Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Beyond reproach

The question of the day is:  is it possible to criticize strongly the beliefs of an oppressed ethnic, religious or social group, without that criticism being motivated by bigotry or prejudice?

I think the answer is a resounding "yes."

I ask this in light of the story yesterday of an ultra-Orthodox group of rabbis in Jerusalem, who condemned a dog to death by stoning because the dog's behavior reminded one of the rabbis of an incident from twenty years earlier.  Apparently, a secular lawyer had criticized the rabbis of this sect, and they had "cursed him and ordered his spirit to enter a dog when he died."  The lawyer apparently died shortly thereafter, and this particular dog somehow reminded the rabbis of the lawyer, so they held a religious court session and determined that the dog should be stoned.  (Fortunately, the dog made itself scarce before the sentence could be carried out.)

Yes, I know that the Jews have been the victims of persecution and genocide.  There are still people (Mahmoud Ahmedinijad comes to mind) who want to see the Jews exterminated.  All of that is hateful and evil, and should not for one second be tolerated.

But I'm sorry, those rabbis who wanted to stone the dog are straight out of the Dark Ages.  Their beliefs -- at least the ones apropos of curses and ordering spirits into "impure animals" -- are ridiculous and backwards superstitions.  Interestingly, there were comments to this effect posted on the news article I read -- and resulting accusations of anti-Semitism.

The evils of oppression do not give the victimized group some kind of insurance against being accused of idiotic beliefs, nor does it make the people who criticize those beliefs bigots.  To pick a few examples that come to mind: the "afrocentrist" twist on history calls dark-skinned people "Sun People" and light-skinned people "Ice People," and credits every advance in knowledge to people of African descent.  I know more than one lesbian who hate all men and consider having a Y chromosome and the requisite anatomy sufficient reason to assume that the person in question is a macho, sex-obsessed victimizer.  Traditional Basques and Rom (Gypsies) often ostracize, sometimes to the point of physical violence, members of the group who marry someone from another ethnicity.

My statement that I think all of the above beliefs are patent nonsense should not have to be followed up by my saying, "... but I'm not a bigot."  In no case did I say that the groups in question were evil, simply that they were wrong.  There's a difference.  Any of us can be wrong.  Most of us, in fact, are frequently wrong.  Being wrong is no respecter of ethnicity, sexual preference, or religion. 

But in today's super-sensitive climate, people are on edge.  The "race card" (or "religion card") is played so often that the phrase has become a cliché.  (I even had a student accuse me of being "prejudiced against African-Americans" because she'd received a bad grade -- on a math test.)  For some of these people, the feeling of finally being in a position of power -- of being able to say anything, without fear of contradiction -- is a heady one.

There is no difference, however, between an anti-feminist's statement that "all women are inferior" and an ultra-feminist's statement that "all men are jerks."  Both are prejudiced nonsense.  If belonging to a dominant, majority ethnic group should not make you immune to criticism, belonging to an oppressed, minority ethnic group should not, either.  There is, of course, no justification for oppression.  That said, regardless of what group you belong to, if you make an idiotic statement, you should be called on it.

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