A Lost Opportunity

by Peter Blair '12 | 12/1/09 11:00pm

Yesterday, Aaron Golas '07 published an editorial accusing a guest columnist of dismissing "a decades-old tradition of editorial cartooning and centuries-old tradition of satire." This comment was the latest chapter in a two-week long exchange in the pages of The Dartmouth.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ongoing debate surrounding recent comics in The Dartmouth, let me give a quick synopsis. On Nov. 17, Justin Murray '13 published an article in which he discussed tolerance ("An Intolerable Situation"). He raised some interesting points about how a false kind of tolerance, by leading to relativism and cynicism, can inhibit honest, respectful debate. Drew Lerman '10, the author of "The Still North," responded by caricaturing Murray, depicting Murray as professing a belief in "fairy tales" and seeking comfort from a Christ character who doesn't "care if your arguments make any sense" ("The Still North," Nov. 18). A guest columnist, Charles Clark '11, responded to Lerman with a call for respectful and reasoned dialogue on issues of religion ("Constructive Criticism," Nov. 23). Lerman responded to this request with an insulting comic in which a caricatured Clark declares, "Although masturbation is forbidden by the Lord, I never miss it! For whenever I open my mouth to speak, I am essentially performing that very task" ("The Still North," Nov. 30). Finally, Aaron Golas '07 wrote an editorial in defense of Lerman, claiming that Lerman was unjustly accused of ad hominem tactics by Clark.

There are many curious features of Golas' article, not the least of which is his outrage over Clark's characterization of Lerman's comics as "ad hominem" and "anti-intellectual." He describes the comic about Murray as "highlighting the absurdities of someone's position through parody" and advises Clark to "brush up on his logical fallacies." But perhaps Golas should brush up on his literary genres. At least, so says the Oxford English Dictionary. Lerman's comic is not a parody, "a literary composition modeled on and imitating another work for comic effect." Rather, Lerman's specialty is, as Clark correctly labeled it, the lampoon, "a virulent or scurrilous satire upon an individual." Drawing a comic in which you issue cliche, knee-jerk criticisms from the mouths of your caricatured opponents while personally attacking them is the epitome of anti-intellectual, ad hominem tactics. Calling someone's religious beliefs "fairy tales" is not an argument, it's an insult based on nothing but the dogma of secularism's intellectual superiority. If your entire position rests on the assumption that people who disagree with you are stupid, then you cannot fail to "enter the discourse in bad faith."

A double standard runs through Golas' entire article. He suggests that Christians looking for a reasoned debate should "start by refraining from belittling and insulting those of us who aren't sufficiently deferential to their beliefs." A fine principal, but wasn't Clark pointing out that Lerman was "belittling and insulting" Murray for his beliefs? If he is so committed to promoting insult-free discourse, he might have put into his article a sentence or two reproaching Lerman. The most stunning example of this double standard comes when Golas writes, "Ideas and beliefs, however, are automatically entitled to neither respect nor even tolerance." Then he writes, "motivation to enter a discussion requires the impression that one's position will actually be heard and considered." Golas reserves the right to openly scorn others, granting "neither respect nor even tolerance," but demands a respectful audience to discuss his own views.

In contrast to Golas' double standard, intellectual Christians believe both sides deserve a fair hearing. In fact, The Apologia, of which Clark is editor-in-chief and I am an editor, is dedicated to the idea of reasoned discourse between nonbelievers and Christians. In the spring, the magazine published an interview with prominent atheist Daniel Dennet in which Dennet makes the case that religion is a "rogue cultural variance" or the product of poorly performing genes. In light of this, Golas' claim that Clark has "absolutely no interest in considering the merits of [atheists'] arguments" simply does not hold water. Orthodox, intellectual Christianity welcomes honest, reasoned criticism. What it does not welcome is cheap insults, poor arguments and assumptions of intellectual superiority. If Golas and Lerman are ready to shed themselves of those attitudes and tactics, we would be happy to engage with them in what Clark calls "proper academic fashion," in "rational discussion and respectful debate."