Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book burning

A Danish man is being charged under Denmark's blasphemy laws for burning a Quran and posting a video of doing so on the internet.

This is the sort of headline that gets my attention immediately.  It drives me nuts that someone could be prosecuted for the crime of not believing in someone else's fairy tale, but that is what is happening here.  Blasphemy laws are a disaster wherever they are found, in spite of the fact that what they do is make it so that if a bunch of people believe something ridiculous they can get the state to attack anyone who dares voice disbelief of the ridiculous belief.  It doesn't apply if beliefs are reasonable or provable, because that isn't religion.  Perfectly fine to insist that climate change is a myth, because we can prove that using science.  Insult the idea that a person walked on water and rose from the dead?  A crime!

Of course one must consider that the man in question will not do any jail time even if he gets convicted.  He will only be fined, in what I assume is the courts trying to placate the religious nuts without actually wanting to do something serious.

Perhaps I ought to be focusing instead on more serious events like war, or famine, or whatever it is that Trump did today.  You know, things that result in thousands of deaths and massive upheaval.

I don't though.  Trump said another disastrous thing, war still exists, people are dying.  But blasphemy laws in a progressive western state being enforced?  That is interesting, not least because it could very well be me getting dragged into court next time.

I suppose this makes it rather selfish of me to focus on this sort of news since it is insignificant compared to many other things I could talk leap upon.

However, I do think it is a good thing to keep in mind that we ought not to accept small erosions of our basic liberties in stride.  The freedom of expression of religion is important.  That includes the right to not be religious, and in fact to do the opposite of what other religions want.  When the state decides to recognize some religions and not others and is willing to prosecute people for following the wrong one we step ever closer to a theocracy, and that is an awful place for anyone who doesn't happen to be following the chosen religion.

People need to be free to talk about how their book is the literal word of the creator of the universe and post that message online.  Also people need to be free to set books on fire and post that online.  The state should have no concern about either, except insofar as people obey the laws about fire, of course.


  1. Devil's Advocate:

    This could be interpreted as hate speech, which is something that some progressive western states prevent because society is not improved by person A trying to incite people to do bad things. Arguably, what is the purpose of burning the book on video? To offend/mock a certain group, get attention, and cause trouble.

    I don't want the Christian fundamentalists protesting outside my house saying ridiculous things and being a nuisance and getting in my face with their foolish beliefs. Similarly, the fundamentalists don't want me getting in their face with *my* foolish atheist beliefs. And if both groups are living their lives quietly, then neither will happen.

    These folks aren't being charged for being non-religious, they are being charged for being assholes and trying to get people upset. It's disruptive to an already tense society and could end up in violence, as it has in the past.

    A society has a bit of a duty to not ignore when one group deliberately incites trouble with another, not because they are oppressed or have suffered, but merely because they want attention.

  2. Oh yes, they're also burning it to get the attention of random social media excitables around the world, hopefully starting a wave of anti-religious sentiment. Mission accomplished. :-)

  3. Being an asshole is not a crime. This is critical, because if you aren't allowed to be offensive then marginalized people get crushed without the chance to make any noise about it. This line of reasoning says that we should throw all people of colour who loudly protest about racism into jail because they are getting in other people's way and we don't want that. It says that women who march in loud, racuous protests against sexism should be fined.

    Society doesn't have to ignore loud cries for attention and protests, but it does have to refuse to use the violent machinery of the state to stop them. Consider this: I think worshipping God in any way is offensive. Why is it that religious programs are then allowed to be on TV? Shouldn't the producers of such programs go to jail to stop them 'inciting' me? Of course not. The problem with this prosecution is that people already in positions of power and privilege decide what is offensive to them and prosecute those people, while those not in positions of power do not receive the same protection.

    You will note that wiccans wouldn't be protected in this way if someone destroyed one of their venerated symbols, so why the heck should christians or muslims?

    1. Balancing freedom of speech is tricky.

      What you're describing is different kinds of speech. Raising a ruckus because the world is unfair in some way is something that society accepts as reasonable.

      Deliberately trying to offend someone, not because they hurt you, but because you want to get a reaction and start trouble is something that society doesn't find reasonable.

      In theory, everyone could say anything and no one would get offended.

      But as I learned when I posted about breastfeeding in public - you can have the right to do something, and even the right to be an asshole about the right to do something, but if you're an asshole, you're an asshole. Society works better when people try to work together and get along vs. deliberately provoking people. The general sentiment is if you can accommodate and find compromise, that's best.

      Burning a holy book and publishing it online isn't a compromise or an attempt to find a reasonable solution. It's an attack. It leads to hatred and violence. Stopping it now may prevent deaths later, even if it's not morally or theoretically pure to do so. Since the state hasn't charged anyone in 50 years, it seems like the state is aware of how rare the power should be used.

    2. When someone says "If you do this thing it will offend me, and there will be violence" the response that is appropriate is not "Well, we had better not do that offensive thing". When you respond that way you send the signal that people can tell anyone what to do by threatening violence.

      The day that a christian would be jailed for burning a science textbook is the day I would even consider jailing someone for burning a holy book. The former will never happen, despite it being intensely offensive to me and many others. Therefore I shall not even consider defending the latter.

      Just beacuse someone believes in fairytales is no reason to assign special importance to their particular book of nonsense.

    3. I'm not a fan of blasphemy laws at all. It's ridiculous. I'm just trying to see the other side.

      You're running a city/country, and someone burns a book. You're now at risk of angry mobs, or an assassination, or additional crimes of violence and retaliation. Most of your voters at least understand why it would offend various power groups, some/many of which may be out of your country and/or more powerful than you. They demand that you take action because the actions of the few are putting the many at risk.

      Are you giving up your job to take a stand on book burning when you know the next guy won't? Do you feel guilty when someone gets killed, or when the next terrorist attack is in your area? Do you feel bad that it further divides society, leading to more extreme leaders and political parties?

      This is likely what is going through people's minds. So they try and find some way to shut it down without going too crazy.

      Take the religion out of it and re-imagine this as someone in Estonia doing something wacky to offend Russians. Do you defend their right to do it as the tanks roll in?

      They're not stopping these guys because they're worried someone will write an angry letter!

    4. No, it is the actions of the many that are putting the many at risk. It is the attack by the religious zealots that is hurting people, not the burning of the book.

      Society cannot allow itself to be held hostage by extremists who demand that everyone behave the way they want or violence will ensue.

      And yes, I would defend their right to offend the russians, even as the tanks roll in. To not do so is to encourage people to oppress your populace.

  4. It's been a hard lesson (mostly from "The Dictator's Handbook"), but I've learned that ideologists do not make good leaders for exactly that reason - they do not compromise.

    You are correct, it is the many putting people at risk. And publicly, governments will always refuse to pay for hostages to discourage hostage taking. And then they'll secretly pay for them. If there was a quiet way to stop the taping of book burning, I'm sure it's preferred.

    As you say, the pure moral play, focused just on the one issue, is to not muzzle speech. The challenge is that there are two issues here (possibly more!) and you have to balance the costs and benefits because the morally correct choice for each option are in conflict. Do you prioritize free speech over physical violence to your people? More importantly, do your people want you to?

    If I step into traffic with my family because the light is green, ignoring the car that runs me down because the law says I'm in the right, that doesn't make any of us less dead.