My thinking on the Mosque issue takes another turn

I did my best to give a serious treatment to the mosque issue in this post and I’m still comfortable with the analysis there. I decided that it probably was a good thing that the mosque be built, but there is a new twist that I want to consider here but its kind of hard to put on the table. In summary, the question I’m concerned about is: how much do we have to cater to irrationality?

First, if you’re interested, it would help to read this article, which is pretty good.

The point of the article is really just a historical example. There was a convent for nuns near Auschwitz. They were praying for the souls of the people that died there (some who were Christian Polish resistance fighters) and Jews got upset saying that it was a christianization of a Jewish space. There was  a debate that went back and forth but then the Pope asked the nuns to leave and they did.

Now this example is tricky. The author of this WSJ piece makes it sound like it would be irrational to see the nuns as doing anything inflammatory, so that Pope John Paul was just magnanimously bowing out of an unwinnable conflict against irrational extremists, but more details are needed. The nuns were praying for the souls of exterminated Jewish prisoners there, but why? Where they just expressing sorrow, or was there a more metaphysical dimension: that the souls of the people killed there needed a lot of extra prayer because they were deceived about the true religion. If the latter, that WOULD be offensive.

Still, the point of the WSJ article is illustrating an important paradox. In short, the paradox has to do with self-defeating goals.

Pretend I plan to do something (call it X) which is not objectionable in any way, which is to say that there is NO rational argument against doing it. And pretend further that the one argument in favor of doing X is that it is intended to increase harmony between two groups. So, on net, X seems to be desirable. But pretend that people who are irrationally opposed to X get upset at my plan, then their irrational anger makes the realization of my original goal impossible. In fact, it may make things worse by causing the group who I wanted to live in harmony to be more suspicious of each other. So, even though there are no arguments X, I should not do it. The mere fact that some people oppose X (wrongly) makes it right for me to discontinue my efforts to bring it about.

This frequently comes up in arguments about racism and the backlash of racists. Pretend its the 60s and that I’m planning on organizing a march on behalf of the welfare of black people. But before I get started, the KKK comes to me and says that if I march, they will damage the homes of many black people and hold a white supremacy march. The very forces which I want to oppose make it reasonable for me not to oppose them. I want to oppose racism, but the very existence of racism makes it better than I not march in favor of ending racism. What is interesting here is the self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating logic of discrimination.

Now, I don’t think the mosque issue is about discrimination, despite what liberals says. I think some people really do think the mosque insults the memory of 9/11 and are not opposed to Islam as a religion. Still, I think those people who think that the mosque harms the memory of 9/11 are wrong  — the mosque does no such damage (and it hurts me to say that since some families of people who died in 9/11 take this position, and I don’t want to downplay their emotional response, but I do not think it is in the end justified).

But the very existence of their opposition makes it appropriate to move the mosque to another site. But then this raises a new, VERY subtle and complex question about the mosque issue, which is that it becomes a collective action problem. Take the civil rights movement again. Pretend that in every situation, every march and every sit in, etc. the action would cause more harm to blacks than good. If we responded on a case by case basis, it would always be wrong to oppose racism, because each small opposition to racism would be outweighed by the backlash such actions would cause among racists.

Still, as we know, opposing racism is good, its just that we have to look at the aggregate effect of many oppositions to it. Each of 10 marches might be net bad in the short term, but on net the 10 marches TOGETHER, in the long term, were good in that they reduced racism by some tangible amount. (this is for another post, but there might be something morally good about opposing injustice, REGARDLESS of the consequences imposed by the injustice that one is combating. This would be an argument in favor of the ethics of symbolic actions).

So, I think the WSJ article raises an important and vexing question, should we bow to irrationality because the costs of fighting it are too high, or should we grit our teeth in this one instance so that over time we can make a change.

So, short term it seems that the mosque will generate a lot of divisiveness between Muslims, and it seems that the mosque would, in the long term, generate harmony between religions to the same degree no matter where it was (as long as it was in lower Manhattan where it can serve the Muslims there).

Since I don’t think the mosque issue is really about discrimination (though don’t get me wrong, there are some real anti-Muslims that are using this issue to feed their poisonous hatred). I think at root its about the fact that many many people wrongly believe that the mosque hurts the memory of 9/11. Given that unchangeable and irrational sentiment, the mosque planners should move, because unlike with the dark irrationality of  racism or anti-Muslim prejudice, there is no larger, long-term war against 9/11-site-desecration-irrationality that needs to be won (unless it emboldens anti-Muslim forces to go after mosques in other places on ridiculous pretexts).

So, if the city gives land and money (to compensate for having to move everything) then I think the mosque should consider moving. This would be a hard move to make, but it would be a graceful statement and it might do more to increase harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims than sticking with a plan that it is (for no reason) pissing everyone off.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: