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.