Tuesday, December 06, 2005

People should get beat up for statin' their beliefs

"He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth
People should get beat up, for statin' their beliefs" --TMBG

...and on a private listserv no less!

University of Kansas religious studies professor Paul Mirecki offered a course in the religious studies department entitled "Intelligent Design, Creationism and Other Religious Mythologies."

Did he really mean to imply that intelligent design was a myth? Well, this is how he described the course on a listserv for athiests and agnostics: "The fundies want it [ID] all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology.’"

Well, after his email was leaked, reprisals were inevitable:
Kansas University religious studies professor Paul Mirecki reported he was beaten by two men about 6:40 a.m. today on a roadside in rural Douglas County. In a series of interviews late this afternoon, Mirecki said the men who beat him were making references to the controversy that has propelled him into the headlines in recent weeks.

“I didn’t know them, but I’m sure they knew me,” he said. ...

He said the men beat him about the upper body with their fists, and he said he thinks they struck him with a metal object. He was treated and released at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

“I’m mostly shaken up, and I got some bruises and sore spots,” he said.

Well, it sounds like he's ok, thankfully. But the incident should remind us of the importance of distinguishing speech acts from physical acts, and how wrong it is to respond to any speech act, no matter how offensive, with an act of violence.

Discussions of hate speech over the last decade have attempted to push more forms of speech into the category of "fighting words," things that the government can regulate because they are more like acts of violence than speech acts. I never liked this trend: for the sake of a civil society with a vibrant cultural life, we need to say again and again that the morally important line is the line between a speech act and an act of violence, and not the line between polite and impolite speech acts.

In my practical ethics courses I routinely assign excerpts from a book by the libertarian thinker Jonathan Rauch on the debate over hate speech, which I like a lot.
A University of Michigan law professor said: "To me, racial epithets are not speech. They are bullets." This, finally, is where the humanitarian line leads us: to the erasure of the distinction, in principle and also in practice, between discussion and bloodshed. My own view is that words are words and bullets are bullets, and that it is important to keep this straight.
(Well, I've never liked the libertarian tactic of characterizing their opposition as warm hearted but soft headed "humanitarians" whose attempts to help people wind up hurting because they don't see the Hard Realities. This tactic plays on a false dichotomy between reason and emotion, and leads many liberals to think they have to prove their hard headed rationalism by periodically acting against the dictates of compassion by supporting a war or ending welfare or whatever.)

One could plausibly argue that Mirecki's comments were a kind of hate speech, and therefore fighting words, thus apparently justifying his beat down. I believe they are busy doing this over at The Free Republic Right now. The argument sucks, but where is the real breakdown? Should we try to distinguish what Mirecki said from "real" hate speech? It is much easier to continue to draw a bright line between speech and bullets.

via pharyngula

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