Friday, 19 October 2012

Two 14-year-old Girls

     Not long after I wrote my last post on insulting the prophet, I heard a debate on the radio that raised my free-speech hackles a bit. One participant took the position that people should be criminally liable for speech or symbolic acts that they know are likely to result in violence, such as burning a copy of the Koran. She articulated the principle in terms of causality, which is what I found troubling, because it seems to me that to assign moral blame to the speaker for how an audience reacts is to deny (or at the very least dilute) the responsibility of audiences to react appropriately. Even if an inappropriate response is predictable, I am reluctant to blame the speaker, except in cases of fraud or deception.
     As if to make that point clear, last week the Taliban attempted to assassinate a fourteen year old girl, Malala Yousufzai, for her audacious and heretical suggestion that girls should be educated. The Taliban have made it very clear that they intend to respond with violence to such advocacy; it was therefore reasonable to anticipate that if Malala were to continue speaking out in favour of girls' education, she would be targeted. And yet we view her (rightly in my mind) as blameless in this, and in fact we praise her for her courage. The blame, all of the blame, falls squarely on the shoulders of the ignorant zealots who tried to kill her. They did wrong, not she. 
     The same week, a successful attempt on the life of a different fourteen year old girl was made, unfortunately by someone less inept than the Taliban: Amanda Todd committed suicide after ruthless bullying. 

     The juxtaposition of these two girls and their circumstances leaves me greatly conflicted. On the one hand, I feel very strongly that Malala did nothing wrong, and that nothing she said justified any act of violence whatsoever. At the same time, though, I have great sadness and sympathy for Amanda, and anger at her abusers. And there's the conflict, because ultimately she was the one who decided to kill herself, in response to abuse which at its core was speech. (I know she had been punched and blackmailed, but I will go out on a limb and speculate that it was the insistent display of hatred and moral condemnation more than anything else that drove her to such misery.) Did I not just conclude, before being confronted with this case, that speakers are not to be held morally responsible for the inappropriate reactions of their audiences, even if they are predictable? If Malala was blameless for the attempt on her life, even though it was predictable that Taliban zealots would react with inappropriate violence, how do I still feel anger at Amanda's bullies, for her inappropriate reaction of self-directed violence?

     I've struggled with this, and for a while I thought I could explain it this way: The bullies are not to blame for her death, but for something very nearly as evil. They are to blame for treating her with such devastating cruelty as to make her miserable enough to want to die, and that's plenty blameworthy enough.

     But I'm not sure that rationalization really does the trick, either. After all, Malala's speech clearly caused great distress to the poor sensitive Taliban, hurting their delicate feelings or their religious sensibilities or whatever badly enough to provoke them to violence, and yet I have almost no sympathy whatsoever for them and their reaction, whereas I do have sympathy for Amanda.

     The real answer, I think, is uglier. I said above that only in the case of fraud or deception can we blame speakers for the actions of their audience, and I think we have all deceived Amanda and each other. Malala spoke truthfully and frankly; she said she believed girls deserve to be educated, and the Taliban assassins could have tried to reason with her and her audience, to explain why she was wrong and to convince us all that no, after all, girls ought not to be educated. But they didn't do that. They surrendered the moral high ground and shot her instead.

     In contrast, Amanda's bullies told her, through their words and actions, that she was worthless and bad and deserved to die. Some creep manipulated her into showing her bare chest to him online, but we told her, collectively, that was something for her to be ashamed of. We empowered him to blackmail and humiliate her, by making a federal case out of "wardrobe malfunctions", by making it a big deal, a grave moral concern. In short, we told her a lie that she believed, and on that basis killed herself. We've got to stop telling that lie, and I suppose the first step there is to stop believing it ourselves. 


  1. To my view the issue is about abuse, specifically abuse targeting an individual versus "abuse" targeting an issue.
    In both cases, you have chosen to side with the abuse targeting an issue and against the abuse targeting an individual. The confusion, I think, lay in the fact that in one case the verbal and physical abuses were pointed in opposite directions - thus creating a perception that it a freedom of speech issue (which it is in one case, and completely not in other).

    As a democratic and, as you previously pointed out, increasingly peaceful society - we cherish a freedom of speech and abhore violence. But verbal abuse IS violence WHEN it targets an individual. "Abusing" an idea or concept or even a group of people, while it may perhaps be politically incorrect or impolite, CAN be justified in a truly democratic society. Yes, this may validate so-called 'hate speech' - but then I do not personally object to it when used rationally; indeed as you point out, it is the responsibility of the individual to show restraint, even in the face of provocation. Verbal abuse of a person should be like any other form of abuse - without toleration. However, the truth is society often expects that a person should "suck it up" when they are personally verbally assaulted.

    That's my perception anyway,

  2. Thank you for pointing out what I should have made explicit, that the provocative speech acts and the unreasonable responses were not pointed in the same direction in both cases. In Malala's case, she said something that the Taliban unreasonably responded to with violence, while in Amanda's case, her bullies "said" something to which she responded unreasonable with self-directed violence. My conflict was that it was difficult for me to justify my anger at Amanda's bullies when in Malala's case I held her blameless for her provocative speech.

    You are right, of course, to point out that the verbal abuse suffered by Amanda was different from the speech of Malala, because it was so personal. But this distinction evaporates if you look too closely at it. Yes, they were being deliberately mean to a single relatively powerless victim, but that motive of intentional meanness exists in people who burn the Koran just to piss off Muslims. And specific criticism of a particular individual certainly cannot be itself blameworthy; sometimes individuals do bad things for which they SHOULD be criticised.

    I agree that verbal abuse should not be tolerated, but perhaps we differ in the way we feel it should be dealt with. To my mind, the solution is not for the individual to "suck it up", but that every individual (whether the victim of the abuse or not) has an obligation to speak truth in an honest and respectful fashion. Which means, when we see people being deliberately cruel to someone, we ought to speak up and condemn such behaviour openly. People thought and still think that Amanda did wrong, and that's fine, they can think that and they can say that. But those of us who think it was at worst a foolish indiscretion ought to have stood up and said so as well, and pointed out how unnecessarily cruel and hypocritically judgmental it is to cast stones over such a thing.

    Ultimately, though, it really does come down to ideas. The idea that girls shouldn't be educated is the murderous idea that drove the Taliban assassins. The idea that girls who show their breasts are unforgiveable may or not be what drove Amanda's bullies, but the widespread acceptance of that idea (even by Amanda herself at some level) is what gave their abuse traction, and perhaps what kept people from defending her. It is also a murderous idea we need to expunge.

  3. Tom,

    Thanks for the blog post. But when you say that the bullies told her such and such "through their...actions," do you just mean that they acted a certain way and she responded by thinking those things? But I'm not sure that was their intent. And if it was, they may have believed what they "told" her themselves. In either of these cases, there is no deception, and yet I think we'd still be justified in assigning them some blame.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that we should assign some responsibility to Malala for her shooting. She understood the consequences of her actions, or should have, but she acted regardless. She willfully put herself in harm's way, and when the harm rolled on in as anticipated, she was doubtless unsurprised.

    It seems like the basic ingredients for responsibility are present in Malala's case: She made a choice causing X with a good understanding that her choice is at least fairly likely to cause X.

    Instead, I think the problem here is that we tend to think---wrongly---of responsibility as having a limited supply. If we assign some of the responsibility to Malala, then that's less responsibility we can assign to her attacker, right? Well, no. Her attacker is just as much responsible, regardless of whether Malala shares in some of that responsibility.

    But responsibility is not always a bad thing. Even though Malala shares in the responsibility for her shooting, she is not blameworthy, i.e. her responsibility has no immoral component (that I can see). For her choice, although it had the anticipated consequence of violence, was made first and foremost to bring things that are good, i.e. a decrease in female oppression and an increase in female education. Moreover, we seem to judge these good things as being worth their cost, and we agree that Malala had the right to pay that cost if she so desired.

    Probably the above picture requires some refinement, but my basic points I think are valid: Namely, Malala shares responsibility, but this does not diminish the responsibility of her attacker; and in fact the responsibility due Malala is at least in some way admirable.

  4. Glad to see you're still around, Ben; I was sad to see your blog go.

    That's a very astute point, and I feel foolish for not articulating the distinction between "responsibility" and "blameworthiness" myself. It's true that Malala was in some sense partially causally responsible for the attack on her in the sense that she knew it was a possible or even likely reaction to her advocacy. I think that's a better answer to the person on the radio debate I heard that angered me so, to point out that causal responsibility does not translate into blameworthiness. One of the things I have tried to do on this blog is draw such distinctions, so I feel silly to have missed it.

    With respect to Amanda, I think there is some deception going on, but we're all culpable in it as a kind of collective self-deception regarding the roles of women and girls. I've been seeing people say that she "brought it on herself" by being a "dirty little slut". Well, why do we even have a concept of "dirty little slut"? Why do we even consider it out business to judge private behaviour? Why should blackmail over such things even be possible? We OUGHT to reserve our contempt for the blackmailers, and politely and studiously ignore anything they have to say that is definitely not our business.