Polite Self-Censorship No Environment for Free Speech

Tuesday saw Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff rebuffed yet again by over two hundred prominent guests at a Manhattan literary gala hosted by the PEN American Center. Following the 7 January, 2015 murders of nine Charlie Hebdo editorial staff, satire of religion and/or its sacred cows is the type of speech that is currently in the dock. Anyone who cannot see the irony in this is blind. After precursory remarks about the validity of protecting free speech, many commentators including established journalists went on to explain why the fault lay with the provocative nature of the Charlie Hebdo editorial staff’s cartoons, insinuating that the rude critique of religion and or its figureheads is “gratuitous” and serves no vital social ends. The implication was that we must all endeavor to be polite about religion.

Multiculturalism’s proponents have garnered popular support for the illiberal notion that all citizens in liberal democracies must demonstrate respect for religion or religious believers. Yet this respect is not to be earned by valid arguments or by exemplary behavior; it is to be coerced by violence, or else by means of the law. Those who would limit speech on the grounds of ‘religious offense’ are content to allow the public marketplace of ideas to be governed by the taboos of a religious segment of society. There are several reasons to reject this form of cultural imperialism.
1. Religious minority groups are by no means homogeneous in religious belief, practice or sentiment. There is no generic interpretation of what constitutes insulting or “offending” a religious person or belief. The same remark or image that one member of the religious community experiences as deeply offensive another may experience as cathartic, liberating or profoundly healing. To think otherwise is to generalize about all members of a religious culture. To assume that all Muslims will be equally or similarly ‘offended’ by a particular cartoon, joke, or instance of speech is based on the naïve theory that there could be no secularists, feminists, apostates, freethinkers, or atheists amongst those labeled “Muslim”. Arguably, this assumption – that all Muslims will have identical emotional responses to a particular ‘blasphemous’ cartoon or verbal remark – is more insulting to “Muslims” than any blasphemous cartoon could ever be. Few Muslims’ identities are only defined by their religion, just as few atheists’ identities are defined solely by lack of belief in god.
2. Westerners need to ask which Muslims they intend to protect by means of new censorship laws or informal policies of self-censorship. Presumably many Muslim moderates have been misrepresented and maligned as “terrorists”, so apparently a blanket law is needed to protect all Muslims from offense in order to protect this moderate majority. Yet moderate, tolerant Muslims are already robustly protected within secular states where free speech is de rigueur. By definition, only intolerant Muslims could wish to use violence or legal coercion to suppress public criticism of their own ‘private’ beliefs. This gets to the crux of the issue: religion has seldom been about private belief and personal conviction. More often it is about others and how they ought to live. Religious moderates by definition do not “take offense” to disagreement and criticism, because they understand that faith is not based on certainties. Religious moderates do not demand that others agree with them or live according to their chosen way of life, which is precisely what distinguishes them from extremists. It is because religion has seldom been limited to an individual’s personal beliefs and life choices that it is especially important that it remain open to public scrutiny and ridicule. Religious ideologies have, and (where permitted) still do, exert a powerful social function, governing the sexual behavior of men and women, as well as many other aspects of peoples’ lives that non-religious and moderate religious people consider to be private. Religions dictate social taboos and define as “immoral” harmless self-regarding behaviors within many societies and cultures around the globe.
Censoring religious insult will not so much protect a minority culture from the outside host culture as it will prevent free choice within the minority sub-culture and suppress the diversity of opinion within it. Muslim moderates are the only group of Muslims that could be misrepresented as “terrorists” by free expression, and yet they are the only ones that by definition would not agree with, nor benefit from, paternalistic blasphemy laws. In a free state, where all speech is legally protected, Muslim moderates have the necessary means and remedies that allow them to distinguish themselves from Muslim extremists by exercising their right to criticize authoritarians and extremists who would otherwise make all Muslims conform to fundamentalist Islam’s laws and respect its taboos. Free speech already benefits all types of Muslims, whereas censorship would only benefit extremists.
3. Political liberalism, secularism, atheism and feminism are as much a part of many peoples’ identities as religion is a part of the identity of the committed Muslim. When a liberal’s deeply rooted political beliefs are insulted, she feels the ‘offense’ as acutely as any believer who has heard his god or prophet mocked. Yet political liberalism is based on the belief that no human being is infallible, thus none is in a position to censor the free expression of any idea, no matter how offensive or unpopular it may be. This sets up a single standard for all, so that no one ideology can monopolize the marketplace of ideas and all ideas can be ‘tested’ against the merits of other views. This gives citizens of a free society confidence, but not certainty, that the beliefs they hold most sacred at any given time have withstood the tussle with other views in an open, inclusive and ongoing debate. This allows for progress and learning. By contrast, censoring dissent forecloses all debate and all opportunities to learn from new evidence, and allows only cultural stagnation. Moreover, the ‘respect’ it garners for the status quo is more akin to fear than esteem. The prevailing beliefs are not held because they have won the competition with alternatives, but because alternatives have been silenced.
4. Imagine a context in which the same right not to be offended or defamed could be claimed by other political ideologies, other social groups and other communities. Public debate would quickly be replaced by courteous silence. This apparent peace would be bought at the price of genuine adult respect for differences, and would engender an atmosphere of lies and pretence, where no one said what they thought, except amongst their most loyal allies. This would not bind society together; it would lead to segregation and ultimately to social disintegration. Occasionally being made to endure unpleasant feelings of “offense” is a small price to pay for liberty, and the injuries sustained are not harmful to anyone’s permanent interests as a progressive being. Criticism is not always pleasant, but adults can grow from it as much, if not a great deal more, than from being insulated from the opinions of their fellow citizens.

What is being asked of citizens in liberal democracies is that they ‘respect’ the taboos of religious believers, and consent to adopting an (as yet) unwritten blasphemy law that, if formally adopted, will very probably remain in place for generations to come, abolishing one of the core principles of political liberalism.
About the Author:
T M Murray is an American essayist, author and educator. Murray is a regular contributor to Philosophy Now magazine, The New Humanist and has blogged for The Rationalist Association, The Center for Progressive Christianity and The Yurica Report. In 2010 she was awarded first prize in the Center for Inquiry’s Feedom of Expression Essay competition. She is co-author of Moral Panic: Exposing the Religious Right’s Agenda on Sexuality.

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