Monday, November 03, 2014

Why Bill Maher is the Wrong Target for a Commencement Speaker Protest

As part of the fallout from Bill Maher's comments about Islam, comments from which he finds no room for retreat, some individuals and groups are arguing that Berkeley should withdraw its invitation for Maher to speak at its fall commencement. On the issue of Islam, Maher relies almost exclusively on the spotlight fallacy and hasty generalization, plucking examples of horror from around the Islamic world and arguing that they prove that Islam is somehow worse than other religions. He stubbornly refuses to consider challenges to his position -- people pointing out that he conflates regional, cultural practices that arose and exist independently of Islam with the teachings of Islam, people pointing out that he draws his primary examples from Islamic nations without regard to whether those nations reflect what is typical in other Islamic nations or populations, or the practices of the majority of Muslims. He'll present Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwah against Salman Rushdie as if it reflected -- and reflects -- the views and wishes of every Muslim in the world.

On the most recent episode of Real Time, Bill Maher quoted his friend Reza Aslan, on the issue of whether or not he's a bigot, emphasizing that Alsan is Muslim and says he's not a bigot. Here's the larger quote:
I've done [Real Time] every season for four or five years. I love being on the show. And listen, I've said repeatedly that Bill Maher is not a bigot. I know him. We are friends. We hang out with each other, backstage. He loves having me on the show despite the fact that he disagrees with me on a lot of things and that shows the kind of person that he is.

What I have said, however, is that if people are constantly saying that the way you are talking about something is coming across as bigoted, you might want to stop and think about how you’re saying these things. Bill Maher says he's not a bigot, I absolutely believe him. So maybe he needs to reexamine why people keep talking about him as a bigot.
Aslan has also pointed out that Maher is not very sophisticated in his views of Islam. What I think Aslan is trying to say, in a somewhat gentle way, is that Maher is not advancing his position out of animus or intolerance, and thus is not guilty of that form of bigotry, but is instead advancing his position because he does not have a sufficient body of information, and has not applied a sufficient amount of thought to the subject. I believe Aslan is suggesting that if Maher were to do so he would likely reconsider his position. [Insert maxim about leading horses to water.]

From my perspective, Maher's position on Islam and the Arab world, notably including his positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, reflect a cognitive insularity on those subjects, epistemic closure. At times he ridicules conservatives as living in the bubble -- these subjects are his bubble. He appears to have held consistent views on Arabs and Islam for much of his life, he's quite comfortable with those beliefs, and he sees no need to let facts get in the way. That doesn't mean that he completely avoids the facts -- to the contrary, as his mode of argument suggests, he is inclined to search for, interpret, and prioritize information in a way that confirms his existing beliefs -- confirmation bias. Maher is clearly more than smart enough to take a step back, review the evidence, and see what people like Aslan are trying to explain to him -- but, as occasionally happens to all of us, he isn't ready to let go of his preconceptions.

The funny thing is, all of Maher's leading critics, including those who were or are Muslim, share his perspective that there is something wrong with the practice of Islam in the Middle East and in some other parts of the world. They see Islam as being abused in the same manner that other religions have been historically abused, and in which they continue to be abused in some nations and cultures. It's an argument that Maher, an avowed atheist and critic of all religions, should find quite consistent with his other views -- it's not that there's something special about Islam that makes it particularly vulnerable to fundamentalism and extremism, but that there's something wrong with the political, cultural and economic contexts from which the fundamentalism and extremism emerge. Islam is a problem not because it's special, but because it's the dominant religion in those regions, and thus the one most easily exploited by fundamentalists and extremists. You speak the language of your audience.

Like Maher, his critics also rely heavily on the spotlight fallacy, plucking quotes out of Maher's past performances, speeches and monologs, where he has made some pretty outrageous statements. But what else would you expect? The man is a comedian who loves to jokingly scold his audience for groaning at the less outrageous of his jokes. He has made a career out of being politically incorrect, a term that you may recall was the name of the T.V. show that made him famous. I recently read one of his monologs in which, his sarcastic tone of voice being invisible on the printed page, he appeared to be endorsing birtherism. You will have absolutely no trouble finding quotes with which to condemn him, even if his presentation of the quoted material might suggest that he held a different opinion than the one he was ostensibly voicing. He's not Sarah Silverman, but he does sometimes go for the punch line that's going to shock, rattle, or even offend his audience -- and it's all too easy to inadvertently or deliberately misinterpret that sort of punch line.

If Maher were invited by Berkeley to participate in a panel discussion on Islam, where a variety of voices could be heard, I would hope that the students that are offended by the prospect of his giving a commencement address would welcome his participation. (Or perhaps criticize it from the standpoint of, "Can't we find a scholar instead of a comedian" -- although back when Bill Maher frequently had comedians participate in his Real Time panels, sometimes the comedians provided more interesting and thoughtful commentary than the experts.)

A compelling argument made about commencement addresses is that they're not like other forms of on-campus speech. If you want to participate in commencement, you are a captive audience for the commencement speaker and are expected to act with appropriate decorum. Also, commencement speakers are often paid very large sums of money for their presentations, money that is drawn from the students. It is fair to say that students should have a larger voice when it comes to objecting to the participation of certain controversial figures in their commencement ceremonies than in other campus activities, where in my opinion the focus should be on debate, not exclusion.

If Bill Maher were going to address graduating students with an exposition of his views of religion and Islam, the students would be justified in objecting to his speech. He's not an expert in those areas, his commentary on Islam is deeply flawed, and it would be an abuse of his platform to speak about his views of religion. However, it is more than safe to say that Maher has no intention of using his commencement presentation to speak about religion, gender relations, or any of the other issues that occasionally land him in warm to hot water. He's already said as much:
But let me say this to those students worried about that: I promise this will be your day. This is a commencement speech. The issue is you. My speech was, is, I hope, going to be about you and whatever tips I thought that could actually help you in life because I already lived through it. That and my funk about how Jewish women hate to have sex.
That last sentence, of course, is an example of the sort of punch line I previously mentioned. I'm not arguing that Maher's punch lines and groaners don't reflect his political views -- but I am pointing out that some of them quite obviously do not, and many others fall on a spectrum between what he believes and what he believes will generate the loudest laugh or groan -- with his being one of the nation's wealthiest comedians -- one of the nation's wealthiest people -- by virtue of his knowing how to go for the laughs and groans.

I am not sure that the students opposed to Maher's appearance ever thought that he was going to address religion in his speech. I think that their primary concern is that he is hostile to Islam, and that students should not be compelled to sit through a speech by somebody whose views they find troubling, or even odious. Ibraham Hooper of Cair pointed out that nobody is going to suggest that the Grand Wizard of the KKK is an appropriate commencement speaker -- that is, we can reach a point where there will be near-universal agreement that an individual should not speak at a college commencement even if he promises not to touch on subjects that his audience might deem offensive -- but there's an enormous distance between Maher and a KKK Grand Wizard. Inviting Maher to speak doesn't open the floodgates.

The exchange with Cooper illustrates how opportunists and demagogues can take a quote out of context to use it to bash the speaker. During the exchange, Cooper's debate opponent jumped on the reference to a KKK Grand Wizard, chortling, "So Bill Maher is the Grand Dragon of the KKK? I can’t until Bill Maher hears that. I think Bill will have a heyday with that." The host immediately pointed out the obvious -- that no such comparison had been made -- but that didn't stop hacks like Eric Bolling of Fox News or Alex Griswold at the Daily Caller from plucking the statement out-of-context and lying about what Hooper meant. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that after making his false characterization, Griswold quotes the exchange and thereby makes plain that his characterization is false.

Why let Maher speak?
  • Protesting Maher reinforces his position - When Maher argues that Muslims don't do enough to object to the actions of extremists who claim to be acting in the name of their religion, he's not really being fair -- people have the right to live their ordinary lives without having to comment to anybody willing to listen, "That wackaloon you read about on the news doesn't represent my views." But when Muslims loudly protest Maher, they risk perpetuating the stereotype that Muslims want to shut down any criticism of their religion, while fueling the argument that "Those people find the time to protest Maher, but have nothing to say about the wackaloon I heard about on the news." I'm not arguing that Muslim students should never try to have an anti-Muslim speaker excluded from giving a commencement address, and it is appropriate to object to those who for example argue for the forcible conversion of Muslims to other religions, advocate bombing Muslim holy sites, advocate suppressing the speech and religious rights of Muslims. But when you target somebody like Maher, the more effective way to get your point across is not to try to shut him up, but to avoid playing to his stereotype.

  • If You Look Hard Enough, You'll Find Something Offensive About Your Commencement Speaker - In the YouTube era, with news archives at students' fingertips, and with the long memory of the Internet, we're in an era in which it will be difficult for any celebrity to give a commencement speech, as if you look hard enough at any person you're likely to find a quote that can be presented (or misrepresented) as offensive to somebody. Finding offensive quotes is easy with somebody like Maher, as they're literally his bread and butter, but pretty much every famous person is going to have a gaffe or misstatement, or a political position they've long abandoned, preserved somewhere.

  • You lay a foundation for exclusion of other speakers - Once you create a context in which a person can be excluded from giving a commencement speech based upon views that some students find offensive, even though those views will not be shared in the commencement address, you open the floodgates. It is far better to set a high standard for exclusion than to create what amounts to a heckler's veto. Sure, a great many commencement speakers may end up falling into the gray area between the tiny number who have immaculate public records and those virtually all would agree to be villanous, but free speech will fare better if we keep the line for exclusion as close to pure black as comfortably possible.

Maher's appearance presents the students of Berkeley with a tremendous opportunity to very publicly challenge Maher's positions on Islam. Rather than pressing forward with an effort to exclude Maher from giving a commencement address, I suggest taking advantage of the fact that the eyes of the world are now on Maher and Berkeley. Organize a symposium on Islam and fundamentalist violence, bring in some knowledgeable scholars, invite Maher to participate in a panel. You can't buy publicity like this -- if you want to take advantage of an opportunity to educate the public about Islam, run with it.

1 comment:

  1. I watch and admit to being entertained, but I struggle quite a lot with Bill Maher’s attitudes and opinions, as well as those of his some of his guests. Because large portions of the show are unscripted, Maher’s writers feeding him prefab lines notwithstanding, it is often a good gauge of the range of opinions out there. His audience also gives immediate feedback in the form of groaning, booing, and applause. But Maher uses the show, at least in part, as a bully pulpit, with frequent bogus assertions of fact, truth, and his own authoritative opinion. Yet his expertise is in comedy, and I simply don’t buy that being a newshound and political junkie confers much authority over his guests.

    Maher’s statements underlying his current conflict are textbook bigotry, enabled by what you refer to as the spotlight fallacy. Softening that, as Reza Aslan attempts, by saying that Maher doesn’t mean it spitefully, cuts no ice with me. Part of the problem is that adopting the jokey insult as a rhetorical form allows Maher (and other comics) to utter the most odious things imaginable and then take refuge behind the joke. In fact, getting the laugh, even after the groan (shades of Johnny Carson), justifies pretty much anything he might say. That, in turn, makes Maher irresponsible with his influence. Further, lots of earnest people of faith out there don’t respond to nastiness about their beliefs. Maher hasn’t exactly singled out Islam for abuse, but pretty close.

    The wider issue of whether Maher is a suitable commencement speaker is not very important. He is certainly excellent at comedic line delivery and would entertain the commencement crowd better than the blowhard NYT columnist who spoke at mine years ago. Objectionable opinion (racism, bigotry, misogyny, etc.) doesn’t fully disqualify a speaker except perhaps the most vehement kinds, especially when warhawks who do much more actual damage in the world populate lecture circuits. However, in my experience, student bodies as mobs lack the nuance to entertain actual debate, not that a commencement address is in any fashion a colloquy. So instead they protest to silence uncomfortable or questionable opinion, accomplishing nothing.