Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gross Out

A couple of years ago, in one of the local parades hosted by the small city near which I reside, a local pastor marched with signs featuring photos of what happens to a fetus when it's aborted. The pictures were gruesome and repellant, which they were intended to be, and there was much tut-tutting by the local commentariat about the tastelessness and vulgarity displayed by the pastor. Children, after all, saw those signs and being too innocent to realize that it's okay to dismember unborn babies, they were upset.

Now comes word that HHS is considering requiring tobacco companies to put gross pictures of dead people on cigarette packs to try to discourage people from smoking.

Never mind the problem of having government insist on telling you what's good for you and compelling a legal business to incur the cost of packaging their product in such a way as to deter people from buying it. What I'd like to know is why it's okay to show photos of corpses on cigarette cartons to dissuade people from smoking, but it's over-the-line offensive to show people what happens to a baby in an abortion. Might the acceptability of the photos depend on the interest group which is being targeted?

If tobacco companies are forced to put these photos on their products shouldn't Planned Parenthood be obliged to put photos of aborted children in their brochures and on their walls? If not, why not?

The Free Exchange of Ideas

I was talking with a colleague the other day about what I think is an interesting aspect of paradigm shifts. It seems that when a new idea is struggling to gain a hearing its youthful defenders are wholly committed to the free exchange of ideas, open-mindedness, thinking outside the box, questioning authority, etc. but once the idea has been established as the new orthodoxy its now older advocates treat any alternative ideas which rise up to challenge it as heresies to be stifled, strangled, and crushed.

For example, in my undergraduate days, the Left was very big on freedom of speech. The dictum attributed to Voltaire that he may not agree with what you say but would fight to the death for your right to say it was on every young revolutionary's lips. The counterculture largely won the debate back then, and the notion that speech, any speech, might be censored, that some ideas be suppressed, was roundly repudiated. My hirsute classmates shaved, got a haircut (or went bald), donned a tie and percolated upward through academic and governmental hierarchies.

Now these former zealots for free speech comprise much of the "establishment", but somewhere along the road to power many of them have forsaken their idealistic reverence for the intellectual values they cherished as youths. Today those who challenge the reigning orthodoxies are often shouted down, denied tenure, or fired from NPR, by some of the same people who condemned the establishment forty years ago for being closed-minded, intolerant, and dogmatic.

In the back of my mind during the conversation with my colleague was a post I had read just the day before about the reaction of an evolutionary biologist named Jerry Coyne to an essay in NewScientist. An evolutionist named Ken Bennett who has, like a lot of other biologists, grown skeptical of the ability of natural selection to work the magic the Darwinian faithful believe it capable of, voiced his doubts in the new NewScientist article. Bennett's deviation from the Darwinian consensus didn't sit well with Professor Coyne who rent his garments and, like a character straight out of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, called for a boycott of NewScientist for the sin of publishing Professor Bennett's rather modest heresy.

When biologists were fighting to get evolution taught in schools back in the 1920s they argued that students should be able to hear ideas that challenge their religious beliefs, that this is the best way to sharpen young minds, etc. Now that the Darwinian paradigm is solidly ensconced in the academy all that talk of open minds and the free exchange of ideas is discarded like used tissues. Now the orthodox faith must be preserved and protected at all costs, freedom to express and consider contrary opinions is no longer useful and must be snuffed out. Books and journals that carry those opinions must be burned, or at least their publishers should be driven out of business.

Somebody should send Mr. Coyne a copy of John Stuart Mill's classic work On Liberty, or at least this excerpt:
"When a creed becomes hereditary, and is received passively, not actively - when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as when the creed was new, to exercise it's vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to ... give it a dull and torpid assent ... until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of teh human being....The creed remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences...manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living convictions to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant."
You can read more about the brouhaha over Bennett's article at Telic Thoughts.