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On the nature of defiance

When a thug or a bully or a terrorist is threatening you to stop you doing something they don’t like, not doing it is not defying them, it is submitting to them. Even if you otherwise would not, to defy them you must do the very thing they are forbidding. You must do it just because they threatened you. If you don’t, they will not be fooled by your high falutin’ excuses. They will know that you did not dare. And so will you.

Publishing worthy articles about free speech, tweeting that you are Charlie, drawing cartoons of pens confronting swords, standing around with your fellow world leaders, these are all worthy gestures of revulsion. None of them are acts of defiance. Defiance would be publishing the cartoons, tweeting the cartoons, drawing Mohammed and standing around with your fellow world leaders holding up the very editions of Charlie Hebdo for which their artists were slain.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. Assuming that your characterisation of defiance is correct (and I think it’s contentious), then the next move is not to commit to this form of defiance immediately but to question whether defiance is the appropriate response at all.

    I would argue that it is not because, in this instance, it would not amount to a supreme act of free speech in combat with censorship; it would in fact corral people into choosing one form of submission to censorship over another: to collectively reprint the cartoons is to commit an act of speech which gives primacy to one person’s ideas – the cartoonist’s – which is not only a monopoly on thought but is also potentially at the expense of your own ideas and their freedom if you would not have endorsed that speech prior to any threat being made. No matter what the immediate moral or political context is, if the proposed action is that you must speak one thing and not anything else, regardless of your approval of its content, then you are, as a matter of fact, having your freedom curtailed.

    This is where I would circle back and claim that your notion of defiance must be wrong because it allows only submission to the same nefarious demands on speech and identity as the original threat. To properly defy a threat against free speech, one must be properly free to say truly anything, and that includes silence and condemnation of the cartoons, as well as endorsement and repetition of them. If you are ever in a position where you are telling people what they must say if they are to be true to the concepts of liberty and democracy, then you fundamentally misunderstand the nature of honest freedom.

  2. Thank you for your view, Dr Shackel, but I would like to add a little nuance.
    I agree that neither I nor the several million or so others marching in the streets of Paris or elsewhere in France were heroic today, and in this sense we were not “defiant”.
    But to describe us as simply expressing gestures of revulsion seriously misses the point : revulsion there certainly is, and deserves to be, but the march went way beyond that. It was an embodiment of a spirit that would not seek simplistic solutions, would not accept stigmatisation of racial, religious or other differences, would not rush into liberticidal repression to “defend” liberty, would not walk in fear, would refuse to allow subjects to be off-limits for satire … in short, would not let terrorism set the agenda. (I only hope this spirit holds)

    “If this is so,” you may ask, “why not brandish the Mahomet cartoons?”.
    The short answer is that, as you may have noticed, the majority of the victims had no connexion at all with the cartoons in question, were killed because they were Jewish, or police officers or others just doing their job… Holding up old cartoons would be a pretty inappropriate response to this.

  3. On the other hand, it might be that the thing you otherwise would not do (or you did) is not very nice, even if not of course not as wrong as the terrorists or bullies threatening you with violence (and actually carrying out the threats).

    Some people believe that the cartoons were offensive, racism and had little value; they also believe that freedom of speech is very important and their publication should not have been censored by the state or threats of violence, but it would have been better if they had not been published;

    Should they do something they consider wrong (but not to be banned or punished) then by sharing the cartoons to ‘defy’ the terrorists? Isn’t this a bit self-serving even if the end goal is the laudable defense of freedom of speech?

    If the goal is just to make the terrorists and bullies as angry as possible, that seems more like ‘spite’ than defiance to me.

  4. Thank you for commenting on the attacks. I agree with your conclusion but I feel the reasoning behind it is not completely convincing. You say:

    “Even if you otherwise would not, to defy them you must do the very thing they are forbidding. You must do it just because they threatened you.”

    From a strategic point of view that is not the best response for this scenario, since doing the opposite of what someone tells you to do is also a way of being controlled by them. Upon perceiving that reaction pattern, a slightly craftier bully/terrorist could proceed to forbid you from doing certain things while his final goal was, all along, that you actually did them.

    In my opinion a simple formula to deal with threats is to make the bully/terrorist understand that harassing the victim will cost him more than leaving them alone would – so essentially game theory math.
    That may take the form of sanctions against governments that fund such terrorists groups, for example. Or it could be something like widespread discussion and defense of freedom of speech, followed by worldwide republishing of the cartoons that should have been censored, as well as Muslim leaders joining the anti-terrorist protests – all of which happened this week. These events are costly for the terrorists and reduce the draw to their cause, and if things like these happened every time a terrorist attacked Europe it’s not unreasonable to think that the harassers would be forced to rethink their strategy.

    – On a side note: I wonder how the idea of defiance would fit in the academic environment. How would defiance help against censorship and threats against authors or conference speakers? Would it help at all?

    1. While I think game theory can often be used to create interesting solutions to some social problems, would it truly work against people who are engaged in a holy war and believe they will be rewarded in the Afterlife?

      Your idea of making them rethink their strategies is interesting, but it’s not obvious to me the new strategies they would be forced to think would be better for us!
      It might end up causing smarter, more ‘refined’ terrorism which might prove more effective at its goals.

      Also, nice of you to mention reverse psychology(forbid you from doing things to get you to do them); I wanted to do so myself in my above comment but forgot.

      1. Thanks for the comment Davide. Oh yes, I am completely convinced game theory would be valid in that case. We tend to underestimate terrorists and all over the media we see descriptions of them as “madmen” or “barbarians”. But while terrorist agents might very well be emotionally unstable and unpredictable enough to follow game theory principles even intuitively, their leaders – the people who coordinate attacks and expansion strategies – are most definitely not. Take ISIS, for example: they are a very rational terrorist group, with competent handling of propaganda, finance, and military doctrine.

        I would not know about creating more refined terrorists. My reasoning currently is this: which French response would have been better for the terrorists: a) military intervention against IS countries, or b) a massive discussion on why freedom of speech is good and and frequent broadcasts that Muslims are actually nice and reject violent courses of action? Option (a) was done before and it just fueled terrorist groups. I tend to believe option (b) would be better.

        1. I definetely do not underestimate terrorists or consider them completely irrational – and I agree with you that is a way too common mistake; I am just saying that their priorities might be atypical so they might need to be dealt with differently than ‘secular’ terrorists such as, say, nationalists.

          You are also correct that their leaders are quite intelligent – they can use modern media to their advantage, despit some people (naively) assuming that the Internet is intrinsically progressive/liberal.
          It might be slightly OT, but I can’t help but bring up that Bin Laden, years and years ago, made a video where he suggested people convert to Islam because then they won’t have to pay taxes. While I found that amusing, I also found it quite cunning.

          As for option (b), I think what might be effective is a more cynical strategy, which is basically to make moderates of Islam ‘fanatics’ by making them enjoy the attractive parts of the West that they often consider decadent (but then, so do Christian radicals or the extreme right-wing which has an…complex relationship with them).
          Then they will likely ‘realize’ that maybe their former interpretation of their holy texts wasn’t so good.

          Basically, I think radicals sometimes turn to moderation not because of ethics or ‘seeing the light”, but because being a moderate IS quite convenient.

          Sure, moderates (both secular and religious) like to talk about how fanatics ‘twist’ and ‘use’ religion for their own ends, but it seems to me that it’s way easier to be a moderate, all things considered, since you can be quite hedonistic while still getting to claim moral superiority

          So replace stuff like ’72 virgins in Heaven’ (I know, I know, it’s just an interpretation, but it’s an example of the ‘after life rewards’ I mentioned) with the kind of cherrypicking a lot of moderates do, where you basically get to do a lot of ‘fun’, pleasant things while still being able to say you are following God’s will/plan/book.
          In fact, I think there already may be ‘secular’ Muslims who don’t keep halal and/or drink alcohol.

          I also remember reading something about how radicals tended to become less so once they settled down and built a family (of course, that’s not always the case).

          Of course, the problem is HOW to get them to do that; it might not be possible at all. But I think the basic idea is solid. It’s not really incompatible with what you suggest (in fact, it’s basically the same, only seen differently)

          (On the other hand, I might be biased here, because I can’t help but compare to Christianity, and I see a lot of Christians – Catholics mostly – who are VERY good at just ignoring standard parts of their doctrine which is convenient. It might be that where Muslims are more likely to be extremists, Christians are also more strict, on average.
          The way the average Muslims sees their texts is of course not the same, but again, secular Muslims already exist)

          So basically: rather than ‘defying’ them, ‘seducing’ them into the Western way.

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