Burn after reading

Alex Stewart has had his 15 minutes of fame, but may live to regret it. Earlier this week he posted a video on Youtube. It showed him smoking lawn-clipping cigarettes that were fashioned out of pages torn from the Bible and the Koran. He compared the taste “scientifically” and was statistically astute enough to regret not having smoked a page of Bertrand Russell’s complete works as a control.

Who is Alex Stewart? He is a prominent member of Brisbane Atheists. But he pays his bills as a lawyer associated with QUT. The MSM have described him as a “staffer” at QUT, as a “legal researcher”, as a  QUT commercial contracts lawyer and even as a “professor.” I could not locate him on the QUT law school website.  But whatever his role, he is certainly on the QUT payroll. Because QUT have announced that Stewart “has since decided to go on leave for an unspecified period”. On the Brisbane Athesits website, Stewart says he expects to be sacked.

The video has been deleted from Youtube but you can see it HERE. He seems like an intelligent enough and reasonably spoken fellow. Though the video is a little slow moving. I was expecting something more confronting.

So why did he do it and why did he post it? Clearly he posted it to reach a wide audience with his views. However, the video does not contain a coherent explanation of why he is doing what he is doing. However, one might reasonably infer from his membership of Brisbane Atheists that he thinks both sacred texts are bollocks. After rating the Bible a better smoke than the Koran, he points out that they are both “just books” and that people who get offended should “just get over it”. But in a less dogmatic comment that was not reported in the MSM, he also says that

“I don’t think (smoking holy books is) completely appropriate unless it’s done for a good purpose, which I would say I’ve done today.”

So, he is not being offensive just for the sake of it. I surmise that the whole purpose of the stunt is to challenge the authority of holy text per se, which is to assert the primacy of informed personal analysis over received wisdom. You would reckon that University’s would be predisposed towards a similar view. You would unfortunately be wrong.

QUT Vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake, in classic damage control, said:

“The university is obviously extremely, extremely unhappy and disappointed that this sort of incident should occur…”

without analysing exactly what sort of incident this was. I suspect that it is the sort of incident that might be reported in certain countries that QUT source full fee paying students from. Registrar Dr. Carol Dickenson released a statement that “QUT is tolerant of all religions and does not condone damage to any religious artefacts.”  This is a tricky misuse of words. No “artifact” is being destroyed. We are not losing anthropological heritage. The books Stewart smokes are legally bought and sold copies owned by him and there are hundreds of millions of copies in existence.

The reaction of the Anglican Church was more sanguine than QUT. Spokesman Dean Peter Catt labeled it a stunt that on one level was humorous and also encouraged people not to take offense. God bless him. Sheik Muhammad Wahid, president of the Islamic Association of Australia said the actions were “deeply hurtful to Muslims” but urged them to “turn the other cheek”. The blessings of Allah on him also, though it is a worry that he feels it necessary to counsel against retaliation.

Did Stewart break any anti-vilification laws? The fact that he desecrated books from two religions would seem to narrow the potential victim group to all people of faith, rather than one ethnic-religious group. Queensland Council for Civil Liberties President Michael Cope says that, in his view, nothing he did contravenes the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act. He also offers the opinion that Stewart’s stunt should not be an offense. Queensland police are not investigating the matter.

People will argue that he has shown a lack of respect for the views of people of faith. This argument mangles syntax. How can you show respect for a view? Respect is applied to people, not views.  At some point, the verb respect started being applied to abstract nouns (like the “war on terror”).  I have no respect for views that I consider wrong. I just think they are wrong. How can anyone respect falsehood? Moreover, if someone has enough views that I think are wrong, I lose respect for the person as well. I might still pretend to have respect, simply because society has to function with the minimum amount of friction. But if someone asks me my opinion about them, I will offer a negative one. So saying that atheists should respect religious views is, by my analysis, an abuse of language.

Neither is disrespecting someone for their religion a form of unfair discrimination. Orwell lives. Discrimination seems to have lost any qualifier such as “racial” or “sexual”, and discrimination itself is now considered unethical.  How did we move away from the core issue of racial discrimination to the general fear of giving offense? Acting negatively towards black people is wrong for several reasons. First, it makes no difference whether someone is black or not. Second, even if it did they cannot help being black and cannot change it. Third, no one can argue that blackness hurts anyone. Religion is not like that. It is relevant to someone’s character and core beliefs. It is voluntary. And it can at least be argued that it has hurt people in the past and even that it continues to be a focus of violence in the present. When did it become discriminatory to not respect a set of beliefs for an articulated reason? Carried to its logical conclusion, if you do not respect extreme libertarians you are a discriminatory bigot. If you burn the works of their prophet Hayek you are a discriminatory bigot.

A commenter at the SMH who was critical of Stewart said:

“No one burns a Koran because they want to burn ‘pages printed with ink’. They burn it because they want to challenge or violate the ideology behind the book.”

Quite so, and there is nothing wrong with that in my view. We are allowed to challenge ideology. More to the point, Stewart burnt both the Koran and the Bible, so he is challenging the ideology behind sacred books in general. If this is not publicly acceptable, then we are in very, deep trouble.

I really hope that the PR consultants at QUT do not convince the university to sack him. However, I suspect they will. If they do, can I encourage all Tropodillians to send an email to the principle policy advisor to the Vice Chancellor of QUT,  Dr Lawrence Stedman, whose email is [email protected]? I certainly have mine composed and ready.

Just for the record, I would not label myself an atheist. Nevertheless, I am very much with Voltaire on this one. Stewart should not face any consequences so that we can all feel free to challenge cherished notions. Finally, it is a sad comment on our times that I feel obliged to add the following: The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and in no way represent the views of Melbourne Business School.

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11 Responses to Burn after reading

  1. ghoul says:

    One would think the best way to “assert the primacy of informed personal analysis” would be to conduct such an analysis, not to destroy an unread book. Seems more like he is expressing contempt for the beliefs of Muslims and Christians in a very lazy and self-aggrandising way. I’d expect that to be a sacking offense at a university.

  2. Ken Parish says:

    I generally agree with your observations Chris, with one important caveat. It would be appropriate for QUT to discipline Stewart if he himself publicised his association with/employment by the University to bolster the apparent authority of his opinion/action or to draw greater attention to it. On the other hand, if the media somehow sleuthed out his employer’s identity there would be no proper basis for employer concern (and action for wrongful termination of employment might be a prospect if Stewart is in fact sacked).

    Academics may properly specify their university association when commenting publicly on matters within their general area of academic expertise, but should not otherwise bill their association lest they give the impression that they are speaking with the university’s authority.

    When I write a letter to the editor expressing my personal opinions on general issues I certainly don’t sign it “Ken Parish, Charles Darwin University”.

  3. Chris Lloyd says:

    Fair point Ken and I should have mentioned it in the post, which was already a little long winded.

    I listened to about 75% of the video and he does not mention QUT. If he mentioned QUT then they would have a legal case. And I would expect that Stewart know his rights.

    But why would QUT sack him even in this instance? Universities are not-for-profit whose only reason for existence is public interest. They should stop worrying about their brand image in the minds of potentials students, and just concentrate on doing the key things well. QUT should worry about their core business – education, research and informed public comment.

  4. observa says:

    I say those who advocate due deference to Rainbow Serpents and mumbo jumbo about the Dreamtime are just as sorry a lot as those paying due deference to Korans and Bibles and if I mock any of them I’m not being racist. In fact quite the contrary and those who wish me to pay due special deference to such mumbo jumbo are the racists by their very own logic if they say I am. Got a problem with that Chris?

  5. Paul Frijters says:

    good post, Richard, with which I mostly agree.

    The one area I disagree with is the notion that you cannot respect views. Yes, the use of the word respect has changed over time, but language is never stagnant so that’s not a good argument. Respecting views does not mean you agree with a view, but rather that you will, in order to keep the piece, pretend you are not completely sure that the other’s point of view is wrong, i.e. you play a pantomime for their sake. Both may know that you actually disagree with the view, but the other is allowed to pretend to himself and others that you do not. Whenever someone fat tells you they are thin and you keep your mouth shut and smile, you practice such a form of respect for a view! Not playing the pantomime is a form of social disobedience and thus an act of psychic violence (other people’s pet fantasies are demolished which will invariably have an element of hurt to it). The point is not that this kind of activity is not disrespectful to views and people (it is), but rather that universities should be places where that kind of disrespect is accepted and even encouraged, as long as it adheres to the social norms of academia, i.e. arguably fits into a search for truth and openness. The idea that academia should keep out of matters of religious faith is medieval. Having seen the video though, its not all that academic. But then, QUT does have a thriving group of artists.

    I predict QUT will give him a hefty payout to get rid of him.

  6. Chris Lloyd says:

    Observa, publicly disrespecting dreamtime myths would be directed at one specific and disadvantaged ethnic group. It seems to me that one would only do this out of malice, since aboriginal spiritual beliefs do not have much influence on our everyday life. So even though I think their beliefs are nonsense and possibly self harming, I would have a problem with publicly making fun of them. That said, I would not support any legal sanction provided the beliefs rather than the people were ridiculed.

    Paul, I think you inadvertently make my point. When we are arguing with somebody one-on-one, we will often pretend to have more respect for the argument than we do. In this case, we are actually showing respect for the person, not the view. In our own minds we are thinking “what a lot of crap!” If we are arguing against a particular view in the public domain, then any comments are not directed against a particular person who we may have to meet at work tomorrow, then there is no need to show respect. The only aim of public argument should be to convince. Ridicule and symbolic action can be a powerful rhetorical device, not that I am saying the book burning was at all persuasive. And I suspect that Stewart is not really hoping to convince anyone, and is letting off steam.

    I also disagree that the meaning of words just passively “change over time.” Sometimes there are deliberate forces at work. And in the case of the showing “respect for views” there is a clear pomo, all cultures are equal, let’s hold hands and meditate agenda. As Orwell first suggested, once you have a common phrase for something the concept starts to take root.

  7. James Farrell says:

    The discussion about to what extent we should ‘respect’ other people’s views just highlights what a complex question it is.

    On the one hand, there’s obviously a large kernel of practical wisdom in the maxim: in a lot of cases feelings are hurt, enmities aggravated, misunderstanding prolonged and so one, when we mock and ridicule other’s opinions. On the other hand, if it’s not easy to pin down what ‘respecting’ an opinion means when you think it’s completely wrong. In between, there’s a huge grey area.

    In the first place we need to distinguish matters of taste, preference and value from matters of fact. I might not like rap music, niqabs, social inequality, or laundry hanging on balconies, but it’s possible to imagine that some sane and decent people will opt for those things, and we can still be friends.

    It’s more difficult when it comes to matters of fact, especially when different views have different consequences. But when does a fact become sufficiently uncontroversial that I can express disdain about it — and thereby implicitly toward the persone who holds it? That astrology is without foundation? Homeopathy? 7-11 conspriracies? Christianity? Global warming?

    At what point, in each of these cases, is it OK to say to the beleiver’s face: your belief is plainly misguided? Is it going a significant step further to say it’s bunk? That it’s nonsense?

  8. Chris Lloyd says:

    James. You point out that feelings can be hurt and enmities aggravated. In a PUBLIC discussion, it all comes down to debating tactics. There is an audience to be swayed. It is often but not always effective to ridicule the opposition viewpoint. You do not care about whether your debating opponent’s feelings will be hurt. It is all part of the glorious contest of ideas.

    Discussions around the Xmas dinner table are quite different. They are personal and part of a continuing relationship, or as the economist would call it a “repeated game.” You wonder when one can say things to the “believers face.” This is in the realm of manners, not public discourse. I state again, and with more confidence than I started, that respect is due to people, not views. In a personal exchange, respect for the person can trump contempt for the view.

  9. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    It is interesting that the thread has turned to a discussion of speech and ‘respectful’ speech. I think talk about ‘speech’ and the question (and meaning of) ‘respect’ are red-herrings. It will be recalled that Stewart did not merely speak. He performed an action – namely, he burned books. Such an action had entirely different connotations to merely speaking one’s mind.

    Chris wrote that

    one might reasonably infer … that he thinks both sacred texts are bollocks. … [Stewart] points out that they are both “just books” and that people who get offended should “just get over it”.
    So, he is not being offensive just for the sake of it. I surmise that the whole purpose of the stunt is to challenge the authority of holy text per se, which is to assert the primacy of informed personal analysis over received wisdom.

    I can think of a much more effective and less offensive way for Stewart to express his purpose. He could have just said, “both sacred texts are bollocks and informed personal analysis is better than received wisdom”.

    But he didn’t do that, so I don’t think he was in fact interested in effectively express that view at all. And I think he didn’t do it because (a) no-one would have been offended by it, and (b) thus he would have remained as obscure as he previously was. His purpose then, I surmise, was purely to offend people.

    Now, who was he trying to offend? Anyone even vaguely aware of religions will know that it would not be overly offensive to most Christians to burn a Bible because it does not, strictly speaking, constitute revelation from God. That’s Jesus’s job, not the Bible’s. It was not intended to offend orthodox Jews because although for them the Torah is the revealed word of God, burning a Christianised Old Testament just won’t do it. (One would have to acquire and burn a hand-written scroll from a synagogue.) That leaves us with the Muslims. Ah, yes, the Muslims. Now these people are going to get distressed and offended.

    But why will this distress them? Surely it is not just ‘the message’ that it allegedly sends – that, according to Stewart, its contents are nonsense. We know it is not that, because (a) most Muslims don’t know or care about some obscure Queensland academic’s personal views, and (b) they hear and read about that all the time and they don’t get overly upset. It’s the act of burning the Qur’an that is all-important. Perhaps an analogy will help make sense of it.

    When I sit with a student and mark their essay, if I find it has made some terrible mistakes, I could respond in different ways. I could explain to them where they went wrong and why. Or I could rip up the their essay in front of their face, tell them that the ideas expressed in it are moronic, and that therefore they are a moron. Which option do you think would be distressing and offensive to the student?

    Now, for a Muslim student, doing the latter to their essay (and to them) is an utter triviality compared to doing that to the Qur’an. For most Muslims, their relationship with the Qur’an is a deeply personal one. Burning it is psychologically akin to burning one of their children alive in front of their eyes.

    So, if you can imagine Stewart taking one of your children, setting them on fire, videoing it, and then posting it on youtube for you to watch – while making the point that he is doing it because he thinks your child spouts bollocks – then you’ll know how many Muslims would feel if they saw Stewart’s actual video. And you’ll also understand why the advice to “just get over it” is not merely flip and irrelevant to Muslims, but is itself offensive.

  10. Chris Lloyd says:

    Edward, If Stewart had any history of publically baiting Muslims you might have a point. But I think his only interest is in atheism.

    Your analogy with feedback on a student essay misses the mark. That is a personal interaction with a definite aim. I have already argued that public discourse is different. If you want to argue they are the same you can try. But you will struggle. For instance, when I give a public lecture to several hundred people, they have to shut up and not interrupt. One-on-one is different. Different fora, different rules.

    Your suggestion that, for Muslims, burning the Koran is like burning their children, sounds like an extreme stereo-type to me. I expect and hope that many Muslims would take a more modern approach. I think that many atheists, or even just moderate agnostics, would find the comparison of burning a book with burning a child offensive. So there you go. You have offended my sense of humanity. And I will just have to get over it.

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