Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I Deny Cultists Know Anything About Morality

[There is] a posse of disoriented clerics, who have become so estranged from morally literate theology that they have embraced a new brand of demonology.

At a time when moralisers cannot give any real meaning to classical ideas about right and wrong, they try instead to make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment. So instead of targeting those traditional demons – Satan, say, or witchcraft – [they attack] climate change deniers.

Demonologists are moral entrepreneurs. They turn the problems faced by our communities into moral threats.

Demonologists are intensely hostile to anyone who questions the way they interpret and talk about threats. As moral entrepreneurs, they regard their opponents, not only as irresponsible, but also as potentially evil. From this standpoint, dissidence comes to be seen as an act of moral subversion. The moralising of hazards serves to shut down discussion. At the very least, anyone who questions claims about the alleged gravity of a threat facing mankind is depicted as the stooge or accomplice of a malevolent agenda.

The act of raising questions about a ‘warning’ is now discussed as an insidious deed of denial. Increasingly, questioning things is seen as the moral equivalent of Holocaust Denial. In recent years, people who have questioned the warnings about climate change have been labelled ‘deniers’. The allusion to Holocaust Denial is clear. The implication of this moral condemnation of questioners – the denouncement of critics as ‘deniers’ – is that disbelief itself is a sign of moral bankruptcy.

Believing in a statement of warning is considered to be morally principled; disbelieving the statement, or even just questioning it, is stigmatised as morally corrupt. This transformation of disbelief into a sin was also widespread during the witch-hunts that plagued Europe in earlier centuries. In the era of the witch-hunt, anyone who questioned the existence of demonic forces could be denounced as an ‘associate of Satan’. Such was the power and influence of demonologists that few were prepared to question the existence of witchcraft.

The dogmatic demand to ‘believe’ has become a kind of moral imperative. Moral entrepreneurs argue that victims have a ‘right to be believed’.

Through vilifying their opponents, demonologists attempt to close down discussion and debate. Such intolerance towards alternative and dissident opinions betrays the powerful anti-democratic impulse underpinning contemporary demonology.

This censorious attitude has all the worst features of religious zealotry, and it is strikingly similar to traditional demonology. Demonologists in pre-modern times argued that scepticism about witchcraft was a form of heresy that had to be punished. The Malleus Maleficarum, one of the most influential manuals for witch-hunters, noted that ‘the question arises whether people who hold that witches do not exist are to be regarded as notorious heretics, or whether they are to be regarded as gravely suspect of holding heretical opinions’. It then says: ‘The first opinion is the correct one’. This depiction of scepticism as a form of moral transgression is still around today.

Scepticism towards the received wisdom on global warming, or public health issues such as AIDS, is described as ‘denial’ – and today, ‘denial’ has been transformed into a generic evil. The denial phenomenon has become a kind of free-floating blasphemy, which can attach itself to a variety of issues and problems. One environmentalist writer argues that the ‘language of “climate change”, “global warming”, “human impacts” and “adaptation” are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse’.

The charge of denial has become a secular form of blasphemy. Recently, a book written by someone who is sceptical of today’s prevailing environmentalist wisdom was dismissed with the following words: ‘The text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren’t dying of AIDS, that Jews weren’t singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.’ This forced association of three highly charged issues – pollution, AIDS and the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews – shows how denial has become an all-purpose form of blasphemy.

Once denial has been stigmatised, there are demands for it to be censored. Consider the current attempts to stifle anyone who questions the predictions of catastrophic climate change. Some advocate a policy of zero tolerance towards climate change deniers. ‘I have very limited patience with those who deny human responsibility for upper-atmosphere pollution and ozone depletion’, says one moral crusader, then declaring: ‘There is no intellectual difference between the Lomborgians [those who adhere to the arguments of the ‘skeptical environmentalist’, Bjørn Lomborg] who steadfastly refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming from scientists of unquestioned reputation, and the neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers.’

Increasingly, the heretic is condemned because he has dared to question an authority that must never be questioned. Here, ‘overwhelming evidence’ serves as the equivalent of revealed religious truth, and those who question ‘scientists of unquestioned reputation’ – that is, the new priestly caste – are guilty of blasphemy.

Heresy-hunters who charge their opponents with ‘ecological denial’ also warn that the ‘time for reason and reasonableness is running short’. Crusaders against denial don’t only wish to silence their opponents. In the true tradition of heresy-hunting they also want to inflict punishment on those who deny the true faith. David Roberts, a journalist for the online magazine Grist, would like to see global warming deniers prosecuted like Nazi war criminals. In a vitriolic tone characteristic of dogmatic inquisitors, he argued: ‘We should have war crimes trials for these bastards… some sort of climate Nuremberg.’ At the very least, it seems, these ‘criminals’ should be castigated as the moral equivalents of Josef Fritzl.

If it is not challenged, [this] denunciation of ‘deniers’ will contribute to the consolidation of a censorious mood and climate of anxiety. History shows that crusades against heretics and demons have a nasty habit of disorienting society, and undermining civilised and humanist behaviour.

-- Frank Furedi, on "Really Bad Ideas," for Spiked!