Saturday, July 12, 2008

In Support of PZ

I'm emerging from my intermittent blogtirement to ask for a bit of advice.

You probably know of PZ Myers' recent run-in with Catholic hysteria. I'll give a brief run down anyway, more for me than for you. An undergrad in Florida went to a Catholic mass and took the Eucharist home with him rather than eating it. Catholics believe that this Eucharist becomes Jesus, so they got very upset. PZ wrote about it and tried to burst the Catholic bubble on this issue. (Note: His post is entitled "It's a Frackin' Cracker!" but you can tell he tempered his words. The URL is .../its_a_goddamned_cracker.php)

PZ's post stirred up a lot of shit. The Catholic League called for his job and organized a letter writing campaign to the UMM President Robert Bruininks to demand reprimands at the least.

PZ has asked for help in a counter-campaign to write his university President in support of his job. I'd like to write something, and I have several thoughts on what it should be about, but I'd like to have a nice, clean thesis. Any thoughts? Should I stick to the First Amendment and his rights to ridicule? Obviously I don't want to respond to the comments of the rabble, but what about Catholic League president Bill Donahue? Should I reference his arguments?

Any thoughts would be appreciated. Do you think PZ was right? Do you think he was within his rights? How do you think he should handle this situation?


Ben said...

I try not to worry about the Catholic league because I think it is comprised of about 15 people. Maybe 100. That's not enough to worry about seriously.

As for PZ, I have been thinking about this a lot and I have undergone various phases of amusement and disappointment at his comments. I don't think suggesting the desecration of a religious object, even a cracker, is just not civil. For that, I think it's OK that he gets some hate mail, not the death threats or course, but the more measured letters. I don't quite understand the point of PZ's suggestion. It seemed solely to outrage those who believe and amuse those who follow him, and frankly, it did seem pretty hateful. I understand that not being Catholic does no bind you to any Catholic rules, but in order to live peacefully, it is often necessary to treat people as they want to be treated. There are exceptions, of course. You should never violate your own morality for others, but I don't think this was the case with PZ.

If you want to write to his university, I would suggest focusing on how he has become a spokesperson for critical thinking and evolution in a time when a person like him is very much needed. I don't think I would even mention the cracker incident because I don't know what to think of it and I'm not completely in suppott of it. PZ, however, does have scientific chops and is (mostly) a positive influence for the general public and for those reasons, he should stay. It is true that he has the freedom to say what he wishes, but his employer also has the right to curtail that speech if they feel it is hurting the image of the university. In a more anonymous internet, PZ would only be accountable to the people who comment on his blog. I suppose that as long as is not acting as a representative of his university while blogging (which I am pretty sure he is not), then he can say what he wants and the university has not right to punish him for it. PZ's personal life should be separate from his academic life. I feel sorry for the president of his university and the chair of his department. They must find all this very tedious.

Flavin said...

I try not to worry about the Catholic league because I think it is comprised of about 15 people. Maybe 100. That's not enough to worry about seriously.

I'm not worried about the Catholic League itself so much as the flood of letters that will certainly be hitting UMM President Bruininks' inbox as we speak. Seeing how many letters PZ got, I can only guess that his university president gets as many or more (something on the same order of magnitude). I'd like to ensure that at least one of those expresses solidarity.

It seemed solely to outrage those who believe and amuse those who follow him, and frankly, it did seem pretty hateful.

I don't think I would call his recommendation to desecrate "hateful." I would certainly call it childish. I would call it uncivil. I do agree that he just wanted to tweak some Catholic noses and give a lol to his regular readers. But I think there was no hate involved.

Don't get me wrong. I think PZ spoke stupidly and without thinking. But I think the response, as gauged from the emails he's received, only helps make the point he wanted to make. He wanted to put this object of veneration into a different context than the one in which believers hold it. It is such a simple thing and they hold it in such high regard that some small few among them are willing to kill (or say they are) to ensure that everyone else venerates it as they do. PZ wanted to show them that not everyone does venerate their holy object. Some people think it's just a cracker, and with good reasons. That's how I see his point.

He obscured that point with a joke in poor taste. But I think the point he made (or what I think he was going for) is one that is worth making. That's why I want to defend him. That's more or less what I want to write to his university president.

I have lots of side thoughts about this as well, but I don't want to write for hours. I also don't feel they're relevant to what I would write in a letter.

Ben said...

As you pointed out, I think I misspoke when I called his comment "hateful". I meant that it is easily perceived as hateful. I did not mean to imply that PZ himself is a hateful man though at times, he does seem quite bitter. Having reread what I wrote though, it can only be interpreted as me saying PZ was a hateful man. Not what I meant.

I am completely in favor of you writing a letter by the way. I am sure the president is now getting a flood of both kinds of letters. I imagine he is growing weary of it.

Bing said...

I think that PZ is within his rights, that his job should not be effected, and that the whole matter, to use the words of another blogger, "lacks heroes."


Jack Crespin said...

I strongly suggest that we impose a moratorium on calling for people's jobs, or even for apologies and retractions, just because person x said what person y did not want to hear. I don't care if you are catholic, jewish, black, hispanic, gay, "patriotic," a veteran, female or any other so-called minority, or majority. Let's all grow up and be big boys and girls, please!

adam said...

so just to be sure, we're still ok with this guy too:


Filmi Geek said...

Ben's comment is a good one. I can't even read PZ Myers most of the time even though I agree with his underlying thinking; I just can't stand the way he attacks and ridicules and calls names. His rhetoric is way beneath his intelligence and way beneath the strength of his arguments, and he does not do the cause of skepticism any favors by stooping so low.

I don't think he should lose his job - and I don't think he will - but it's hardly shocking that his rhetorical style has come back to bite him in the ass.

-carla (madhu to you, ben)

Akusai said...

I do agree that he just wanted to tweak some Catholic noses and give a lol to his regular readers. But I think there was no hate involved.

I think this is false. I think his aim was twofold: firstly, he wanted to show solidarity with the student who was being harassed in Florida, and secondly I think he wanted to provoke the very reaction he got in order to prove the very salient point that small perceived offenses bring out the violent crazy in any religion.

Was he an asshole? Sure. But sometimes I don't think there's anything wrong with being an asshole.

To borrow a thought from a friend, I think a lot of the people calling him out for being "uncivil" or "mean" or something don't get what George Carlin called "dangerous fun," and they don't recognize a good show when they see one.

And filmi geek:

His rhetoric is way beneath his intelligence and way beneath the strength of his arguments

This is a subjective judgement. Nothing he says in any way detracts from his arguments; to claim that is a fallacy. Of course, if you don't like his style, you're completely free to critique it or stop reading his blog, but to say things like "That's below him" or "beneath his intelligence" is to be a little holier-than-thou and not recognize that different approaches work for different people, and that sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.

Moreover, it subtly promotes a common fallacy among the wooish and religious that simply being mean somehow negates one's arguments, that name-calling is necessarily ad hom, and that they don't have to listen to anyone who is even a mite assholish.

Ron Murphy said...

There's more hate and bile spilt over this on the Catholic side that I've witnessed from any anti-religious source.

There's a simple solution. I think they should petition the pope to declare that any blessed cracker ceases to be blessed if it leaves, say about a meter, from the point of delivery. Problem solved.

After all, it's only the same type of church doctrine that declared it to be the body of christ in the first place.

Filmi Geek said...

Akusai, I emphatically don't agree. I don't believe that "being mean negates one's arguments." Actually what I said was quite the opposite. Being a dick doesn't negate arguments but it does tend to make people not give a shit what you have to say. I agree with PZ Myers on many points. But if he wants people who don't already agree with him to listen to him and have a chance of being persuaded, he'd do better to be less of an asshole.

As you say, I am free not to read PZ Myers's blog - and I said, I haven't in some time. It's a shame that he alienates even some people who agree with him, much less people who don't agree with him.

And *of course* that's just my opinion - when did I ever suggest otherwise?

Akusai said...

Filmi Geek:

I'm sorry I misrepresented your opinion, and I did not mean to come off as combative as I did.

I suppose I simply don't understand why anyone at all got offended by this, leastways non-Catholics. I've never been as offended by anything as some Catholics were by PZ saying "It's just a cracker" and then threatening to desecrate one. Of all the asshole stunts I've seen pulled in my life, that one really isn't very high on the list at all.