Freedom of Speech and Religion

When the cartoon show South Park referred to the prophet Muhammad, the producers got perceived death threats, and removed all such references from subsequent shows. This self-censorship prompted a “Chalking for Freedom of Expression” campaign by a University of Wisconsin humanist student group, urging people to chalk stick figures and label them “Muhammad.” Writing to the Muslim Student Association, the group’s president, Chris Calvey, explained, “A free society cannot tolerate violence or threats of violence which seeks to limit our freedom of expression.” MSA VP Ahmed Fikri replied, likening the campaign to “slapping someone in the face,” and urging that it be cancelled, “before resorting to what we feel to be rather drastic measures;” yet asserting “we believe in freedom of expression just as much as you purport to do.” (The campaign was not called off; Muslim students retaliated by chalking “Ali” after “Muhammad.”)

In past times it was pretty much accepted that if someone’s beliefs didn’t match your own, it was OK to burn him alive. Most people today – even most Muslims – no longer sanction this. So that’s progress. But while we mostly agree about the right not to be burned for your beliefs, now many people think there is a right not to be offended. Muslim nations at the UN, in the wake of the Danish cartoon affair, have mounted a big campaign to restrict worldwide press freedom to bar anything deemed offensive to someone’s religion (mainly theirs). (The U.S., I’m glad to say, has steadfastly opposed this.)

Let’s be clear. My freedom to swing my fist stops at your nose. There is a right not to be harmed by someone (absent just cause). But my freedom to speak does not stop at your ears. The difference is that while the pain of a punch cannot be averted, you can choose to ignore words. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Moreover, while the ban on hurtful action is intrinsic to a social contract whose raison d’etre is protection from harm, a ban on speech deemed offensive is fundamentally incompatible with a free society. Because everything can be offensive to someone; and if everyone has immunity from being offended, then there is no freedom of expression. If this seems a reductio ad absurdum, we have actually seen how enforced codes of political correctness on campuses, banning utterances deemed offensive to certain sensibilities, have resulted in promoting monocultures of thought, the very antithesis of the sort of laboratory of ideas that a university should be. Lawrence Summers was hounded from Harvard’s presidency for just such a “transgression.”

This is the famous Danish cartoon image

Given all the centuries in which untold thousands of dissenters (real and imagined) suffered excruciating death at the hands of religionists, it ill behooves them now to complain at having to endure the “offense” of people being able to express dissonant thoughts. And even if most religionists eschew burning non-coreligionists in this world, still many of them insist we are condemned to burn forever in the next one. How is that not supremely offensive??!

But when one of my own good friends actually says such things, I just shrug it off. I am sick of all this oversensitiveness, the whole “gotcha” culture of finding “offensive remarks.” There’s too damned much taking of offense. It’s like we’re becoming a crybaby civilization, running to mommy in tears, whining, “Johnny said something bad!” And of course most such indignation is actually synthetic rather than heartfelt, which makes it even more nauseating. Most public taking of offense is just a cynical, disingenuous tactic to wrongfoot adversaries. That certainly applies to all that Muhammad umbrage, exploited by some Muslims as a stick with which to beat those they consider enemies. The aggressive Muslim Student Association letter quoted above is a perfect example.

If my blog offends you – live with it.

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13 Responses to “Freedom of Speech and Religion”

  1. Lee Says:

    We ban female topless sunbathing on the beach in most of the United States because… why? I guess that it is because some find it offensive. It might even be argued that it is Christian sensibilities that are offended. So there is some precedent for banning offense, yes? I admit that the parallel is far from perfect; because art is more like first amendment speech than sunbathing is, I would find it much more difficult / impossible to accept a ban on any sort of art.

    FSR COMMENT: I would be happy if female topless sunbathing were not banned. Well, maybe except for women over a certain age. But seriously, I am basically a libertarian, which means that if society wants to regulate anyone’s behavior, it better have a damn strong reason. I would say that if you are offended seeing a topless woman — the remedy is, don’t look.

    (Lee’s comment continued): But, this is beside the point in my opinion. If there are actions that are clearly offensive to some, then this enters my thought process as I decide what to do. If my reason to do an action is important enough, then I will pursue it anyway, but, when it is not so important, isn’t it better if I can find a way that is not offensive?

    FSR COMMENT: The issue is other people, or society, regulating your behavior. Not your regulating your own behavior. Big difference!

    (Lee’s comment continued): So, my question is, what was South Park’s motivation for “offensively” referring to Muhammad? If there is an important enough cause that is furthered then, by all means, do what is necessary. But if there is another way to accomplish what you want, why take a tack that is sure to offend an already vilified segment of our society?

    Or putting it another way, the exercising of a right for no reason other than that it is a right, does not pass the importance test for me. I may have a right to lie to anyone I meet, but I shouldn’t go around lying just to demonstrate that I have that right. Instead, I would have to have a separate reason; e.g., avoiding intrusive questions from paparazzi.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you that responses of actual or threatened violence are not appropriate, the above notwithstanding.

    If my response offends you — please tell me why. I may be able to find another way to further my goals.

    FSR COMMENT: I thought long and hard about whether to post that Danish cartoon image, mindful that it would upset some people, and, frankly, that there might be resulting unpleasantness. But I finally decided that it would be hypocritical put up this blog posting while refraining from posting the image, thereby bowing to the very ideas I am criticizing.

  2. Lee Says:

    For your last comment: While I agree with you that you have the right to do it anyway, I find that to be besides the point, and I urge you to ask yourself the question of whether your article would have been just as strong (or nearly enough so) without putting up the Danish image. If you can make a point well without offending someone then I urge you to choose that route. IMHO, such is not hypocrisy; it is a common sense approach to building a better world.

    Personally, I find your prose to be well presented and I do not think it would have been weakened without the image. (Coincidentally, I first read your prose as it was e-mailed to me without the images, and I did not realize that your post included the image until after I had posted my first response!) In your shoes, I would have omitted the image. Also, I would not have drawn chalk figures of Muhammad unless, at the very least, they served a goal other than the mere assertion of a right for its own sake. I don’t see that it helps anyone to offend many Muslims simply because a few inappropriately responded with violence to an earlier offense.

  3. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    “If you can make a point well without offending someone then I urge you to choose that route. ”

    My husband Frank Robinson is certainly capable of defending himself without my assistance. But I would like to make this comment: In 22 years of marriage, I cannot think of a single time when Frank has chosen to say something offensive or mean-spirited about me, to me. I can’t think of a single time in 22 years when he has aimed a curse word at me. Interacting with me, he always chooses the route of loving kindness; never has he been cruel or sarcastic with me. When he needs to criticize or correct me, he uses the least-harmful words to do so. In every way, Frank has worked extremely hard to build a better marriage. And what is the fundamental building block of a better world? A better marriage, a better family.

    I wonder how many pundits, columnists, church-goers and bloggers who avoid offensiveness in their public words succeed as well at avoiding offensiveness in their private home. I wonder how many of them are divorced or separated or abusive. I doubt that most of them work harder than Frank at keeping a marriage happy, healthy, cooperative, peaceful.

    Of course, Frank’s public role as an out-spoken, passionate contrarian (but also highly-principled) is somewhat separate from his personal life with me, but I wanted to put his public role in a fuller context, thereby perhaps shifting the opinion of some readers of his blog.

    Therese L. Broderick
    wife of Frank S. Robinson

    FSR RESPONSE: Thank you for your comment, Ms. Broderick. I hope you will continue to comment in the future.

  4. Lee Says:

    Obviously, I don’t know Frank nearly as well as Therese, but everything I do know backs what she says; in my book Frank earns high marks for kindness, honesty, competence, and diligence. Furthermore, I usually agree with him. Where I happen to disagree, I enter the discussion with the hope that by exchanging ideas both he and I will be the richer for it. If my sloppy prose has ever made it appear as though I fault him for having an opinion that is different from mine, then I owe him an apology.

    Thank you, Frank. Please, keep up the good work!

  5. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    And everything I know about Lee and his wonderful family earns high marks for kindness, keen intelligence, generosity beyond measure, good humor, and a highly evolved conscience.

    FSR COMMENT: Oy, oy, oy, this orgy of niceness is making my teeth jangle. Yes, Lee is a good guy, and does NOT need to apologize for anything. And Therese, actually, your recollection of our 22 married years may have sanitized a few little episodes.

  6. Kimberly Draiss Says:

    I couldn’t help but chuckle at that last comment; you and your orgies! Hee.
    I have to say that as one of those particularly “religious” types I am able to appreciate the concern many people have over the sensibilities of society in general, but I stand strongly opposed to the legislation of anything limiting freedom of speech, no matter how “offensive” I may personally find whatever statement is in question. I do think, however, in response to one comment above, that there is a HUGE difference between the free exchange of ideas and the “right” to display one’s non-public anatomical features. In that sort of case, we are talking about something that crosses the line into a territory where physiological responses may be evoked. Not at all the equivalent of a political cartoon, I should say!
    Interestingly, I have read of various groups who are trying to “reclaim” our great nation in the interest of a return to our Judeo-Christian roots; I find myself most opposed to this effort, however, for the simple reason that I would not want to be forced to abide by laws and customs mandating unbiblical practices should the day ever come when the regime changed and power was placed into the hands of people from a religion overtly hostile to Christianity. If we’d grown accustomed to the concept of some sort of “Divine Right” around here because of that misplaced zeal for our heritage, the results for us Christians would be disasterous.
    I stand similarly opposed to the efforts by some to remove the atheistic billboards popping up in an effort to discredit the Nativity. I may not agree with what you say, but I will staunchly defend your right to say it. [And yes, Mr. R., that includes your blog! ;)]

    FSR RESPONSE: Thanks for your comment. Actually, I doubt there is much danger of the coming to power in America of “people from a religion overtly hostile to Christianity.” Unless you mean atheists? But surely that day is far distant. And anyway, atheists are not “overtly hostile to Christianity.” If atheists came to power — whatever that means — indeed, given America’s secular governmental model, it probably wouldn’t mean anything at all — Christians would NOT be persecuted — or required to perform Darwinist rituals. Just as the First Amendment (as elucidated by Supreme Court rulings such as Engel v. Vitale and Abington Township v. Schempp protects nonbelievers from religionists using government to impose their faith, so too would Christians be protected from any efforts to impose some other religion upon them. All the atheists I know strongly support this fundamental principle of Americanism. (It is only some Christians who do not support it.)
    I would also like to clarify, for readers of this blog, that the reference to “orgies” by the commenter is a kind of private joke. I do not participate in orgies.

  7. Kimberly Draiss Says:

    Sorry- didn’t intend any embarrassment with that little aside.
    Another point comes to mind here on the free speech issue; I do think there is reason for Christians to fear what may be coming down the pike, as various Biblical viewpoints, such as the condemnation of homosexual behavior as an acceptable lifestyle choice, are now considered “Hate speech” by those who take offense. So while I agree that Christians need not necessarily fear the imposition of other belief systems upon us, I do believe there will shortly come a day wherein we are no longer permitted to proclaim freely the truths of God’s word. You even made reference in your original post to the notion that some may find the concept of a literal Hell “offensive”, and yet, to many of us, this is not our personal opinion being put forth, it is a statement of fact. So how can Uncle Sam begin to differentiate between a personal opinion and a statement of Biblical doctrine?

    FSR RESPONSE: So, you’re saying it’s simply a fact, not an opinion, that I’m going to Hell. OK. Some MIGHT consider that a wee bit offensive, but hey, I’m a pretty mellow guy.
    But seriously, I am a maximalist when it comes to freedom of expression. I don’t agree with these “hate speech” laws. I find completely unacceptable the laws in some European countries that make it a crime to lambaste religious beliefs. I want you to have unfettered liberty “to proclaim freely the truths (sic) of God’s word.” Even if that encompasses the notion that nonbelievers like me will — should! — burn in Hell forever — and other such outrageous absurdities.

  8. Kimberly Draiss Says:

    Now, now… I don’t think it is a determined certainty that you WILL go there, and I would take strong exception to the notion that you SHOULD; in fact, I am glad it is a most merciful God who makes such determinations.
    But I do hope that one day you respond to His loving attempts to draw you to Himself. You never know. 🙂

  9. Lee Says:

    Some adherents of Islam claim that the display of a woman’s hair is “something that crosses the line into a territory where physiological responses may be evoked” and thus these people would ban such displays as strongly as we ban topless female sunbathing. Likewise some adherents of Judaism claim that married women should shave their heads, and maybe that is for much the same reason? So, I am worried that the “physiological response” standard is not a great yardstick for determining what actions can be banned.

    Also, I have been to nude beaches a few times; I did not witness any orgies or other physiologically induced behavior.

  10. Lee Says:

    “Hate speech” falls into an interesting gray area between political expression and harassment. I am proud to say that in the USA we defend political expression even when it is ugly. However, I am also proud to say that if speech instills a fear of harm (e.g., physical harm, employment discrimination) we call it harassment and we call it illegal. I would rather that the laws about hate speech be folded into the generic harassment laws, to make it clearer that the political aspects of hate speech are not prohibited.

  11. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    I agree that an inadequate standard for adult behavior is “physiological response” (I’m inferring from the comments above that this phrase here refers, for the sake of politeness, to only one particular kind of adult physiological response). Banning based on that standard would give women and non-heterosexuals (in America at least, where everyone is equal under the law) the same right to restrict the appearance of attractive adults of any gender or persuasion. To what extremes would such banning take our society? Will we ban the public display of a man’s voice or a woman’s lips? Will we ban provocative advertising or gratuitous art or romantic songs or Harlequin paperbacks?

  12. Anonymous Says:

    im from the future

    [FSR: Is it nice there?]

  13. bob Says:

    yep

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