Not an entirely benign form of expression

Apr 04 2011 Published by under Politics, Uncategorized

In light of recent events, I'd like to repost this piece on book burning, originally from September 9, 2010. --PalMD


This week's post on book burnings spurred some interesting discussion (h/t Simon Owens).  One thread of these discussions is the nature of book burning itself.  From a completely ahistorical perspective, book burning is simply "speech".  The burning of a book by a private citizen, or group of citizens, is simply an act of expression akin to writing an editorial or giving a speech.  In the legal sense, this is probably true, and should be.  Anyone should be allowed to burn a book, a flag, a cracker---anything they want in accordance with local laws (e.g. ordinances regarding such things as fire, not designed to limit speech).

But book burning has a history, a context. State-sponsored book burnings in Nazi Germany may be the most extreme manifestation, but book burning as a way to intimidate and to "erase" ideas has a long history.  Just as publishing and disseminating ideas is a powerful tool, physically destroying these is both powerful and violent. While many literate people find abhorrent the idea of burning a book because of the ideas it contains, they may consider it a quirky but mostly-harmless form of expression.

It is not.

Book burning is a violent and threatening act.  This isn't to say it should be outlawed, but it must be acknowledged.  As with any such act, context is also important.  If I were to burn a journal of mine from seventh grade, no one would care.  But a pubic destruction of, say, the Qur'an is very different.  It is also different from the infamous "Crackergate" of PZ Myers.  Dr. Myers intentionally "desecrated" a communion wafer, and while this was offensive to many Catholics (and I found it personally distasteful) it did not create a significant threat.

Catholics are not a "despised minority" in the U.S.  It is unlikely that the public desecration of something Catholic would lead to an existential threat to the Catholic population (something that was very different a century ago when Catholics, especially Irish and southern Europeans, were systematically discriminated against).  This doesn't make Crackergate "OK", but it puts it on a different level in a continuum of intolerance.

Muslims, on the other had, are at risk.  The anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. continues to escalate, creating real fear and real harm.  The planned Qur'an burning in Florida flames this hatred.  It creates a real threat to a minority already under siege.

And I find hatefully disingenuous those who say, "but Muslims aren't doing enough to stop terrorism!"  What is my friend and colleague who is a Muslim from Karachi supposed to do about "terrorism"?   She is already against violence. Is she supposed to join the Marines?  Is she supposed to give up her career and tour the country denouncing terrorism simply because someone who shares a (at least arguably) similar religious background did something bad?

Hateful, threatening acts like book burning must be called what they are: bigoted, evil, violent.

26 responses so far

  • Vicki says:

    The complaints about "not doing enough" are, I think, from what someone several years ago labeled the "101st Keyboard Warriors," who would accuse their political opponents of cowardice from nice, safe places where the most they did to "fight terrorism" was take Dubya's advice to go shopping.

    Along similar lines, a friend of mine is homeschooling her daughter because she doesn't trust the local public schools. People sometimes tell her she should, instead, be working to improve those schools; maybe so, but how much are they, themselves, doing in that direction? It's easier for most people to tell someone else to make a large sacrifice than to make a small one themselves.

  • [...] Quick Links Posted on September 9, 2010 by Bora Zivkovic| Leave a comment A few for now, more posts by me soon, I promise: Not an entirely benign form of expression [...]

  • James Sweet says:

    Those are generally in line with my thoughts, though my priorities are all re-arranged from yours 🙂 The biggest issue for me is that PZ was trying to make a point, whereas this guy is just saying he hates Muslims. Even if you disagree with PZ's point or find his methods distasteful, he at least had a clear unambiguous message which was communicated via the action: Non-Catholics are not compelled to respect Catholics symbols.

    If the Florida pastor were burning Qurans in order to protest, let's say, the taking of child brides in some Islamic sects, with supposedly Quranic justification, it would be more complicated. We would still have the issue, as you mention, that the history of book-burning imbues the protest with violent overtones; as well as the practical issue of backlash. But at least I think there could be wiggle room to argue that it wasn't hate speech.

    Ironically, even if his point was, "People shouldn't get so upset about the Quran being burned", I would have at least some sympathy for the protest. I certainly would agree with the sentiment. But as long as his point is that "Islam is bad", this can only be viewed as violent act of bigotry.

    Obviously I support the First Amendment right to do it of course.

    • Isabel says:

      "Non-Catholics are not compelled to respect Catholics symbols."

      But it's the respectful thing to do in a Catholic church. PZ's actions were appalling. He acted like a 13-year-old and obviously was driven by his hatred for the church rather than real concern for the kid, whose life wasn't exactly being threatened. Imagine going into a mosque or any other place of worship and disrespecting any symbols no matter how valid the point being made!

      I guess the Jews are safe now in the US, like the Catholics are. Can we at least talk about them Pal? Since we can openly disrespect Catholics now and all? Oh wait I think I already crossed the line!

  • Maryn says:

    Thank you. I clicked over to your post after reading PZ's, and especially his commenters' replies, and being deeply disappointed by their lack of real-world understanding. Thanks for clarity and historical and moral context.

  • [...] Not an entirely benign form of expression Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Books That Are Made for BurningHonor Bound4) Reasons to Praise God: Book Burnings??? [...]

  • Donna B. says:

    "And I find hatefully disingenuous those who say, “but Muslims aren’t doing enough to stop terrorism!” "

    sheesh... yet it's not disingenuous to say that conservatives are not doing enough to stop bigots.

    It's also disingenuous to say that bigotry matters less if it's directed at a "safe" group.

    OK... I'm going to revert to my policy of not commenting on your political posts now!

  • BikeMonkey says:

    No sale, PalMD. You are having to do some mighty fine parsing to get this to work. Remember that PZ dumped pages from the Koran in his trashcan? No?

    And how long ago were Catholics a persecuted minority? A generation or less. Why was Kennedy's election so controversial again?

    And how about those teabagger rallies? Lotta hate, intimidation and barely contained violence there too- you gonna violate their 1st Amendment rights too?

    You and Ed Vrayton missed the mark on this one. PZ is at least reasonably consistent...

    • PalMD says:

      I'm willing to consider that perhaps---but only perhaps---there is a relationship between desecrating the communion wafer and burning the Koran. But not the relationship PZ thinks there is.

      And I don't give out cookies for consistency.

    • Dianne says:

      Remember that PZ dumped pages from the Koran in his trashcan?

      And a few pages of "The God Delusion" (IIRC). Oddly, it was only the Catholics who came after him, not either the Muslims or the atheists. So whose the fanatics? At least in the US it's most often Christians.

      As far as I can tell, PalMD isn't suggesting making it illegal to burn the Koran (or any other book) just pointing out the implications of the act and why it's not a good way to protest terrorism, Islam, or anything else.

      Incidentally, there's a guy right now driving a truck covered with crosses and signs saying things like, "Repent or die America" and slogans against abortion, homosexuality and Islam around the block in front of 51 Park. I guess they've given up on pretending to be neutral non-relgious types only interested in stopping terrorism.

  • Caro says:

    I just don't like the burning of books. Doesn't matter what kind of book, really. You just don't burn books. It's evil. It shows your argument is so weak that you have to theatrically destory your opponent's argument in an attempt to save face.

    Still, I don't think religious texts are any holier than any other texts. Knowledge is important anyway.

  • PalMD says:

    It's not the books, it's the act designed to intimidate a certain part of the population.

    • Exactly. It seems to me that a lot of commenters are ignoring the context, not to mention the rather large difference between saying "this is wrong" and "I should have the power to stop this". Calling this rally for what it is is not infringing on anyone's rights.

  • Julian Frost says:

    There is a quote about book burning that I feel is applicable. Unfortunately I do not remember the name of the person who said it:
    "Where they burn books, they will also eventually burn people."

  • Epinephrine says:

    So, should it be legal to intimidate or foment hatred against a portion of the population? It's not legal here (in Canada) - you can go ahead and burn a book, or a flag, but you can't get people together and incite violence or hatred. I'm not saying that it's better; it opens the door to certain types of oppression of speech and expression, but it does so in favour of protecting vulnerable populations. I tend to think that it's a reasonable trade, though then you have people trying to say that it is hate speech to say that there is no God, or trying to get everything offensive to them labeled hate speech (which is why it is specific to inciting hatred and violence).

    Burning a book isn't evil - it's paper and ink. Intimidating people, however, is.

    Burning a holy book isn't evil (you may disagree, but it's still just paper and ink), but being willing to commit violence over a book (or flag) being burned is a sign of some serious problems. Nationalism and religion are two of the greatest threats to peace. I'd burn a flag every day, along with a copy of every holy book I can think of, just to make that point - that when we make symbols of ourselves out of flags and books we react inappropriately. That's the point of "Crackergate" - not to hate Catholics, but to point out how ludicrous the reactions to the whole thing were.

    Getting riled up and putting a media spotlight on a racist with all of 50 people in his church is idiotic. He should have been ignored by the media, laughed at in his impotence.

  • jre says:

    Re/ "not doing enough to stop terrorism":

    See John Oliver's reasoned insistence to Jon Stewart that every Jew on planet Earth must disavow a hilariously grotesque act described in Portnoy's Complaint:

    "Wolf Blitzer, where are you on frosting the liver?"

    I propose the same tactic be applied every time we hear "not doing enough yada yada":

    Then, sir, are you willing to publicly denounce the Republican practice of boiling babies and making them into golf tees? Yes or no?

  • [...] already argued that burning  books is a form of expression that carries a lot of baggage.  You may feel like a despised minority due to your atheism, but I gotta tell you, from my [...]

  • A. Marina Fournier says:

    "But a pubic destruction of, say, the Qur’an is very different."
    Em, unfortunate error. Trust an editor to notice.

    I agree with Caro's statement about burning books. Destroying knowledge recorded perhaps only in one scroll, in one book--that's criminal in my mind. Destroying books in order to get at The Other is terrorism, and criminal.

    "Just as publishing and disseminating ideas is a powerful tool, physically destroying these is both powerful and violent."

    an it makes me nauseated and fearful. I can't even stand the publishers' current practice about getting unsold books' covers-only returned--it destroys something they don't value that could have ended up with someone who did. It's selfish and shortsighted and slipperyslopish.

    I honor genuine religious sentiment and belief. You may pick at me on my definition or perception of "genuine", but that's your issue, not mine.

    I believe in Interfaith work. I believe practitioners of the world's religions have more in common than they do in differences. I believe lasting peace will come when parents and people with the future of children in mind come together to throw off old feuds and hatreds, having seen they bring no constructive solution, but only continual destruction. It takes love united and a lot of work.

    I am willing to do that work. As a Wiccan, I have no holy book, no given-by-deity set of guidelines for everyday life. There is "what you do comes back to you threefold", "and you harm none, do as you will", and"if what you seek is not found within, it will never be found outside of you". There is the Golden Rule, enlightened self-interest, and being a part of all Creation, no matter which Deity or theory you hold for same.

    As an Interfaither, I hope to see willing cooperation amongst the world's religions, with none being suppressed by another, that we each understand our brains are too small to encompass the Totality of what Deity is. I'll figure out at some point what to agree to with atheists and agnostics and secular humanists--but I think they would agree that world peace is more than a rose, and worth working towards.

  • Katharine says:

    "that we each understand our brains are too small to encompass the Totality of what Deity is."

    Which is 'nonexistent'.

  • I saw this post because Josh Rosenau recently linked to it - and I agree with your main points in many ways, Pal.

    "Hateful, threatening acts like book burning must be called what they are: bigoted, evil, violent."

    Yes - book burning is all of those things. But it isn't equivalent to murder as has happened to UN workers in Afghanistan in the past week. It's not ignoring historical resonances and the ugliness of this act of communication and expression to note it's still less heinous than beheading and murder.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Burning books. Burning crosses.

    It's all speech, and sometimes the speech is saying, "I'm gonna get you, suckah!"

  • James Sweet says:

    Since you're reposting this in light of the recent events... It's worth noting that this time around, Jones' protected-but-very-douchey act of "expression" didn't generate a huge amount of domestic press. In other words, closer to the amount of attention he deserves (hint: zero). If I held a mock trial of the Koran in my dining room and then burned a copy, nobody would care, and there certainly wouldn't be 12 dead UN workers. If only we could get the media to stop giving these kooks a pulpit.

    But like I say, the domestic media did a little better this time around -- and it would probably have faded into obscurity had it not been for Karzai's dumb-ass speech and the subsequent rabble-rousing by a few angry mullahs. Those folks have blood on their hands.

    • James Sweet says:

      Though I do have to say, I think that in a perfect world (I recognize Afghanistan is not bound by the US Constitution, hahaha) even Karzai's idiot proclamation, which was so obviously going to result in senseless violence, ought to be protected speech. Not sure about the mullahs, because we don't know precisely what was said... You certainly can't say, "Now everybody storm out of here and go storm the UN building!", that's not protected speech anywhere, nor should it be. I'm sure it wasn't that blatant, but who knows...

  • I am still having trouble with this one. The major components going through my head:

    1) The Koran, or Qu'ran, or however we're spelling it now, is not sacred to me. Even if it were, it's just a thing. People are more important than things.

    2) That pastor in Florida is an idiot. He's not making the point that objects are not more important than people, no matter what magic people believe lies within them; he's attacking a group of people from the safety of thousands of miles away using the most hurtful and inflammatory way he can think of.

    3) I frickin' HATE book burning. Any book.

    4) But, even so, it's not like he was rounding up all of the copies in Florida and burning them. This isn't about censorship.

    I'm not sure I see a 'right' answer in here anywhere. I wish people would just grow up.

  • A. Marina Fournier says:

    I do my best not to *actively* blashpheme other religions, their practices or their holy objects. I will not always succeed--sometimes just who I am, how I was reared, how/that I was educated, or what I believe is blasphemous, passively IMNSHO, to believers of another religion. That I can't or won't change.

    I can also side with secular humanists.