On being angry: a rant

Most of us tend to think of anger as a negative trait. We try to train ourselves to avoid getting angry, and we sometimes go out of our way to avoid angering others. While this attitude is helpful in the short run, it has a way of stifling progress in the long run.

Last week, atheist groups around the country put on an event called Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, in response to recent admonitions by segments of the Muslim community against doing so. The point was to demonstrate freedom of speech. In the Stanford Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) group, there was an active email thread discussing whether the event was a good idea, or whether it was unnecessarily and cruelly causing unnecessary provocation.

My take on this issue is that we shouldn’t be too concerned if some other group is going to get angry with us for something so trivial. At some point, they need to get over themselves and learn that atheists cannot be expected to follow the laws of the Koran. If one has self-imposed rules that are not backed by the community at large, I encourage em to explain them to me and try to convince me from a logical standpoint that I should follow them. But ey doesn’t get to command me to do so, and ey doesn’t get to threaten to kill me if I don’t obey. If ey does that, I think society has a serious obligation to point out, in any way possible, that ey is being utterly ridiculous and is a menace to the world. If we think the best way of doing that is by drawing stick figures of eir prophet, so be it. If ey wants to demonstrate that we’re being petty, ey must not vandalize our pictures or threaten to kill us; ey should just just shrug it off and make us look silly. That’s absolutely the correct response!

My point here is that if eir attitude is responsible for causing a lot of suffering in the world, then not only do I not owe it to em to respect eir beliefs, but it’s my responsibility to highlight the problems with eir way of thinking in the most effective ways I can think of. In this case, suppression of freedom of speech is harmful for many people. I’m not going to stand by and watch em continue to extol the virtues of not giving a voice to others just because ey might be offended if I say or do something. No; if ey gets offended, that’s eir problem, and perhaps ey ought to think about why what I’m saying is so troublesome to em.

I understand the need to respect the opinions of others and to allow them to come to their own conclusions. However, we can’t take that too far. Sometimes, people hold positions that are utterly indefensible and that cause great harm to others. If someone is opposed to gay marriage, for instance, that’s an entirely indefensible position. I refuse ever to acknowledge that that position can be a logical result of any line of thought. Such an attitude harms millions of people, so I will feel no remorse whatever if I attack such a person’s beliefs in as harsh a manner as I possibly can. The "suffering" that such a person experiences as a result of my statements is completely inconsequential when stacked up against the suffering experienced by millions of people who are subject to discrimination as a result of this attitude. Similarly, the consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy is completely indefensible, as it causes needless suffering for billions of (nonhuman) animals as well as the people who starve as a result of such inefficient dietary choices. I’m absolutely not going to allow anyone to think that I condone such cruel choices.

Looking back through history, we can easily find a number of social advances that came about because people who were concerned about these issues made a lot of noise until the rest of society listened. Would slavery have been abolished had abolitionists just quietly been opposed without causing a fuss? Would women have been allowed to vote? Would we have seen advances in the civil rights movement? How about the LGBT movement? All these things happened because people were noisy about their beliefs; being noisy works! What doesn’t work is to believe in something, secretly, but only say it in such a meek manner as to avoid any risk of bothering anyone else’s sacred opinions. The latter holds back the course of societal progress. I want to be on the side of improving society, of stamping out injustice wherever I see it. I’m not going to be satisfied with the status quo just because everyone else is. People who refuse to make noise about important issues and who criticize those who do ought to step back and ask themselves how they would have reacted to slavery had they been alive in 1830, or to women’s suffrage in 1900. Would they have wanted to be on the side of progress, which would ultimately prevail? Or, would they prefer to maintain the status quo so as to remain unoffensive.

Ironically enough, those who refuse to say anything for fear of offending others end up offending me, or at least making me very angry (although I’ve rehearsed such situations on my own enough times to know how not to show it, most of the time). And that’s generally pretty hard; not many things really make me angry.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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5 Responses to On being angry: a rant

  1. hajari_ says:

    Completely agree with everything you’ve written! I was surprised how little support ‘draw Mohammed’ week got, due to so many people being reluctant to offend. Well, I’m offended that some Muslims think I should follow their religion’s rules!

  2. teratoma says:

    is ‘anger’ really the right metaphor for the attitude you’re describing?

  3. Pingback: Atheism and rationality | Quasi-Coherent

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