Archive for May, 2007

(Old News) I Stand With the Danish Cartoonists

May 13, 2007

The fact that anyone would possibly condemn the printing of an image more harshly than perpetrators of murder driven by the “offense” caused by said images is absurd. The reaction in some parts Islamic world to these images shows a poor understanding of what is meant by “freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech means freedom of speech for everyone for one very important reason: if speech is to be limited, the limitations of speech must be imposed by some human entity (they surely aren’t given from the heavens), and how do you suppose such entity would impose these limitations? And how would it find the authority to decide, conclusively, what can be said? There is no reason to believe anyone who claims to have such authority. In a free intellectual society good ideas and bad ideas are not simply dictated to the masses. Ideas compete with each other. Good ideas withstand scrutiny, and bad ideas crumble in light of reason – that is how we move forward.

In a totalitarian society – a society ruled by brute force – the persistence of an idea is removed from its merit, and becomes the function of who has the largest army or the most powerful weaponry or the most easily mobilized hoards. The aniconism of Mohammad, as anything more than a personal and private belief, is not a “good” idea. It would not survive the market place of ideas, because it is based on shoddy, non-existent evidence. Nobody has any obligation to give any credence to or respect to that “rule.” The violent reaction of some Islamic fundamentalists – while wholly reinforcing the danish artists’ point – was patently totalitarian or fascist or brutish or monarchial or tyrannical. Whichever term you like.

The charges against the Danish newspaper of cultural insensitivity or prejudice are false, and even if they weren’t, they would be entitled to their opinion – just as the Islamic community would be entitled to a non-violent rebuttal. Yes, making unsupported claims and sweeping generalizations about arbitrary classifications (like race) is wrong. But it is important not to confuse this with rampant moral relativism. The cartoonists are not stereotyping. They make no sweeping generalizations about Arabs or the Middle-East, because they don’t need too. Their targets are adherents to a specific religion which already has the platforms of its ideology in print. Islam, like the other monotheistic religions, is a violent religion. It calls for forced conversion, and promises a fleshly paradise for martyrs. It makes claims that are incompatible with well-reasoned secular society, and it isn’t content with only believing these claims in private.

I stand with the Danish newspaper’s decision to print those cartoons. If I did not agree with them, I would stand by their right to print those cartoons, and expect rational rebuttals and non-violent confrontation. Freedom of speech is essential to any free society, and to silence free speech through force, or fear of violence, is strictly totalitarian. The asymmetry of the “crimes” committed is so stark that the galvanizing act is no crime at all and the response – which shouldn’t have escalated past the point of an angry letter to the editor – was veritable atrocity. In this situation, the only party worthy of harsh condemnation is that which intends to violently force its views on others – in this case, Islamic extremists and the dangerous dogmas they follow.

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Freedom of Speech Means Freedom of Speech for Everyone (a response to “Religious Discrimination,” Printed in the Union Weekly, 4/30)

May 7, 2007

The poster that Alisha Herrick brought to our attention last week, a poorly drawn want-to-be Chick tract, is abhorrent, small-minded, bigoted, and just plain incorrect. Alisha suggested that, because the poster claims that Buddhists (and everyone else who doesn’t accept Jesus as their personal savior) are going to live forever in an eternal state of agony and torture, this poster was offensive and not within the boundaries of free speech. On the contrary, the idiots and ignoramuses at Palm Tree Christian Club – because if they authored this tract, that is exactly what they are – have as much right to exhibit their unreasoned beliefs as I have to espouse my (correct) opinion that their world view is informed by bronze age myths, that the foundation of their beliefs crumbles under scrutiny, and that they are utterly and contemptibly wrong. I am sure you agree with me, at least on some points, Alisha – otherwise, why would you call for their censorship? But of course you would not say so, because I suppose you would have to consider what I have said “religious discrimination” as well. Or perhaps, though it is presumptuous of me to suggest, you would not say so because your own beliefs are built upon equally shaky foundations.

At any rate, what good does it do to censor speech that you do not agree with? How does that move anyone closer to what is true? Censorship is not conducive to rational argument. Ideas compete like goods in the market place: bad ideas and opinions shatter under scrutiny and reason, and should eventually disappear while good ideas and opinions withstand such scrutiny. So why is there so much fear of words? Why should beliefs sit loftily and safely in an ivory tower? This rampant politeness and fear of offense that calls for censorship, which has become so common on the left while being so intuitively indicative of the right, leads us toward intellectual complacency at its best and destruction at its worst. Complacency for the reasons listed above – we can’t progress if we can’t engage in rational argument – and destruction because violent extremists can hide behind the same limitations that you’ve attempted to level against the Palm Tree Christian Club. Likewise, you have protected the Palm Tree Christian club from any real criticism: They have not engaged in religious discrimination as you say, they have merely espoused what they believe to be the truth. As I have stated. They are wrong and their beliefs should be challenged. As I have stated, any public criticism of their beliefs – valid or not – would be offensive to them and would have to be considered, by your definition, religious discrimination.

Imagine, for a moment, that we live in a world populated by demagogues and extremists who have complete and utter faith in various, mutually exclusive, mutually violent, holy books. Members of these sects wish to impose their beliefs on you and I by any means necessary – and if we are unwilling to submit, some of them would be willing to remove our craniums from our spines. What do you suppose we should do? Wait in unease, until the most extreme of the sects lashes out in an inevitable bout of violence, hushing them if they attempt to use more peaceful means of persuasion? I say no, let them speak! Let them speak, and de-construct their arguments. Show them why they are wrong with words and argument, and do so without restraint. What better way to demoralize the ranks of would-be suicide bombers than convincing them to be otherwise? If we limit their speech, then we must limit the speech of the sane among us because sound criticism can be equally offensive as wild claims and accusations, and then what will we be left with?

Freedom of speech must mean freedom of speech for everyone. First, because any alternative would be simply unethical: who is to decide who’s speech is legitimate? Second, because ideas are powerful, and good ideas more so. Ideas must be able to compete if we are ever going to turn this uneasy – and demonstrably fragile – state of relativism and complacency into a state of more widespread enlightenment.