The Ground Zero Mosque and “The Niggardly Principles”

Fine, reasonable, ethical commentators, not to mention Mayor Bloomberg, have argued that the moderate Muslim group seeking to build an Islamic center and mosque within a hand grenade’s throw of Ground Zero is blameless, persecuted, and as pure as the driven snow in its ethics.

They are ignoring the Second Niggardly Principle, which is understandable since I just formulated the Niggardly Principles One and Two today, after carefully reflecting upon what it could be about this matter that has led so many wise people astray.

Several years ago, a white Washington D.C. government worker, the Shirley Sherrod of his time, was fired for using the word “niggardly” in the work place, which was found to be racially insensitive to those whose vocabulary was so limited they didn’t know that the word had nothing to do with race. This incident embarrassed the D.C. government, which is used to being embarrassed, and inflamed pedants. Eventually the worker was reinstated, and the First Niggardly Principle was born, which is as follows:

“No one should be criticized or penalized because someone takes racial, ethnic, religious or other offense at their conduct or speech due to the ignorance, bias or misunderstanding of the offended party.”

The First Niggardly Principle supports the moderate Muslim group in the mosque controversy. As commenter, blogger and ethics expert Bob Stone points out, this group has no connection ideologically or behaviorally with Osama Bin Laden’s violent Islamic followers. Lumping all Muslims, violent and non-violent, moderate or radical, together as equally guilty for the 9-11 attacks is ignorant and unfair. To the extent that opposition to the mosque or criticism of the group’s decision to build the center is based on this ignorance, both opposition and criticism are unjustified.

Imagine, however, a scenario in which the restored government worker with the good vocabulary decided to use the word niggardly at every opportunity, in the presence of those who were most offended by it. Let’s even say he decided to do it, not to aggravate them, but to make sure they understood the word, in the hopes that they would add it to their vocabulary and that of their families. And that his response to any criticism of his aggressive use of a word he knew bothered some of his co-workers—just because of the way the word sounds, and the uncomfortable associations they had to that sound when uttered by a white man—was to say, “Well, you’re just infringing on my right to free speech, you know. And you are discriminating against me, presuming ill will when in fact I am doing nothing that is either wrong or harmful.”

Would that be ethical conduct on the part of the erudite worker?

It would not. It would be unkind, unreasonable and insensitive conduct, because nothing in his job required him to use a word that he knew was, reasonably or not, going to upset his co-workers and be perceived, accurately or not, as a deliberately disrespectful act.

This is where Niggardly Principle Two comes in, which says:

“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

Imagine, if you will, a city in a foreign nation. Let’s call the city Me Lai, just to pick a name out of the air. Now, the nation where Me Lai is has an excellent relationship with the United States, despite the fact that some years ago a U.S. military unit, led by a renegade soldier—let’s call him “Calley”— murdered men women and children in an explosion of racial hatred. There are many survivors of the massacre still living in the city, as well as relatives of the slain. Many in the city of Me Lai  aren’t able to make the sensible and fair distinction between the U.S. military and the renegade soldiers who killed their friends, family members and neighbors. The U.S. has made an agreement to set up a base in the foreign country, which its government now supports and has generously helped in many ways. One of the best-suited places is just outside the city limits of Me Lai, though the base doesn’t have to be there; there are other good locales.  Reports that a U.S. base will be located next to the city, however—just two and a half blocks away, in fact—have children suffering nightmares and many citizens in a panic. Of course, this reaction is completely unfair and irrational: after all, the military was horrified at the renegade massacre, and punished the perpetrators severely. Calley didn’t typify the U.S. military, but he did do his killing in the name of his country and its armed forces. Oddly, some people, especially those whose loved ones he slaughtered, have a difficult time making the nuanced distinction. Go figure.

Is it ethical for the U.S. to insist on building the base by Me Lai?

Of course not. The Second Niggardly Principle applies.  If the U.S. can do its job by building elsewhere, it should.  Why? Because a right to do harm doesn’t make it right to do harm. Yes: if it was important to build a base, and Me Lai was the only place it could be built, fair and reasonable balancing dictates that an emotional objection, even a powerful and wide-spread one, should yield to necessity and rights. In that case, the Principle doesn’t apply.

It doesn’t apply to the Ground Zero mosque, either, if this is really the only place the Islamic center can be built. But it isn’t: the state of New York has offered other property, to defuse the issue. The arguments for building it, therefore, including religious freedom, are ethically deficient. If less harm can be done to third parties while accomplishing the same legitimate objectives, then the ethical course is to cause the least harm, and not to argue that people are stupid, irrational or bigoted because they feel the way they do.

As I said in the earlier post: the Muslims have every right to build their center near Ground Zero.

The Second Niggardly Principle, however, says that they should build it somewhere else. It is the kind and considerate thing to do.


Note: Just so there is no suggestion that the Second Niggardly Principle doesn’t work for irrational Muslim sensibilities too, I want to point out that it is essentially the reason why “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” was unethical.

20 thoughts on “The Ground Zero Mosque and “The Niggardly Principles”

  1. See, now this argument is good, though I don’t expect the controversy to stop even if new negotiations pop up over just where to put the thing (“6 blocks…6 and a half?”).

  2. Masterfully written. Though as a guy who actually likes sequels, I’m already wondering what the 3rd principle could be….

  3. I wish I had legal training to plead Imam Rauf’s case, but I’ll try:

    He’s innocent of violation the Second Niggardly Principle because:
    1) The overwhelming basis for the opposition is malicious. I’ve heard long parts of the community board hearing, and I think every opponent but one angrily blamed the supporters of the project and Islam for 9/11.
    2) Rauf had no reason to expect that his project (community center cum mosque), out of sight and off the path to Ground Zero, and dedicated to inter-faith healing, would offend significant numbers of non-malicious people.

    So, no violation of NP#2.

    • The reason this is hard for me to accept, I suppose, is that I think it is, at very least, “icky,” and I’m not malicious. My wife is bothered by it, and she’s not malicious either. I presume many other non-malicious people are troubled.

      But if most of the opposition is, as you say, malicious, then you’re right that the NP#2 is not being violated.

    • First, I personally believe that religious types expect that what they do (champion the advancement of their religious beliefs) will always offend a certain segment of society. So I accept Bob’s #2 Rauf had no reason to expect that his project would offend significant numbers of non-malicious people”

      Second, I don’t think Jack said one way or another in this specific article that Rauf had violated NP#2. The article, standing on it’s own, seemed very ambiguous and left it to the reader to decide. However, I do think the inference is that Jack would like to see the development of the center moving further away from Ground Zero.

      With those 2 things said, I think if Rauf knew, before they set up shop at this location, what he knows now, I think NP#2 would apply. However, as I said in my first point above, Rauf could not know the extent of the discontent because his industry always anticipates some discontent. I understand (and correct me if I’m wrong) that they have been using the existing building for a period of time and it was only when they wanted to invest in upgrading their facilities that we’ve suddenly condemned their existence.

      Now that Rauf’s finances and planning are tied to this existing location, I don’t think NP#2 applies because this is the only location. As Jack said above It doesn’t apply to the Ground Zero mosque, either, if this is really the only place the Islamic center can be built.

      At one point, it might not have been the only location, but now it is.

  4. Well done, Jack.

    I am not bothered by the construction of the mosque. I am bothered by the demagoguery of the mosque’s defenders, like Bloomberg et. al.

    But I can understand why some would be bothered by it, even if ignorance or irrational fear is the reason. Malice, as one person suggested, is surely a minority of the reason that it is opposed, perhaps even a small minority.

    One wonders if the tone deafness of the Muslims constructing the building is innocent, or intentional. I suppose we shall never know.

    • Glenn, your reaction, and your last sentence, are further proof for me that rational, non-malicious, non-bigoted Americans find the location (and enormity, given the location) of the Center unseemly, needlessly offensive and provocative, and inappropriate.

    • “Enough”?
      “Plenty of…”?
      “More than the bigot-baiting commentators would have us believe”?

      I’d say closer to “most” than “few,” but definitely not “all”. A day ago I talked with a Muslim cabdriver who thought building the Center there was certifiably insane, and would only intensify suspicion and tensions. He was pretty rational. Good driver, too.

  5. Jack,
    I might agree with your point concerning the second niggardly principle, except that there’s no justification that, if moved, the community center would face any less opposition. Even if they decided to move the whole project to Brooklyn, or New Jersey, the residents there could make similar claims as it’s still “too close” to ground zero.

    Moreover, assuming we were to adopt Niggardly Principles 1 and 2, why is it that two is the more important? Frankly, ignorance and intolerance shouldn’t be cow-towed to, which is exactly what this issue amounts to. Different things are going to be viewed as offensive by different people, so at what point does it become malicious, and thus invoke the 2nd Niggardly principle? If anything, this is just another case of NIMBY more than anything else.

    Finally, there was a case locally some years back in which a Muslim congregation planned to build a mosque in the Sugarland area (a small town just outside of Houston), except some of the local residents found it offensive and tried blocking it’s construction (even going so far as to host pig races on the property next to it). Were they justified?


    • I think one and two are equally important.

      There are other mosques in NYC, and none caused any controversy to my knowledge.

      Obviously the second Niggardly principle wouldn’t apply in the Houston example. That’s just bigotry, plain and simple. None of the world’s great religions are blameless or inherently wrong– There’s a significant difference between “no mosques” and “no mosques” in the shadow of Ground Zero. The first is indefensible. The second may be misguided or imprudent or unfair, but it is defensible.

  6. Niggardly Principle #1:
    You have the right to swing your fist.
    Niggardly Principle #2:
    Your right to swing your fist ends when you swing it towards my head.

    — OR —

    Niggardly Principle #1:
    Mom and Dad should not have punished you for hitting your little brother just because he SAID you hit him.
    Niggardly Principle #2:
    Playing “I’m not touching you” is NOT an acceptable alternative.

    Did I get that right?


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  9. Dear Jack: I would not be surprised if the people who want to build the mosque voluntarily decide, in the interest of goodwill, to find another location. (Such an outcome would be acceptable; and if a move were made voluntarily, no one’s constitutional rights would be violated.) But I would not be surprised if many opponents of the mosque voice opposition, no matter where in Manhattan the mosque might be built. (One of my friends insists, for no clear reason, “They have to go at least a mile away or they’re still too close.” I am not sure who decides what distance is “too close.”) I am worried, though, that if the mosque is voluntarily relocated, some of the most strident (and bigoted) opponents of the mosque will perceive that as a a victory for them and as a precedent. And we will then see opposition to proposed mosques–wherever they are to be built in the US– become more common in the US. And the valuable principle that Muslims should be treated the same as Christians, Jews and everyone else, will be compromised. Incidentally, there already is a small store-front mosque just three blocks from the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque”; it’s been there for years. If people now choose to find that store-front mosque offensive, do they have a right to pressure it to move? And if its existence (which predates 9/11) does not offend anyone, would moving the “Ground Zero Mosque” just a few blocks away satisfy opponents? Somehow, I think not. I don’t think there’s an easy solution here.

    • There isn’t now. I think the initial decision to call it the “Ground Zero Mosque” was criminally stupid, and waiving a red flag in front of a diverse group of likely opponents. There are a lot of bigots in this fight, and a lot of cowards (the politicians) and quite a few people who aren’t bigots but who are still appalled at what seems to be plain bad manners and taste. There’s nothing bigoted about suggesting that your guests watch “The Wizard of Oz” and “those cute, funny Munchkins” when one of your guests is a dwarf—but it’s unnecessary and thoughtless. I once spent some time with John Erlichmann’s son—I had every right to suggest that we go to see “All the President’s Men,” but boy, it would have been stupid. Those who make a blanket pronouncement that everyone who thinks the mosque should be somewhere else is a bigot are just as bad as the real bigots, and just as obstructive to a rational discussion and resolution

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