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.