04/18/14

“The tolerance of intolerance is cowardice,” but the intolerance of the intolerance of intolerance is expected

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in the news last week when Brandeis reversed their decision to give her an honorary doctorate for her work. Many people have discussed the ridiculousness of Brandeis’ response, which is either deception or woeful ignorance. I’m not interested in those issues as much as I am in the justifications of those who argue it was the right thing to do. A blogger on altmuslim claimed that Ali promotes the same intolerance that she claims to be fighting against. He also noted that although Ali’s arguments as treated as scholarship, “her words and arguments are not academic or scholarly.” These points deserve further examination.

Intolerance is an accusation that hurts the feelings of many a liberal, for they also use it liberally. It is most often backed up with the unspoken presumption that one should never want to be labeled as intolerant. Yet it is a poor definition of tolerance that says it is a quality to be valued for its own sake. In other words, if one is to make an argument for tolerance, it must be justified not on the basis of tolerance itself, but on some other fundamental value, such as that of life, freedom, etc. Few of us would suggest being tolerant of those who commit egregious acts of violence (unless, of course, these are committed against animals). There are plenty of things we can and should be intolerant of (corporate business practices, disregard for environmental destruction, etc.), so long as our intolerance is not accompanied with physical violence or the impending threat of violence against individuals.

It is, as this blogger implies, the hallmark of a scholarly or academic argument to carefully separate “bad” acts from “good” religion. In fact, scholars of religion could often be the unintended subjects of Ali’s comment that “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” They join much of the world in pleading with folks not to print cartoons or make films that might cause offense. There are some who systematically dissociate acts of violence from their religious context, even when overt. And this is seemingly well-intentioned. The blogger contends that “her approach is not driven by an academic or scholarly need to help the oppressed,” but it is because Ali does not only walk the careful line of disinterested scholarship that she has a passion for change.

If a freethinker criticizes religion, if he or she suggests that the world would be better off without “x” religious tradition, he or she is not insulting God. To the freethinker there is no divinity, and there cannot be one in the public sphere. In the public sphere, there is only humanity. To be sure, the religious may believe that the divine rules public life as well, but this cannot be a community motivation if we desire a free society.

Nor is the freethinker insulting a tradition. There are no traditions we can assess beyond their embodiment in assemblages of people and buildings that make them up. In the public sphere, there are only people, and these people must live with each other. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps millions, that are offended by the words of Ali. There are also thousands that are offended by the words written in suppposedly holy texts. Are there as many of the latter group? Perhaps not, but does it really matter? It is the hallmark of a free society to be able to offend. Offense and intolerance, insofar as they describe feelings and words, are a signal that an open society is at work.

I’m not talking about allowing people to scream “Fire” in a crowded theater. I’m arguing that suggesting the world would be better off without a particular tradition, no matter how improbable that may seem, is a proposition that should not (and will not) be shut down by claims of intolerance. In other words, it is intolerant, and that is good. It is not intolerant for its own sake, but because of the connections between religion and violence that are evidenced by Ali’s own life. The common refrain that such-and-such particular practice is not actually encouraged in a particular text is no argument against the historical and cultural connection between religion and suffering, particarly considered in an impoverished political and economic context. The point is not that there is a tidy equation, that violence and oppression would magically disappear if religion lost its hold, which is the point that defenders seize upon. I would even argue that such a direct attack is an inefficient approach to the problem, but it does not automatically invalidate the correlation she suggests by adhering the label intolerance.

In 19th century America, there were once mean slave owners and nice slave owners as well, and there were even perhaps willing and unwilling slaves. Many of these men and women, I’m sure, were “good” people. Few of us now would argue that the institution of slavery should have been kept around because there were quite a few folks for whom the system worked quite well, who never hurt anyone and generally got along just fine, or even benefited from its perpetuation. In retrospect that seems silly to consider, but it certainly wasn’t for many at the time. It is the hope of Ali and others, I believe, that we will someday look back at religious traditions the same way, wondering how we justified its abuses for so long.

Of course, the case of religion is different in many ways. It would be as deplorable to prohibit the individual practice of religion as it is to mandate it. But the individual practice of religion is a maximum, not a minimum threshold, and until it is certain that all individuals are aware of their options for understanding the world outside of religious tradition, we are still far above the maximum threshold of individual practice as a basis for tolerance.

It may be best in the end that Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis, because it is not academic to be so bold, at least in the field of religion. But it would be a welcome addition if more were.

04/7/14

“Getting Things Done”

In the last few months, I’ve read more “life organizing” literature than I ever have before. I read and reread Getting Things Done, a book my wife read years ago and had on-hand. At the time, I probably poked fun at her, but I’ve been surprised to see how typical (and ineffective) my task management is. I’ve always been resistant to having a book or a method tell me how I should organize things. What I typically tell myself is that I really know best how to do everything, from planning my daily activities to knowing what my long-term goals are and what progress I’m making toward them. What I’m consistently finding, however, are that the things I think are important to me are not the things I spend the majority of my time on.

When I was in my late-twenties, I hosted a college-age small group at our house. As a Christian group, we would usually be reading through some text such as The Purpose-Driven Life or Wild at Heart. Of course, we also read frequently from the Bible, trying to discern what life lessons we could learn from the reorganization of the temple under Hezekiah for our contemporary existence.

We held the group for a couple years, and the most recurring theme in our discussions was the question of what we were all going to do—what we should do—with our lives. I was in my late-twenties, working at a good job that I was nonetheless unsatisfied with. We owned our house, we had just had a child, we had a dog, etc. We had followed the American dream formula, and it had seemed to work out well. Yet I, like many others, found myself constantly asking, “Is this it?”

The other group members in their early twenties were at the beginning of that same spectrum. The future was open; they could do anything they wanted. But what should they do? Depending on which paradigm one followed, there were ready-made answers. If the middle-class response was go to college, the evangelical response was “Go on a mission.” Most of us there were to trying to reassure ourselves that it was okay that we didn’t want to abandon everything and move to Africa for six months.

The great conceit of the small group was that if we came together and talked about and to God, we would get that clear vision of our lives’ goals and purposes. Or at least we would get the next step. Yet we kept returning to the same questions. On reflection, the group wasn’t large enough or fervent enough for any of us to convince ourselves that we could get a revelation from God about our lives. Instead, we fumbled around with the questions but supported each other along the way with the more practical aspects of life. When I needed to build a fence around the yard, for example, several of them (who knew more than I ever will about construction) came over and helped out. When someone moved, we all showed up to help. But we never got any bigger answers. We just lived life and moved on.

When faced with the innumerable choices and directions our lives can go, we are overwhelmed. Religious traditions fill a definite need in that respect, providing a simulation of knowing what you do not know. That is not to say faith cannot provide psychological/existential relief for people; it can. It does so, however, only to the extent that you ignore the very tenuous connection it has to the way we actually live our lives. If a divine being is ultimately in control, then I am relieved of the burden of ultimate concern about the environment or the consequences of my consumption.

For my part, I exited one system, thinking myself much more authentic for having gotten rid of it. However, at the same time I was being inculcated into the system of higher education, which provides a rival structure for goals and purpose. For six years, I had the goal of earning a degree. It was only near the finish that I began to experience the openness that accompanies life with no tradition, no trajectory, to tell you what to do and where to go. I can’t yet speak to what comes next.

It is, in these cases, easy to allow yourself to go on auto-pilot, so to speak, and let the roles you are in dictate my day-to-day existence. That seems to be what many of us do. While on the outside it looks like an organized life, it is only a coordinated backdrop that overlays an uncertainty that never really goes away. Why? Because there really is no certainty other than that which we construct.

The key, then, seems to be to construct purpose for life or for the day’s affairs that has as little collateral damage as possible, either for your own life or the lives of others. There will be collateral damage, and it must actively be minimized. Anxiety will remain, and it is managed with the systems you set up arbitrarily for yourself. There is more Nietzsche than Sartre here. We establish roles for ourselves, all the while knowing that it is just a play. And yet we must play.

There were several years where, when I realized that I was merely playing a role, I resisted playing it because it was not “real.” But not all roles are the same, not all require the same depth of self-deception about oneself and the world. I have always relied on the top level to dictate the actions for everything underneath, but this doesn’t create a life. If followed unthinkingly, it extinguishes life. We often know this, but we prefer the familiarity of traditions, with all their contradictions, to uncertainty. Uncertainty, however, is a level playing field. We will make mistakes, but they are conscientious ones, and not the unthinking destruction of traditional institutions. In the end, we must actually get things done.