Sunday, March 29, 2015

Free Speech, not Self-Censorship, is the Answer to 'Offensive' Free Speech

The Charlie Hebdo assault has exposed hidden danger; the danger of self-censorship. The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Paul Mulshine discusses the dangerous consequences for civilization. In The Charlie Hebdo case: Killers’ apologists owe us an apology, Mulshine recalled the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1980s fatwa (death sentence) against Salman Rushdie for “insulting Islam with the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses.’” Mulshine noted that “no sooner was the fatwa issued than various deep thinkers arose to denounce Rushdie for provoking death threats he could not possibly have anticipated.” Mulshine goes on:

Perhaps the worst example came from Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. In a press release titled “Muslims Are Right to Be Angry,” Donohue wrote the boilerplate “I don’t condone violence, but …” passage before going on to say this:

“Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter, It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, ‘Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.’ Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.”

Many apologists make a slippery-slope argument to the effect that chaos would ensue if society permitted people to utter inflammatory thoughts on topics like religion and race.

There’s a slippery slope here, all right, but it’s a slope on which our right of free expression slides away.

I left these comments:

“There’s a slippery slope here, all right, but it’s a slope on which our right of free expression slides away.”

And it’s a really scary slope.

What Donohue and his ilk are essentially advocating is something arguably worse than overt government censorship—self-censorship. If people must filter their judgement about what to express through a strainer labeled “offensive,” it will be the end of rational discourse and, consequently, a civil society. Virtually any idea—whether “reasonably” presented or not—can offend somebody. A free society requires the free flow of ideas. It’s the only way to filter out the bad ones and advance the good ones peaceably.

Donohue’s call for self-censorship is a cowards way out. The only moral way to counter ideas one doesn’t approve of is to use one’s own freedom of speech in rebuttal.


Mulshine added in reply to my comments: “Also, it's extremely naive to pretend that the Muslims had a right to ‘peaceful’ protest since leveling the charge of blasphemy carries a threat of execution.” Returning to the article, Mulshine observed:

Donohue’s statement has much competition, especially in the comments I’ve read on the internet. None of the commenters seem to realize their attitude sets a standard by which they themselves could be slaughtered by anyone who took umbrage at their inanities.

Exactly. People have all sorts of deeply held beliefs, and not all of these beliefs are limited to religion. As an Objectivist—Objectivism being the philosophy of Ayn Rand—I have to put up with all sorts of ignorant insults of me, my philosophy, and especially of Ayn Rand. I’m not talking about rational disagreement—even hard-hitting disagreement. I’m talking about uniformed insults and smears; inanity. I admire Ayn Rand and agree with her philosophy. In a sense, her ideas are sacred to me. Why is offending me by smearing her, whom I admire, any different than offending a Muslim by smearing Muhammad, who Muslims admire?

According to the principle espoused by the Hebdo terrorists apologists, Objectivists need only threaten harm or execution to justify others’ responsibility to “voluntarily” keep quite (or at least tone down their remarks, which in principle is the same thing). Of course, Objectivists would never demand such a thing, because a rational person understands that the best weapon against “offensive” speech is using one’s own free speech rights in rebuttal.

And here is the fundamental point: When you demand censorship—legal or “voluntarily” self-imposed—you’re own free speech, and ultimately everyone’s free speech, goes out with it. And it’s naive to find solace in an imagined distinction between legal censorship and “voluntary” self-censorship in fear of physical harm. Once the idea of voluntary self-censorship is accepted as legitimate in a culture, it’s only a matter of time before legal censorship follows: Politics always follows cultural trends. Freedom of expression is fundamental and indispensable to Western Civilization and any kind of free society. What we must recognize is that there is no “right” not to be offended, and so need for protection against offensive speech, so long as freedom of speech—properly understood—is absolute.

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