By Dr Simon Longstaff, Source: ABC RELIGION AND ETHICS
Have we reached a point in which Muslims may only speak about “safe Aussie topics” such as footy, cooking and so on, or when articulating mainstream values that assuage concern and reinforce the liberal status quo? Have Muslims been relegated to a kind of intellectual ghetto of safe ideas or perhaps to a place of silence – keeping their heads down, unnoticed and therefore unthreatening? If this is where things stand in Australian society, then we had better address this issue with urgency. It is unacceptable that a whole section of society should be rendered “nice” and “harmless” just because they are of the same religion as a few extremists. If that standard was applied, then the majority of the nation would be shut down – as there are extremists in every quarter.
In the course of the past week, considerable controversy has arisen in response to the decision to include within the program for this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) a session with the title, Honour Killings Are Morally Justified.
The organisers (of whom I am one) have been roundly criticised from all quarters – with condemnation from left, right and centre. Some responses have been extraordinarily violent in tone; others thoughtful and tinged with regret.
Given the importance of this matter – and the range of fundamental questions that have arisen, not least about the ethics of presenting such a session – I have decided to offer an account of what lay behind the decision to present this session. People will continue to form their own opinions about this decision, but hopefully then with the benefit of a thorough account of what actually transpired rather than on the basis of mere supposition and rumour. With this in mind, I propose to address the following questions:
- What is the purpose of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and the philosophy behind the program?
- Why present a session on killing for the sake of honour?
- Why present this particular topic title?
- Why select Uthman Badar to speak?
- Why is an Ethics Centre involved in this at all?
- What is the Ethics Centre’s view of the substantive issue?
- What should happen from here?
Some of what follows is simply factual information, lost in the swirl of controversy. Other components are arguments from principle.
But before proceeding further, I wish to acknowledge the feelings of those who were shocked, alarmed and ultimately distressed by the possibility that our society might be open to justifying violence against women or other vulnerable groups – or that discussion of this issue might trigger an indiscriminate “blow back” against Muslims of all opinions. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the decision-making that led to this outcome, there was no intention to prompt outrage or to cause distress. I sincerely regret the hurt felt by people in our community – some of which has been conveyed to me through letters and emails within which people have expressed heartfelt dismay. That is the unintended cost of our decision, and something that I hold in mind as I outline the issues below.
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas – its purpose and philosophy
FODI was conceived by Richard Evans, the former CEO of the Sydney Opera House, and me for a serious purpose. We wished to create a safe place within which people might encounter ideas that would challenge their deepest held beliefs. We knew that, for some people, some of the ideas would be innocuous – there is, after all, no danger in ideas with which you agree. For others, however, the same ideas would be dangerous. Occasionally, we thought, there would be ideas that would challenge just about everyone – crossing thresholds of comfort and acceptability.
The key to putting on a festival of this kind was therefore to ensure that the Opera House (our iconic venue) become a safe place for all, a space within which one might encounter ideas that are – for some or for all – offensive, obnoxious, fearsome, dangerously stupid … whatever, but in conditions of restraint and respectful disagreement.
This is what we have achieved over the past six years. There has not been one incident in which the entanglement with dangerous ideas has got out of control or threatened the welfare of the audience or our wider society. This is despite speakers at FODI offering a range of ideas with the capacity to appal and revolt. Past sessions have included arguments:
- that it is morally justifiable to kill newborn babies;
- that it is morally justifiable to torture terrorists;
- that it is morally justifiable to prefer flogging criminals to their going to prison; and so on.
I believe that we have been able to discuss such ideas because people have trusted the St. James Ethics Centre and the Sydney Opera House to do this in a way that is serious and controlled – trust based on a proven track record.
So, why present such ideas in the first place? What can be the point of discussing ideas that large sections of the community will intuitively reject as wrong? Our objective in presenting dangerous ideas is not that these ideas be promoted or adopted, but simply that they be encountered and, thus, assessed on their merits.
Some people feel that certain ideas and ideologies should be buried in the dark recesses of society. They argue that there are ideas of such a poisonous character as to be silenced forever. We take a different view. The things we loathe and fear do not cease to exist once we can no longer sense their presence. Rather, they grow within the dark places – often taking on monstrous proportions both in reality and (perhaps more often) in our imaginations.
We believe that ideas of all kinds are best exposed to the light of reason and discernment. FODI often helps people to see that the idea that most frightens them is like the Wizard of Oz – just a person behind a curtain playing with smoke and mirrors. More importantly, it allows people to calibrate their own thoughts about the issues that they encounter, knowing better the character of the dangerous idea that they hope to defeat. None of this is possible if the ideas are hidden away.
Finally, we have established the Festival with every intention of canvassing ideas drawn from across the broad political spectrum. I am intrigued by the way in which FODI is confidently labelled as “left wing” by some and “right wing” by others. For example, the invitation to one of George W. Bush’s former White House advisers to make the case for waterboarding was taken as evidence of “right wing” bias. Having Germaine Greer speak on freedom was evidence of “left wing” bias.
Yet, we have had speakers from the Institute of Public Affairs, Centre for Independent Studies and the Centre for Policy Development. We have had radical libertarians who wish to abolish all central banks and champions of state control. We have had atheists like Christopher Hitchens, as well as senior clergy like Cardinal George Pell on why without God we are nothing, and Bishop Julian Porteous on why the Devil is real. Just this year, invitations to speak were extended to Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Jeff Kennett – no doubt evidence of “right wing” bias.
No matter what one does when putting together a program like that at FODI, people will find evidence of bias – according to their prevailing preferences. This comes with the job. What I do not accept is that discussing dangerous ideas is in and of itself a “left wing” or “right wing” project. Rather, it is just what ought to be done in a healthy liberal democracy.
In short, FODI has been established for a serious purpose. It may (at times) be entertaining – but it is no more “mere entertainment” than were the ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles. While it may (often) be provocative, it is not designed as a provocation, but rather as a safe place to encounter what we might otherwise loathe and fear (much as we might do in a museum of “horrors”). It may (always) be politically charged, but it is not a political exercise for one side or the other.
Finally, we thought that people would understand that, as organisers of the Festival, the Opera House and Ethics Centre were not presenting ideas that they necessarily support. It is no more the case that presenting a dangerous idea should imply agreement than it is the case that a theatre company agrees with the distasteful views expressed by characters in the plays they stage.
Why present a session on killing for the sake of honour?
From the very first conversation about what might be discussed at FODI, I have been interested to explore the issue of how and why people might kill in the name of honour, why some examples are considered to be relatively uncontroversial while others have an “incendiary” character. In particular, I was interested to know what might be in the minds of those who are willing to kill their own children. This is an issue that runs very deep in our culture and civilization – one of those issues that remain locked away, especially now that we have come to a point in history where the vulnerability and safety of children is a paramount concern with a power to stir up visceral reactions.
The genesis of my interest in this issue lies in an early encounter with the Bible. From the time I was a child, I was profoundly affected by the scene in the Old Testament where Abraham, faithful to the commands of his Lord, binds Isaac and raises the knife ready to strike dead his son. For the good of all, God intervenes and spares the child. Yet, I wondered, how could it be that the safety of Isaac depended, not on the love of his father, but on the mercy of his God?
This question is even more potent for me now that I am the father of a son and daughter. Everything about the bond between parent and child leads me to believe that killing one’s child is invariably wrong – in some senses unthinkable and in no need of debate. Instinctively, it seems to me that the “wrongness” of such an act exceeds that of the murder of a stranger (although this is highly contestable). Yet, I know that there are some in the world who can and do kill their children. How can this be?
One explanation is that all of those who are prepared to kill their children are just “monsters” – devoid of reason or sentiment. Another explanation is that, like in the Bible story itself, those who kill their children hold beliefs that are the product of another time – formed well before the emergence of modern, liberal and (small “s”) secular views of how a good world should be ordered. I belong to this later world and accept its basic canons including a fundamental respect for human rights, the rule of law and so on. However, I also know that there are people of the “old world” who live among us today – people who believe that a literal interpretation and application of Holy Scripture (in its various forms) should direct the conduct of society as a whole.
It is against this background that I came to think carefully about the phenomenon of so called “honour killing” – in which a parent or family member kills one of their own in order to preserve or restore family honour. In my opinion, to do so is clearly wrong, irrespective of the age, gender, religion – or whatever – of the person killed. Murder is wrong. So why does it still happen? And how does our society think about this matter, especially in relation to the variety of cases where violence is visited on family members?
For example, how should one respond to an elder within an Indigenous community who feels that the penalties prescribed by customary law (the original law of the land) should still be applied, even if this may lead to the maiming or death of a son or daughter? What should be said to the nominal patriot who would send his child to kill or be killed, not in defence of the nation’s borders but its honour (if you think this is fanciful, then speak to a Thai about what should be done to those who dishonor their King)? Finally, what should be said to the person who believes that family honour must be preserved at all costs – not necessarily as a matter of religion, but in accordance with established custom?
Each case involves a worldview in which a person’s child may be killed. Each case is part of today’s world. Each case demands the swift response that “this is wrong.” Yet, I believe that opinion will be divided in relation to at least two of these cases – even here, even today. For example, there will be some who argue that Indigenous people have a prior right to maintain their cultural integrity, or that soldiers who fight and die for honour do so within a lawful command structure. But what of the final case? What possible argument or exception might be offered as justification for this type of killing in the name of honour?
Given that this is not a matter of abstract or historical interest, but is an active issue of concern in the world, should not this be a matter for discussion? And if this is worth discussing (and I still think that it is), then why not find someone willing to articulate the case for how such killing might be morally justified. I should repeat here what I have said elsewhere: to consider the moral justification for a certain practice is not to say that it should be adopted by a society, or legalized or whatever. For example, there are people who will argue that euthanasia is morally justified but who will oppose its legalization. Likewise, some people will argue that torture is, in some cases, morally justified, but would not expect a society (such as ours) to allow it. But more on that later.
In line with the serious purpose which the Festival is designed to achieve, this topic remains worthy of examination – in the conditions of safety we have established and maintained since the initial FODI.
Why present this particular topic title?
There has been a considerable amount of speculation and misinformation surrounding the question of how and why we ran with the topic title, Honour Killings Are Morally Justified. Some people have suggested that the title was chosen by the organisers as a cheap and nasty way to generate publicity. Some have suggested that the topic was forced upon the speaker, Uthman Badar, or that Uthman reluctantly consented to the title which was being called for by the curators. None of this is true.
I think it important that people see “under the curatorial bonnet” in order to understand the care and integrity with which each session is developed. I fully expect that there will be continuing disagreement about the wisdom of what was ultimately decided. However, I would simply invite people to consider the facts before leaping to judgement.
So, here is what happened. For some time now, I have been looking for someone who might be able to offer authentic insight into the reasons why people might be led to kill for the sake of honour – with a particular emphasis on those who kill for the honour of their family. It was easy enough to find people who would argue for why it is wrong. But might someone be found who would explain the other side – not just out of academic interest, but with the degree of insight that only grows out of some measure of sympathy?
I approached Uthman Badar (of whom I will say more later) and began a discussion about how such a session might be run and eventually how it might be described. My opening email to Uthman Badar set out the issue (as above) and then established the context for the session, where I wrote:
“… FODI was founded with the intention that such ideas be explored – not with the aim that laws be altered or opinions changed – but so that those attending might encounter ideas that they would normally reject without ever hearing them explored. So, for example, we have had speakers defending torture as necessary to provide security. We have had someone wanting to abolish all central banks – and another (a Christian Bishop) arguing that Satan is a real person (not just a metaphor for evil).
“So, it is with this background in mind that I am hoping you will agree to speak on the proposed topic. Ideally, we are looking for a speaker who will lay done the arguments that they believe would justify killing for honour (including killing one’s own children) in the extraordinary circumstances where this might be necessary. It may be that the argument needs to be couched in terms of culture and custom – and that there is not an argument for allowing the practice to be followed in Australia. However, it would be up to you to present the dangerous idea as best you can.”
Uthman and I then exchanged a number of emails in which he outlined his views. In summary, he does not support vigilante behaviour by families (or anyone). Rather, he believes that the administration of justice should be according to Islamic Law – ideally, within the politico-religious context of an Islamic Caliphate. In such a state (the Caliphate), crimes – and their associated penalties – would be defined and dealt with, not as a matter of “honour,” but as a matter of Law. For example, the crime of adultery would be punished by death – and so on.
Uthman was then proposing to consider how families might respond in conditions where they are denied the “benefit” of living in a Caliphate. Would they be justified in taking Islamic Law into their own hands when no legitimate magistrate can be found to administer this distinct form of “justice”? As noted elsewhere, Uthman Badar was not proposing to call for this kind of practice to be adopted in Australia. However, he was going to point out other areas where people kill for the sake of honour and that receive less attention. He was, moreover, keen to challenge what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of the liberal democratic West that not only stands in the way of the creation of his preferred Caliphate, but holds views and engages in practices that he does not accept – to any degree.
Given all of the above, Uthman proposed that he discuss other topics that interest him and that he thinks would be considered dangerous. He wrote as follows:
“… I still think the discussion is worthy and doing this would be better than not doing it, but I feel a different topic that gets to the point would be better. Something like ‘Human rights are not universal’, or ‘Liberal values are destroying the world’, or ‘the West should stop exporting its values’ or the broader ‘the West needs rescuing by Islam’. I suggest these because they are dangerous ideas in our context and they get the crux of the matter.
“End of the day the honour killings discussion is, at its essence, a discussion about different ideological/cultural values and practices – in our case western liberal values and Islamic values.”
This was the first mention of a topic title (rather than of an area of interest). I responded to Uthman, and we exchanged a couple of emails in which he further clarified his point of view (summarised above, as best I can). Given all of this, I then wrote to Uthman the following email, the intent of which is self-evident:
“I see, Uthman. You would argue that killing for the honour of the family is wrong (as is killing for the honour of country, religion, flag, etc.). However, I take it that if the Law of God prescribes that the penalty of death for an adulterer – then to impose such a penalty is right. Is this a correct understanding of your position? And if so, is such a penalty prescribed under Islamic Law?
“I ask this, because I do not wish to have you argue a position that is not in accordance with what you believe. Rather, we might be able to open up the discussion about liberalism, etc. by beginning with an alternative dangerous idea – that adulterers should be condemned to death (or some such wording). Would this be a better option – from your point of view?”
As will be seen, the curatorial process had led me to propose a different topic – about the penalties for adultery. This, too, was a genuinely dangerous idea and one that I hoped Uthman would think consistent with his own views. What I did not want him to do was argue a case that he did not believe, and I had no interest in encouraging him to do so. Uthman responded as follows:
“I’d rather not go with the adultery topic. It’s too narrow. If it’s between this and the original, I’d prefer the honour killings topic. What’s the intended wording here?
“If we go with something like ‘Honour killings are morally justified’ or similar, I’d be okay with that. I could define honour killings in a way where I genuinely argue for the case and at the same time touch on the broader issues.”
In that email is the genesis of the session title. The wording was not proposed by the curators, with Uthman merely consenting to our wording. On the contrary, the title for the session was proposed by Uthman, and then it was up to us (as organisers) to accept this proposal or offer a better alternative.
As one might expect, a considerable amount of attention is paid to the session titles and descriptions. They are intended to be read together – that is, the title is not meant (and is not able) to convey the scope of what is to be presented. In this case, we thought that by referring to honour killings (rather than to “honour killing”) people would recognise the broader scope of the session. We also thought that the use of the words “morally justified” would register with the community – in that they would understand the difference between offering a moral justification and advocating for the specific adoption of an otherwise illegal practice.
Of course, we do look to bring out the danger in the idea being presented. There is not much danger in the title, Honour Killings Are Morally Reprehensible. Such a title merely states the obvious and would hardly be deserving of inclusion in a Festival of Dangerous Ideas. And to use that title would have been misleading, given Uthman Badar’s own suggestion about what he wished to say.
Finally, in thinking about the title, we took into consideration past practice and the simple fact that the session was being presented in the context of FODI where there was already an established pattern of presenting confronting session titles. Given that this was the title proposed by the presenter, and given that the session description would offer greater insight, we went with the suggested wording.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think that this was a mistake. At the very least, we should have converted the title into a question –Are Honour Killings Morally Justified? or Is Killing For Honour Morally Justified? Stating the topic as a proposition triggered a visceral response, with an intensity sufficient to prevent further engagement with the rationale behind the session that we hoped to present.
A major point of criticism has been that it was grossly irresponsible (or just plain wrong) to allow the use of a title that would in any way suggest that “honour killing” might be morally justified. I think that, in this case, our critics will have known full well that we (the organisers) do not believe that honour killings are morally justified. But that was not their point. Rather, it was that such an idea should not be allowed to see the light of day. Such criticism goes to the heart of the FODI project – with the implication being that some ideas really are too dangerous to discuss, that their mere mention harms society (or some part of it).
There is one other factor to take into consideration when assessing our original decision – the types of sessions we had run in the past with barely a whimper of protest. As noted above, we have run sessions that one might have expected to cause equal outrage: sessions on genital cutting, torture, infanticide and so on. Given the acceptance of these sessions and the extraordinary way in which the audience regularly engages with topics that offend the deepest convictions of many, we had thought that a session on honour killing would be accepted for what it was – an invitation to think the “unthinkable.” We also thought that people would see this session in the context of the Festival as a whole, where there is a broad spectrum of issues and perspectives (including those firmly set in the ground of a concern for the welfare of women).
So, what lay behind the moral panic that ensued when the now infamous session on honour killings was announced?
Why select Uthman Badar to speak?
I first met Uthman Badar last year, when he spoke in a debate about blasphemy. A number of critics attacked the decision to give Uthman a “platform” to argue his case that God and His Prophets should be protected from insult. The critics objected to him speaking as he is part of an organization that rejects the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy. As noted above, Uthman looks forward to the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, sincerely believing that this is the best – and indeed, the only – way to bring peace and justice to the world. This concept is undoubtedly a threat to Australian life as we know it, and it was because of this that some pretty violent objections to his involvement were made.
However, we pressed on and although I disagree with almost everything that Uthman stands for, I respect his capacity to offer sincere, thoughtful arguments in support of his position. As far as I can tell, he does not wish to force his views on anyone in Australia – he simply wishes to persuade as best he can and within his own terms. That is, he refuses to argue on the grounds that secular liberals define (just as we refuse to argue on his religious grounds). In the end, Uthman spoke in the debate. He was calm, measured, polite and articulate. On this basis, I approached him to see if he might take on the task of discussing the phenomenon of killing for honour – including the more limited case of “honour killing.”
It now seems obvious to me that the choice of Uthman Badar as a speaker triggered a large part of the concern. Criticism has come from two major quarters. First, there have been those who say that it is unfitting for the Ethics Centre and Sydney Opera House to have any association with Hizb’ ut-Tahrir, let alone to offer one of its representatives a platform on which to express his views. The second major criticism has come from Muslims who feel that their position in Australian society has been damaged by allowing an association between a fellow Muslim and the topic of honour killing. Given the broad spectrum of opinion within the Muslim world, why had we picked a person of such extreme views – and a man at that? I will address each of these concerns in turn.
For all of Uthman Badar’s personal charm and sophistication, he is associated with an organization that stands in stark contrast to the dominant values and traditions of Australian life. Uthman is quite clear about where he stands: he does not believe in secular liberalism and his ideal state would be uncompromisingly Islamic in its character. Numerous correspondents have drawn my attention to the more extreme aspects of Hizb’ ut-Tahrir’s platform.
Given my own beliefs – grown out of the Judaeo-Christian worldview, inspired by Enlightenment ideals and grounded in the philosophy of the West – it should not be surprising that I personally oppose much of Uthman’s approach, and would actively oppose his ideals if called to do so. However, this does not mean that I cannot speak to Uthman in courteous and reasonable terms. It does not mean that I cannot exchange with him our differing opinions and arguments – as I would hope to do if living within the Caliphate he works to create.
It is this last point that seems to rile people. It is not just that they object to the views that Uthman represents; they cannot abide the fact that we might afford him an opportunity that would not be allowed if the roles were reversed. As it happens, I do not know that Uthman would personally deny me an opportunity to speak at all (he almost certainly would not). However, I do know that he would curb my ability to say anything that might be deemed blasphemous or more generally insulting to Islam. So, there is an asymmetry – and this is one of the paradoxes of liberal democracy. We are bound by our own principles to provide a platform for people who wish to deny everything that we stand for.
Those who would silence the likes of Uthman Badar often fail to realise that each act of censorship is a minor victory for his side. Each rebuff confirms their suspicion that we are hypocrites and that our claimed commitment to free speech is only partial and insincere. What they believe is that we are only willing to hear the speech of those with whom we agree. There is only one response to this. It is to stand firm and insist that even our staunchest critics be heard. To do otherwise is to surrender our moral authority and, along with this, to curb further the distinctive liberties that we claim to defend.
There is, of course, another dimension to this problem. It arises out of the West’s Christian heritage – and in particular, that most confounding of figures, Jesus Christ. The inheritors of the civilisation he so profoundly inspired and shaped constantly have to reckon with the Sermon on the Mount, with its almost impossible requirement that we “turn the other cheek.” This is Christ’s radical response to evil – that we refuse to become the thing we oppose. It is this idea that hangs over debates about whether or not people like Hizb’ ut-Tahrir should be heard. Do we become as they are? Do we fight fire with fire, seek a metaphorical “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth”? Or do we turn the other cheek?
Even the most secular of liberals will recognise the “echo” of this Christian proposition, and respond to the idea that we must resist becoming those whom we oppose. So it is that liberal democrats are bound to hear Uthman Badar.
This is not to suggest that anyone should have to agree with his views. To the extent that they are extreme or mistaken or whatever, this will be revealed when exposed to the full light of examination. For my part, with two exceptions, I wish there to be the greatest arena possible for people to express their views, no matter how objectionable I might find them to be. My only exceptions would be: (a) to deny the right to declare another person as being “less than fully human” and (b) to deny the right to incite violence against another person. Some people believe that even these limitations are too strict – but that is where I would draw the line in order to help prevent some of the real horrors that we know to be possible when the essential humanity of one group is denied by another. Uthman Badar was never going to speak in those terms, and so it is right that he should have been heard within the safe confines of the Festival.
The second issue arises out of the concerns of Muslims that Uthman Badar’s involvement in a session on honour killings have given them all a “bad name” – hardening prejudices against a community that feels itself to be increasingly vulnerable. I now have a better understanding of this concern than I did a week ago. Of all the points made to me, this is the one that I am most worried about. Alas, I suspect that the situation facing the Muslim community in Australia is such that it was not so much that Uthman was the “wrong kind of Muslim” – opinionated and considered to be “un-Australian” for his views. Rather, I suspect that the Muslim community would have felt threatened by any Muslim (whoever they were) arguing that honour killings are morally justified.
Once again, this gives rise to a paradox. Have we reached a point in which Muslims may only speak about “safe Aussie topics” such as footy, cooking and so on, or when articulating mainstream values that assuage concern and reinforce the liberal status quo? Have Muslims been relegated to a kind of intellectual ghetto of safe ideas or perhaps to a place of silence – keeping their heads down, unnoticed and therefore unthreatening? If this is where things stand in Australian society, then we had better address this issue with urgency. It is unacceptable that a whole section of society should be rendered “nice” and “harmless” just because they are of the same religion as a few extremists. If that standard was applied, then the majority of the nation would be shut down – as there are extremists in every quarter.
I must confess that I do not think we gave sufficient thought to this issue when putting together the session on killing for the sake of honour. Perhaps if we had, then the session title might have been different. Perhaps we would have had Muslims of different opinions on the stage (as we did in last year’s debate about blasphemy, where Yassmin Abdel-Magied provided a counterpoint to Uthman Badar). However, I doubt that we would have wanted to collude with a sentiment that Muslims should simply be seen but not heard when it comes to dangerous ideas.
Why is an Ethics Centre involved in this at all?
As noted above, FODI was established for a serious purpose – to provide a safe place for engagement with dangerous ideas. A large part of the work of the St. James Ethics Centre is devoted to providing charitable services for the relief of the suffering and distress of those who encounter ethical failure. Another part of our work is to help people to strengthen their capacity to make better decisions and to act in good conscience.
We are not “moral policemen,” telling people what to think. Rather, we draw attention to issues of importance and offer insight into ways in which these issues might be addressed. So, we can be found working with soldiers prior to deployment to places like Afghanistan (where they will face the particular challenges of asymmetric warfare) or helping people to work through the options when ‘end of life’ decisions need to be made. Indeed, there is scarcely an aspect of Australian life where we do not offer to assist.
From the dawn of Western civilisation, philosophers (like me) have been engaging in challenging debates. One of my heroes, Socrates, was executed by the Athenian Democracy after being convicted of “impiety” and “corrupting the youth.” Socrates’s real crime was to act as a gadfly, to deserve the status quo to expose, not only his own ignorance, but that of the rich, the powerful and the indifferent. Socrates’s fate (and that of a number of his successors) may explain why philosophers eventually took refuge within universities where it is still safe to discuss any issue – no matter how sensitive.
St. James Ethics Centre was established to operate outside the protective walls of the university, to follow in the steps of earlier philosophers who provoked argument and discussion in public places. We don’t do this for the fun of it, or to cause trouble for its own sake. We do it in the service of an ideal: the living of an examined life, in which we act, not merely in accordance with conventional morality or in conformance with the dictates of authority (sacred or secular) or the mob, but in conformance with a conscious (and conscientious) set of beliefs, dispositions and understandings.
FODI was created to provide an opportunity for people to refine their thinking, within a safe environment, after encountering ideas that they might otherwise not encounter first-hand. The structure of the FODI program is based on a technique regularly used by philosophers in order to test arguments (and personal commitments). The process requires one to imagine extreme (even unlikely) applications of a theory or belief. This is not done in order to provoke outrage, but to test the “boundary conditions” for a belief, theory or argument. Having taken people to the very edge of their comfort zone, the philosopher then seeks to discover why the “boundary” has been drawn at a particular point.
People frequently dislike this process – much preferring to stay within the safety of more familiar (and less challenging) ground. That is understandable. However, it is often the case that we only understand a belief at the point where it is subject to the most extreme challenge. And that is the serious intent of FODI. The deeper philosophical purpose of the Festival is to explore the boundary conditions of society – including its members’ popular and personal beliefs. That is why the Ethics Centre helped to found and continues to be directly involved in FODI.
The Ethics Centre’s view of the morality of “honour killing”
It has been a strange and somewhat disconcerting experience to discover how many people have simply assumed that the Ethics Centre stands for (or agrees with) every idea presented at FODI. Presenting an idea is one thing – agreeing with it is a quite different matter.
In relation to “honour killing,” our view is simple. “Honour Killing” is murder. It is wrong. It is wrong in all cases – irrespective of who is killed (although the vast majority of people killed are women, girls and gay men). In relation to other forms of killing for honour, our view is basically the same. The defence of honour is not sufficient reason to kill (where we typically only allow limited exceptions, such as when people kill as a last resort in self-defence).
It should be said that this issue does draw attention to questions of consistency in society’s approach. Are we selective in who and what we condemn? Can we sincerely say that we apply our principles in an even-handed manner?
What should happen from here?
In the time since the session was cancelled, we have received numerous comments and suggestions (including a few outlining acts of personal violence that the writers wish me to endure). However, in the midst of the blizzard of criticism, there have been a few constructive proposals for how we might now proceed. Our plan is to consider these and other suggestions – something that will be done with considerable care.
What I cannot foresee is our abandoning the core principles outlined above or the core purpose for which FODI was created. In proceeding to the next stage, our task will be to ensure that we look to the interests of the key stakeholders affected by this issue. In the fullness of time, we will review all of our decisions and give an honest account of what we got right and what we got wrong. This article is part of that process.
What I have written here is not intended to shape the reader’s opinion of the original decisions made when creating the session on honour killing. Or perhaps it is – in one respect. I would like the reader to know that we were not “careless” in our deliberation. Nor were we seeking to provoke outrage as a cynical exercise in marketing. Nor did we “set up” a speaker who was forced to argue a case that he did not believe in under a title over which he had no control.
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is an inherently difficult undertaking – and we have delivered five extraordinary festivals, canvassing genuinely dangerous ideas, without encountering serious opposition. This latest incident gives pause for thought – not least about what variables might explain such an intense reaction – an ethical lesson in itself.
Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of St. James Ethics Centre. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Board and other staff of the Ethics Centre or of our partners in curating and presenting the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House.