Penn Jillette and liberalism

I wish everyone I know would watch this video by Penn Jillette. It opens on a silly note, but then gets into some very important points. He talks about atheists from Muslim countries who are stuck between the hostility of their own culture and Americans who hate them as “Muslims.” He distinguishes strongly between regarding an idea as wrong and hating the people who hold it.


That last point is central to liberalism. I should go through the standard explanation that I’m reclaiming the term from the people who appropriated it to mean massive governmental authority, but it gets repetitious. I’ll just link here and note that my liberalism is the opposite of what’s now more honestly called progressivism. You can “progress” toward anything, whether it’s desirable or not.

It’s not just the people who rage against Muslims who need to be more liberal. It’s also a lot of people whom I know. It’s people who think it’s OK to call people they disagree with Nazis but berate the ones who object to such insults. It’s those who demand that I denounce everyone in loose coalitions because a few are loose cannons. It’s the ones who claim free speech doesn’t include “hate speech,” defined as speech they hate. It’s the people who want to silence all expression that offends them, including mockery of that attitude.

Penn isn’t the most philosophically rigorous of libertarians and atheists, and his style sometimes gets on my nerves. But at his best, he presents a wonderful sense of benevolence, and he reminds us that we should try to get along even with people we seriously disagree with. He points out that with few exceptions, they aren’t bad people. This video is Penn Jillette at his best. Skip to 1:25 if you don’t like the comedy at the start.

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10 Responses to “Penn Jillette and liberalism”

  1. otherdeb Says:

    My only quibble with what you are saying is that you note: “But at his best, he presents a wonderful sense of benevolence, and he reminds us that we should try to get along even with people we seriously disagree with.” The concept of benevolence generally implies that one who is superior is granting something to those who are inferior. Other than that, very well-thought-into post.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      Hi, Deb!
      The word doesn’t have that connotation to me. I was at the MASSFILC meeting when I read your comment, so I asked a few other people what they thought. The consensus was that it can have that connotation in some special contexts, the most obvious being “benevolent despot,” but in general it means good will without any connotation of a superior to an inferior.
      The first meaning given in dictionary.com is “desire to do good to others; goodwill; charitableness.” Good will was the meaning I had in mind. Not specifically charitableness; I can feel benevolent toward people who don’t need any help from me.
      The third definition, rather oddly, is one from English history: “a forced contribution to the sovereign.” That would be an inferior (in power, that is, not in any other sense) granting something to a superior.

      • Kevrob Says:

        The Latin roots are “good’ and “will,” also. Reading some sort of social status imbalance into it, necessarily, doesn’t seem right.

        • thnidu Says:

          Etymology is not definition. The connotations are independent of the Latin for almost everybody, the exceptions being (some of) those of us who study etymology and/or Latin.

  2. thnidu Says:

    Thanks for this pointer. I saw your post on Dreamwidth and went straight to the video. Very, very good.

    I put a fairly brief comment there, but I don’t know how to link to it, so (hopefully) by your leave I’ll paste it here:
    ——————————————————————————
    Thank you for this, Penn.

    “Read Full Transcript Here: http://goo.gl/ndibS4” No, there’s no transcript there, just this video and a description/summary/review of it.

    He says something like “We shouldn’t call it Islamophobia, because that’s the wrong word. Islam is an idea, and there’s nothing wrong with hating an idea; it’s hating people — Muslims, in this case — that’s bad.” He’s right in what’s good and bad, but the meaning of a word is seldom just the sum of its parts. Simple proof: If “antisemitism” really meant “hatred of Semites”, it would include hatred of Arabs as well as Jews. Or: Is your cupboard just a board that you put cups on?

    • Gary McGath Says:

      Whatever “cupboard” once meant or where it came from, people understand it today to mean a cabinet for storing housewares. There’s no ambiguity beyond the usual edge cases. “Islamophobia” equivocates among at least three different ideas: unreasoning fear of Islam, negative criticism of Islamic ideas and practices, and hostility toward Muslims as people. It’s a way to bash people, not a clear concept.

      • thnidu Says:

        We’re not disagreeing. Evidently I didn’t set up my counterexample clearly enough.

        I said, «He’s right in what’s good and bad, but the meaning of a word is seldom just the sum of its parts. Simple proof: If “antisemitism” really meant “hatred of Semites”, it would include hatred of Arabs as well as Jews.»
        But “antisemitism” clearly doesn’t mean “hatred of Semites [in general]”, it means quite specifically “hatred of Jews”. Similarly, the meaning of “cupboard” has broadened (as opposed to narrowing in the case of “antisemitism”). I have always held that etymology is not semantics: the origin of a word does not define its meaning.

    • Eyal Mozes Says:

      See Ayn Rand’s “Extremism”, Or The Art Of Smearing for an analysis of the use of anti-concepts; words with a deliberately unintelligible meaning, aimed at smearing anyone who holds certain ideas and making clear public discussion of these ideas impossible. Rand analyzes two examples that are still very much relevant today, “isolationism” and “extremism” (the third example she analyzes, “McCarthyism”, is thankfully mostly forgotten today); many more such anti-concepts have come into use since her time, and “Islamophobia” is clearly one of them.

      Frankly, I find it disturbing that a professional linguist would defend the use of words such as “Islamophobia”, and would see no difference between that and the shift in meaning of “cupboard”. The use of words with or without a clear meaning, and their use for the purpose of communication or for the purpose of smearing, are certainly very important distinctions about how language is used; if professional linguists pay no attention to this, then there’s something very wrong.

      • thnidu Says:

        Please see my reply to Gary’s comment just above. Clearly, I wasn’t clear, as both of you have taken my meaning exactly backwards.

    • Eyal Mozes Says:

      For some reason my link to the article in my last comment doesn’t work; here it is again.


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