Richards, Gibson, and Jillette

In a press release today, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League criticizes the "phonies who claim to be horrified by bigotry" because there was a hue and cry over Michael Richards' racist tirade and Mel Gibson's inebriated anti-semitism, but virtually no reaction at all to Penn Jillette's sick and bizarre comments about Mother Teresa of 5 April.

While it is true that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice, it is not true that there is anything like a moral equivalence between what Richards and Gibson said and what Jillette said. Richards and Gibson both made racist remarks, that is, remarks that characterized as normatively deficient those aspects of certain persons due solely to their genetic lineage. To say such things is morally illicit because it holds people normatively responsible for things about them that are not under their control. Jillette's remarks, as ignorant and bigoted as any, were nevertheless not in the same category. He merely said strange and hallucinatory things about Mother Teresa's sexual preferences--a fairly clear case of projection, actually, but not in itself racist or in any other way a characterization of a group of persons on the basis of their birth or ethnic background. He also referred to her as "Mother f****** Teresa", again probably some kind of projection, but not racist. Possibly, in referring to the members of Mother Teresa's order as "f****** c****" he was expressing some sort of vile disdain for women or some deep-seated misogyny, but joining a religious order actually is something that is under a particular individual's control and, hence, counts as something for which they may receive moral praise or blame.

So, while his statement is tantamount to saying that it is really bad to try to do good things, which is not particularly surprising coming from him, Jillette's own little tirade is probably not going to get the condemnation that Bill Donohue would like to see it get.

The difficulty is that it cannot be condemned on quite the same grounds that racist remarks such as those made by Gibson and Richards are rightly condemned. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that Donohue himself expressed some frustration over demands that Gibson apologize, presumably on the grounds that he was drunk. Gibson, I mean, not Donohue. Surely Jillette is far worse than merely drunk! How can you criticize a man who is saying such things? It's like getting angry at a child for throwing a tantrum. You don't get angry at such children, you put them into time out until they can get control of their passions. In the case of someone like Jillette, who has never been and will never be in control of his passions, the prospects of a permanent time out begin to appeal, but it is not the sort of thing that is to be brought about. On the contrary, we are committed to the proposition that freedoms, such as the right to express oneself in a public way, are only morally licit if they apply to everyone in the same way. While it is unfortunate that some folks are not able to express their dissatisfaction with the choices of others without resorting to vile objectification and hatred of women, I don't think that we live in the sort of world where we can reasonably expect to be shielded from such unsavory persons or their bigoted, hate-filled opinions.


Mike L said…
I'm relieved to hear this about Penn Jillette. His revealing what he truly is spares me the need to write a post refuting his brand of atheism. He does a good job of discrediting himself.

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