Why Secular Values Require Constant Defence

The Founding Fathers

In her book Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby constantly highlights how often great thinkers are neglected from the American historical canon due to their criticism of religious authority or social norms. This may seem odd to anyone who knows even a little about the Founding Fathers and, for example, Abraham Lincoln – but we know of these gentlemen due to their role as presidents and founders of the very nation itself, despite their antagonism toward organised religion and its “truths”.

During the late 18th century, many thinkers – prominently those fighting for abolition and women’s equality, which were often united causes – optimistically presumed that the deliberate neglect of powerful activists would be eroded, since the values themselves would come to fruition; and, thus blooming, all would recognise those who originally distributed the seeds of such knowledge. But even today, the names William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and Ernestine L. Rose, are quite forgotten by those who more confidently remember other names within the era.

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Who Cares About the Stripper?

Quick Summary

For those of you who have no interest in reading the entire article, here is its thrust: We need to stop paying attention to the private actions of those we label celebrities, for the simple reason that it is in domain of their private lives. If such actions are within their private lives, then it is none of our business. However, when they engage in the public domain, they – along with anyone in the public domain including, for example, religious groups – are subject to the open criticism of a secular, liberal society. By respecting the autonomy of such people, we can shift our interest and obsessions to more important matters and make life better for all, simply because we will be using what precious little time we have.

Full Article

In honour of the 4th of July, I would like to shift quickly and briefly to America, as this is often the breeding ground for my critique.

Whether it was Bill Clinton doing the naughty in the Oval Office (and he didn’t apparently, it was only “oral” sex, as far as we know), or finding some rock star in bed with a dozen strippers and cocaine – I frankly could not care and neither should you. The so-called moral outrage is a symptom of the horrible disease of peering over the fence at the Jones’.

This takes its unbridled form in “gossip” magazines: he is dating her, but she is actually married to him, but he was seen kissing his sister; she was wearing this dress which was not appropriate for her age and her daughter was seen with this guy, etc. etc. Many people lick their lips when a celebrity, for example, is found “cavorting with a stripper”, as happened here in South Africa a few months back. We need to stop this obsession when other people make apparently horrid choices in their – note – private lives. When they are good and just, we should praise them in the public; but when they act against the backdrop of a moral choice, in private, then we should leave it for the person, their family and their friends to sort out. It is none of our business if they want to have cocaine with strippers in a hotel room. (I recall Dylan Moran saying: “What else are you meant to give strippers in a hotel room!”)

The slight Freudian analysis is hard to resist here: those who are usually most outraged by the moral perplexity of our society are usually the ones who most desire said outrage. But often we can predict with pin-point accuracy that, when, for example, a gay couple gets married, when we advance in stem-cell research, and so on, usually people of a religious persuasion and often the one involving a man on a Cross are going to “comment”.  Their voices are raised highest when such things that outrage them are found stirring in their surroundings (if their voices are loudest, we can only wonder how badly they crave to be let loose from the chains of their society). There are too many examples of religious people marching against this and that, which, if they simply ignored it, would have gone away (recently, it was one that involved blasphemy, which you can find on this blog). But it’s not just religious people. Anyone who subscribes or is obsessively tracking the downfall of some celebrity due to a “sex scandal”, is partisan to such a mindset of “fence peering”.

We need to stop. There are more important things to focus on: how we can contribute to a just society, how we can help others, how we can advance our technology, and so on. Who cares if Britney Spears breasts have got larger, if this person is found doing drugs again, and so on. That is their business.

This is of course as a result of the freedom of the press: with so much freedom and information to collect, there will be garbage. Notice: I am not saying we should ban celebrity-focused websites and magazines, I am saying we should alternate our views and read something more intellectually stimulating. We should stop being drawn into the obsessive culture of “fence peering” and focus on ourselves. No one is perfect, least of all those who have climbed the acting-ladder in Hollywood, or the one made of guitar chords and broken hearts in the music industry. The intensity to which we hold such moral outrage against celebrities would be a better tool used against ourselves: are we succeeding in our goals of being better people, are we constantly striving (more important than succeeding, since the latter hardly occurs or matches to the expectations of the former)? We need to ask these questions or we are failing in our, in terms of philosophy, “epistemic duty” – to question, evaluate, pose alternate theories and evidence.

So, I am not asking the celebrity papers to be burnt to the ground. I am asking the readers to read something else – not by pain of death, but by pain of losing out on something far more fulfilling. Socrates said that the unconsidered life was not worth living and we might think that with all the focus and consideration our societies dumps onto celebrities, their lives would be most worth living. But they are not. We need to divide up our considerations mostly for ourselves to become better people.

No doubt many readers will say: How can we praise them when they do good but ignore them when they do bad? If you are thinking that, you have missed an important word: “privately”. Julian Baggini defends this same position I offer of turning our attention away from celebrity hogwash in his book Making Sense, stating that a shift in focus could alter our society dramatically. And this begins when we can understand the difference between “private” and “public” lives.

For most people this is a difficult concept. For example, when we deal with religious issues in a secular society, I for one will accept people practising their religious beliefs in the privacy of their own homes. When they begin to shift their god-given opinions into the public domain, say to stone women who are traumatized enough after having gone for an abortion – then we have a problem. The notion of freedom from and of religion is permitted within the domains of said religious people’s private domains. Their views are unwelcome in the public arena – only to the extent that they justify it with their holy book. Austin Dacey dissects this problem in his book A Secular Conscience: note again, I am not saying religious people are not welcome in the public domain. Their ideas are not. This is not to say that perhaps their ideas – say to protect the life of the unborn (a bizarre concept) starts with the Bible, then grinds itself along by the friction of non-biblical sources. If they can do this, fantastic. In most cases they cannot and simply assert it with dogmatic confidence fueled by the torrent of Biblical exegesis. Thus, we see the differentiation: the private domains of the religious are suitable arenas for religious worship and proclamation – when they bring it in to discuss such matters as health care initiatives, for example banning stem cell research on nothing but the whim of the bible, their ideas are at the least irritating and childish and at the most preventative in our endeavour to further medical knowledge. Private and public – acceptable in the former, worthy of mockery and derision in the latter.

It gets complicated if we ask ourselves: is a church a private domain? This is what I mean by it being a difficult question. It is not so easy to answer such things.

Now, if we bring back the moral outrage and focus again on celebs, I hope we can clarify my position on this. By private, I mean those things (I have to repeat) done in the privacy of their own homes and lives. If the celebs want to have affairs and do drugs, leave it there. It stays in the private domain and is none of our business. If the celeb however advocates cocaine to be sold to minors, then we can have an outrage and deride him for being an idiot. Bertrand Russell famously was hated for his advocating of a promiscuous marriage and relationships and he lost his position in America because of it (briefly and during this time, he managed to deliver the lectures that would make up his beautiful History of Western Philosophy). Here I can actually sympathize with those who were outraged, because Russell wrote a whole book about it. Thus, his advocating was in the public domain – if it is such a sphere, it is part of our culture of ideal freedom which means it is open to being criticized. That’s why when people, in this case, were outraged by Russell’s views, it was acceptable: if they were simply outraged by him having affairs with beautiful women, it would be unacceptable. In the latter case, it would be none of theirs, or our, business. (It must also be largely assumed that Russell was loathed because he was a brilliant, eloquent and ardent defender of freedom from religion and all areas and openly agreed with Lucretius, as he himself states, in thinking religion a virus).

Many people tell me that when you are a celebrity, your life is one that is constantly a public life. But that is nonsense and nothing but assertion by hungry, lecherous fools who have nothing to goggle at except falling stars of the wrong kind. Instead, we should shift our gaze and curiosity to the world at large, which is often far more beautiful than say the pestilential Jeremy Clarkson or Amy Winehouse – who is a very talented musician who just gets the worst pictures! We can do better than goggling, ogling and bumbling around celebrities’ private lives which are mostly quite boring and secondly not our business. We must stop the fence peering and instead try microscope-peering, telescope-peering or the one I can’t stress enough book-peering. Do you really want to waste precious reading time on how many babies Madonna has adopted (I think she is doing more good for our species and planet than people who just keep breeding for no reason other than to further their genes in an already overcrowded and scantly resourced planet)? Or perhaps reading on the latest naughty-naughty that <insert any celeb here> has done? Or would you rather brush up on your Carl Sagan, your PG Wodehouse, your Oscar Wilde? In fact, there are things called libraries where you can get the latter for free! Why pay for garbage when you can get gold for free? Feast your mind, dear reader, lest it rot in the bile of fence-peering.

UPDATE 13 July ’09: Michael Jackson was apparently gay! Oh no! Oh my! I can tell you right now there will be:

1. People who say he’s alive

2. People who say he’s faked his death

3. People who will say it was a murder/conspiracy

4. Etc.

I really don’t care that Michael Jackson was gay. It really does not diminish the brilliance of “Thriller” nor his amazing dancing. Who cares!!! This is what I mean by us minding our own business. His homosexuality is an issue for him, his family and his gay-lovers. What can it mean to us – pretty much nothing at all. Focusing on this is unhealthy. And there will no doubt be many of the ignorant who will take this as another tick in linking homosexuality and pedophilia (most studies indicate no correlation between the two, in fact they very much act against each other. Thus if anything, children are better off in terms of safety with gay men than straight.) So let us be calm about this and reflect on how idiotic it is to find this sensational. Let us not read this tripe except to laugh at it and get on with our lives.

So what if he’s gay? That is not our problem (even though being gay is not a “problem” unless you were hiding it from your wife and kids).