Religion, Respect, and Responsibility: A Letter to the Hotel Industry
by Marcus J. Ranum
July 29, 2012
A letter on religion, pornography, and business ethics written by an opinionated individual, inspired by a letter written by "two prominent public intellectuals - one a Christian, one a Muslim" - sent to hotel industry executives last week. ( See: The Public Discourse
I write to ask you to stop offering religious programming on your in-room televisions and hosting religious texts (such as the Gideon's bible) in your company's hotels. I make no proposal here to limit your legal freedom, nor do I threaten protests, boycotts, or anything of the sort. I simply ask you to do what is right as a matter of conscience.
I am nobody of importance a private individual with my own opinion. I appeal on the basis of a commitment that should be shared by all people of reason and goodwill: a commitment to human dignity and the common good. As autonomous individuals, we all seek a society in which young people are encouraged to respect others and themselves - treating no one as a lesser object or despised thing. I hope that you share my desire to build such a society.
Religion is degrading, dehumanizing, and corrupting. It undermines self-respect and respect for others. It reduces persons - creatures bearing profound, inherent, and equal dignity - to the status of objects that are little more than the playthings of cruel and capricious supreme beings. It robs a central aspect of our humanity - our self-worth - of its dignity and beauty. It ensnares some in addiction. It deprives others of their sexuality and encourages paternalism and misogyny. It teaches our young people to settle for the cheap satisfactions of lies, rather than to do the hard, yet ultimately liberating and fulfilling, work of establishing one's own understanding of our lives and values replacing introspection and choice with lies based on bronze-age myths.
I recognize that I am asking you to confront a profitable set of of your customer-base, but I hope that you will muster the conviction and commitment to rationality to make that decision and to explain it to your stockholders. I urge you to do away with religion in your hotels because it is morally wrong to seek to profit from the lies, degradation, or subjugation of others. Some might say that you are simply honoring the free choices of your customers. However, you are doing much more than that. You are propagating the lies of religion - lies for the sake of profit. That is unjust. Moreover, the fact that religion is sometimes is chosen freely does not make it right; nor does it ensure that the choice will not be damaging to those who make it or to the larger community where the lies, patriarchy, and misogyny of religion flourish.
I beg you to consider the young person who is depicted as plaything of these capricious and irrational gods, as nothing but a bundle of guilty, inferior meat whose entire purpose in the universe is to be "born into sin" - according to hypocritical bronze-age mountebanks. Today, the intellectual and financial heirs of those mountebanks attempt to continue to propagate their wicked lies, by attacking people's sense of self-worth, treating women as a second-class gender and belittling those who have found love with the same sex. Surely we should regard those women oppressed by religion taught that they are lesser beings as if they were our own mothers or daughters; religion still tries to teach that half our population is lesser because of an accident of their birth. Every woman is a precious member of the human family, as is every homosexual, yet religion fights ferocious rear-guard battles on every front as it attempts to influence public policy so as to deny basic human rights based on people's sex or sexual orientation. You may say that the religious freely choose to compromise their dignity in this way, and in some cases that would be true, but that gives you no right to encourage their self-deception for the sake of financial gain. Would you be willing to profit from someone being subjected to religious indoctrination if she were your sister? Would you be willing to profit from someone being told they were a second-class citizen of the world if they were your own beloved daughter or gay/lesbian child?
Furthermore, I trust that you need no reminding of the fact that something's being legal does not make it right. For example, imprisoning homosexual men and women "hating the sin but pitying the sinner" - was, for countless shameful years, perfectly legal. As was institutionalized economic abuse of women. In some circumstances, it even made financial sense for hotel owners and operators in religious cultures to engage in segregationist practices even when not compelled by law to do so. In some islamic countries, of course, gender segregation (based on religion) continues to carry the force of law. However, this was deeply morally wrong. Shame on those who denied their brothers and sisters the equal treatment to which they were morally entitled. Shame on you if you hide behind legality to encourage religious bigotry and villainy in the pursuit of money.
My purpose is not to condemn you and your company but to call you to your highest and best self. I have no desire to hurt your business. On the contrary, I want you and your business to succeed financially - for your sake; for the sake of your stockholders, employees, and contract partners; and for the sake of the communities that your hotels serve. I believe that the properly regulated market economy serves the good of all by providing products and services at reasonable prices and by generating prosperity and social mobility (Except for where it applies to women and homosexuals). But the market itself cannot provide the moral values that make it a truly humane and just institution. We - owners, managers, employees, customers - must bring those values to the market. There are some things - inhuman things, unjust things, de-humanizing things- that should not be encouraged. There must be some things that, for the sake of human dignity and the common good, we must refuse to encourage - even it if means forgoing profit.
I write this letter as a parody of the original version by Robert P. George and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
. In their original letter, they make a point of mentioning their religious affiliations and the organizations that they are associated with, while simultaneously disclaiming those relationships as not relevant or unofficial. Unlike them, I feel that my words are sufficient without having to invoke supernatural morality or my (fully supportive) employers.
Sincerely,Marcus J. Ranum
I recently stumbled across the letter by Robert George and Hamza Yusuf, and it took me several days to decide whether I was amused or disgusted. I'm still unsure, but the answer is probably "both." It's as if the pot wrote an open letter to all kettles explaining that, "while blackness is not bad per se, you really should try to avoid it because it's immoral." In their letter, they get a few things right and the vast majority horribly wrong. First, let's dispatch the thing that they got right:We are, respectively, a Christian and a Muslim, but we appeal to you not on the basis of truths revealed in our scriptures but on the basis of a commitment that should be shared by all people of reason and goodwill: a commitment to human dignity and the common good.
While simultaneously claiming religious credentials ("We are, respectively, a Christian and a Muslim") they acknowledge that there is no truth behind their claims other than an appeal based on reason. That is the one thing they got right: their appeal stands or falls based on the strength of the argument that follows.
Or, rather, it would stand on the strength of their argument if one actually did follow. But it doesn't George and Yusuf proceed to effectively beg the question by assuming from that point forward that we are all already in agreement that porn is bad. I beg to differ.A Degradingly Bad Argument
There are arguments that can be made against pornography, and generally they fall along an axis that George and Yusuf roughly sketch namely that porn can be exploitative and can be interpreted as "degrading" to its participants or consumers. The latter is a circular argument because:Porn can only be "degrading" if you've already decided that it's wrong.
George and Yusuf are, presumably, making that assumption based on their explicitly disclaimed religious beliefs. Certainly, religions teach that pornography is wrong, but like George and Yusuf religion avoids the knotty philosophical problem of coming up with an argument for why it is, actually, wrong. A conventional argument for porn's wrongness is as I implied above that it could be seen as exploitation. The vast majority of commercially produced pornography is, however, produced as part of an economic transaction between consenting adults. Indeed, pornography in which the parties appearing in it cannot give consent is illegal the only situation in which that happens is if the party is an animal, a minor, or is non compos mentis. The courts, society, and most moral philosophers would argue that it is wrong to produce pornography in which the subject is coerced because, by definition, it would not be pornography anymore, it would be "rape."
In the 1980s feminists such as Catharine McKinnon
and Andrea Dworkin
made impassioned arguments that attempted to equate pornography with rape, sexual discrimination, and human-trafficking. In the years since, neither society at large or the courts have agreed with those arguments; it's a tough sell to claim that one can choose to be forced to do something. That whole line of reasoning falls apart when confronted with the fact that there are plenty of sex-workers who feel they are happy and emancipated, who have chosen their career not the other way around. As I said earlier, society and the law's response to this problem is to clearly delineate pornography made by consenting adults from the products of sexual assault, in which the victim is non compos mentis, drugged, or not of age to consent. We therefore have an effective social standard, not based in intangible religious ideas, that allows us to determine what pornography is consensual and what is illegal, immoral, and criminal. Having seen the fare that's offered in most hotels (generally cropped and edited hard-core movies that are toned-down version of mainstream consensual pornography) I find it unlikely that any hotel would offer criminal pornography, let alone extreme "obscene" pornography or illegal material such as child pornography.
In other words, George and Yusuf are barking up the wrong tree, and they know it. They're hoping to sway the reader by presupposing agreement with their own underlying religious biases the very "revealed truth" that they disclaim in the opening of their disingenuous letter. Further, they deliberately use an emotional appeal to the readers' self-interest (disguised as empathy) to try to sway us when the weakness of their argument can't.
From the first paragraph on, George and Yusuf's letter descends into a comedy of errors. There are two main problems with the rest of the letter, which I'd like to address in order. First off, you have the problem of George and Yusuf's own underlying misogyny. Secondly, there is the hypocrisy of wishing to invoke privilege for their carefully-disclaimed religious opinion.Misogyny For Dummies
George and Yusuf's original letter reads:We beg you to consider the young woman who is depicted as a sexual object in these movies, as nothing but a bundle of raw animal appetites whose sex organs are displayed to the voyeurs of the world and whose body is used in loveless and utterly depersonalized sex acts. Surely we should regard that young woman as we would regard a sister, daughter, or mother. She is a precious member of the human family. You may say that she freely chooses to compromise her dignity in this way, and in some cases that would be true, but that gives you no right to avail yourself of her self-degradation for the sake of financial gain.
Have you noticed that George and Yusuf apparently only concern themselves with the female
involved in the pornography? Thus, George and Yusuf reveal their own sexism! If pornography is degrading, it would be degrading to everyone in it, would it not?
Instead George and Yusuf focus only on the female "methinks they doth protest too much" they are the ones who are holding the female porn actress as "degraded" and giving the males a pass. Presumably this is one of those unspoken-of "revealed truths" in their assorted scriptures that women are the victim, the target, and that the men (as usual) are free to point the finger of blame at the women. It's just icing on the cake that George and Yusuf offer their sanctimonious concern only for the "young
woman" what we're seeing here on public display is the byproduct of the deeply embedded misogyny of the abrahamic faiths.
Abrahamic religions hold women to blame for inspiring lust in the male. It's the young woman in the pornography that is degraded, not the male actors that are fucking her or the person sitting in the hotel room with a hand full of lotion watching the movie. This is the same mind-set that makes it the muslim woman's responsibility to hide herself so that men will not lose their minds with lust in her presence. George and Yusuf complain:Some might say that you are simply honoring the free choices of your customers. However, you are doing much more than that. You are placing temptation in their path - temptation for the sake of profit. That is unjust.
Got that? It's those horrible women in porn tempting the poor men who simply cannot control themselves and watch ESPN in the hotel room, instead of porn. George and Yusuf save both their "concern" and blame for the women (and apparently only the young women, at that) and, in doing so, reveal that their concern is more prurient than they'd obviously like to admit. Because, indeed, if they were concerned with morals and placing the blame for temptation, they wouldn't try to make it so that only the women are degraded and only the men are tempted. What else but paternalism should we expect from the faithful?
I find the hypocrisy of these men of faith to be jaw-dropping. On one hand, they are members of the two religions in human history that have done more to hold women down, and belittle them, and they're wagging a finger at the world saying "you are so bad!" while their very notion of "bad" is presupposed by their misogynistic religions!
This is a textbook example of how religion fails to serve as a moral compass. But, as if that wasn't enough, George and Yusuf attempt to argue that "what is legal is not necessarily right" using the example of racism:Furthermore, we trust that you need no reminding of the fact that something's being legal does not make it right. For example, denying black men and women and their families access to hotel roomsand tables in restaurants, as well as other amenities and opportunitieswas, for countless shameful years, perfectly legal.
Let's ignore for a moment that religion was one of the primary justifications for slavery and racism in human history, and that George and Yusuf's "revealed truths" concern themselves embarrassingly with how to buy and sell people, while encouraging racial genocide and apartheid. Using "what is legal is not necessarily right" is a flat-out bizzare argument coming from two people whose entire argument is little more than "what is the will of the gods is necessarily right." Ignore that the will of the gods is racist, misogynistic, genocidal, and homophobic. Ignore that Yusuf's religion supports child marriage and polygynous marriage. Ignore that Yusuf's religion grants its martyrs virginal sex-slaves with self-regenerating hymens in the afterlife. Ignore that George's religion promotes the moral example of a man offering his daughters as sex toys for a guest, and recommends slaughtering and enslaving everyone in a town while saving those young women who have not lain with a man as sex slaves. At best, George and Yusuf are not in a position to pose as moral teachers. At worst, one might argue that you're more likely to be on the right side of a moral problem if you do the opposite of what George and Yusuf's "revealed truths" recommend. Only an atheist or an adherent of a non-misogynistic religion can even hope to make a solid argument against pornography.A Matter of Opinion
Now, let us return to the thing that George and Yusuf got right: their opinion. Initially, they frame their letter as offering their opinion on a moral issue, without an overt appeal to the authority of their "revealed truths" or institutional credentials. As such, their opinion has to win or lose based on how well they argue it. They, correctly, point out that they do not wish to threaten or coerce:We make no proposal here to limit your legal freedom, nor do we threaten protests, boycotts, or anything of the sort. We simply ask you to do what is right as a matter of conscience.
By doing so, they remain within the realm of civil discourse and implicitly acknowledge that they have entered into the battlefield of opinions and ideas, in which sauce for the goose is equally applicable to the gander. That is why I cast my parody of their letter by simply replacing "pornography" with "religion" and tweaking the text to suit. One of the crucial tests for whether speech or action should be free is to ask yourself, "do I engage in similar
speech or action that I enjoy the freedom of?" and, if the answer is yes, you should consider carefully whether restricting another's action is a good idea. Even in a democratic society, we try to prevent the "tyranny of the majority" from making illegal that which is merely unpopular, because we acknowledge that someday our own actions may be unpopular. Put differently: Rolling Stones' fans should not push for a ban on the music of Justin Beiber, because some day Led Zeppelin fans might ally with Sisters of Mercy fans and ban the music of the Rolling Stones.
At this point I should add, for those who don't think carefully, that I do not actually
support any kind of restriction on religion's rights to carry their messages of servility by any means they choose. They're as welcome in my hotel room as CNN, pornography, and Justin Beiber videos. Because, unlike George and Yusuf, apparently, I know where the remote is, and how to use it.
In the battlefield of opinions, it is the best-argued, and best-supported opinions that will carry the day. In a sense, this is the ultimate form of moral relativism, because we're implicitly acknowledging that we are not necessarily right. George and Yusuf fail at this, too, since they presuppose that what they ask is "right" while simultaneously acknowledging that it is a matter of mere opinion. Well, which is it?
I can answer that question for you: it's an opinion that they think is right. Obviously, I don't. I assume that, if they ever happen to stumble upon my parody of their letter, they'll recognize that it's me offering my opinion, as well. All too often when someone speaks out against religion's privileged status in society, we get screechings of indignation from the faithful. Because, you see, the faithful "know" they are right so their opinion is extra-special because they "know" it's a fact. That's what the "revealed truths" bit:[W]e appeal to you not on the basis of truths revealed in our scriptures
is really saying. Did you catch that? "We're right, but we're not appealing to you based on the fact that we know we're right." They're just some really humble guys offering their opinion as if it's fact.
I wonder, when you tally up the facts, which of these letters is more truthful?Moral Teachings
Believing that we are put here on Earth for a special purpose by a supreme all-powerful asshole, who monitors our behaviors and punishes us with eternal agony for disobeying is enough to make any moral relativist wince. Speaking of "degradation" and "dehumanizing" can you imagine anything worse? Because the implication, hidden behind George and Yusuf's letter, is that god is watching over you while you're sitting in that hotel room with a hand full of lotion, and that god is judging the young woman on the television as having been "corrupted" and "degraded."
A humanist argument about hotel room pornography would have been based on the economic privilege men enjoy (largely thanks to religion!) and how it often translates into less-privileged people in society being pressured into taking work that they find unpleasant or degrading. A humanist argument about hotel room pornography might have introduced the comparative wealth at the top of the pornography industry's pyramid, versus the workers at the bottom. Indeed, a humanist argument about hotel room pornography would have resembled a marxist critique or a socialist call for economic equality and equality of opportunity. As an atheist and a humanist, it's my opinion that religion serves as one of the buttresses of social privilege and one of the greatest regressive forces against sexual equality known to man. That's not based on "revealed truths" it's based on an interpretation of recorded history and hard facts about gender-based economic unfairness worldwide. Here's another fact for you: the more secular societies are, the narrower the economic gap between women and men. We also find that the more secular societies are, the better the educational opportunities are for women, and the more available are female-choice-centric contraceptives. If George and Yusuf really wanted to help those young women they would be more concerned with allowing them to get a decent education so they could have better careers, and giving them more choice over when and if they get pregnant.
My hobby is photography and I frequently hire nude models to pose for me. I won't claim to be able to read their minds and say for certain that none of them have ever felt degraded or corrupted. But I know for a fact that many of them are happy to take advantage of their appearance to get paid 4 to 10 times what they'd get paid in a secretarial or retail job. Personally, I'd rather take my clothes off for a living, too, than work at McDonalds' or WAL-MART. But I'm fortunate and privileged (being white, male, and born of parents who could afford my fine education) and that wasn't a decision I had to make. As one of the privileged, the last thing I want to do is tell someone who's lower on the ladder of economic opportunity that it's their own damn fault that they're in the situation that they were born into I'll leave that kind of belittling abuse to religion. Religion is really fond of making people feel bad and guilty about being as they were born.
George and Yusuf's letter reeks. It reeks, in every sentence, of male privilege, religious privilege, and presuppositional self-righteousness. Reading it made me feel dirtier, and more embarrassed, than any pornography I've ever seen including "two girls, one cup."