Saturday, October 27, 2007

Watson's Claim To Shame

James D. Watson, the distinguished American molecular biologist whose (scientific) claim to fame was his co-discovery of and contribution to the structure of DNA with Francis Crick, which won him a Nobel Prize, has, once again, taken another huge whack at the legs of his own pedestal privileges of respectability with his recent remark to The Sunday Times that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the testing says not really." Watson has since made a palliative effort to back peddle out of his faux pas, but his efforts seem in vain, and I suspect that this comment will simply find itself shelved amongst the panoply of other racist, homophobic—like the time he told a British Newspaper that women should have the right to abort a child should tests reveal that it is a homosexual—and neurocentric remarks—like the interview in which he suspected Rosalind Franklin of being autistic saying "I'd never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind's behaviour." These remarks are clearly objectionable and certainly misinformed and although it is tempting for me to continue criticizing Watson's remarks or even stoop to low-blow, typical playgroundesque name calling tactics, like pointing out that James D. Watson can be rearranged to spell Madness To Jaw, an accurate description of the processes' involved in his remarks, I think it is better to use Watson's unfortunate gaffe to raise a larger question that pertains to freedom of speech, specifically whether or not that freedom needs constraints.

The question that obviously arises is whether or not individuals should have the right to freely speak their opinions, regardless of what the content of that remark implies. The answer to this question seems to vary based on what country or region in general you ask. In the current book I’m reading American Exceptionalism and Human Rights one of the articles by author Frederick Schauer makes note of the fact that:

the American understanding is that principles of freedom of speech do not permit government to distinguish protected from unprotected speech on basis of the point of view espoused. Specifically, this prohibition on what is technically called ‘viewpoint discrimination’ extends to the point of view that certain races or religions are inferior, to the point of view that hatred of members of minority races and religions is desirable, and to the point of view that violent or otherwise illegal action is justified against people because of their race, their ethnicity, or their religious beliefs. If government may not under the First Amendment distinguish between Republicans and Communists, or prohibit the speeches of the flat-earthers because of the patent falsity of their beliefs, then the government may not, so American First Amendment insists, distinguish between espousals of racial equality and espousals of racial hatred, nor may the government prohibit public denials of the factuality of the Holocaust just because of the demonstrable falsity of that proposition and the harm that would ensue from its public articulation.

As far as I can tell, this viewpoint does not seem to be shared by European States who actually punish individuals such as holocaust deniers in particular or, in general, various other forms of ‘hate speech’. In the United States people such as Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra, for instance, would not be charged with crimes, as they were in Canada, for denying the Holocaust. Bridgette Bardot, a French female citizen, could not be fined for crusading against Islam, urging that individuals of Arab ethnicity be deported, as she was in France.

The U.S. clearly stands apart from the rest of the world in respect to freedom of speech and from what I've read thus far it seems that different countries, not surprisingly, have differing opinions on and ways of dealing with this particular issue. Countries such as Canada, France, and Germany, as well as a few others, all believe in the legitimacy of sanctioning individuals who deny the existence of the Holocaust. Israel, Germany, and France prohibit Nazi flags, images of Adolph Hitler, and various other Nazi items from being sold and distributed. There are numerous other examples of fines and prohibitions made by European and various other countries that differ from the US’ interpretation of freedom of speech.

In the United States, freedom of speech, whether you like it or not, permits groups to freely express their ideas and the First Amendment ensures that the government does not discriminate certain groups based on moral grounds. This is shown by a number of examples, but one in particular that I am aware of is the US government's permission to Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois (a community largely comprised of Holocaust survivors).

I think I personally favor the European/UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination method of making it a crime to engage in the incitement of racial, religious, and ethnic hatred/hostility, but I recognize that in so doing you are entering a moral slippery slope which is indefensible since morals are, after all, relatively relative.

This is largely why questions related to law frustrate me. What seems like a common sense law of necessity that promotes equality through the enforcement mechanism of law is, in an analogy, sort of like punishing murderers with capital punishment. In other words, it is hypocritical to punish the criminal with his own crime. Or it is to me at least...

Btw I just came across this recent NYtimes article on Watson’s recent retirement announcement. (I guess its sort of about time...)

For more on Watson's remarks click here, here, and here.

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