On Ann Coulter, Tolerance, and the Subjectivity of Morality

Ann Coulter, the conservative political commentator from the U.S., recently made a visit to Canada. First she visited my fine school, UWO, to talk then avoid questions and make a few racial slurs. Then she tried to talk at Ottawa, but backed down when she discovered a shocking truth: people here don’t really like her.

Everyone is talking about this. A lot of the discussion goes like this:

  • I support free speech.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak about you not wanting to speak.

Etc., forever. But such discussion isn’t really productive. I think we need to get more meta, and look at some higher-level questions that Coulter’s visit brings up:

1. Is indiscriminate tolerance a good thing?

2. If not, what should be tolerated, and what shouldn’t be?

3. Once we figure that out, what should we do with people we don’t tolerate?

These may seem like matters of opinion, or moral questions without any objective answers. For example, while most people, when pressed, would agree that the answer to #1 is “no,” they can agree to disagree on #2. Some think homosexuality is wrong, others think worshiping a false god is wrong, and that’s just their opinion. Same with #3; acting on those opinions, is it better to stage a peaceful protest, or “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”1? Some argue that’s a moral question with no precise answer.

I don’t buy that.

Some actions are objectively right and other things are objectively wrong, and it doesn’t take an omnipotent being writing rules on stone tablets for that to be true. When we disagree on which of two actions is best for humanity, one or both of us is wrong. An individual person is extremely unlikely to have all the answers, whether she is a priest or a physicist, but we should never deny that there are answers. And I believe that with enough time, science, and careful critical thought, many of these answers will be revealed to us.

In a recent TED talk, Sam Harris expresses a similar viewpoint (it’s well worth clicking and spending 20 minutes to watch this talk if you’re at all interesting in this stuff).

From the talk:

Now, it’s often said that science can not give us a foundation for morality and human values because science deals with facts. And facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It’s often thought that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.

The only wrinkle is defining morality to begin with, but I think the one Harris provides—maximizing the well being of conscious creatures—is one that most people (and if they could be asked, animals) would agree on. And the point is that for any definition of morality, there is an objective answer to moral questions.

So what about Ann Coulter? Well, I believe that free speech is objectively good. History has proven that the open flow of information from all sources maximizes human well being. I fully support her right to speak, and while you won’t find me out there protesting, I fully support their right to protest as well. But much of the content of her speech is objectively false. For example, should we invade countries and convert them to Christianity? No. The objective truth value of her Christian beliefs is questionable, plus the very act of violently converting people to any belief system is repugnant.

I am open to being proven wrong about my moral stance. However, while it’s nice to see people using Coulter as a staring point for discussing moral questions (even writing blog posts about it), part of me thinks her ideas are so comically evil that it would be better to just ignore her. After all, what’s worse: being scared off a campus by a group of peaceful protesters, or arriving without fanfare to an empty room, then leaving without selling a single book?

Regardless of whether it’s inspired by Coulter or not, we do need to keep questioning and requestioning our morals, because it is possible to find answers.

———-

1 Coulter, 2001.

P.S. This is kinda off topic, but another thing I have a problem with is making fun of Coulter’s physical appearance. Yeah she’s a celebrity and thus opens herself up to it to some extent. However, pointing out her adam’s apple because you disagree with her political stance is coming from the same base, ugly, immature side of human nature that her crass racial quips come from. Don’t stoop to her level.

P.P.S. Try putting anncoulter.ca into your web browser.

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Play TV Canada Pwned: Going Off the Air March 26th

Previously on MikeBattista.com: I complained about a televised scam called Play TV Canada, then examined the nature of the fraud in more detail, and got a response from Global Television.

Global never responded to a follow-up letter highlighting the inadequacy of their justifications. However, every weekend, thousands of people have Googled their way to this blog, and hundreds have commented (especially here), collaborating to find a way to stop these unscrupulous people.

Well, good news! A commenter named Jeremy received the following letter:

“We are in receipt of your letter via the CBSC regarding Global Television’s broadcast of Play-TV Canada, February 20th 2010, on Global Toronto (CIII). In your letter, you have expressed concerns regarding this show suggesting it may be a scamming game show, with no logical answers to impossible questions.

Let me begin by saying that as responsible broadcasters, we are sensitive to the members of our viewing audience and we apologize if this program has offended you. I assure you that it is neither Global’s nor the producer’s intention to do so. As of March 2010, our contract with Play TV will end and the show will no longer air on Global Television.”

He added:

LOL PWN I GOT THEM TO REMOVE THE MOTHER F*****KING SHOW YAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

March 26th they’re done.

I made them cancel their contract with them..
I’m a god!!!!!!!!!!!!

As of March 26th, Play TV Canada will no longer be airing. I’m sure this will be justified by falling ratings or other financial reasons. However, while I wouldn’t give this blog, or Jeremy, sole credit for Play TV’s downfall, I have no doubt that our collective complaining and bad publicity had an impact on the decision to end this contract.

A few people are worth singling out in this effort.

  • Jeremy, obviously, who complained and was kind enough to report back here.
  • Dave from CrimeBustersNow, who passion for exposing and taking down scams like this is personal and intense. We need more people like him around. See CBNow’s Post about Global and Play TV.
  • Lisa from Dublin, who brought information from the other, older front in this battle, Ireland. Over there, similar circumstances lead to Play TV’s downfall.

It looks like the next battle site is South Africa. There is a discussion forum for it here, and obviously people are welcome to continue using the comments here as a venue for discussion. Dave suggests further action here in Canada as well, such as trying to push for criminal charges. While I’m not sure about going that far, it is worth considering if you have the time and motivation.

Thanks to everyone who has followed and participated in this international effort. Score one for the good guys.

Book Review: Marvellous Hairy, by Mark A. Rayner

The copy on the back of Marvellous Hairy bills it as a novel about a man who is turning into a monkey. However, it goes far beyond that. The story revolves around a giant, evil corporation nicknamed Gargantuan Enterprises and the people who want to bring it down, then before you know it, there are ghosts, kidnapping, lizards, sex, and drugs thrown in for good measure.

Let me make a confession: I don’t find monkeys inherently funny. Their similarity to humans is amusing, sure, but it’s been overdone. Given the premise of Marvellous Hairy, I was a bit worried that its humour would rely on “anything is funny if you mention the word monkey alongside it” school of thought. Luckily, its absurdity is only partially monkey-based, and it delivers some genuine funny. Many scenes had me smirking as hard as I have at any Douglas Adams novel (yeah, just smirking; it takes a lot for me to physically LOL at text).

A lot of the books I’ve reviewed recently, they’ve been trashily entertaining (see: Charlaine Harris), or had great ideas despite mediocre writing (see: Cory Doctorow). But Rayner is actually a damn good writer. Every paragraph is packed with clever wordplay and subtle allusions. E.g., “He had long greasy black hair that clung to his head like an octopus humping his skull” (ok ok, maybe not always subtle).

Not all is warm and fuzzy. The novel could have used some edits; the language can be wordy, the plot takes a while to get going, and a certain subplot doesn’t feel like it fully connects with the rest of the story. Also, the quasi-omnipotent first-person narrative is jarring, especially when it needs to be explained, though it does add to the surreal bizarreness of the whole thing.

That is where Marvellous Hairy shines: it is such a bizarre barrel of words that you can’t help but have fun reading it. Mark (full disclosure: I can go all first-name-basis because we’ve met IRL) recently tweeted that his next novel may be even sillier, and if that’s the case, I can’t wait to get my paws on whatever he comes up with.