Monday, November 16, 2015

To Lose One Stereotyping Tendency May Be Regarded As Carelessness

John Scalzi wrote a sober, sensible, responsible, "Can't-we-all-get-along?" post about the Paris attacks for his blog.  Specifically, he wrote about Americans' reactions to the Paris attacks, and argued against stereotyping all Muslims because of ISIS' crimes.  As usual, he warned at the outset that he would be monitoring the discussion in the comments; as one would expect in a hot-button topic like this one, there were numerous commenters who tried to test his resolve.

One commenter whose contribution wasn't deleted wrote under the name of Mark.  He announced that he's highly educated ("three postsecondary degrees"!), took numerous courses on Islam and the history of the middle east, and has continued to read about these matters since then.
And yet yesterday evening I found myself thinking “what the f*** is wrong with those people”, and I’d be lying if said I meant just the murdering a*******. I should know better. I DO know better. And yet… I don’t know any muslims. It’s so easy to slip into that lazy, wrongheaded thinking, even when you know better. Hence, this was thought provoking, even though it shouldn’t have been.
How odd.  I lack Mark's great educational advantages — not even one undergraduate degree to my name — but while I did think something like “what the fuck is wrong with those people” when I heard of the Paris attacks, it never occurred to me to mean “all Muslims” by “those people.” I meant the people who did this thing.  I feel the same way about US soldiers who welcomed the chance to kill Hajis in Iraq because 9/11.  Maybe it's because I do know some Muslims; I also know some US veterans of our past several wars.  (It seems strange that Mark apparently never met any while studying middle eastern history at the college level, but I don't know where he studied.)  But I don't really think that's why.  Somewhere along the line I lost that particular stereotyping tendency, I guess.

I'm not claiming any great moral superiority here, because I haven't entirely lost that stereotyping tendency, but I don’t see what is so difficult about recognizing that the misdeeds of some are not necessarily the deeds of all of a group.  Yet many (most?) people do find it, not merely difficult, but impossible to do so.  Mark must know, better than most people, something of the range of cultures and attitudes among Muslims around the world, and that the Paris killers are not representative of all of them. I think that most people are quite capable of this recognition about their own group, though that’s less a sign of rationality than a weasely defensive move, in the mode of #NotAllMen, #AllLivesMatter, and the like. I think it basically accepts the They-All-Do-It stereotype, while still trying to carve out an exception for one’s own side.

And yet I’m also wary of the reflexive NotAllMuslims move, for similar reasons. I recently read a book called Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, published by Gallup Press in 2008, using international polling data, and while I learned a lot from it, I also was not entirely reassured.  For example, Esposito and Mogahed write:
Forty-six percent of Americans say that the Bible should be “a” source, and 9% believe it should be the “only” source of legislation.

Perhaps even more surprising, 42% of Americans want religious leaders to have a direct role in writing a constitution, while 55% of want them to play no role at all.  These numbers are almost identical to those in Iran [49].
I think there's cause for concern in both cases.  Muslims are no worse as a group than Christians on many issues, but that’s not saying much.  I don’t have any numbers for atheists, but I don’t assume that we’re much better, if at all.  Of course it's unfair to speak of Muslims, or Christians, or atheists, or anyone "as a group."  I don't assume that someone like Noam Chomsky is more representative of atheists than, say, Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  It's simple enough, I think, to address the person or persons whose words or actions concern you.

Esposito and Mogahed’s book ought to be read by everyone who generalizes ignorantly about Islam (or Christianity), whether positively or negatively.  It should be read critically, though, and there's a lot to criticize, as when they write that "The majority in the Muslim world see Islam through different eyes – as a moderate, peaceful religion that is central to their self-understanding and their success" (46), and quote "one 20-year-old female engineering student at the University of Jordan" to the effect that "There should be rules and law to respect people of other religions and not make fun of them.  We must endeavor to relay the accurate picture of Islam to the West – showing that Islam is a religion of goodness and love, and not terrorism.  The West must be willing to accept the true picture of Islam and not hold on to the negative picture that serves terrorists" (87).

Most Americans, after all, see America through different eyes: as a moderate, peaceful country whose values are central to its success; and many Americans would advocate rules and law to enforce respect for their nation and their religion.  While the young engineer should be free to advocate laws mandating respect for people of other religions, etc., she doesn't really value freedom of speech or religion.  Disrespect for and mockery of people of other religions is a core aspect of most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- but also the "pagan" religions that many moderns ignorantly believe to have been more tolerant than the Yahwist cults.  I don't believe that the young engineer really wants to "relay the accurate picture of Islam to the West"; I believe she wants a positive propaganda image to be relayed and accepted.  That's not sinister, of course; it's all too human.  Substitute "Christianity" or "America" or "Israel" or "France" for "Islam" in her words, and many would agree with her.  But, like many Christians (or patriotic Americans), I think she would be surprised to find that what she considers an accurate, true, and positive picture would still be open to skepticism and criticism.  As the political philosopher Michael Neumann wrote on this subject:
Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
With that in mind, let's look at one area the Gallup pollsters explored:
A recent study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Contrast this with data taken the same year from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%.

Similarly, 6% of the American public thinks that attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified.”  As points of comparison, in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it’s 4% ... [Esposito and Mogahed, 95]
I don’t consider any religion to be positive overall, so I reserve the right to criticize Islam just as I criticize Christianity, Judaism, paganism, and atheism. If I actually criticize Islam less often, it’s because I know less about it, and I prefer that my critiques be well-informed.  For well-meaning liberals to swerve to the other extreme, and eulogize Islam as a peaceful, tolerant, moderate "faith," is an overcorrection.  One should always ask: Which Islam? (Or which Christianity / Hinduism / Buddhism / Judaism / Atheism etc.?)  Which Muslims?  In which country and culture?  Are we talking about their words, deployed for public relations and self-esteem purposes, or their actions?  Only then can one begin to talk sensibly.