By | 14 Jun 2015

March for Science in Melbourne, Australia, on 22nd April, 2017, on the steps of the State Library in Swanston StreetSome people will go to war if – they are told – their prophet has been lampooned. Our member Leon Midalia tells the Jewish joke about Moses returning from the mount with the stone tablets of the law. ‘I have good news’, he declares, ‘and bad news. The good news is that I have got Him down to ten; the bad news is that adultery is still in.’

But what is it, to lampoon a prophet? The butt of Leon’s joke is not really Moses but our own petty political culture, where tactics out­manoeuvre strategy, and strategy overshadows vision. Most jokes, other than pratfalls, are not appreciated outside their cultural setting: humour does not translate well. And who is a prophet? Not necessarily one who makes a true prophecy, but one who is revered beyond all light banter. Again, reverence depends on cultural enforcement.

Most of one’s personal knowledge, apart from our personal particulars, can be described as generalizations, which are logically assailable. And when confronted with some situation we try to fit it into one of those generalizations and act accordingly. To do that deliberately requires us first to put the situation into words. But what is a fair description of the situation? (How long is a piece of string?) As everyone is different, we all have different histories and so our descriptions will all differ qualitatively and to some extent. However conscientious we think we are, we are bound to be subtly influenced by stereotypes unconsciously imprinted in our brain; and idiosyncratic internal standards, our prejudices, bias our decision-making. Which leads inevitably to semantic disagreement between people. Some will see a freedom-fighter (hurrah!) where others see a terrorist (boo!). Only a common rhetorical culture limits those differences in the terms we bring to bear.

Humanism espouses personal liberty in tandem with social responsibility. It is an uneasy balancing act. The Amsterdam Declaration of IHEU even speaks of a ‘duty of care to all of humanity’. If that seems to be an impossible burden, some will interpret it as care towards or concern for all of humanity. Freedom of expression is limited to some extent by the duty to respect the rights and freedoms of others. Can we fairly be expected to know in advance all the effects of our words and nonverbal gestures on other people, to know whether their rights or freedoms are infringed? Well, yes and no. It all depends. Communication being a social amenity there may need to be a general social contract to set particular norms of ‘political correctness’. But that is largely etiquette.

So, who of us has the right to pass judgment? It is what humans do privately, all the time. While relishing a robust debate we may fail to recognize our arrogance, intolerance, offensiveness or offence, because we interpret our own perceptions differently from others. Various interest groups form in society, with compatible opinions within a group, which may be incompatible with opinions of other groups. The civil thing is to agree to disagree.

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Copyright © 2015 Stephen Stuart