Pope Francis yesterday used violent rhetoric about punching a friend if they insulted his mother. While I support the Pope’s right to use such rhetoric, in the context of a discussion about free speech, I disagree with its content. I think that it is unhelpful and irresponsible. I think that such language by a public figure about a mass murder, even when intended rhetorically and humorously, can contribute to civil dialogue being replaced by increased hostility.
PZ Myers has also criticised the Pope’s violent rhetoric. But the Pope’s rhetoric is less violent and less prolific than the rhetoric that PZ himself has used about stabbing Christians, pitching people off a pier, shanking somebody in the kidneys, shooting priests from the sky, sticking a knife in a bastard and twisting it for a good long while, and rhetorically handing people a rotting porcupine and telling them to stuff it up their nether orifice.
The violent rhetoric of Pope Francis
Here’s what triggered PZ’s criticism. Pope Francis said yesterday that he would punch a friend if they insulted his mother, when answering a question about the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. See the video, not the text, in this Guardian article for the Pope’s full statement.
“I believe that you cannot react violently, but if my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. This is normal. It is normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.
Many people who speak badly about other religions, or religion, who make fun of them, make other people’s religion a joke, well, that is a provocation. And then things can happen, like if Mr Gasparri had insulted my mother. There is a limit, every religion has dignity, every religion that respects people…
What happened in Paris we find incredible, but let’s look at our own history. How many wars of religion have we had?.. This person gives their life, but they give it in a bad way. Many people who work, and I think of missionaries for example, they give their life but to construct. These people give their lives, killing and destroying. There is something here that is not right.”
PZ Myers responded with a post titled ‘A Papal Conundrum’, writing:
“Uh-oh. The Pope has just grossly insulted my beliefs. I believe you have a right to criticize anything — I go further and think you have an obligation to criticize. I also believe that violence is never the answer, and that the proper response to words is more words, not flinging punches. But look at what this pope is saying, violating what I hold dear.
By his own principles, I guess if ever, in some catastrophic, ugly, unpleasant stroke of bad fortune, I were to meet the pope, I’d have to punch him for provoking me. Wait. No. Fuck the pope. I’m going to reject his principles and refuse to punch him. I might have to say something about his mother, though — like that she seems to have raised him with a kind of stupidly pugilistic morality. Or was it his church that screwed him up?”
The violent rhetoric of PZ Myers
But what values that PZ holds dear has Pope Francis violated? It cannot be rhetorically saying that he would react violently to an insult, because PZ has a history of rhetorically writing that he would react violently in certain circumstances, and of using other violent rhetoric.
For example, in May 2014 PZ saw the movie ‘God’s Not Dead’, and he then wrote (source and context):
“I left the theater filled with contempt and loathing for Christians… I’ve got to start carrying a knife now. Just so all you Christians know, if I’m in a fatal accident, and I’m lying in the street dying, and you’re not running over to stop the bleeding or otherwise physically help me, and you try to pull that prayer-and-conversion shit on me, I’m going to stab you. I’ll have nothing to lose, and you sure as hell don’t deserve to continue living. I don’t like violence, but I will make an exception for this one possible circumstance.”
There are similarities between the two uses of violent rhetoric. Both Pope Francis and PZ Myers combine a statement that they do not support violence, with an exception where they say they would be willing to do so. So I assume that neither the Pope nor PZ are proposing that they would actually use such violence, but are merely using it as a humorous metaphor for how annoyed they would be if they experienced the insults they describe.
There are also differences between the two. Pope Francis says that he will punch somebody, while PZ says he will stab somebody. And, as far as I am aware, this is the first time that Pope Francis has used violent rhetoric, while PZ uses it more often. Here are some examples:
(About his blog, 2011) “This is a rude blog. We like to argue — heck, we like a loud angry brawl. Don’t waste time whining at anyone that they’re not nice, because this gang will take pride in that and rhetorically hand you a rotting porcupine and tell you to stuff it up your nether orifice…” Source
(About drawing knives and flensing) “I hate that faux-Vulcan shit so many skeptics and atheists love to pull, but I’m not forbidding it — I encourage the commentariat here to instead draw their knives and flense it so thoroughly the dispassionate ass is feeling the pain in every nerve ending.” Source
(About shanking Thunderf00t) “Now Rebecca Watson shanks him in the kidneys and mocks him cruelly. Trigger warning for sad ex-paragon of anti-creationism being publicly exposed as a moral cretin.” Source
(About going for a meal in Seattle) “The watchword for the evening is “casual”. Pleasant conversation. Friendly discussion. No pressure, no worries. Don’t show up to pick a fight or we’ll pitch you off a pier.” Source
(After a priest died when carried away by balloons in a charity fundraiser) “I think this is my favorite newspaper headline yet… I am imagining a day when every priest in the world stands smiling beneath a great happy bobbing collection of many-colored balloons, and they all joyously loft themselves up, up into the sky… This will be my new dream. It will bring a smile to my face as I fall asleep. And as long as I’m dreaming, I’ll imagine myself with an ultralight aircraft and a BB gun, buzzing above a great Sargasso of wind-gathered balloons.” Source
(About William Lane Craig) “I’d rather get his words down in writing, where I can pin him down, stick a knife in the bastard, and twist it for a good long while. Longer and with more detail and rigor than is possible in a verbal tussle.” Source
Two other interesting observations
Two other interesting issues arise from PZ’s response to Pope Francis’ statement.
Firstly, if PZ did choose to insult Pope Francis’ mother, why would he choose to insult her by saying that “she seems to have raised him with a kind of stupidly pugilistic morality”? Surely both of his parents would be equally responsible for raising him in whatever way he was raised? Why would PZ single out his mother as if a child’s mother is responsible for raising the child?
Secondly, in another post on the same topic, PZ links favourably to a video by somebody else criticising the Pope, and PZ says ‘Somebody is a little pissed off by the Pope… Hey, that’s how I feel about him all the time!’. In the comments of that post, PZ adds (about the maker of the video, not about the Pope):
“Yeah, I know. It’s a guy who made excuses for a serial sexual abuser, and I do hold that against him. But the video did reflect my feelings about the pope, so I went with it for that reason only.”
It is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out the ethics that PZ applies to his writing.