... there was a controversy over American TV's sponsorship of an appearance by Bill Maher at the Riverside. Should pressure be placed on American to withdraw their sponsorship? Of course, everyone involved - Maher and those who oppose him - are exercising their free speech rights. Folks have a right to pressure American to withdraw support for Maher, but should they? If we lived in a world in which media outlets and private sponsors had to avoid anyone who might strongly upset a significant number of folks, we'd have pretty thin public gruel. So there ought to be a presumption against this type of thing.
But what about Maher? He's not funny, being the type of guy who thinks that adolescent rebellion is profound. His insights seemed witty and meaningful when I was 17. He obviously wasn't the guy making them. Maher takes the kind of dumbed down apologetics for atheism engaged in by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and tries to render them in a way that would have went over at the cool kids table in 4th hour study hall.
But there are those who like it, so what is American to do? We tend to understand efforts to ostracize those who make fun of - or express contempt for - others based on immutable and generally irrelevant characteristics such as race (gender is more complicated). The idea is that we ought not to make fun of people for what they cannot change and what does not normally matter in assessing their character and value as human beings.
But we routinely poke fun at people for what they believe or do. It is fair game, we think, because they can choose these things.
Religion fits uncomfortably between these poles. Most of us do not actively choose our faith and, even if we do, it is a part of who we are and not easily discarded. Yet what we believe about God can have profound consequences for others.
As a consequence, some people argue that religion deserves a certain presumption of respect - something that Maher, who out of malevolence or ignorance, routinely mischaracterizes the nature of Roman Catholicism and other faiths does not observe.
I think a presumption of respect makes sense, but a rule of respect does not. Because drawing that line is difficult, I am generally not in favor of secondary boycotts (i.e., those aimed at those who host or sponsor them) of speakers and writers and entertainers. I wouldn't pressure American to drop its sponsorship of Maher.
But I wouldn't pay a nickel to see him either.