Death threats

No, I’ve not (yet) received any here, but I was musing about those received by that dentist who shot the lion a week or two ago. There seemed to be, in the general media, some idea that he brought such consequences on himself. Over here Louis Theroux, a telejournalist who has done documentary work on wildlife poaching in Africa, opined that he would now know what it feels like to be hunted for 36 hours, as his target was.

Well, I guess it’d easy to sympathise with that in the face of such crass machismo stupidity, but the likelihood is that the response of the US gun lobby, and perhaps the perpetrator himself, would be that such death threats show what dangerous psychopaths there are out there, and confirm the overwhelming need for the God-fearing Bungalow Bills of America to carry offensive weapons without let or hindrance.

And they would, in the first statement, be right: receiving death threats actually says nothing about the moral status of the person receiving them, but condemns those making them without further enquiry. That’s demonstrated by the fact that pretty well anyone who says or does anything that somebody else finds controversial nowadays receives death threats almost as a rite of passage, whether they’re advocating the death of gays or defending the lives of asylum seekers. I suppose (though there’s no guarantee) that different people threaten different public figures, but death threats, and lesser forms of abuse along the lines of “You will rot in hell” or “We’ll get you for your hate-crime” are always a finger pointed back at the sender.

The wonder is that there is still propaganda mileage to be gained by saying you’ve received hate mail. In the context of the LGBT agenda, for example, to put out a news story about some famous transsexual receiving death threats is intended to demonstrate the irrational “phobia” of any opposition to the program.

Mike Gene did a piece a while ago about Richard Dawkins’ periodic public review of his hate mail, in order (of course) to show the bigotry of religion. As Mike pointed out it shows no such thing, of course – just that there are fools out there – and in his piece he made a good case that some of this stuff has marks of being produced as anti-Christian propaganda anyway, with unlikely spelling mistakes, religious views that nobody ever held etc.

Whether that’s so or not, the comments on any religious story in the press show that mindless invective must be received by famous preachers as much as famous atheists, whether or not they air them on their websites or just delete them. Only today, a story in the Independent about some hick in small-town America, who justified kidnapping a teenager for sex by some Old Testament passage, was followed by the usual mass of irrational comments about the evils of the Old Testament, Christianity, and “organised religion” (as if any religion ever organised for perverts to imprison secret sex-slaves).

Just as the press found it easier to understand why people would send hate-mail to a “when something moves, you shoot” dentist than why Muslims would respond similarly to Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons, it’s possible to understand some people’s motivations in this respect. I always remember visiting a sweet old great-granny and being surprised, glancing down at her copy of the Daily Mail on the table, to see the front page picture of some woman at the centre of a prostitution scandal heavily scored out and the word “SLUT” scrawled across it. Then I remembered that the great-granny was known to have mothered a baby out of wedlock back in the First World War, and had clearly never really resolved the issues that raised.

But that would have been no excuse for sending an anomymous letter to the same effect to the lady in the photo: what we think or say in our homes is, or ought to be, free of constraint. Threatening or insulting others, though, is culpable before men as well as before God. And the supposed or real evils of those we threaten or insult is irrelevant.

Nevertheless, as I said, in this day and age receiving hate-mail seems to be the near-universal experience of anyone in the public eye, and it does nothing to increase, or to decrease, the standing of what issue it is put them into the public gaze. Other penalties attend being “known” to the world. One is guaranteed to receive rambling and disturbing letters from schizophenics (as I did after getting a letter published in a national newspaper once). One is more or less certain to find narcissistic former associates jealous of ones celebrity or ones failure to endorse their particular programme trying to destroy your reputation by any means from vicious book-reviews to comment-board vendettas.

In all this, it’s quite easy to forget that none of this says anything much about the positions under dispute, be they political, theological, scientific or whatever. Having crazy enemies does not make one a reasonable person, even less a correct one.

The ethics of shooting endanged species, or any other issue, must be decided by the hard work of deliberation, not by whether it generates death threats – nor even by the depth of public opinion, which as I said in a previous post is now always the product of some party’s propaganda. Someone may suffer greatly from such trouble, and be in reality a hero. Or alternatively they may thoroughly deserve death, though never at the hands of some self-appointed private individual.

As Saint Augustine said long ago, “It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr.”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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