Archive for November, 2016

Hate Speech

November 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Is censorship of controversial speech a good thing? There have been many opinions stated, and many debates conducted on this subject. The problem is that the answer tends to be framed in terms of yes or no. Like most subjects related to society and human behaviour there is no yes or no answer, because the ultimate response depends on how the terms are defined and on a partly subjective view on where a dividing line should be.

First, I should say that above I used the neutral term “controversial opinions” rather than anything more emotive like “hate speech” for a reason. Few people who are accused of hate speech would agree that they have actually engaged in it. And as soon as any opinion is elevated to the level of “hate speech” it almost automatically becomes justifiable to subject it to censorship.

So to remove an awkward opinion all that needs to be done is label it as hate speech and it can be suppressed. Clearly this is not a good thing.

The reason I am discussing this here and now is that recent cases of this type of censorship have appeared in the news. So let’s look at a few examples…

First there was “Bishop” Brian Tamaki who claimed that earthquakes might be caused by immoral behaviour such as homosexuality (note that is immoral by his standards, not mine). This was just before a major earthquake caused significant damage here in New Zealand, so it gained some prominence as a result.

Second, there was an Islamic cleric, Shaykh Dr Mohammad Anwar Sahib, who preached a lot of what were deemed hateful, misogynistic, and anti-semitic ideas. After the public outrage over this he was stood down by the Federation of Islamic Associations from his role as secretary of their religious advisory board.

Third there is our old friend, the populist politician Geert Wilders, who is being tried by a Dutch court for engaging in hate speech, mainly towards Muslim immigrants.

Then there was a local man, Nelson Cross, who was fired from his position as a government adviser for writing a satirical or humorous work which was labelled “offensive”. It describes Maori (the orignal inhabitants of New Zealand) as enjoying “KFC, the TAB and sedentary living”.

Finally there is Donald Trump, but I have said enough about him in previous posts so I won’t go into detail about his alleged racism, sexism, etc here.

Note that in the cases above people have suffered severe consequences (possibly prison in the case of Wilders) for stating their opinions. They haven’t actually carried out any hate crimes, such as attacking immigrants.

I’m not saying I agree with any of the opinions stated (in fact I specifically reject most of them) but I think we are going into a very dangerous place when we repress these ideas simply because they don’t fit into the politically correct framework of current society.

To show just how much political correctness is involved look at the case of Nelson Cross. His story made derogatory comments about white New Zealanders as much as Maori but no one said a thing about that. It was only comments made in a humorous style about a “minority” group that were criticised, and resulted in the severe penalty of the loss of his job.

But what are these dangers of censorship I alluded to above? I think there are two main problems…

First, the obvious one that by suppressing opinions which are contrary to the current whims of society we lose the ability to critique current norms. We also seem to lose the ability to engage in satire, entertainment, and even just to exercise basic freedom of speech.

The second problem is slightly more nuanced. It is that by suppressing expression of an opinion you don’t make the underlying ideas behind it go away. In fact in some ways you might make those ideas stronger because they go underground and build on a feeling of repression.

Since Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election I have heard a lot of people admit to being his supporter (I don’t know why should they have to “admit” to this). Before he won there was almost no indication of support for him at all, because it just wasn’t politically correct to admit to that. But people still supported him in secret and now we see the “surprising” result of his victory.

So the correct response to opinions which go against the mainstream is to listen to them fairly and respond accordingly. If Trump supporters had been treated with a bit more respect their opinions could have been listened to and, assuming they were invalid in some way, responded to. Also the true level of support for him would have been known and Clinton’s shock loss would not have been so hard on her supporters.

And while I think that Geert Wilders has some extreme views which I disagree with, his opinions on excessive immigration of people with very different social values than his own is hardly unique. He is a “populist” politician, meaning he represents a repressed opinion held by many people. Is it really a good idea to tell people that they aren’t allowed to express that opinion? That isn’t going to make the underlying anti-immigration ideas go away.

Even crazy religious ideas, like saying that Jews want to take over the world, or that gay people cause earthquakes, should be allowed. It should also be OK to ridicule these ideas. If a public discussion happens then there is an opportunity to correct these irrational ideas. Many people with extreme views won’t change them no matter what the facts are, but there will be a proportion who might be dissuaded from their beliefs, but only if discussion of them is OK.

There should be limits though. I think attacking individual people should be discouraged unless that person is a public figure or has initiated a controversy themselves. And I think that when controversial ideas are aired in public, contrary views – especially those pointing out errors – should be strongly encouraged.

Oh and one other thing: people shouldn’t be so sensitive. They should take negative remarks as humour if that was how they were intended, take them as the clueless ramblings of a religious nutter if that’s what they seem to be, or maybe look at them from the perspective of the other group. Maybe, just maybe, they have a point.Hate Speech


Far-Left Fail

November 18, 2016 Leave a comment

I have to do just one more blog post on the political theme I have been following for the last two weeks. After that I will move on to something more significant, I promise!

In the last few weeks (this really relates to the period around the Trump presidential campaign and election) I have made a bit of a journey away from supporting the more liberal and left-oriented side of the political spectrum. I have seen the far left for what they really are: just as dogmatic, ignorant, and narrow-minded as the far right.

This in no way means I am now a conservative, and I am not a Trump supporter. But I am not a Trump denigrator either, like a lot of the left are. There are some things about him – such as his dismissal of the clear facts of climate change – which I find unacceptable, but the way the far left constantly criticises him using unthinking buzz-words annoys me too.

For many years now I have been visiting conservative fora on the internet and criticising the far right’s ideas on economic policy, gun control, religion, and other controversial subjects. And I have been banned from a few sites for my efforts. My first banning (many years ago) was from a conservative Christian video site called “GodTube” (I know, it sounds like satire, but it’s real) where I listed the lies in various anti-evolution and other movies.

But yesterday I was blocked from a Facebook discussion which mainly involved a group of far left individuals. By “far left” I don’t mean communists or anything like that (although some might possibly follow that political idea), I mean people who follow political correctness to a ridiculous degree, who have extreme feminist opinions, and who automatically reject any ideas apart from their own.

I have clashed with these people before over their unthinking criticism of Donald Trump. Again, I want to emphasise I am not a Trump supporter, but I do reject anyone who thinks that calling someone a misogynist, racist, bigot, sexist, fascist, or xenophobe is real political dialog or debate. It isn’t. It’s more a feeble minded parroting of words other people of the same persuasion are using with varying degrees of validity.

I’m not saying that a case couldn’t be made to say that Trump doesn’t have some of these attributes, but I am saying that the people making these claims haven’t really made this case, and they have failed to accept that many people specifically reject the claims they do make.

So what’s really the point? Why keep repeating these insults over and over? The people who are likely to believe them believe them already, and those that reject them will continue to do so.

Well here’s what I think. The standard insults act as a “badge”. It’s a way of saying the person is a politically correct BS artist who stands up for women’s rights, and for the rights of minorities, non-dominant cultures, alternative religions, people with alternative sexual preferences, etc.

But, apart from a small percentage on the extreme edge, everyone wants to give other people a fair chance and few people would say they don’t want to treat everyone equally. The discussion is over how this should be done, and the far-left don’t have a monopoly on ideas about how to achieve it, although the way they talk they obviously believe they do.

The air of utter arrogance and smug self-satisfaction amongst these people is quite disturbing. And the way they have now developed a persecution complex and see themselves as the heroes standing up to the forces of evil can only be described as pathetic.

I am talking about a core group of three people here (all women as it happens) who I won’t name because I only name public figures I criticise in this blog. But who they are is irrelevant because it is the worldview these people share with others which I object to, not the people themselves.

I can’t remember why I initially friended the main perpetrator of this propaganda, but there have been several times when I considered removing her from my Facebook friend list, but didn’t because I force myself to listen to other perspectives no matter how annoying they are. I think it’s important to do that or it is easy to end up in that echo-chamber where you hear only the opinions of those who agree with you.

But clearly exposure to alternative ideas is not a high priority for those on the far left, just like it isn’t for their opponents on the far right. They really are as bad as each other. I have always resisted being labelled as belonging to any particular ideology and this experience has just reinforced what

And despite being unfriended by this one person there are plenty of others with similar views I still follow so I’m not likely to be completely cut-off from their perspective any time soon. But sometimes I wish I was!

Embarrassing Liberals

November 11, 2016 2 comments

I have always been a bit of an iconoclast, and a devil’s advocate, and I often like to contribute to discussions – especially in on-line fora like Facebook and Youtube – by pointing out weaknesses in other people’s arguments, even if that person is ostensibly “on my side”.

And I expect the same back again. I don’t feel personally attacked or diminished if someone wants to argue with me and possibly look for problems with my own arguments. And I have changed my perspective when these have turned out to be genuine. If anything, it’s when I don’t get any feedback – positive or negative – that I feel most aggrieved.

In the past I have mainly debated against conservatives, although I do point out BS everywhere I see it, and there are certain beliefs of the liberal left which I feel just as offended by, especially those to do with unthinking political correctness.

As you might have guessed by now, this is leading up to a rant about the utter disdain I feel towards my erstwhile allies on the left in regard to their reaction to Donald Trump’s win in the recent US presidential election.

I must have seen a thousand comments so far and the vast majority of them boil down to this: they think Donald Trump does not react in the way they expect towards women, Muslims, and foreginers (especially Mexicans). Of course this sounds so much better when it is expressed as a convenient sound bite like “he’s misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic”.

I totally agree that there is a tendency towards these attributes in Trump’s character but just applying those labels instead of debating the finer points of the situation is just cowardly and anti-intellectual.

And the anti-Trump protests (some of which have been labelled riots) don’t show the Clinton supporters – who presumably would have been my allies in the past – in a very good light. When Trump said he might not accept the outcome of the election (because he thought it might be rigged) he was ridiculed and disparaged by the left. Is it not the ultimate in hypocrisy that they are now doing exactly the same thing themselves?

And what is the point if these protests? Do they expect the outcome of the election to be reversed? Do they think that the democratic process should be negated because they are acting like a bunch of spoiled kids? I really have no idea.

There is one main reason Trump won the election and it has nothing to do with misogyny, racism, or xenophobia. He won because he represented a change from the existing political establishment. An establishment that Clinton represented strongly. Trump didn’t really win, Clinton lost. Look at the voter turn-out and it’s clear that Democrats just didn’t turn up. Why? Because Clinton didn’t represent what they wanted.

I have never belonged to a political party, but I would generally self-identify with the liberal left. Well not any more. From now on I am not identifying with anything. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t identify with the conservative right, or with Libertarianism, or even with the Green agenda. I find all of these ideologies partly good and partly bad to varying degrees. But after the mindless nonsense I have heard from the left recently I certainly feel a lot less attraction towards that side of politics than I ever have before.

The left is losing ground in many parts of the world and the main reason seems to be its total detachment from reality. Surely the Democrats must have realised that Clinton was the wrong person for this job. And they had the perfect alternative available: Bernie Sanders, whose efforts were sabotaged by the party machine.

So they deserved to fail. Unfortunately, that meant that Trump got success, but that’s what happened and it was not misogynistic, racist, xenophobic voters who are to blame, it’s the Democratic party who thought it was business as usual. Well it isn’t, and I hope they realise that for the next election, because they had better offer a better candidate at that one or they will just fail again.

Many commentators agree with me regarding the election being a reaction against the establishment, and a smaller number agree with me on my next point: that the problem goes back to the neo-liberal revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. That was when all sides of politics jumped on the bandwagon and abandoned their traditional principles.

In the UK Tony Blair’s Labour government were so far right that they were unrecognisable. The same happened in New Zealand where the 1984 Labour government started it all in this country. And it’s happened in the US too, where the Democrats took up many of the same ideas that traditionally belonged on the right. Well the zeitgeist ahs changed. Finally we are realising that neo-liberalism doesn’t work. The left needs to get back where it belongs: on the left.

Abraham Lincoln promised “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” but that last piece has been forgotten. Liberals need to forget about their meaningless slogans and their mindless rhetoric and get on with solving the real problems. Until then they are just an embarrassment to be associated with.

President Trump

November 9, 2016 3 comments

OK, so Donald Trump’s victory is the big news of the moment, so I guess I should be commenting on it in my blog. You might wonder why I would bother considering how much has already been said, but I want to filter out the unsubstantiated drivel from the avalanche of opinion and leave the more perspicacious commentary behind. So here are my comments…

First of all, I want to say that I am not a Donald Trump or a Republican supporter, and in general I would be more likely to support the Democrats. But this is different. Not only is Trump not a typical Republican, but Clinton is also a very unlikeable Democrat. If I was an American and was eligible to vote there, I think I would probably just have stayed at home.

Second, I think the shock loss by Clinton has lead to a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from her supporters, and I think most of it can be safely ignored. I would especially be inclined to ignore anything which concludes that racism or misogyny is the reason for Clinton’s loss. As I suggested in my previous blog post, it’s just too easy to blame any failure by a woman on sexism.

Third, there are a lot of highly exaggerated claims and assumptions of the worst possible outcomes as a result of Trump winning. Surely people don’t really think he is literally going to carry out all the things he talked about during his campaign. It should be obvious that those are ideas which, even if he really wanted to execute them, would likely be blocked by other parts of the US government. Even though it looks like the House, Senate, and Supreme Court will all be under Republican control, they will all moderate Trump’s more extreme ideas.

Fourth, so why did Trump win? I think people are just sick of the staus quo, of the political elite ignoring the majority, and of the establishment which continues to get more out of touch with reality. There is a worldwide trend towards this, and I think a similar attitude was responsible for Brexit. Clinton represented the establishment and Trump is something new. Unfortunately, new is not always better.

Finally, OK so Trump is going to be president. Let’s give the guy a chance. Who knows, maybe it might turn out a lot better than many people think. Once he gets into that position of power maybe he’ll behave himself a bit better and get a bit more realistic about what is and isn’t practical.

So there’s a few quick thoughts on the subject. Once the dust settles and we see what sort of leader Trump is really going to be I can comment further. That’s assuming the internet isn’t destroyed in the inevitable apocalypse, of course!


November 8, 2016 3 comments

Every now and again the old subject of how women are disadvantaged in our society comes up, especially in relation to pay inequality and under-representation in politics. I think both of these issues have some basis in reality, but there is rarely any real debate about the true extent of the problem because everyone has to be so politically correct around it.

For example, in a recent on-line “debate” a woman claimed that she had suffered disadvantages every day and that her career had been held back more than a man’s would have been. But she seemed to have quite a good job in a traditionally male-dominated profession and when asked, didn’t give any specific instances of sexist behaviour against her.

I asked her – and I put this very carefully because I wasn’t specifically suggesting this was the source of the perceived problem (since I was discussing it from a distance and didn’t know many details) – whether there was any chance that the problem was with her. Maybe she (like me) was good at her job but not seen as being suitable for promotion into a more senior position.

Well, or course, that was when the “feminazi” thing started! I was accused of being misogynistic and sexist and part of the problem, etc, etc. Now I have never tried this but I suspect if I said the same thing to a man he would have either conceded there was an issue with himself (like I do) or said that the fault was with the attitudes of management in his workplace (like I also do).

So being a woman seems to be a “get out of jail free card” to excuse any deficiencies that person might have. There’s a similar phenomenon with Hillary Clinton. On many occasions when I criticise her I’m accused of doing that just because she’s a woman. But when I am just as (or more) critical of Donald Trump no one says a thing!

The truth is I don’t like either of them. I don’t like Clinton because she represents the political establishment which is the direct cause of many of the world’s problems. And I don’t like her because she seems to be so fake and just says what she thinks people want to hear rather than what she really believes. My dislike is not because she is a woman, and I have indicated some qualified support for some female politicians in the past.

And I don’t like Trump because a lot of what he says is simply untrue, and he seems to be more interested in gaining power for himself rather than genuinely doing something good for the world. My dislike is not because she is a man, and I have indicated some qualified support for some male politicians in the past.

So I’m a little bit sick of the two common responses I get to this sort of issue. First, the extreme feminist perspective (AKA feminazi) which is just totally out of touch with reality, and second the politically correct position, often illustrated by men who want to over-compensate for the real and imagined transgressions of men in general.

So what is my position on this issue? Well, how about reality? I’m OK with criticising genuine misogyny, but when that is used as a condemnation of anyone who dares to criticise a woman it just weakens the case against real instances of it.

As I said in a recent debate with a feminist (actually, she was close to being a feminazi): I’m more on your side than you are! I said that because I realise that if you take a political view, like feminism, too far you don’t actually make it stronger, you make it weaker, because it makes it just too easy to dismiss that view in general.

I take the same position on other political views too. For example, I often debate against my presumed political allies on the left because they sometimes go too far. This causes quite a bit of consternation on occasions but I think it is important to follow what I see as my genuine moral standards rather than those that I might be expected to follow based on some political label such as “liberal” or “lefty”.

When I see the mindless fanaticism of both Trump and Clinton suporters in the US it makes me feel really uneasy because no person should agree with any politician’s policies to that extent. In that case I think people are blindly following a leader who may not genuinely stand for what’s best for them.

We all need to fight against those extremists. Whether they are conservative nut jobs, politically correct left-wing zombies, or (God help us all) feminazis!

The Power of Anecdotes

November 1, 2016 1 comment

I recently discussed a range of subjects with a quite intelligent and thoughtful religious person (yes, they do exist). These included topics such as whether “god did it” is a useful answer to questions we might have about the real world, what limitations science should have on the questions it attempts to answer, and the nature of morality.

Since I don’t have any particular religious view to defend I am open to look at all possibilities, but because of this I recognise that if I took all the possible sources of knowledge (all the religions, all the paranormal claims, all the philosophies, all the informal logic, and all the rigorous science) I would never arrive at any conclusion.

I would have to spend a lot of time carefully examining claims with little physical, objective evidence supporting them. I would have to reverse direction after taking a wrong turn because I followed misleading anecdotal evidence. I would spend so much time trying to collate all the various claims that I would have no time left to evaluate them.

That’s why anecdotes don’t count. In fact, everyone knows that anecdotes don’t count because they only look at a tiny proportion of them, specifically the ones which support the worldview the person favours. So a Christian will take a lot of notice of people who say they have been healed by Jesus but ignore claims of the power of crystals, or how a disease was cured after a person was abducted by aliens, or how the Asvins (Hindu gods of healing) helped a person who couldn’t be cured by conventional medicine.

I’m not saying all of these anecdotes are untrue, or that in a perfect world they shouldn’t be investigated. What I am saying is that an anecdote by itself has very little value. If we gave equal weight to all anecdotes in a fair way we would have to believe in a huge number of mutually incompatible ideas. We would have to believe dozens of gods were performing healings. We would have to believe in the power of crystals, of herbal remedies, of homeopathy, of alien interventions, and of hundreds of other things as well.

Just saying that (for example) Christian healing through the power of prayer is true but all the other stuff isn’t is classic cherry picking. If you believe in using anecdotes as evidence then you should believe all the anecdotes, not just the ones which agree with your preferred religion or new-age belief.

Or, you could believe none of them. And that is the far more rational approach that I take.

But we shouldn’t just totally dismiss anecdotes. If there is sufficient reason to think that a consistent pattern is emerging then the idea should be tested using more objective, systematic methodologies. I would suggest two approaches to testing whether the anecdotes have merit: first have an unbiased expert look at the evidence objectively; or second, set up a scientific experiment or trial of some sort.

For example, if a lot of people report that their health improves after friends and family pray to Jesus to help them (and remember that the Christian God will answer prayers according to numerous Bible verses such as John 15:7) then let’s test that claim. We know that people sometimes get better spontaneously, that they sometimes feel better because they think they should, and that there are many other confounding factors, so let’s test the claim using a double-blind trial.

And when we do we get very conflicting results. Most show no effect. Some show that the people prayed for get worse. Some show they get better. These are exactly the results we get when we test other ideas which have doubtful prior probability, such as homeopathy. Therefore, whatever the anecdotes tell us, we can say that our interim conclusion is that prayer offers no consistent solution to health problems. In other words faith healing and prayer don’t work.

Or, if we hear of an apparently miraculous cure of some sort, such as that attributed to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, then let’s have a closer look at the claims. It turns out in that case, that almost all the claims were untrue and that the conclusion that a miracle occurred is embarrassingly absurd (see my blog post “Sinner or Saint?” from 2016-09-07 for details). So we can reject that anecdote based on better evidence.

Remember, that these are interim results, but all results in science are interim so we shouldn’t treat them as any less certain than other conclusions reached in the same general area of human knowledge.

You might object and say that by dismissing anecdotes as evidence in themsleves that I potentially miss out on new discoveries. Well that is a risk I must take because if only one in a million anecdotes genuinely represent something new and real then I really can’t take any of them seriously and risk being mislead by the other 999,999. It’s that simple.