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Sebastian's eye on Philosophy
All about philosophy - by Sebastian Trzcinski-Clément
All about philosophy - by Sebastian Trzcinski-Clément


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Are there limits to freedom of expression?

The debate is raging. The "movie" trailer turning the prophet Mohammed into ridicule? I'll get back to it after mentioning another "Muslim" scandal.

A few days before yesterday's incident, a French writer, Richard Millet, was pilloried (symbolically, mind you) for apparently (since I haven' read his book, Eloge littéraire d'Anders Breivik) claiming that the decline of today's literature and European (Christian) values in general are due to the rise of immigration, in particular Muslim, in Europe... thus somehow defending the absurd theories upheld by last year's Norwegian killer Breivik. Followed multiple articles in mainstream media "condemning" Millet's book and Millet himself, expressing consternation and dismay at the writer's provocative praise of disturbing or even "fascist" theories. What a deluge did we get (just in Le Monde:,,,; here in English:

The debate is to me laughable. Of course the right-wing, Christian, nebulous theories of Millet, if this is what is indeed in his book, aren't particular appealing, to say the least. But that's not the point: it seems every French "intellectual" and politician had to say something against him. True, it's always the dilemma between staying quiet so there's less promotion of unsettling – or crazy – ideas, and standing up to counter-argue (would we then stand up when it really matters? However, and French people love to debate, was it really necessary for all intellectuals to make such a fuss out of it?

Anyway, I'm fine either way as long as all sides are free to express themselves, including if it's to express the worst things. I do understand people can be shocked by words, images and sounds (although for this, they'd have to actually have watched those...). It's therefore not particularly smart for anyone to stir up unnecessary controversy on a topic that is known to generate such reactions – Millet must be laughing for having succeeded in making everyone talk about him, when most likely nobody read his book.

However, it's not because it's not smart that it should be condemned, in my opinion, or, worse, made illegal. In fact, I find unacceptable the US embassy's press release, in particular this sentence: "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others." (

Isn't there an inherent contradiction in juxtaposing the word "actions" with "free speech", which, by definition, is not an action, but a non-physical expression of one's opinion? What's more, how can there be free speech if it's restricted to "not hurting" the feelings and beliefs (not just religious) of people? Many opinions are bound to offend specific communities or just random people (not even necessarily part of "communities"). Of course, religious or anti-religious ones can "hurt" even more – hence my point about not being very smart, especially in the current context of irrational fear on one side and simplistic depiction of "the West" on the other.

I believe the whole point of free speech is to be able to provoke, and to use it wisely but not be blocked by any legislation (in particular if it doesn't seem to be used "wisely"). There could even be a simple reason for this: I challenge anyone to define accurately where the "right" limit exists (in fact, to be extreme, nothing prevents me from creating a religion, and purposefully define what would offend me in someone else's speech). The best way to answer is either to ignore or to answer with one's own free speech, with clear arguments and explain why the other side is wrong.

Hate speech can lead to negative or deadly (physical) actions? Sure enough, although it still amazes me why one particular abominable extermination is put on a pedestal – the Holocaust, an undeniable historical fact (but denying it is an offence in France) – when other atrocities happened since everywhere on the planet (is there something as a benchmark in levels of atrocities?): laws in that case appear quite ephemeral (will it make sense to have the same law in 200 years?) and particularly subject to the mood of the times, when they are not already dealing with the difficulty to define proper rules and definitions (read a previous post of mine on double standards: So please explain to me how, by banning it, one can prevent so-called hate speech from going underground, making it more difficult to combat, in particular with the Internet (which I don't want to be restricted, at least not by governmental bodies)? As I expected with today's murder of the US ambassador in Libya, some comments on the corresponding NYT article (, and most likely elsewhere too, react by putting the blame on the film directors, not mentioning anything about the actual perpetrators of the murders. Unbelievable.

Bottom line: how can someone criticise without investigating and (critically) thinking (it's a pleonasm)? In fact, I'm not perfect myself: I had only read excerpts of the Quran in various books presenting religions. But nothing replaces one's own investigation, especially when one enters a debate. So, last year (see, I read the Quran entirely, slowly, with an open mind, bit by bit. I could then decide for myself, and at least better understand the variations of interpretation.

On the video that seems to anger a number of people (which I can understand, but not to the point of reacting violently), I wouldn't have looked for it if I hadn't heard the news: it was so bad that I had to stop watching it after a few minutes, the video completely falling flat on any point the film director was trying to make. The shame in "artistic" performance is really upon them. And it was indeed really stupid of them to provoke (after all, one could probably make fun of transubstantiation, or be quite shocked or upset by Leviticus 24:13-16 – but I'll never deny anyone's freedom of speech, even if they hurt my feelings or my own beliefs; or someone else's for that matter. Peace.

Photo credit: not found.
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I am not proud

"I saw a slogan on a guy’s car. It said, “Proud to be an American” and I thought, well what the fuck does that mean? Proud to be an American? You see, (...) I could never understand ethnic or national pride because to me pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own. Not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill, it’s a fucking genetic accident. You wouldn’t say I’m proud to be 5’11” or I’m proud to have a predisposition for colon cancer. So why the fuck would you be proud to be Irish or proud to be Italian or American or anything. Hey, if you’re happy with it that’s fine. Do that, put that on your car “Happy to be an American.” Be happy, don’t be proud.”
– George Carlin

I think this quote illustrates perfectly how I feel whenever I hear "I'm proud to be [insert citizenship]". So you can imagine how I cringe when I read such comments during the Olympics or comments regarding the celebration of historical figures.

I'm sure having lived and worked, and continuing to live and work, abroad and in an international environment has helped (my own direct reports at Google represent 10 countries), just as the chance I have to travel everywhere, to make me feel a "citizen of the world".

"Bion [a Greek philosopher] once asked a king, who was questioning his origins: "Sire, when you need archers, you are perfectly right not to inquire about their origins; you instead assign a target to them and select the best archers. Likewise, the philosopher's task is the quest of wisdom, no matter where he is from or whether he can provide a valid certificate of citizenship. Identity is less a certificate than a quality. Citizenship is a game for small-minded people, proud of superficial prerogatives. In addition, they have a superiority complex which makes them think they have been chosen by fate as better people. Excellency is for them a question of chance. But the motherland is a chimera, citizenship a deception.
To the question "where are you from?", Diogenes [another Greek philosopher] answered by: "I am a citizen of the world because the only true citizenship is the one that extends to the whole world.""
– Michel Onfray, in Cynismes, page 148 (translated from French)

Photo credit: Citizenship, by Rafael Lopez
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Double standards

Here is a test. Which of those three T-shirts would get you barred from a flight?
1. Printed on the shirt: "If I wanted the government in my womb, I'd fuck a senator." (pro-choice)
2. Printed on the shirt: "Terrists gonna kill us all." (sarcasm about racial profiling)
3. a T-shirt showing "a lot" of cleavage (assume you're a woman)

Answer: it depends on the employee you encounter.

That is what happens when there are no clear rules put in place: the decision is left to the subjective appreciation of the person who has temporary control over you. In some cases, you'll be fine wearing any of those T-shirts. In other cases, you won't. These are real stories ( – here is what happened in each case:
1. She was allowed to keep flying after draping a shawl over the shirt.
2. He was barred from flying.
3. She said she was lectured.

Policies may appear cumbersome but are a good way to prevent double standards. Here are other examples:
- on the workplace, love or family relationships are omnipresent: in which cases should employees be transferred to different departments?
- in churches, can singing at an altar be considered blasphemy (and you'll see below why the notion is blasphemy is outdated, if not unclear)? (

So: what is the rule spelling out the highest hemline or the lowest neckline allowed in an airplane? Should there even be a rule in the first place?

If there's no rule, then there can be no complaining. Each to his own. But as you can see, a rule is intrinsically intertwined with the notion of precise definitions. The case of T-shirts appears simple on the surface. After all, one could easily, for instance, declare all vulgar words on T-shirts illegal. But then, replacing one letter with an asterisk ("f*ck") would easily circumvent the rule. And what about the French Connection brand "fcuk"? Same thing. Every time the rule, law or policy will try to encompass those variations, loopholes will exist.

Now that doesn't mean we cannot have any rules (e.g. killing someone can be made illegal because death is an observed state that leaves little room for interpretation). However, it does seem ridiculous to worry about rules when it comes to details of what type of T-shirt is appropriate to wear in a plane. Guess what? Fellow passengers can read too and decide by themselves if they want to be offended or not. At least you know on what side the T-shirt wearer is if they want to engage in a lively debate whilst on flight :) (I said "debate", not start hitting each other).

So, blasphemy. That's an interesting one. It's, in short, offending God or sacred things. What does "sacred" mean? It is what's dedicated to a religious purpose, deserving veneration by believers of that religion. Problem: religions are bound to be antagonist to each other. In fact, they are that way already (e.g. Christians consider Jesus as God, an assertion seen as blasphemous by Muslims). There is therefore no way that blasphemy makes any sense in a society that claims to respect all beliefs. In fact, anyone can start a new religion (, which means nothing prevents anyone from creating a belief that goes against the very principles of other religions. Even if it's made up, there's no denying of that person's right to believe in it – and be respected for it, if others require respect for their own beliefs.

I know this is controversial. But let me go even further. France passed a law against sexual harassment in 1992. Subsequent laws increased the scope of the offence (all the details are here in French: but anti-harassment associations still felt some people managed to escape trials. Lawmakers changed the law again, simplifying it, to the extent that it not only started conflicting with other laws but most importantly became too vague to be properly used. The Constitutional Council, in charge of ensuring that laws respect the constitution, was seized earlier this year... and declared the new law unconstitutional because too imprecise. All pending cases were immediately dropped (offenders rejoiced)... and lawmakers rushed to draft a new law that clearly defined the offence.

Suggestion: let's leave thought crimes ( to the past; rules are in other cases necessary, but let's make sure they have proper definitions, so they don't leave their interpretation in the hands of their human surrogates.

Photo: taken in the underground in Singapore. The durian is the king of fruits in South-East Asia. Some love it – others find the aroma overpowering and revolting, to say the least :). Revolted is how I feel when freedom of expression is attacked.
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"A moment of time is as valuable as an ounce of gold, but an ounce of gold can never buy back time which has passed."
– on a pillar of the Chinese garden, in Rizal Park, Manila, Philippines, with a statue of Confucius in the background.
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What would you do of your time if you didn't have to work to earn money?

Winning at the lottery is unlikely, even creating a billion-dollar company is statistically not much more realistic, and the answers to what one would do, would it still happen, are generally dull (donating to charity, traveling, buying assets or gifts). Assume now you get, on a monthly basis, something like the median salary of the country you decide to live in (outliers such as Monaco excluded) without having to work to earn it: what would you do then?

Note: as a first approximation, you can use GDP per capita
or even the one at purchasing power parity
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Finding mental strength in faith or any spiritual, psychological or philosophical construct, why not, maybe just as placebo effect or maybe a tad more than that. But please don't tell me it's a god that makes you win – would you say the same thing if you lost?

Excerpts below from the New York Times article which startled me, to say the least (I bolded specific words) – note the guy, Ryan Hall, is a Stanford graduate... I'm also bewildered by the lack of critical commentary in this 7-page long article.

"[Bethel Church] promotes a direct, personal relationship with an unconditionally loving God and what it calls supernatural signs and wonders. These include speaking in tongues, prophecy, healings and miracles that are said by church officials to include the curing of cancer, regeneration of limbs, mending of broken bones and raising the dead."

“I was like so sure it was God, that it was him doing it, because there was no explanation. I almost feel like we’re kids and he’s our dad and he’s kind of like having fun with us.”

"Hall said that God spoke to him regularly, giving him training plans, even a race strategy for the London Olympics."

"Hall is still learning to distinguish his own thoughts from what he believes are God’s words to him. And sometimes, he has done workouts that in retrospect seem unwise — a thigh-shredding hill run in Flagstaff, a bicycle time trial a week after the Boston Marathon."

"Polls have shown that about a quarter of Americans have reported a direct revelation from God or have experienced a voice or a vision through prayer."

"Dejected, Hall finished 10th in 2:12:33. He was unable to watch a replay of the race for three years."

"Four afternoons a week, when in town, the Halls attend Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry, which is devoted to worship and the study of healing and prophecy."

" God had given him a specific race plan for London, he said in March."

“I don’t believe God is necessarily interested in what workouts I should give my runners, Salazar said."

"I really believe God is always wanting to speak to me and reveal secrets to me and tell me what I need to be doing. I just mess it up sometimes."

Full article:
Photo credit: Jim Wilson / The New York Times
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On short term gains and grabbing attention:

"In this study, economists offered students of different ages money or trophies just before they took a test. (...) [Results:]

First, they found that money works, and the amount of money really matters. Students were reportedly willing to exert significantly more energy at $80-an-hour, but not at $40-an-hour. (...)

Second, they learned that the rewards were most powerful when they were framed as losses rather than gains  (i.e.: "Here is $20. If you fail, I'm taking it away."). The technical term for this is loss aversion and it's endemic. We're more protective of money we have -- or think we have -- than we are aggressive about seeking money we don't have.

Third, they learned that "non-financial incentives," like trophies, worked best with young people.

Fourth, they learned that rewards provided with a delay -- "we'll get you that check in a month!" -- did very little to improve performance. The power of hyperbolic discounting is strong with these ones."
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An interesting debate on whether it makes sense to profile specific segments of population, if it's even possible at all. As some commenters have written, Bruce's points are backed by facts which makes his stance stronger when it comes to designing a practical security system at airports. Sam's arguments, though not falling in the trap of political correctness, fall flat on that practical perspective but open up a controversial conversation on the motivations of criminals and the inherent danger of irrationality:

"Palestinian Christians suffer the same Israeli occupation. How many have blown themselves up on a bus in Tel Aviv? One? Two? Where, for that matter, are the Pakistani, Iraqi, or Egyptian suicide bombers killing for the glory of Christ? These Christian communities are regularly attacked by suicidal jihadists – why don’t they respond with the same sort of violence? This is practically a science experiment: We’ve got the same people, speaking the same language, living in the same places, eating the same food – and one group forms a death cult of aspiring martyrs and the other does not."

Which links back to this post on the seemingly unresolvable conflict between Palestine and Israel
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Non-violent struggle has a 53% chance of success (based on the analysis of 323 campaigns over a century) vs. 26% in the case of violent struggles. Even more, the probability of the country being a democracy 5 years after the conflict has ended shoots up to 41% in the former case... and only 4% when violence has been used. Why limit your chances? Download the free guide to non-violent struggle with its 50 crucial points:
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