A while back, Richard Dawkins said some very silly things on PZ Myer’s blog Pharyngula [see this discussion at the time for details]. He wrote, in response to justified claims of sexual harassment of women at supposedly progressive skeptical conference, the following:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
It went from bad to worse from there, with Dawkins totally tone deaf about his white male western privilege and the very real problem of women in all societies. Despite a very recent and much overdue apology, it is clear that he really doesn’t get it. But that’s not what this post is about.
I want to dub the following “argument” the Muslima Problem:
Because something is very bad in one case, we should not attend with human decency to less bad things in another. And to demonstrate this, PZ Myers himself dropped a smelly Muslima Problem on his blog just recently. He wrote:
I’m sorry to report that comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, an event of great import and grief to his family. But his sacrifice has been a great boon to the the news cycle and the electoral machinery — thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people.
Tone deafness strikes again. One could say just as easily that as tragic as Williams’ death is, let’s not lose sight of the other tragic events. Or note simply that the media’s love of celebrity is causing it to lose sight of those racially charged events. But Paul instead went on to say
Boy, I hate to say it, but it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction. No one wants to think the police might be untrustworthy.
And think of the politicians! Midterm elections are coming up. Those are important! So people like Barack Obama need to be able to show their human side and connect with the real concerns of the American people by immediately issuing a safe, kind statement about Robin Williams, while navigating the dangerous shoals of police brutality and black oppression by avoiding them. Wouldn’t want to antagonize those lovely law-and-order folks before an election, you see.
Now I am not going to plump for the old saying, speak no ill of the dead or anything (which sounds so much more important in Latin: De mortuis nil nisi bonum). PZ did not speak ill of Williams or his death. But it implies that a progressive cannot be concerned about large or small tragedies simultaneously. Williams’ wealth (which he got through hard work and talent, and no small measure of generosity for others, not by inheritance or fraud) is irrelevant. He was loved because he was such a positive influence in so many people’s lives for so long; his suicide is a loss to those he touched this way. My own kids count a dozen or so of his films as seminal influences on their childhoods, and many of his lines are family in-jokes. I am allowed to grieve that the person who gave us these has died. This is no mere cult of celebrity. Williams’ death matters because in the end he was a damned decent person who made my family’s and many others’ lives better.
The implication that we can’t justly be concerned about two things at once is, in the end, profoundly insulting for progressives. It’s like the argument that we can’t enjoy our lives because others are suffering. It’s ridiculous, but given way too much credence among skeptics, atheists and progressive thinkers.
Yes, the media is obsessed with celebrities; it does not follow that every celebrity’s death is unimportant. Yes the media, particularly in America, avoids dealing with police violence, racial profiling and racism in general. It doesn’t follow that the other things they do report are unimportant all the time. This is lazy thinking.
I’ve known (and been involved in many fun mutual insulting matches with) PZ for over 20 years, and I know him to be a decent man, who himself does things that he takes no credit for, to help others. But this was unworthy of him. I am sorry to see him say such things.
We can care about more than one thing at a time, or else we are not decent human beings.