May 21, 2012

There was apparently another Draw Mohammed Day yesterday: Hermant at Friendly Atheist covers it (that link may obviously contain links to pictures of Mo).

My previous LJ entry on Muslims vs Student Atheist Societies provoked some discussion about whether criticism of Islam is necessarily motivated by racism, and whether white atheists ought to be involved in such criticism. During that, cartesiandaemon linked to Yvain’s utilitarian argument against Mo pics which appeared on Less Wrong. Yvain argued against Draw Mo Day on the basis of harm minimisation (Less Wrong orthodoxy is consequentalist so people there are likely to be responsive to such arguments).

Vladimir M won the Less Wrong thread with the response that “In a world where people make decisions according to this principle, one has the incentive to self-modify into a utility monster who feels enormous suffering at any actions of other people one dislikes for whatever reason”. He also made the observation (due to Thomas Schelling) that “in conflict situations, it is often a rational strategy to pre-commit to act irrationally (i.e. without regards to cost and benefit) unless the opponent yields. The idea in this case is that I’ll self-modify to care about X far more than I initially do, and thus pre-commit to lash out if anyone does it”. He adds “such behavior is usually not consciously manipulative and calculated. On the contrary — someone flipping out and creating drama for a seemingly trivial reason is likely to be under God-honest severe distress, feeling genuine pain of offense and injustice.”. Yvain then behaved excellently by formally withdrawing his argument.

Muslims may be harmed by seeing Mo pictures. However, Vladimir M’s point applies. So, what to do?

There are things called “trigger warnings” which are popular in some parts of the Internet. Medically, a trigger is something which can set off PTSD symptoms. These trigger warnings are usually appear on links to, and the beginning of, pages about rape or domestic violence, where victims may suffer from PTSD on reading the text.

[Latterly, the term has been broadened to encompass not just PTSD flashbacks, but that uncomfortable feeling you get when reading something which advances a view different from your own (for instance, the trigger warnings for misogyny and Islamophobia on this post mean “comments disagreeing with feminists/Muslims”), and has also become a way of signalling that one is down with the identity politics posse (this is well known enough for it to be parodied: see Is this Feminist?, for example). However, I think that few people would disagree with the idea that some Muslims’ distress at seeing such pictures is more towards the PTSD end of things than the “people disagree with me”/signalling end.]

It feels like a Schelling point in this conflict might be to agree that pictures of Mo should appear behind trigger warnings. These might be specific warnings; or a general warning that by continuing to read a site, one may encounter such pictures, or links to them. In the case of the atheist Facebook group, Jesus and Mo cartoons should not be used for public events (since the cartoons may then appear on the feeds of people who are not members of the group) but would be OK for events which are private to the group, assuming that the group is covered by a general warning. Obviously, all Draw Mo Day pictures should appear behind such warnings.