Thursday, March 25, 2010

On Ann Coulter, Tolerance, and the Subjectivity of Morality

Ann Coulter, the conservative political commentator from the U.S., recently made a visit to Canada. First she visited my fine school, UWO, to talk then avoid questions and make a few racial slurs. Then she tried to talk at Ottawa, but backed down when she discovered a shocking truth: people here don't really like her.

Everyone is talking about this. A lot of the discussion goes like this:
  • I support free speech.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak about you not wanting to speak.
Etc., forever. But such discussion isn't really productive. I think we need to get more meta, and look at some higher-level questions that Coulter's visit brings up:

1. Is indiscriminate tolerance a good thing?

2. If not, what should be tolerated, and what shouldn't be?

3. Once we figure that out, what should we do with people we don't tolerate?

These may seem like matters of opinion, or moral questions without any objective answers. For example, while most people, when pressed, would agree that the answer to #1 is "no," they can agree to disagree on #2. Some think homosexuality is wrong, others think worshiping a false god is wrong, and that's just their opinion. Same with #3; acting on those opinions, is it better to stage a peaceful protest, or "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity"1? Some argue that's a moral question with no precise answer.

I don't buy that. Never have.

Some actions are objectively right and other things are objectively wrong, and it doesn't take an omnipotent being writing rules on stone tablets for that to be true. When we disagree on which of two actions is best for humanity, one or both of us is wrong. An individual person is extremely unlikely to have all the answers, whether she is a priest or a physicist, but we should never deny that there are answers. And I believe that with enough time, science, and careful critical thought, many of these answers will be revealed to us.

In a recent TED talk, Sam Harris expresses a similar viewpoint (thanks Ronny for directing me to this):

The only wrinkle is defining morality to begin with. However, there is an objective answer for any given definition, and I think the one Harris provides—maximizing the well being of conscious creatures—is one that most people (and if they could be asked, animals) would agree on.

So what about Ann Coulter? Well, I believe that free speech is objectively good. History has proven that the open flow of information from all sources maximizes human well being. I fully support her right to speak, and while you won't find me out there protesting, I fully support their right to protest as well. But much of the content of her speech is objectively false. For example, should we invade countries and convert them to Christianity? No. There is no God, many Christian beliefs are harmful, and regardless, the very act of violently converting people to any belief system is repugnant.

I am open to being proven wrong about my moral stance. However, while it's nice to see people using Coulter as a staring point for discussing moral questions (even writing blog posts about it), part of me thinks her ideas are so comically evil that it would be better to just ignore her. After all, what's worse: being scared off a campus by a group of peaceful protesters, or arriving without fanfare to an empty room, then leaving without selling a single book?

Regardless of whether it's inspired by Coulter or not, we do need to keep questioning and requestioning our morals, because it is possible to find answers.


1 Coulter, 2001.

P.S. This is kinda off topic, but another thing I have a problem with is making fun of Coulter's physical appearance. Yeah she's a celebrity and thus opens herself up to it to some extent. However, pointing out her adam's apple because you disagree with her political stance is coming from the same base, ugly, immature side of human nature that her crass racial quips come from. Don't stoop to her level.

P.P.S. Try putting into your web browser.


laura said...

What about when I said it looks like her uterus is trying to bust out of her waiflike body? I stand by that observation, but I'll admit it has nothing to do with her political stance.

Celine said...

"However, pointing out her adam's apple because you disagree with her political stance is coming from the same base, ugly, immature side of human nature that her crass racial quips come from."

Yesssss thank you. it's a shame this is in your PS, because for me it's the crux of the Coulter (and by extension, Palin) issue. I don't like defending her, don't make me do it by being a crass, sexist or transphobic jerk, please.

carissajaded said...

Agreed Agreed Agreed. I find that I am often a little more on the conservative side of things but I cannot stand this woman. She may be part devil.

Come enter my giveaway!

Anonymous said...

It's WAY too early in the morning to be talking Ann Coulter.

I agree that insulting her personal appearance because you disagree with her political views is cheap and useless. But I think it's often times the Republican party who conveys the message that what you look like has a bearing on how much you should be believed or trutsted. So, um, they started it?

I'm kidding. Well, not about the Republican party.

In fact, I wish more super socially conservative Republicans would travel to other countries, so they can see that their ways are NOT the only ways. And not even the ways that MOST people would choose.

I think morality is hard to define because it is so subjective. And I'm not sure I believe that everything has exactly one right answer. As a woman who is vehemently pro-choice, even I have to wonder if the issue is really so black and white when, say, the man involved WANTS the baby and the woman doesn't. It's not fair to deny him, but I will always oppose forcing a woman to carry a baby she doesn't want. There's no easy solution.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I wasn't making fun of her Adam's apple, I was just attributing mystical powers to it. ;-)

Scott said...

Here's how I see it: Free speech means you're free to speak your mind. The price of free speech is also to have to face the consequences of speaking your mind.

Essentially, you're free to tick people off -- just don't complain when you have to deal with the negative consequences of ticking said people off.

And on that note -- don't discuss religion. Saying that Christian beliefs -- including forgiveness and charity -- are harmful just makes you look ignorant and detracts from your arguments as a result. Religion, like most things, is open to personal interpretation and blanket statements do no good to anyone. Remember my earlier comment about facing the consequences? Talking about religion like that has the exact same consequences as Ann Coulter's statements. You will garner some support from your own camp, alienate said camp from anyone with different beliefs, and cause irritation at those who hold strongly different beliefs.

In closing -- I'll fight for your right to speak your mind, but after that you're on your own.

Blondie said...

It's also WAY too early to be talking about whether there's a God or not.

As a Christian, I'm a little bit (and/or a lot) appalled and her stance on converting the entire world to Christianity. Something tells me that's not going to happen. I'd like to see her tackle the 1 billion Hindus in India without getting killed. FURTHERMORE, what the hell? When was the last time she attended a church that wasn't teaching bigotry?! The Christianity I know is about love, compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. So, pretty much NO traits I've seen her display to date. Tsk. People give Christianity such a bad name.

I almost feel that .ca site should point to like, or something.

katrocket said...

YES. I was going to blog about the Grand Ann-ousting this morning but you've already articulated my position better than I ever could, (and without repeated use of the c-word!) so I'm sending my 6 readers to your blog today.

Phronk said...

Laura: That was just a factual statement about her uterus.

But really, I'm not above tasteless jokes (obviously), just not when they're mixed with serious discussion as if they mean something. (like Coulter does)

Mythrai: It is a big part of the issue. Or more generally, both "sides" accusing the other side of doing something, then doing it themselves.

Carissa: Okay! Be right there!

Shine: I couldn't go into it in the post, but Sam Harris's talk addreses the "exactly one right answer" issue. In short, I agree, there are multiple right answers; multiple paths to the same place. But I think there is, objectively, a right place to get to.

I'm not touching abortion right now; as you say, it's such a grey area that I can't even form strong opinions without contradicting myself.

Darius: Hahaha, well thanks for the blog fodder. Again, I'm sure you were just making a factual statement about her neck's superpowers.

Phronk said...

Scott: Thanks very much for expressing your beliefs, which oppose mine. I respect that a lot.

A few points.

1) Not to be harsh, but: don't tell me what to write about.

2) I don't think expressing my own belief about what is objectively true detracts from my argument. It is my argument. Religion is no more free from objective truth than morals. There either is a God or there isn't, and that is directly relevant to Coulter's assertion that we should convert the world to Christianity.

3) I was aware that the certainty of my tone there would have consequences, and I am glad you are here to point out that it does alienate some people. But that's okay. Like I said, I think free speech is a moral good, and I am prepared to live that rather than just giving it lip service. I don't think I did so in an insensitive or derogatory manner, so I'd hope it wouldn't alienate anybody who is willing to discuss these issues in a calm and rational manner.

4) I did not say forgiveness and charity are harmful. I said many Christian beliefs are harmful (e.g., some fundamentalist beliefs about women and homosexuality). Not all of them.

Thanks again for your comment.

Hey Lady! said...

Woah! Taking on Religion, that's a bold move. You are braver then me, my friend.

Just remember, Coulter doesn't represent most Christians and our views. You're right it's best to ignore what she's saying, that whole "any attention is good attention" thing.

Phronk said...

Blondie: Yeah I definitely don't wanna focus on the God bit (though I knew that would be controversial).

You demonstrate, as I said to Scott above, that many Christian beliefs, lead to the same moral truths that I espouse. There are many paths to the same moral end point.

But some of the specifics of Christianity (whether in Coulter's ugly form or your good one) would kiiind of be a sticking point if we wanted to convert the whole world to it. And the truth about these specifics directly feeds into the moral value of taking that action.

Kat: Hehe, thanks! Yeah, it really is hard to avoid that word, and others, when talking about her (can't stoop to her level, can't stoop to her level...)

Phronk said...

Hey Lady! Yeah. I'm a rebel. :)

I fully agree. The vast vast majority of Christians aren't represented by anything close to Coulter, and I didn't mean to imply that at all.

Anonymous said...

i agree with most of your comments, no one has the right to tell anyone what they can and cannot say. Some laws may force you to pay for what you say, defamation of character, inciting hate, etc. but that doesn't mean you should be preemptively censored.

I do have one comment though, re: "...There is no God."? Thats an argument you can't prove, whether you believe or not is a personal thing, whether there is a God or not is something that cannot be stated empirically like that, all you can say is that you don't believe there is one. If i can say that without going against my first point about freedom of speech that is.

and as per your p.s. about her appearance, i agree. it has nothing to do with her comments or stance on any matter. if she was going thru gender reassignment or is a cross dressing male, who cares? what does that have to do with anything she says. if people must attack her, do so on what she believes and says, not on how she looks.


Phronk said...

Paul / TCG: Thanks for the comment. I gotta disagree that the existence of God is a personal thing. A lot of people in this culture have a tendency to put religion and morality on a pedestal, out of reach of logic or empiricism. But one of the main points of my posts is that neither should be.

There either is a God or there isn't, just like there either is an Ann Coulter or there isn't. No amount of personal belief changes the objective reality of it.

Knowledge is different than fact, though. Maybe we will never know for sure whether God exists or not. But it is my personal belief that He doesn't, which is all I was expressing in this post.

I could state the reasons for my belief but that would be getting off topic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike/Phronk, and at the risk of getting completely off-topic, as i've said before, i can't see air but i know its all around me. Same can be said for anything i cannot prove exists or doesn't, such as God.

Don't get me wrong, i'm not convinced there is one, all we can state with any certainty is what we believe to be true about that matter. i don't pretend to be smart enough to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that one does or doesn't exist, but that again is just my opinion. I'm entitled to it, as is everyone, even someone as misguided as Ann Coulter.


Tatiana said...

Here's my two cents: the content of her speeches are kind of irrelevant. Her right to speak is inviolate.

On the first - someone spewing hate/ignorance/whatever has no more relevance to ME personally than the guy holding the doomsday sign on the corner. I can take in all sorts of opinions without getting my panties in a bunch about it - that's adulthood.

On the second - if you don't want to hear her talk - DON'T GO. It's really hard to preach to an audience of one, right? If you're a business owner/stadium owner and you disagree with her views - don't invite her to speak. For those that genuinely want to hear her for whatever reason, I'm not going to dictate that they can't. All the power.

I cannot believe people feel that they have the right to tell others what to do and think, and yet it happens every day by well meaning folk who surely have great careers as future bureaucrats ahead of them. On the other hand, universities are paid for by students' fees, and if the student body doesn't want her there - then that should be the determining factor.

Johnson said...

Nice post. I'm also simultaneously intensely interested/annoyed by the fact that Coulter has sparked freedom of speech debate in Canada. My Coulter blog post was likewise heavily commented on (including by you, so I thought I'd return the favour).

In answer to your questions about where to draw the line, is it wrong that I want to say everyone should have the freedom to speak their mind...except Ann Coulter? I guess not. What about Limbaugh? Dennis Miller? Maybe I could just be in charge of who can and can't speak freely.

Also, just to clear one thing up for everyone that's having trouble with some of your statements above: There definitely is no god. I just checked.

Good day.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I am pretty sure we have proof that air exists.

Phronk said...

Paul: For sure, you are completely entitled to your opinion. I can try to prove your opinion wrong, but it's also quite possible that mine is wrong.

The point I want to emphasize is that opinions can be wrong.

I never hold mine with 100% certainty either. So when I say "there is no God," I simply mean that I believe, with my fallible uncertain human mind, that God does not exist. I am open to being wrong (which is what separates us from, say, fundamentalists or Ann Coulter, who would rather twist facts than have them get in the way of their beliefs).

[And yes it's off-topic, but air has effects on the world that, if it exists, we expect to see. We feel resistance when we move quickly, we can hear sound waves, etc. We do observe those. Similarly, God, if He exists, is proposed to have certain effects on the world. Answered prayers, intelligently designed creatures, etc. We do not observe those.]

Phronk said...

Tatiana: Great points. Yeah, if people want to see her, go for it. I'm not gonna worry about it or promote stopping her from talking. I'll just do my best to point out the flaws in her reasoning whenever it comes up.

Johnson: Haha, yeah, I feel the same interest/annoyance. I want to just ignore the whole thing, but can't.

And thanks for checking. This should clear up a lot of confusion for everyone.

Darius: We have a lot of evidence, but air is just a theory. Don't rule out intelligent blowing.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I never rule out intelligent blowing. bah-dum-DAH!

Scott said...


1 & 3) Naw, nothing harsh 'bout that. It's your blog, your voice. I just hate it when people discuss politics and religion; it rarely ever does any good.

2) It's not the opinion, it's the vague blanket statement that I had a problem with. "Christian belief" to one party can be radically different to another (yet both supposedly be Christian). Without specifying which beliefs are harmful it reads as a general attack on the belief system of a rather large populace. (adding 'fundamentalist' helps clarify things greatly)

Difference in religious beliefs aside, I agree that the best approach is to ignore her.

Scott said...

Speaking of my original point about being willing to accept the consequences as part of your right to free speech:

If you're going to tick people off, and you know you're going to tick people off, and then publicly tick them off, don't complain when then publicly indicate they don't like you.

I hope the commission ignores her.

Phronk said...

Scott: Yeah I'd avoid bringing up religion or politics in any setting where people can't help but listen to it, but on a personal blog where reading is voluntary, it's fun for me to discuss it (and fun to see other peoples viewpoints, so again I appreciate yours!)

Perhaps I was vague with the statement. However, I do think it is accurate. In my view, even some of the beliefs shared by all Christians are ... maybe harmful is a strong word, but they're less than optimal. I would probably offend some people who may read this if I got into specifics.

Agreed on the human rights complaint. She's just being a big baby about it and/or keeping up her silly act. It'll probably be ignored. Because setting a precedent where sending a polite email warning someone not to commit a crime is itself a crime, yeah, probably not gonna happen.

D said...

As an American, I truly apologize for this horrible export of ours. I don't think her own family likes her very much...

Forest City Fashionista said...

What I have learned from all this:
In order to get more comments on my blog, I need to mention Ann Coulter, free speech and religion. Keep on being true to your twisted, no bullshit, opinionated self, Phronk! We love you for it...most of the time

Brian Frank said...

Awesome... I tried writing something on this but couldn't pull anything coherent together [update: maybe I did here].

I did have a recurring question through Harris's video that bothered me: What do we do about it? Figuring out what's moral, even though that's quite hard, is actually the easy part; acting on those ideas, making a society out of them is on a whole other level. You're going the direction I want to go though -- and I certainly don't have any better ideas.

As for the human rights complaint, I don't think it's legitimate -- but it isn't just a publicity stunt either. It's probably more an attempt to delegitimize the whole idea of a Human Rights Commission after Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn had complaints filed against them. This stuff all escalated in the mid-00s when there was pressure not to depict Muslims in a bad way in the media and people on the far right pushed back against that (e.g. the infamous Danish cartoons).

On those cartoons we see more in common between the Christian right and the secular/atheist crowd. To many non-Westerners it might be hard to tell the difference between Coulter, Levant, Christopher Hitchens, and Harris himself on the subject (though obviously they diverge on other matters).

I'm coming back to my first point: here's where it's hard to figure out what to do about our secular morals (should we figure out what those morals are). It's difficult to negotiate a compromise with people whose moral codes tell them they can (or even must) kill someone for trying to change theirs or for doing something they think is immoral, even though it doesn't directly affect them (e.g. abortions).

Sort of a mindfuck but I think, like you do, that we'll figure it out.

SharkBoy said...

I think she has the right to say what she wants BUT she has no right to get angry when people disagree with her... I, for one, was glad they canceled the Ottawa visit, it really showed what she's made of... which isn't that much.

Phronk said...

Donald: I will learn to forgive you with time.

FCF: Haha, "most of the time." It's true; mention religion even as one tiny aspect of a larger point, and comments galore. (I think this is my most commented-on post ever)

Brian: Yeah, really good question. Figuring out how to practically implement any moral truths is a different challenge than discovering them.

I do think we'll figure it out though. The same advances that allow us to come to a more sophisticated understanding of morals will allow us a more sophisticated way of dealing with them. I think technology will play a big part in that.

But even if progress continues linearly, there are signs that everyone is coming to a common understanding of what's best for us all. Thursday's episode of Q: The Podcast talked about a poet in Dubai who is challenging outdated ideas about religion and womens rights, and gaining a massive following. And the United States just caught up with the rest of the civilized world in moving toward socialized health care.

Fascinating stuff to think about.

SharkBoy: Agree. Really showed how childish she is about the whole thing. I think she has the right to throw a tantrum, but we have the right to laugh at how hypocritical and silly she is.