What are the Respect Rules when it comes to talking about other people's deeply held views? Then again, is that really the right question? Maybe we know those rules, and the real question is about breaking them. Humor and biting commentary are all about transgression. It can't be that all forms of transgression are completely beyond the pale.
I transgressed when I called A. A. Gill an idiot in yesterday's post. That seemed fine to me. This week Jon Stewart transgressed when he made fun of the Catholic Church's attempt to recruit Anglican bigots. That's got to be good, and I like this column by Randy Cohen saying we need more of that.
The question is how we should think about these transgressions. Are there any limits on them? What should we be thinking about when we decide whether to transgress? Here's a nice example of transgression I discovered when I dropped in on Pharyngula the other day--
Apparently Bill Donohue of the Catholic League thinks this is too much transgression and held a press conference about it. PZ Myers' response was this--
You know, I still have a stash of holy crackers. I might just have to escalate some more, just to witness Donohue's public meltdown, and make a point: nobody, especially anyone who is not Catholic, has to revere Catholic icons, and demanding that we do is only gonna get Jesus hurt some more.So we've got two positions carved out here. Bill Donohue: everyone must revere Catholic icons. PZ Myers: nobody has to revere Catholic icons.
First point. I think the clip is pretty funny. I don't think it's intolerably transgressive.
Second point. I think these guys are thinking about the issues in the wrong way. Contrary to Myers, I do think there's a prima facie duty to defer to other people's sensibilities. "Prima facie" means--at first glance. So the rule isn't absolute, but it's always in play. Sometimes a violation is "worth it" and sometimes a violation isn't. Contrary to what Donohue evidently thinks, every transgression isn't worth a big fuss.
The duty to defer to other people's sensibilities doesn't have anything particularly to do with religion. It's just an all purpose duty. A case in point: the other day I was driving to school to meet a student and wound up driving behind a funeral procession. A couple of police officers on motorcycles were keeping everyone behind the hearse and a line of about ten cars. Probably I could have gotten away with racing past the procession (there were a lot of lanes) and I could have honked as I passed the hearse and shouted an obscenity. I might have self-righteously thought: why should I have to revere other people's dead bodies? I didn't even know the guy! And besides, it was just his body! It's my right to value just what I value. Nobody can force me to adopt their point of view!
Obviously, this would be an overly individualistic stance. The sheer fact that X matters to other people is some reason for X to matter to me. Or rather, to be more precise, I ought to care about their feelings, preferences, satisfactions, frustrations. And that may sometimes mean I have to temporarily pretend to have their concerns, even if I really don't.
So: there really is a prima facie duty to defer to other people's sensibilities. Which means: no gratuitous peeing on pictures of Jesus [go back and watch the video!] or tossing out of communion wafers. But it's just "prima facie." You can violate the duty, if you have a good enough reason. Obviously, I could have raced past the funeral procession, if I'd been feeling chest pains. And where speech is the issue, you've got to be able to transgress to make important points. You've even got to be able to transgress just to make the general point that religion can be criticized. Or even just to look at something from a different angle, because that angle discloses something new and interesting. And if laughter is a fringe benefit of some new way of seeing, all to the good!
Still. There's a rule in play. Mockery is OK when the transgression is worth it, and not because we don't have to care about other people's icons.
Getting back to Mooney and PZ Myers: there are transgressions every day at Pharyngula. Mooney didn't make that up. The only serious question is whether they're worth it. Yes...no...maybe...but it's impossible to think this through if you start by dismissing other people's sensibilities.
Note: intro paragraph was edited 8/29/10.