Bablefish, God, Your truth, My Truth

In case you’ve never read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (the movie version is a pale, inadequate reflection of the zany brilliance of the book), I should explain that one of his inventions was a small fish you could stick in your ear that allowed you to understand anything said to you in any language.

Adams had the following comment:

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Adams wrote that long before the World Wide Web, but he could have been talking about it. This is yet another example of a science fiction writer able to realistically foresee the social consequences of a new technology. Some browsers now come with a built-in translation feature for converting the text of web pages into your default language. I expect that eventually somebody will come up with a plug-in that will handle speech as well. On top of that, in most countries now it’s fairly easy to get access to video feeds of news and entertainment from distant countries, even if you must put an illegal satellite dish on the roof to do it.

All over the planet people are getting online and watching the behavior of people living in societies with radically different social norms. This has been a shocking experience for many of them.

I happen to live in the United States, part of the West, for want of a better term. My wife and adult daughters make their own decisions, run their lives as they see fit, and go out in public dressed as they like.

Hundreds of millions of people on this planet, particularly in the Muslim world, see Western women like those in my family on their screens. They seem naked and brazen by their standards. Many viewers in non-Western societies are outraged. They feel that what they see going on in the West should not be permitted. They want it stopped.

In the United States, one is expected to affirm belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, preferably one of the traditional Judea-Christian flavors. (In some regions within the United States, Jesus is the only socially acceptable option.) The Gallup poll has for decades been tracking attitudes towards members of different demographics. Gallup has consistently found that potential voters given a list that includes Catholics, African Americans, Jews, Baptists, women, Mormons, Muslims, and gay people, tell pollsters that the category they would most refuse to vote for under any circumstances whatsoever is that of atheists. If you want to run for public office in the United States, the first thing you should do is to join a church.

Yet Americans who see news and entertainment from Europe are becoming aware that on the other side of the Atlantic religious faith doesn’t generally get the kind of unquestioned deference it does here. I recall a Doctor Who episode (originates in Great Britain) where a recorded announcement on a space platform that functioned as a transportation hub like an airport reminded travelers that weapons and religions (both items were considered dangerous) were not permitted on the station. Something like that would probably not have made the final cut on American television.

Devout Americans have realized that although you can certainly find devout believers in Western Europe if you look for them, religious faith there is often considered either an eccentric hobby pursued by a small minority or a museum piece hauled out of mothballs for weddings, funerals, and state occasions. Most of the native population ignores it most of the time, which drives the leadership of the establishment churches in those countries, who remember the good old days when they could get away with murder, nuts. Devout Americans don’t like the lack of public piety they see across the water and want something done about it. That’s why you get American missionaries in Europe. They are determined to somehow drag Europe kicking and screaming back to church.

In some places in the world, religious groups have gotten creative about silencing their critics. In Russia, where the Orthodox Church has again become a major political player since the collapse of the Soviet state, the lower house of the parliament just passed by a big margin a bill that makes it a felony to insult the feelings of religious believers. The penalty is three years in prison. (They also got a bill through that makes it a crime for parents to tell their children that gay people exist.)

Hurt feelings? That may be a bad translation for all I know, but I think what’s going on is that the Russian Orthodox Church is borrowing a tactic often used against people in Western academia who criticize Islam and some cultural practices sometimes associated with it such as female genital mutilation.

You accuse the critics of bigotry and claim that any criticism of Islam or cultures associated with it, however reasonable and polite, is a vicious, racist act. This works especially well with liberals, who are a lot more comfortable with the “well, there is your truth, and my truth, so there really isn’t any truth” cop out anyway.

(That reminds me of the joke about the freshman philosophy student who decided he was a solipsist and then wondered why there weren’t more of them.)

An awful lot of the rage and danger we are dealing with on the global stage is being driven by religion. Here is my recommendation for when people doing outrageous things use their religion as a justification and accuse you of bigotry for calling them on it: make a clear distinction between the person who believes in an idea, who is automatically entitled to a minimum of respect and courtesy, and the idea itself, which gets no more respect than it can win on the battlefield of ideas.

The Rules of the Game for Beginning a Civilized Global Argument About Religion in the Age of Bablefish:

1. Never, ever, say anything nasty to someone you disagree with about his or her sex, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnic background, social class, appearance, or physical or mental challenges. That stuff is strictly off limits in any sort of discussion or argument. Period.

2. You have a moral obligation to criticize the behavior of anyone who fails to observe rule number one.

3. A religion is a group of individuals who find true a particular set of related ideas affirming the existence of a supernatural agent, agents, or forces who must be appeased in some specific way. Those ideas are fair game for intelligent criticism. Just because the topic is religion, the ideas don’t deserve kid-glove treatment and their advocates shouldn’t be permitted lapses in logic or ordinary rules of evidence. For example, don’t expect to get away with saying that you have faith in something, so therefore it must be true. (Suppose you played the faith card to claim that peanuts were in telepathic contact with Thomas Jefferson?) Playing the faith card is just a way of admitting there is no reason whatsoever to believe what you do. Don’t cheat when you argue about ideas, but play hard. You can’t hurt the feelings of a theological system or a sacred text. There aren’t any feelings to hurt.


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