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The Ground Zero Mosque, Glenn Beck, and Eubulides’ Heap

John on August 28, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Liberals have been having a laugh over the idea of a Ground Zero exclusion zone. Matt Yglesias even came up with a helpful map (I’d borrow it but I don’t think he likes me very much). The idea was echoed by Mayor Bloomberg, who said:

The question will then become how big should the no-mosque zone around the World Trade Center be?

On one level, you have to admit the question does seem to expose a certain absurdity. Exactly how close is too close? In fact, the finer you parse it, the funnier it gets (hence the map).

All of this is a political variation on an ancient philosophical paradox known as Eubulides’ Heap (aka the Sorites paradox). Here’s the basic idea: Imagine a good sized heap of sand is dumped in your driveway. There are millions of individual grains in the heap. In fact, just to make it simple, let’s say there are one billion grains in the heap. If I remove one, is it still a heap? Of course. If I remove another? Same answer.

Now imagine that we continue this process, removing one grain of sand at a time until all of it is gone. Obviously the heap will eventually be depleted at which point it is definitely not a heap any longer. So the question is at what specific point in the process did the heap of sand stop being a heap? Was it when we removed grain 400,000? Or perhaps when we removed grain 700,000?

What the paradox shows is that it is very difficult to precisely answer a question like “When does a shrinking pile of sand stop being a “heap?” Similarly, when does the construction of a mosque complex stop being offensive because of its proximity to Ground Zero. That doesn’t mean the original pile of sand wasn’t a heap, or that the Park 51 project isn’t offensive.

And as it happens, liberals chuckling over the exclusion zone question have discovered their own variation on Eubulides’ paradox.

Beck’s choice of day and place for the rally “is insulting, is what it is,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in an interview Monday.

Which begs the question: How far away, in time and space, would Glenn Beck need to move for this to stop being offensive? Ultimately, there’s no way to answer without sounding like a fool. And yet, this doesn’t mean the event (or the mosque) is inoffensive.

Applying Eubulides’ Heap to questions like this is really just a clever way to mock someone else’s outrage. That’s fine so long as the mockers keep in mind that this type of ridicule is a double-edged sword.

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