insulting, harassing, and threatening others.

The distinction seems quite clear to me, but perhaps that’s because I actually read her essay. Several other people seem to have not made it past the headline.

Ken White of Popehat had an amusing exchange on Twitter with such a detractor, also on Friday, which I summed up thusly:

Accuse someone of breaking the law. When questioned, scramble frantically to find the law you accuse someone of breaking, which you didn’t know existed when you made the original accusation. When questioned further, admit that it’s not against the law. When asked for a moral basis for condemnation, scramble frantically to find one of *those*. Fail completely. Take ball. Go home.

The detractor charmingly and repeatedly referred to Rebecca as a cunt, which prompted the following tweet from Ken:

Which really addresses the crux of the issue.

Rebecca is talking about publishing the names and/or email addresses of people who are sending insulting and threatening material to her. Threatening people, whether over the phone, via email, in blog comments, via Twitter, etc., is not only immoral but also illegal. In spite of this illegality, going to the police about these threats is frequently a worthless and even counter-productive pursuit, which means that publishing the information of these people is, effectively, the only thing she can do.

Let me repeat: making the identities of people who harass and threaten her public, in the hopes that the public will become more aware of these threats and people making them, is really the best tactic at the disposal of people like Rebecca Watson. It is, arguably, the only tactic at their disposal.

I wouldn’t have thought that “disclose your identity to someone in the process of threatening them, and you cannot morally or legally expect them to keep this information private” was such a hard line to take. It seems stupidly obvious to me. But apparently it isn’t, and that’s why I’m writing this post.

Doxing is sometimes okay. Such as when someone is harassing you, actively reaching out and sending messages to and about you which are libeling and/or threatening you, and you respond to them by publishing their name and/or email address, contacting their family (especially if they’re underage), etc.

Doxing is sometimes not okay. Such as tracking down personal information of someone who is not harassing you and publishing it in detail, including contact information such as a home address which give the impression that you either intend or wish to encourage others to take physical action against this person.

Context, for chrissakes.

The saga of learning a new craft

Update: I’m now selling freeze peaches at my Etsy store: https://www.etsy.com/shop/Rillion

I haven’t been writing much lately, I know. That’s due to a lot of factors, but one of them is something I have the opportunity to now write about and show you.

I’ve been learning how to make things with epoxy resin. Epoxy resin is the conclusion I reached after doing a lot of thinking about how to depict concepts as physical objects, objects that you can wear– also called “jewelry.” I’m a big fan of “Surly” Amy Roth and her Surlyramics, and have a couple myself. She makes a variety of jewelry, mostly necklace pendants, which depict skeptical, atheist, and scientific messages in ceramics. They’re really popular because they’re aesthetically nice-looking, affordable, and people love to have ways to promote beliefs they find important aside from slapping them on a t-shirt.

There’s a theory I have about tattoos. There are three major components which a good, successful tattoo needs to have:

  • Placement
  • Artistry
  • Meaning

If it’s lacking in any of these, it will suffer. A really nicely implemented, meaningful tattoo will suffer if it’s in the wrong place. A well-placed and meaningful tattoo will suffer if it’s ugly. A well-placed, beautiful tattoo will seem pointless if it has absolutely no meaning to the person wearing it– or worse, a meaning they later reject.

With jewelry it’s a little different, because the stakes are so much lower. There’s much less of an investment to putting something around your neck for a day as opposed to etching it on your skin forever. But these factors are still important to varying degrees with different people, and the “meaning” aspect can refer to the actual message the jewelry is sending in addition to the normal factors of who gave it to you, the occasion on which it was given/purchased, its age, etc., none of which will be immediately obvious to the people who see it. So why not try to make jewelry which is visibly meaningful?

That was the sort of mental path I was following while thinking about how to create a freeze peach.

I’m not entirely sure who came up with the concept of “freeze peach” as a mockery of the misinterpretation of free speech,  but I think it might have been Stephanie Zvan. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it might help to read a post I wrote about it or this one by Adam Lee.

Basically, “freeze peach” is not mocking the idea of free speech, but rather the invocation of the concept by people with a fuzzy (har) understanding of what it means. People who complain that Phil Robertson being suspended (for about 30 seconds, as it turned out) from Duck Dynasty was a violation of his freedom of speech. People who think sexual harassment policies at conventions, private venues, violate freedom of speech. People who think that if you as an individual don’t feel the urge to pay attention to what the have to say and take action to avoid seeing it, such as blocking them on Facebook or Twitter– that that’s you somehow failing to respect their freedom of speech.

It’s important to make the distinction between “freeze peach” and actual free speech because there are very real opponents of free speech out there, people who think that government entities are justified in preventing certain kinds of expression, and they should not be confused with some jackass yelling about free speech when he gets banned from an internet forum.

John Scalzi has also had some great things to say about the misconstrual of free speech.

So I was thinking…what would be the best way to make a block of ice that isn’t a block of ice? After a lot of research (aka reading everything I could find online about it), I determined that epoxy resin would be the way to go. Making things with epoxy resin involves careful measurement, patience, and a lot of wax paper (resin peels off it, whereas it might not peel off your kitchen table– at least not in a way you’d like) and hand-washing (yes, even if you wear latex gloves…which you should).

With the brand of resin I use, it involves carefully mixing the resin with an equal amount of hardener (a 1:1 ratio) which serves as the catalyst for the curing process, which takes about 24 hours. Your chief enemies of this process are cold and bubbles, the former of which can cause the latter. So I began pouring a bowl of hot water, placing the bottles of both resin and hardener in it, and letting them sit there for a little bit before beginning to measure and mix them. And then, when bubbles would inevitably still occasionally show up in something I was making, popping and/or chasing them out of the mold with a toothpick.

The mold? Oh yeah, the mold. Molds can be plastic or silicone, and I have both, but plastic is more difficult because you can’t push something out of it nearly as easily. I’ve made two bangle bracelets so far using a plastic mold, and on both occasions I actually sat down on the floor and pushed with my foot to try and get the thing out of there. With silicone it’s easy for the same reason that making ice using speciality silicone ice trays is sometimes difficult– it’s so pliable. Pliable enough to make water slosh out when you put the thing in the freezer, but hard resin objects pop out when you push on the back of the mold.

So if a freeze peach is a peach in an ice cube, you should be able to use a regular ice tray to make them, right? Well, not really. See, regular ice trays, even if they’re silicone, tend to make pretty large blocks of ice, and they’re not generally cubes. So I ended up ordering a cube-shaped silicone mold off Etsy, along with a drop-shaped mold for my other project, dragon drops.

Yeah, a cheesy pun. But I like cheesy puns, and I love dragons, and I thought it would be fun to make little dragons which sit inside hardened clear drops of resin. And it has been fun– frustrating, challenging, and fun. See, you have to figure out what to make the dragons out of. I decided on clay, but what kind of clay?  I don’t have a kiln, and I don’t want to bake clay in an oven, so what to use? I tried air-dry clay, but it was too light– the first freeze peach I made floated to the top of the mold when the resin was poured in. Oops.

So I switched to modeling clay, which is awesome and affordable and comes in so many colors. Only clay eyes look strange, so I need to find some sort of plastic shiny eye to use. Now I have a small box full of different kinds of eyes, but the one I settled on for dragon drops is 6mm (tiny), yellow, and round. And each one has eyelids. Eyelids are so important!

And the mold for the dragon drops is shallow, so they have to be flat dragons, which is its own level of difficulty.  In most cases the dragon hasn’t been flat enough to not disturb the surface of the resin when I pour it in, so the eye and sometimes the thigh of the dragon protrude a tiny bit. I’m currently trying to decide if that’s okay.

And I have other ideas. Oh, so many ideas.

But now it’s time for pictures. I’ll share a few here, and the rest are viewable on my Instagram account.

First attempt at a dragon drop, using a plastic mold. I can’t even say how difficult it was a poke a hole in it and get the jump ring in there. 
A more evolved dragon drop, with plastic eye, sitting in the mold waiting for resin. 
Fat dragon drop. Yes, he’s cute (I think) but he protrudes too much from the surface and looks generally squashed. 
I read online guides which say you can and should make holes in your resin pendants by drilling. I was not successful at this. 
Two problems, mainly. 1) No hole I drilled, regardless of location, would easily accept a jump ring. 2) In order to drill a pendant you have to put it in a vise. Even with leather padding, tightening the vise enough to hold the pendant firmly ended up squishing it (you can see the clay protruding from the surface of this freeze peach. Not supposed to happen). 
I found a silicone tray which would make specialty tiny ice cubes, one inch square. I made a tray of freeze peaches. When they cured they formed a hardened brick, which I then was able to snap apart and peel out the individual peaches. The color runs a bit in some of them, creating a peach colored “wave” inside the cube. 
The freeze peaches from the ice tray. They have a semi-translucent “frost” on all sides except the front which apparently is an effect of the tray. 
A size comparison of a freeze peach made from the single silicone mold I have (one peach every 24 hours, if I make one that often) and a frosty freeze peach from the silicone tray (which can make 15 freeze peaches every 24 hours). 
I ended up getting silver-colored metal alloy bails to attach the freeze peaches to a necklace instead. Here’s one of the frosty freeze peaches on a 17″ rubber cord around my neck. 
Dragon drops. Also using the same kind of bail and the same rubber cord. I got some silicone molding putty and I’m making some new molds today so that I can produce these faster. I’m happy with these, but need to practice so I can get them consistently the same size and depth, although it’s neat that they’re all different and have their own character.

In case you’re wondering….
Do I have an Etsy store? Yes.
Am I selling anything on it? Not just yet. I’m not quite ready. Hopefully soon.

How I know this isn’t about freedom of speech

So, you want me to explain how I can tell that your Facebook page entitled “Should Miri Mogilevsky be murdered?” is not “an exercise in Free Speech”?

Okay, I can do that.

1. First of all, Facebook is a privately owned space on the internet, a web site. It’s not a public space, like a city park or sidewalk, where First Amendment protection of freedom of speech applies. Arguably there is no public space on the internet– only a very large collection of private spaces– but freedom of speech would also protect your right to express controversial beliefs on a web site, if that web site is your own. Is Facebook your web site? No.

It’s more like the internet equivalent of a meeting hall. The fact that you’re invited to camp out in the meeting hall and talk about interesting things with your friends, family, and total strangers does not mean you can do or say anything you want there– the owners still control the property since they, you know, own it, and can shut you down at any time, for any reason. They get to decide what kind of conversations you’re allowed to have, what kind of things you’re allowed to do in there. And they’re pretty lax about such things on purpose so that lots of different kinds of people feel welcome. That doesn’t mean they must put up with anything.  Right? Okay.

2. Secondly, it’s the responsibility of the organizers of any social gathering to put rules in place, if necessary– and when everybody is invited, it’s certainly necessary– which make it possible for people to meet and exchange ideas in an environment where they feel safe to do so. Right? Not only can you not yell “Fire” in a crowded theater; you can’t yell anything in most theaters, crowded or not, because it interrupts the show and makes it hard for people to participate in the thing they’re there to participate in. As do, amazingly, web pages asking whether a specific individual should be murdered.  So not only does Facebook have the perfect right to shut down such a page; as a site explicitly dedicated to social interaction it has a moral responsibility to do so.

3. Exercises in free speech are protests in speech form which entail speech a person has the right to make, but which is being threatened by an outside party, usually but not always the government. Generally, this speech entails sentiments which are critical of that outside party which said outside party does not want to be heard. This is why the first kind of free speech typically acknowledged to be protected by the First Amendment is speech critical of the government, political speech. However after that, the most obvious kind of speech that needs to be protected is speech critical of entities the government might want to squelch speech to protect, such as religious groups. As Voltaire reportedly said, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Are you allowed, legally and socially, to criticize Miri Mogilevsky? Yep.

You may criticize her in a box. You may criticize her with a fox. You may criticize her with a dog. You may even criticize her on her blog, assuming you aren’t an asshole about it.

Death threats, on the other hand? Even death threats disingenuously phrased as a question?

You may not do those on her blog.
You may not do so on Facebook…anymore, though a lot of us were confronted with this before that came true:

Possibly because of how Facebook outsources its moderation duties?

And it has fuck all to do with free speech.

I know this because this is a threat against Miri, and not a response to any threats by her.

I know this because if you actually, for some weird reason, want to make a point that asking whether someone should be murdered is free speech, choosing a specific, real, private individual about whom to make that point on someone else’s private web site makes no sense at all, and simply obscures that goal beyond all recognition.

I know this because neither the form of speech nor the target of it make any sense at all, in terms of being an “exercise in free speech.”  All they accomplish is showing that the person who made this page (who is currently unknown, and who has made attempts via random IPs to avoid being known) doesn’t understand freedom of speech, or how it works, in the slightest.

In addition to being an asshole and a coward.

I really resent it when people hide behind ideals which I hold sacred and are genuinely threatened, in order to try and justify making others fear for their very safety. People like Miri, who, herself, actually does stand up for the freedom to espouse controversial ideas.

But not, unsurprisingly, for the freedom to threaten people’s lives on Facebook. Her own or otherwise.

Because that ain’t free speech.

“Governor brings religion into the public sphere”

KS governor Sam Brownback. Photo credit: Brent Wistrom, The Wichita Eagle

Fearing terms is odd. But in terms of terms to fear

I’d suggest “public square” and “public sphere.”
When it comes to church and state separation
these words are oft used for equivocation
of an individual’s right to express a thought
and a government’s ideological onslaught,
to swap the former for the latter.

The “public square” or “public sphere,” you see
can refer to a literal town square or public access TV
or to the podium where a governor stands
issuing edicts and waving his hands.
It’s not a difference of ideas transmitted
but the weight of actual law permitted
to enforce their content that matters.

A religious politician is no pioneer.
All people are religious in the public sphere
if they are religious, that is, and openly so.
No laws prohibit prayer in school, and no
rules forbid statements of faith in the street.
But you won’t hear this from theocrats you meet
who confuse gov’t endorsement with speech.

They say God has been forbidden from class
if the teacher can’t make you get off of your ass
and pray to a god you might not believe in
or a different version than you were conceiving.
Your personal faith, though, is perfectly kosher.
It’s mandated worship that we should be so sure
to avoid, for that’s overreach.

Likewise, pols wanting laws made at God’s behest
would do well to consider the lemon test:
legislation must have a secular reason.
This means that those who contemplate seizing
the power of office to make us obey
their faith fall afoul of what their own laws say;
their job is to govern, not preach.

I know when it comes to private and public
it’s hard to determine the best way to stick
to church/state separation. But really, these
efforts to conflate, trick, and tease
make it harder. Jurisprudence and God
must be distinguished. Brownback has trod
on a freedom that we now must teach.

Freezepeaching the WBC

Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds came up with an excellent t-shirt idea: an image of a peach, half-frozen in a block of ice, with the slogan “Freeze Peach! Not sure what it is, but it’s mine.” This is in reference to the continual shouting of “free speech” in order to defend speech which is not in fact “free”– objectionable speech made on private venues by people who participate in those venues but do not own them, are not in charge of them. Speech like Michael Brutsch aka Violentacrez posting bigotry and photos of scantily clad minors on Reddit. Speech like hassling feminist bloggers on Freethought Blogs and then complaining that the network doesn’t actually support freethought if it bans you. Speech like sexual harassment at conferences.

The defense is so common that the words run together after a while (hence “freeze peach”): “Free speech! We have the right to say these things, so there’s nothing wrong with saying them!” “Free speech! Preventing speech you don’t like promotes a hive mind mentality and squelches reasonable debate!” The answers to these, of course, being: 1. No, you don’t, not on someone else’s blog or forum or at someone else’s conference, and 2. No, it doesn’t– not when the speech in question amounts to harassment  Harassment has a silencing effect on other people, people who actually have something useful to say.

“Freeze peach” is not a condemnation of actual free speech, of course, but a mockery of how people who clearly are a bit fuzzy on how the concept works try to manipulate it in order to justify…well, being douchebags. Basically, that’s what it boils down to. It encapsulates two unfortunate but very common conclusions:
1. Free speech is the concept of people being able to say whatever they want, when and wherever they want. People have an obligation to let us– if they don’t, they oppose free speech.
2. The law is a direct reflection of our societal morality. If something is wrong, it should be illegal. If something is not illegal, it must be okay.

I don’t think it’s necessary to explain why these two unfortunately very common notions are mistaken. I do think they illustrate, however, why it’s important to see that the people who make “freeze peach” arguments using these assumptions are not anarchists as they may seem, but authoritarians. They look to an authority– the law, in this case– to dictate right and wrong, and assume that what they’re doing is right if the law doesn’t forbid it and in fact seems to advocate it (“that which is not forbidden is compulsory”). That if something is entrenched in law, it is not only up to the government but individual citizens (as in bloggers, forum moderators, conference organizers, etc.) to support and uphold it.

But really, requiring that such private individuals should uphold freedom of speech does as much for the concept as requiring that individual citizens should uphold the Fourth Amendment would do for private property– that is, it would destroy all meaning in the notion. Any “search and seizure” of one person’s property by another (without consent) would indeed be unreasonable, and any use of another person’s private ability to express him/herself (regardless of media) without consent would be a violation of that person’s own freedom of speech. If you want to claim freedom of speech to say something reprehensible,  you can find a sympathetic place to express such a thing, do it via your own means, or don’t do it at all. Those are your options. You do not get to pirate someone else’s platform in order to proclaim some sentiment they don’t agree with.

Freedom of speech does not entitle one individual to use another individual’s mouthpiece (whatever it may be) to speak. It prevents the government from deciding what that individual may or may not say, regardless of how brilliant and useful, or offensive and pointless, that individual’s speech may be. Regardless of the content of the expression, we may not be prohibited from expressing it in public– unless, that is, it violates one of the tightly conscribed laws in place to protect intellectual property and, in some cases, prevent the expression of outright obscenity (I’m not a fan of obscenity laws, but they do exist).

This is what free speech means. This is what I passionately defend. But because there are so many Americans who either don’t understand or don’t agree with this (or both), I’m reluctant to don a “freeze peach” shirt. I don’t want to mock the people who think free speech defends their ability to be offensive wherever they want by appearing to support some form of government crackdown on offensive speech. Not when there’s no shortage of people who support exactly that.

Not when they are signing petitions asking for that:

Users of the White House’s “We the People” digital petition platform have flooded the site in support of an effort to officially designate the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.
The most popular petition was submitted on Dec. 14, the same day as the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., an incident that Westboro responded to by announcing its intent to picket the funerals of the 26 victims, including 20 young children. This plan made them a prime target of hacktivist group Anonymous and eventually drew a well-attended counter-protest to block the church’s followers from disrupting the services.
The individual push has since received the support of nearly 250,000 signees, making it the most popular single petition ever created through the White House initiative. 

The thing is, there is no such thing as a federally recognized hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of groups that it recognizes as hate groups, which is fine because– you can see this coming– it’s a private organization. But the government has no interested in determining whether a group is “hateful” or not– not officially, at least– because hate speech is not against the law. What they do have an interest in monitoring is possible terrorist tendencies, and WBC has bent over backwards to show that they have no interest in committing actual violence against anyone. They have succeeded in becoming almost a caricature of moronic spite, but that isn’t illegal. As a sad irony, one of the effects of Anonymous publishing the personal information of Westboro members online was that people took the opportunity to threaten them, which is illegal. And yes, I would say that threatening a hateful person (or who you assume to be a hateful person– not everyone who was threatened actually is a member of the WBC) with death is worse than being a hateful person.

Am I defending the WBC’s beliefs and actions? Not in the slightest. Not any more than the ACLU was defending white supremacy and antisemitism when they defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie IL in 1978, a move that cost them enormous support from people who confused the defense of freedom of expression with defense of the ideas expressed. It’s incredibly disturbing to see that when it comes to the WBC, at least a quarter of a million Americans are confused in just this way. Disturbing, but not surprising– it’s not at all uncommon to see people promote freedom only for those who are on their side, ideologically. Nor is it uncommon to see them go into authoritarian mode when an opportunity like this arises, asking the government to violate the rules it set for itself, so long ago, in order punish people they dislike. And no, it doesn’t matter whether that dislike is legitimate or not, or how fervently it’s held. It’s still called injustice when the law is violating someone’s freedom in your favor.

Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians. They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation.

So people…stop demanding precisely that. You actually have more power than the government when it comes to the speech of hateful organizations, because you don’t have to allow them on your space. The government does, because its space is public. Its space is for all of us– including the morons and the bigots. If you don’t like it, take a deep breath and contemplate how many people would be happy to count you amongst the undesirables for your beliefs. Trust me, there are loads.

There are better ways to fight bigotry than by whittling away at the freedoms of bigots, because those are our freedoms as well. Let’s remember that.

*Yes, I did narrowly avoid titling this post “I could eat a freezepeach for hours” in honor of the worst Nicholas Cage movie ever.

Memo to Tony Perkins

You do not get to operate a hate group without being called a hate group. Sorry.

Yes, when your group says that homosexuals are “destructive to society” and should be “exported from the U.S.,” it’s a hate group. When it says that we should return to having criminal sanctions for homosexuals, it’s a hate group. When it assigns general responsibility for pedophilia to homosexuality, it’s a hate group.

I’m sorry that it hurts your feelings that the Southern Poverty Law Center accurately describes your group, the Family Research Council, as promoting an anti-gay ideology. But complaining about that makes you look exactly like a KKK grand dragon complaining about being accused of racism. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so cruelly ironic in this particular instance. Because you see, what you’re doing is claiming that in labeling the FRC a hate group, the SPLC is somehow responsible for the shooting of the building manager at that group’s headquarters. And yet I don’t see you taking the slightest hint of responsibility for every instance of gay bashing that occurs– the murder, torture, and imprisonment of men, women, and children for simply being perceived as homosexual.

It actually says a lot about your twisted mentality if you think that describing the FRC as a hate goup– even if it wasn’t true– legitimizes shooting someone associated with it. If it did, we would see members of the SPLC out attacking members of the FRC, wouldn’t we? Instead of writing online and in newsletters about how the FRC relies on pseudoscience to legitimize its claims that homosexuality is a threat to society and characterize homosexuals as immoral in order to hamper their efforts to gain equality, members of and sympathizers with the SPLC would just be waging a literal war on you! But they’re not. And no, this one guy does not count.

People who aren’t doing anything wrong– people who are actually doing important, necessary, brave things– are occasionally shot. George Tiller was one of those people. Members of your group are not, and pointing this out does not amount to justifying shooting them. See, I understand a general reluctance to say that people who speak out against something are giving “license” to people who take it upon themselves to go out and physically attack practitioners of that thing. I get it– we don’t want to equate condemnation, even strenuous condemnation, with violence. But here’s the funny thing– you are expressing no such reluctance! You are claiming that condemnation amounts to license to harm– I took that word directly from you– and yet you don’t hold yourself and your own group responsible for attacks against any homosexual! You know, the people who have actually campaigned for such people to be attacked!

How can this be? Are you an idiot as well as a bigot?

Of course not. You’re a bigot who is also a transparent hypocrite. This has always been the case– your name is right up there with Brian Fischer in terms of people I don’t even bother to read about anymore when I come across a headline. It’s always a story about something said in which the hate and the hypocrisy compete for dominance. But now you’re in the spotlight because someone unfortunate enough to work for you received the focused rage of an unstable person against your odious organization, and some people might be in danger of taking you seriously. Which is why I’m writing this post.

I’ve always liked that (apparently disputed) Gandhi quote, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” But it’s a problematic thing to say, because you can count on anyone who is being ignored, laughed at, or fought using it to understand that eventually they will win. This is the slogan of authentic victims of oppression, but also of oppressors with a martyr complex because they do not realize they’re oppressors. When you’re lying about a group of people in order to make them seem dangerous or immoral when in fact they’re nothing of the sort, and advocating that their behavior (which you’re lying about) should be criminalized– guess what? That’s a good way of knowing which group you fall into! You can’t be ignored, because you have power. You can be laughed at, but only because it beats crying or screaming. You can be fought, but this lone shooter is the only one trying to do so with force– and I bet you’re over the moon about that.

I wonder how Leo Johnson feels to know that you’re capitalizing on his attack in order to claim glorious underdog status, probably regretting only the fact that he wasn’t killed. I have not the slightest doubt that you would welcome more such attacks, in order to double down on the irony of a group which promotes violence against gays instituted by government shrieking about violence perpetuated against them by vigilantes. It must leave a perversely sweet taste in your mouth to preach hate against a group for nine years and then denounce them and their supporters when someone on your side is attacked. Poor, poor, persecuted bigots. The world is so unfair. When George Rekers got caught with a male prostitute, that was a tragedy (because he got caught). But this– this is an opportunity! An opportunity to do what you do best– paint yourself as the real victim in a battle against those evil people who think there’s nothing wrong with being gay. That’s getting harder and harder as the obviousness of this position becomes ever more prevalent, but for now, at least a bone has been thrown– a juicy, beefy bone of martyr complex opportunity, and you’ve leaped on it with jowls a’drooling.

Enjoy, I suppose. At least allow Johnson a sliver or too– he earned it– and cherish it while it lasts. You’re a dying breed, but not because someone’s going to come and shoot you. Because hateful crazies like you don’t come into power very often, and once they lose that power society is reluctant to give it back again.

ETA: The Southern Poverty Law Center published a statement on Perkins’ remarks. Excerpt:

Perkins and his allies, seeing an opportunity to score points, are using the attack on their offices to pose a false equivalency between the SPLC’s criticisms of the FRC and the FRC’s criticisms of LGBT people. The FRC routinely pushes out demonizing claims that gay people are child molesters and worse — claims that are provably false. It should stop the demonization and affirm the dignity of all people.

Priorities

A couple of months ago I wrote about different categories I fit in, ideologically and politically. I was tempted to expand on it earlier this month when PZ Myers wrote a post asking people what kind of atheist they are– scientific, philosophical, political, or humanist. I understood what he was getting at, but my first impulse was to ask “Why is the ‘atheism’ part the constant? The most important thing?” Because when it comes to politics and ideology I am, first and foremost, a free-speechist.

If you’re not a free-speechist, whatever else you believe and whatever priorities you give those beliefs, you’re not on my side. That seems harsh, maybe, but I’ll explain why that is, and what a free-speechist is.

A free-speechist is a person who believes that a free market of ideas is absolutely critical to the maintenance of an educated and moral society, and as such the only real justifications for government censorship of speech are those related to safety and property rights– e.g. you can’t shout ‘fire’ falsely in a crowded theater, and you can’t make money off of someone else’s creative work by representing it as your own. I value private forums which cherish a relative freedom of expression also, but a) as private forums they don’t have an obligation to allow anyone at all to speak, let alone everyone, and b) an “anything goes” atmosphere is not conducive to ideas being exchanged freely and productively, so some amount of moderation in order to eliminate abusive content and commenters is arguably not just permissible but necessary. So if you’re one of those people who whines that any sort of moderation whatsoever on an internet chat site, blog, or forum is wrong because it violates commenters’ freedom of speech, you’re not only wrong (since the First Amendment does not apply to private fora, and couldn’t since that would violate the owner’s right to freedom of association) but probably a troll.

Briefly put, trying to defeat an idea by either silencing the person voicing it or causing damage to their person or property is the coward’s way out. It’s an act of aggression against a person because you dislike the content of their ideas; it does not refute the ideas.

And no, a boycott isn’t a form of that. A boycott is an individual refusal to contribute to someone’s livelihood because doing so amounts to contributing indirectly to something you wouldn’t support directly. Similarly to a private forum, not being allowed to boycott would mean abdicating your own freedom of speech by being made to support ideas you don’t agree with whether you like it or not.

This might seem like a rather long-winded way to get to the point that I’m livid about hearing that yet another government official has seen fit to wield unique power to prevent someone from doing business because he objects to the content of that person’s ideas:

District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray says he won’t support an expanded presence for Chick-fil-A in the district because the president of the fast-food chain is opposed to gay marriage. Gray, a Democrat, referred to the company’s product as “hate chicken” in a tweet on Friday. His statement referenced his “long-standing strong support for LGBT rights and marriage equality” and followed similar statements by mayors in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco that the company was not welcome.

You know what’s depressing? It’s depressing that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, of all people, are pursuing the correct course of action with regard to freedom of expression by encouraging people who agree with their opposition to gay marriage to vote with their wallets and support Chick-fil-A. Of course, neither of them is actually in office and therefore in a position to use legal power to promote or inhibit a view by damaging the business of the person espousing it, so let’s not give them too much credit. Let’s not give them any credit, for that matter, except to note that what they’re doing does not violate anyone’s freedom of speech whereas blocking someone’s business simply because you don’t like the views they support absolutely does.

And I say this as a passionate advocate of LGBT equality since 1993. There is a right way and a wrong way to fight for these things. Silencing and intimidation are the wrong way.

That’s why I’m a free-speechist.

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