Saturday, 12 April 2008

"Would it still offend you if I questioned someone else's beliefs instead?"

There is a program, very famous, on Unix-related systems called "fortune". You run it at a terminal (command line) and it outputs a cookie drawn at random from its collection. For example:

"Anything cut to length will be too short"


What is tolerance? -- it is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed

of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly -- that
is the first law of nature.
-- Voltaire

I would point you to the home page of fortune, but I can't find it. I'm not even sure it's even got one any more - it may have been around for so long that it gets maintained by whoever has a spare moment, and code gets passed around by email like they did it in the bad old days when men where men and penguins still hadn't been made anybody's mascot.

Here's the thing: There's an "offensive" collection of quotes which will only be used if you explicitly tell fortune to do so. And it contains things like:

There once was a man from Sydney

Who could put it up to her kidney.

But the man from Quebec

Put it up to her neck;

He had a big one, now didn't he?

And a million more dirty limericks and risque jokes. And it also contains things like this:

"Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense, and sublime truths

are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice
if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth."
[Eric Hoffer, _The True Believer_, 1951, section 57]


"It is the true believer's ability to "shut his eyes and stop his ears"

to the facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the
source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened
by danger nor disheartened by obstacle nor baffled by contradictions
because he denies their existence."
[Eric Hoffer, "The True Believer," response to

Martin Luther's faithful shutting-out of
contrary evidence, in Table Talk, Number 1687]

In the immortal words of a short Spanish waiter: Que?

A philosophical religious comment from 1687AD is in the
offensive collection? I checked the source files, the actual cookies, and, after de-encoding them (they are still text files, but they've been rot13'd - google it - for a reason which escapes me) confirmed that not only was this quote there, but that there are cookie files called "religion" and "atheism".

Now wait one goddamn cotton-picking minute.

There are no files in the normal set called "religion" or "atheism". So does the mere fact of making quotes about religion or non-religion count as offensive, now? Yes, there are quotes included which are intended to be offensive. But there is also an awful lot of plain, simple, philosophy or theology - if you think that they're different - and I am scratching my head about the standards which see this:

"Most people's religion is what they want to believe, not what they
do believe. And very few of them stop to examine its foundations."

[Luther Burbank quoted by Edgar Waite, also in "2000 Years

of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt",
by James A. Haught, Prometheus Books, 1996]

Or even this absurdity:

"I got enough guilt to start my own religion"
[Tori Amos]

classified as
offensive. For fuck's sake, what century are we living in? The whole concepts of tolerance, open debate and humour seem to be disappearing to wherever the Americans put Habeas Corpus. I'd blame them for this, as well, but it's just too easy and probably not entirely deserved.

Until people learn that there is a difference between saying "I cannot accept that female circumcision is morally acceptable" and "The religion that condones female circumcision must be expunged from the fact of the earth", I shall be found in the bomb shelter with a collection of Lenny Bruce tapes.

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