Is your mother a slut?

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If you are a male, and someone says your mother is a slut, how do you respond? I think most non-autistic individuals, even if they are reflexive pussies as many civilized American men raised in urban areas and suburbs tend to be, will feel an urge to react violently. I think we can agree that someone calling your mother a slut does not have obvious material consequences; it isn’t inimical to your economic interests, especially if the exchange occurs in a bar and your interlocutor and yourself are drunk. I won’t rehash evolutionary psychological arguments for why there’s a tendency for most males to react viscerally with rage when someone insults the sexual character of their mother; I simply want to use it to illustrate the power of words and concepts which have no material consequence, and might not even be rooted in fact. A stranger who throws this insult at you usually doesn’t even believe in its accuracy, his usage of the phrase is calculated to offend and elicit a reaction. There are certain things which are sacred, certain lines you don’t cross. Sometimes these are strongly biased by biological parameters (e.g., I suspect near-family incest taboos is one of these), and sometimes they are not. It is the latter case I was thinking about a few months ago when I read Rome & Jerusalem: A Clash of Ancient Civilizations and God’s Rule – Government and Islam.

You see, the ancient Romans and Muslims did not have kings. Kings were tyrants, and the early Roman and Islamic polities rejected such tyranny on principle. So of course, instead of kings, the Roman Empire was headed by an emperor, while the Muslims had caliphs.1 Get it? When Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra the official narrative was that the doughty republican traditions of Rome had bested once more the oriental despotism of the Hellenistic world, with their Greek kings and queens. Similarly, the righteous Abbasids overthrew the despotic Arab Kingdom, the Umayyads. In its place they established a genuine Islamic state which was guided by the traditions of the community as opposed to profane naked autocracy. Right….

As you can see here, the extent of the self-deception and semantic delusion is really humorous. Now, it is true that the early emperors of Rome tended to keep up the illusion that they were simply stewards of the Roman Republic with some verisimilitude.2 Augustus’ shtick was that his was a restorationist project; he was no dictator or king, just the First Citizen. Similarly, the early Abbasids were ostensibly bringing the vision of the Islamic community to its true fulfillment (especially the Shia party), whereas the Umayyads had been worldly Arab tribalists more in keeping with the values of the jahiliya. But the reality is that Augustus’ Rome was as republican as Constantinople in 1453 was the capital of the Roman Empire. Similarly, the Abbasids resurrected the values of the primitive ummah by way of formulating a more ideologically coherent oriental despotism than the barracks state of the Umayyads. Despite their more effective propaganda the Abbasid caliphs integrated pre-Islamic Sassanid motifs into their court far more than the Umayyads ever had.

But this sort of pro forma packaging mattered a great deal. Muslim soldiers were enraged and shocked when the conqueror of Spain allowed his Visigothic wife to convince him to don a crown and so indicate kingship; they accused him of becoming a Christian. This despite their own fealty to an Umayyad regime which was excoriated later in history by mainstream Muslims as a semi-pagan autocracy! These sorts of issues tie in to events and dynamics we see in the modern world. Muslims, for example, wish to criminalize blasphemous criticism of their prophet, desecration of their holy bookm and disrespect of their religion generally. Obviously they’re met with skepticism from non-Muslims, but a number of them analogize their position to that of Europeans who ban Holocaust Denial. Dismissing the details of the analogy and my personal rejection of these Holocaust Denial laws, it is important to state that I think it trivializes the extermination of millions of human men, women and children on an industrial scale to compare this to an insult to an idea, or the desecration of a configuration of ink, paper and binding which results in a Koran. My own perspective is pretty obviously conditioned by the fact that I accept that human beings were tortured and killed en masse 60-70 years ago, while I don’t think that the Muslim religion is anything more than a belief system rooted in made up stuff. The only damage is done to feelings, not a One True God. That being said, a billion people have invested a lot of psychological import into these beliefs and they just go insane when you insult those beliefs. Billions of others can empathize on some level because they have other beliefs which are cognate in the broad outlines.

In the West, what I like to think of as the civilized world, there has emerged a consensus that constrains, and almost devalues, sacred lines and the right to take offense. Feelings rooted in immaterial beliefs still matter; if one makes a religious objection to a public norm one is accorded more credibility than if one makes an areligious objection (e.g., prisoners who need a special diet due to religious restrictions vs. those who really hate the taste of the cuisine). But to a large extent the power of religion to defend itself from blasphemy through the arm of state power has been abolished, even if there are blasphemy laws on the books in many jurisdictions. The transgressive assertions of men such as Denis Diderot in the 18th century broke down those barriers, and the reality of religious pluralism in the United States meant that reciprocal blasphemies between Protestants and Catholics occurred which did not elicit the intervention of the state as in the past lest it enflame the conflict furthermore.

In any case, the attempt by Muslims to resurrect in the West the enforcement of pietas by governmental fiat has changed my own opinion as an atheist about the value of religious pluralism. Because I believe that religious sentiment and feeling is normal, and will be dominant in our species barring a reprogramming of the software, I think that one religious tradition is probably easier to manage in terms of negotiating the terms of relating state, religion and the role of the ontologically blasphemous irreligious minority within a society (by ontologically I mean that by the very nature of my atheism & apostasy I offend against Islam, for example). Since the militant secular party is by definition a negative one, objecting to the prescribed social pieties, it is much simpler when one has to face-off with a unified front and one dimensionality of supernaturalism. With the rise of a polycentric supernatural marketplace the act of negation multiplies in complexity as the permutations of absurdity increase ever upward. Diversity has costs, the common norms are essential so that even transgression of those norms can be regularized and tolerated reasonably.

Addendum: I want to add that I was in rural Bangladesh during the Rushdie Affair. I was called on to translate some photocopies of English pamphlets which in hindsight totally misrepresented the The Satanic Verses (long story short, they made it sound like Muhammad’s wives were starring in a novelization of EuroGangBang #69, and it was kind of awkward for me since I didn’t know the appropriate words in Bengali for a lot of the stuff). But it was notable that many of the young Muslim men were enraged about something that they barely even comprehended in its accurate details. Feelings….

1 – Minor note before David Ross points this out, but the term imperator did not come to be regularly used by the emperors until the Flavians. Before that they had been only the princips.

2 – The transition from First Citizens of the Julio-Claudian period to the autocrats (of the Byzantine Empire was a gradual one. The Flavians in the late 1st century reiterated the hereditary principle and banished any delusion that a senatorial resurrection was in the offing. Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century crystallized the idea that the law was an expression of imperial will as opposed to senatorial consensus. Diocletian in the early 4th century introduced the proto-medieval regalia which typified Byzantine autocrats, an oriental court and diademed crown.

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17 Comments

  1. the common norms are essential so that even transgression of those norms can be regularized and tolerated reasonably.It’s the existence of such common norms, that people can accept without consideration and reflection, that freethinkers must oppose. 
    The transgressive assertions of men such as Denis Diderot in the 18th century broke down those barriers, and the reality of religious pluralism in the United States meant that reciprocal blasphemies between Protestants and Catholics occurred which did not elicit the intervention of the state as in the past lest it enflame the conflict furthermore.As you acknowledge yourself, it was the diversity of religious belief that proved the fatal weakness of religion’s secular power in America. Why would you suggest that uniform beliefs make it easier to break them down, rather than (as both common sense and historical evidence indicate) much harder? 
     
    Adopting rationalism, as opposed to rejecting all the diverse forms of theism, is quite simple – yet leads inevitably to rejection of all forms of religion. Why would we want to associate ourselves with nonrationalists who happen to be atheists? Let rationality be the ‘positive’ defining agent of your tribe, and we’ll see where we go from there.

  2. If ever you doubt that your President is just an elected monarch, ask yourself about that strange (and to me objectionable) notion of the First Lady.

  3. Great recognition that the settled prejudices of the masses act as a check on the high and mighty. I’m glad our evolutionary legacy gave the masses the power to prevent Augustus, one of the most powerful men in human history, from using the R-word. 
     
    Lesson for the high and mighty: if you want to change the masses, the only way to make it work is to play judo with human nature.

  4. Razib, 
     
    I’m not sure I understand your main point. Are you saying that the rise of an Islamic minority within Western society bodes ill for modern secularism? Do you think it will provoke a more aggressive Christian response? 
     
    I actually think you are correct if that’s what you are saying. But I’m not sure. 
     
    A related thought. I’m an atheist, but, as I often tell people, the church I don’t go to on Sundays is a Catholic church. There will always be an emotional connection to the religion I was raised on. And my emotional reaction to Church critics is very different if they are fellow (ex)Catholics or if they are Protestants. To be honest I’ve only had one conversation like that with a practicing Muslim — and my blood boiled pretty quickly. The content was almost exactly the same, of course, but the involuntary defend the tribe reaction was quite powerful.

  5. Are you saying that the rise of an Islamic minority within Western society bodes ill for modern secularism? Do you think it will provoke a more aggressive Christian response? 
     
    probably both. though i’m not totally sure of this. more sure of #2 than #1. i think american accommodation of various religions means that #1 will be true on this side of the pond.

  6. Jim, 
     
    I guess you’re not an Atheist, but an atheist – small a – me on the other hand, I’m an Atheist – large A – and treat all religions with equal disdain – Buddhism and Sufism included. 
     
    They’re all a form of irrational mumbo-jumbo, their only positive – if it can be called that – is they have the ability to form communities out of people who would otherwise not be on speaking terms.

  7. The main problem for Europeans is that the *left* is going along with whatever the Muslims wish, because their love of “anti-racism” and exotic swarthy people overrides their distaste for religion. Even right-wing atheists (like me) have traditionally relied on the left to defend secularism and if that goes, who’s there to defend the handful of big-A atheists and our disrespect for religion? 
     
    You can today see loads of Europeans, usually socialists of some variety, going happily along with anything from “respect for religion” to genocidal anti-Semitism, since the exoticness of immigrants overrides any worries about the nastiness of the ideology. They’re not into “hateful ideology”, they are into their own authentic “culture” and that makes it all perfectly OK. This is getting way beyond religion – we’re now getting courts that give lesser sentences or even acquittal for immigrants who claim that beating disobedient women is an essential part of their “culture” and there isn’t a word from the feminists. They just won’t judge other cultures.

  8. The main problem for Europeans is that the *left* is going along with whatever the Muslims wish, because their love of “anti-racism” and exotic swarthy people overrides their distaste for religion. Even right-wing atheists (like me) have traditionally relied on the left to defend secularism and if that goes, who’s there to defend the handful of big-A atheists and our disrespect for religion? 
     
    remember the episode of star trek when the robot broke down because of a paradox? that reminds me of some of the response of atheist pro-multicultural leftists when confronted with religious conservative colored folk.

  9. Yeah, I’m not an Atheist with a capital A. But I’m not much of anything with a capital letter. Religion is something I find fascinating from a sociological perspective, not from a proving somebody is wrong perspective. 
     
    Similarly, I find politics fascinating at a tactical level — how does one set of political elites use the tools of mass opinion shaping to achieve power over another set of political elites. I’m fairly right wing, though, so I do have a dog in the hunt in politics, not so much with religion. 
     
    So I love cynical discussions of politics — but hate political discussions with fervent partisans who always praise their side and bash their opponents.  
     
    Discussing religion is similar. I enjoy discussing how different religions explain their more crazy supernatural ideas to their believers. I don’t enjoy discussing the crazy side of my birth religion, Catholicism, with a practicing believer of another religion who is getting their tribalism on. Listening to somebody build themselves up by bashing my parents and relatives doesn’t sit well with me. 
     
    The larger point is that even weak tribal ties (religion, nation, race) touch a powerful emotional chord in humans. Extremely few people are really immune to them, and a secular society has to account for our actual human nature.  
     
    Superstition and supernaturalism are a natural part of human nature. Most left wing agnostics that I know, for example, have what I consider to be supernatural beliefs and attitudes toward nature.  
     
    And many of the irreligious right, at least here in America, have an extremely reverent attitude toward our national symbols and history.  
     
    I include myself in that. Few things piss me off more than somebody slagging on George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Is it a rational reaction? No, but I feel no compunction to rid myself of all irrational emotionality.  
     
    I imagine that the neural circuitry that gets activated in my brain when I think of George Washington is not dissimilar to what happens in a culture that practices ancestor worship. Hearing good things said about Washington makes me happy and proud, hearing bad things makes me angry at the person saying them. I’m only human.

  10. jim, I take exception at your implicit comparison of that great man Geo Washington with that spivvy slave-shagging spin doctor, Thos Jefferson.

  11. jim, I take exception at your implicit comparison of that great man Geo Washington with that spivvy slave-shagging spin doctor, Thos Jefferson. 
     
    Bah! George?! There wasn’t a Great American until Harriet Tubman, I’m pretty sure…

  12. What I took from this post was an idea that religious extremism is best opposed by a united front of religious conviction, or at least practice. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but it is an interesting take on the current perception that Islamic protests are treated with kid-gloves in the USA and UK in a way that, for example, anarchist ones would not be. I suppose the question that this raises for me is, well, is it not possible for atheism or at least a-theism, a deliberate political doing-without-belief rather than the aggressive personal non-belief that that word is often held to mean, to present that social front? Not in the USA, as yet, and certainly there would probably be heavy odds against a proclaimed non-believer campaigning for office in the UK still, but at some point we might hope for one or other state to actually achieve the separation of Church and State promised all those years ago. 
     
    But that seems to imply that religion is like nuclear weapons; if your opponent has one, and is looking likely to use it, you need a bigger one that you hope you don’t have to. I don’t think that really works. There is, too, an analogy to the Newtonian saying, “No man can have peace longer than his neighbour wishes.” If the same should be true of religious tolerance, there are problems ahead. The answer, if there is one, is surely that the state, whichever state it may be, must stop giving special status to religious feeling (“as opposed to those who really hate the cuisine”). But we are, as I said above, still a long way from that being electorally viable…

  13. Jaakkeli, may I inform you that I am a *left atheist* (and a pacifist to boot), and I am absolutely and categorically opposed to the racist, anti-secular, aggressive rhetoric and actions of belligerent Islamic fundamentalism that have become so frighteningly common during the past 20 years. Contrary to your assumptions, in my experience this is true of most of my ilk, at least in my central European country (Germany). 
     
    I do, however, believe that it is strategically very unwise to adopt an aggressive rhetoric in turn. If you keep shouting how horrible and dangerous fundamentalist Islam is, and print and reprint Muhammad caricatures, of which by the way most (except the one about the heavenly virgins, which is great) are rotten and unfunny as caricatures, for the sole purpose of kicking Muslims in the butt, you do not help our communal cause of protecting our free secular societies in the least.  
     
    Don’t misunderstand me, publishing a Muhammad caricature is fine and should be done as part of the days?s work if you happen to have a good one to publish. What I find unhelpful is expressly ordering and publishing such material en gros as a provocation ? like in ?let?s show them we can do it and have a right to do it and don?t care a shit about their fucking sensibilities? (How about ordering a set of 10 anti-Jewish caricatures if that is so great? These Gush emunim types in Israel would surely be a good target.). Such a media provocation, which already presumes the point it sets out to prove (namely, Muslims are aggressive and intolerant) is bound to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our hard-core fundamentalist enemies certainly won?t be convinced of the errors of their ways by war cries. What war cries achieve is instead a gut reaction of rallying behind their tribe in many religiously naïve and uninterested immgrants who in other circumstances would care far less about Islam (or Turkish nationalism) than about living their lives in peace and bringing up their children in a benign, affluent society than about any kind of ideology or identity politics.  
     
    The thing to do if you want to live in peace with your neighbours, which we swarthy-people-loving lefties do (in my German case after rightie governments brought those immigrant neighbours here in the sixties and are still attracting more every year via spouse immigration by their rightie family value politics that give you lots of state money for every child when the mother stays home, sorry for that OT), is to stress those things that unite you, or could unite you, and if you find reason for critique, you try to criticize the other in a respectful, cautious way that leaves common ground and will not abort all dialogue.  
    And that is the upside of Razib?s observation in his post: Immaterial things and ideological packaging do matter, and if you find a way of describing reality in a way that makes all sides happy, or makes the losing side save face, you can avoid dangerous confrontation.  
     
    Razib, your conclusion that having only one religious front is preferable is perhaps flawed for the very same reason. For someone looking for a fight, any minor difference hardly visible to an outsider will do (as between catholics and protestants in 17th century Germany, between Croats and Serbs, between Shia and non-Shia Muslims, between Ukrainians and Russians, between neighbouring groups in one and the same Native American Tribe, between families or clans in early-twentieth-century Corsica, Albania, or whatever). But for people who are not looking for a fight, all known religions, especially the monotheistic ones who all whorship the same God, can form ?one front? with which atheists can comfortably arrange themselves. And Caledonian, your objection seems valid too.

  14. and print and reprint Muhammad caricatures, of which by the way most (except the one about the heavenly virgins, which is great) are rotten and unfunny as caricatures, 
     
    I don’t think those cartoons were “rotten and unfunny” and none of them were nearly as nasty as what’s regularily printed in the Western press as commentary on Western culture or politics. And no, Jews are not sacred and immune to mockery, except perhaps in Germany. Read a leftist magazine and you’ll find loads of much nastier anti-Israeli cartoons and an occasional anti-Semitic one that would fit well in Nazi propaganda. 
     
    for the sole purpose of kicking Muslims in the butt, you do not help our communal cause of protecting our free secular societies in the least. 
     
    The gravest threat right now is the complacency of most of the Western population. As long as most people are hopelessly uninformed, it is easy to paint the people who worry about third world immigration as paranoid racist nutcases. In fact, I used to think that they’re paranoid racist nutcases – I just happened to make the mistake of engaging what I thought was the evil far right in actual debate and found myself defending a hopeless cause against way too many facts. Most people will not do that, so what we need is attention on the immigrants and potential immigrants and their ways. 
     
    The cartoon nonsense has probably done more to bring the real consequences of Muslim immigration to light than any other event since 9/11. The cartoons were not particularily nasty. OK, so, they drew Muhammed with a bomb… but people who watch the news would not find that association entirely unbased in reality and the violence of the protests made protesting it even more ridiculous. Denmark isn’t exactly an aggressive imperialist country known for oppressing the poor of the world. And so on. It’s perfect. This is exactly the kind of provocation we need. And most importantly, the spineless response of the Western political leadership and the attacks on those who dissent with multiculturalism did a lot of good by proving that it’s not just some ultranationalist loonies fuming about leftist authoritarian conspiracies, the authoritarian left really has seized much actual power. 
     
    After all, most people do not take the multiculturalists seriously. If they realized that these people have influence, every European country would instantly elect someone like Le Pen. 
     
    What war cries achieve is instead a gut reaction of rallying behind their tribe in many religiously naïve and uninterested immgrants who in other circumstances would care far less about Islam (or Turkish nationalism) than about living their lives in peace and bringing up their children in a benign, affluent society than about any kind of ideology or identity politics. 
     
    Except, of course, that a good part of those immigrants do not want their children to have anything to do with this “benign” society. They only want the wealth. A while ago, I talked to a student that does substitute teacher work. We talked about the multicultural schools and I heard of the latest tricks by a certain Muslim immigrant group. They send their girls to disappear for years into the country they supposedly escaped from, so that they don’t get any funny ideas and to get mutilated, of course. Their boys go around intimidating female teachers, because the idea of a female having authority over a male is as offensive as any idea in this culture – their latest invention was stealing female teachers’ coats and peeing on them as a message. 
     
    Those boys hardly likely give much about Islam, as members of this group are constantly seen around drinking. The particulars of ideology are irrelevant. What they do know is that the liberty offends them. Westerner liberals are so enamored by their own society that they do not understand that now we’re getting immigrants who do not consider Western society “benign”. We’re getting immigrants who view such things as the idea that their boys would have to submit to the authority of a female teacher as intolerable oppression. How are we ever going to integrate such people? Only one thing is certain: any respect we give for their taboos is simply going to embolden them and retard their integration, since integration means above all else getting these people to not only abandon but to despise their old culture (as much as we despise it). 
     
    (No, integration is not guaranteed: we’ve been trying to integrate a certain immigrant group for 500 years and it’s utterly hopeless. Nothing works. Not oppression, not liberalism.)

  15. wut the finn said.

  16. Bad sexual character of the mother means the child is probably accidental, or random in genetic composition, and in any case, not the product of an organized drive toward excellence.

  17. As if anyone needed reminding, the common English/American epithet, “sonofabitch,” is precisely in the category covered. And, in some parts of the U.S., one who has uttered the word preceding an altercation is considered to have “struck the first blow” (even in a court of law). It was the insult preceding the famous line in “The Virginian,” “When you say that,–smile!” 
    (Though I don’t think the word could be heard in the long-ago when I saw the movie 
     
    I actually knew a man who had killed someone–shot him dead sitting in his car with his wife and children–because the guy called him that name. He served three years for some reduced charge. It happened in extreme western North Carolina where the guy worked as a mechanic in a gas station.  
     
    He was working under a car when he heard a horn honking repeatedly from the front–the gas pumps. 
    Though he was unconnected to the filling-station business, he got out and came outside to see what was wrong. When he got outside, the driver yelled at him “Get your lazy ass over here and fill my tank, you slow-moving sonofabitch.” (His last words.) 
     
    The dead man was a tourist, of course, and unfamiliar with local “ways.” The mechanic was not very bright but also not of a belligerent or violent nature. “Just a shame,” was the widespread local reaction, “but, that man sure  
    had to know better than to call someone a name like that.”

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