The Campaign for Free Expression was launched by the Center for Inquiry early this year to focus efforts and attention on one of the most crucial components of freethought: the right of individuals to express their viewpoints, opinions, and beliefs about all subjects—especially religion. To encourage free expression and to emphasize the importance of this fundamental right, CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism sponsored a Free Expression Essay Contest. Students enrolled in an accredited college or university were invited to submit an essay about “The Importance of Free Expression and Its Limits (If Any).” Each entry had to address the question of what limits national governments or recognized international bodies, such as the United Nations, may justifiably place on free expression.
Below we print the winning entries. The first prize of $2,000 went to T.M. Murray and the second prize of $500 was won by Tauriq Moosa. —Eds.
First Prize Winner
This essay explores the limits national governments or recognized international bodies such as the United Nations may justifiably place on free expression. In order to answer this question, I will assess the various arguments for censoring free expression. If none of these arguments can provide reasonable grounds for governmental censorship, then we must conclude that no such limits are justified.
Censoring Incitement to Violence
One argument against free expression rests on the perceived connection between words and (sometimes illegal) actions. Increasingly, government figures emphasize the paramount importance of law enforcement, social order, and security. In a geo-political landscape that has been redefined by the (real or perceived) threat of “global terrorism,” the value of security has been placed above individual liberties such as free expression. We need to ask, then, exactly how free speech threatens to undermine security. If it does not, then we need not accept a false dilemma that tells us it is impossible to have both free expression and security.
Some argue that speech is more than “mere words” and must be censored when it is likely to “incite” dangerous actions. The American courts have agreed with this in cases in which there is reasonable and compelling evidence that the speech in question was the direct cause of dangerous behavior. The quintessential example is when someone yells “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But the idea that any repugnant ideology, or even unpopular viewpoint, if expressed will “incite” violence or hatred distorts the original context in which the concept of “incitement” made sense.
What originally justified censorship based on “incitement” was that the censored speech was perceived to lead to immediate harm. Even John Stuart Mill, the quintessential defender of free expression, accepted that suppression of speech could be justified in situations in which it constitutes a harmful action. But crucially, Mill did not justify this type of prohibition on the grounds that it constitutes harmful opinion. In Chapter 3 of “On Liberty” Mill drew a clear distinction between actions and opinions. His example of speech constituting “incitement” is a situation in which an angry mob with torches is gathered outside a corn-dealer’s house when someone expresses the opinion that corn dealers starve the poor because they keep prices high for their own benefit. However, Mill would only censor this speech because of the volatility of the context—not because of its content. Here the speech would likely provoke immediate violence, and the only reason for censoring it is the likelihood that mob violence would follow. Importantly, Mill did not think expressing the opinion on the corn-dealers’ practices and motives should be suppressed in other circumstances. It was not the expression of the opinion he rejected but the manner in which it was expressed.
Except in rare cases such as this, it is questionable whether speech can really incite someone to bad behavior. In the case of the angry mob, it is arguable that speech of this sort constitutes the first step toward an illegal act. But recent bans on hate speech assume that provocative speech can “incite” criminal behavior where no immediate threat exists. This implies that someone can make you act against your will. To claim that someone can incite you to do anything in this context is to abdicate personal responsibility. Jean-Paul Sartre, writing after the horrors of the Holocaust, aptly called this attempt to escape personal responsibility “bad faith” (by which he meant a kind of self-deception). If we cease to hold individuals accountable for their own behavior, we can criminalize anyone we claim has “influenced” the criminal—parents, teachers, film or television personalities, musical artists he or she has listened to, authors of books or blogs he or she has read—all are fair game. But this, of course, turns the perpetrator into a victim. It presupposes a deterministic model of human nature in which human individuals are not responsible, free moral agents but are more like automatons that hear words and blindly obey them like a dog obeys its master. If this were the case, then given all of the possible influences on a person, it would be virtually impossible to decide which of them “influenced” a particular act.
Obviously speech and expression are influential, otherwise liberals would not spill so much ink defending them. But the fact that we are influenced does not allow us to abdicate personal responsibility for our actions. Human beings have competing desires and choose between them all the time. I may have a first-order desire to go out with friends tonight, but I also have the second-order desire to win the essay contest, with the deadline fast approaching. I choose between these desires, and only I am responsible for the decision to prioritize one over the other. In this sense, we are responsible even for choosing our desires. When someone influences me, it is because I value what he or she says or writes. I select these opinions or perceived truths as more important than other opinions or viewpoints to which I’ve been exposed.
The “incitement” argument against free speech, in its current (distorted) usage, presupposes a direct causal link between the expression of extreme views and extremist or violent behaviors. So, for example, if a Muslim cleric is permitted to advocate violence, or to express offensive anti-American or anti-Western sentiments, then he is indirectly guilty of inciting illegal actions in his listeners. This view is incoherent and, worse, undermines the very legal system that “law and order” policies are entrusted to enforce. If someone commits a criminal act of terrorism, we do not accept “outside influences” as a mitigating factor when determining his or her guilt. Although defense attorneys attempt to diminish the defendant’s responsibility in various ways, if the forensic evidence points to one’s guilt and one is an adult of sound mind, we do not accept outside influences as somehow causing one to act. If we did, we would reduce the sentence accordingly—but we do not.
The fact that adult citizens are responsible moral agents entitles them to basic rights and protections on the one hand and obligates them to accept full moral responsibility for their actions on the other. Civil liberties come with concomitant responsibilities. Personal accountability for criminal actions is one of them. “Incitement” cannot be a reason to prohibit extreme speech unless we are also willing to relinquish our cherished belief in personal accountability.
If I am led to accept falsehoods because I am ignorant of other, better, views then I am partly to blame for my passivity in accepting them without scrutiny. Thomas Jefferson said that he “never submitted the whole system of [his] opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where [he] was capable of thinking for [himself].” He felt that “such an addiction” (to the creeds of others) was “the last degradation of a free and moral agent.” Responsibility for our views and actions is what makes us free moral agents. If we abdicate this, we are not worthy of the rights and protections that accompany it.
The remedy for ignorance, if it stems from a paucity of alternatives to a false belief, is not less speech but more. If those who are free to speak do not bother to enlighten their fellow men and women by expressing better views, then they will have to live with the ignorance of their compatriots. However, the demand for certainty increases in direct proportion to the extent that my beliefs become grounds for causing harm to others. Since no one is infallible, it is rarely the case that one’s viewpoint can justify harming another person or curtailing his or her liberty. There is a substantial difference between promoting beliefs that harm others and yet have little sound evidence to support them and holding beliefs that benefit others and have sound evidence in their support. This is why Jefferson thought ignorance preferable to error. Believing nothing brings us “closer to truth” than believing what is wrong. The burden of proof is always greater on anyone who would endanger another’s well-being or interfere with another’s liberty for the sake of a belief. One does not have an absolute right to be wrong when one is risking the safety and liberty of others.
All of the liberties we enjoy depend upon the belief that we are free moral agents, responsible for our opinions and our decisions. If we surrender our autonomy we must be prepared also to forego the rights and liberties that depend upon it. As Benjamin Franklin said in 1759: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Censoring Incitement to Hatred
In October 2007, the British government proposed the introduction of new legislation into their already dubious Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that would make it a crime to incite hatred because of a person’s sexual orientation. As queer as I am, and I think I fit the bill in most senses of the word, I find this proposal ludicrous in the extreme. First, hatred against any group is not a crime, so inciting it shouldn’t be either. If that hatred is expressed in actual harm, then it is a crime. But hatred itself is not something the state has any business legislating against, just as it has no business compelling love for its policies or politicians. No external authority can dictate to the citizens of a free society what they must value, love, or hate, and any society that condones such coercion is not worthy of being called “free.”
The government’s “incitement to hatred” measure is anything but a defense of liberal democratic values … although superficially it may appear that way. Liberals like myself defend freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, as well as freedom of religion. The true test of that principle comes when we are asked to permit freedom of expression for views we detest. This bill was nothing more than an attempt to enforce the values status quo, a dangerous move that presupposes the infallibility of our current notions of political correctness. While our politically correct view may indeed be morally just in this instance, it isn’t always so, and we give up the right to dissent from popular beliefs at our peril.
A society that is confident in its values and convictions is one that can tolerate dissenting views and countenance the possible fallibility of its own. If we stifle controversial viewpoints today then we can just as easily do so tomorrow, when the Christian Right’s homophobia, historical revisionism, or theocratic doctrines may be as “politically correct” as today’s toleration for homosexuality. Once we relinquish the rights of others to express unpopular viewpoints there will be no possibility of correcting popular and persuasive but morally bankrupt ideas. We will all lose our liberty if we give the government the power to exclude and silence the voices we (or it) dislike.
Tolerance for Diverse Viewpoints Undermines Moral Conviction/Moral Courage
Another argument against free expression says that tolerance is just a form of weak-willed passivity in the face of objectionable speech and or behavior. This criticism fails to understand what toleration is. Toleration does not arise from an attitude of moral indifference or neutrality. One is not “tolerating” an attitude or behavior if one has no real opinion on the matter or if one has no choice but to put up with it because one is coerced to accept it. Rather, toleration is a principled form of inaction intended to defend the continued possibility of genuine moral conviction. Toleration applies only in circumstances in which one deliberately chooses to forebear behaviors or beliefs of which one disapproves. Critics of toleration describe this as a failure to take a moral stand. Liberals reject this criticism, arguing that, in standing up for toleration, they are standing up for what they believe in. This paradox was famously expressed by the French writer Voltaire: “I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
There are many ways, besides coercion, to object to ideas and practices one finds morally unacceptable. Liberals do not advocate passive acceptance of objectionable practices and ideas. Short of using force to impose our view on others, we accept and encourage all methods of influencing people. This requires active engagement with the beliefs of others, which is why liberals encourage verbal and written debate, argument, a free press, literature, art, and comic satire. These are ways of expressing the concern we ought to have for what our fellow citizens believe and how they live. Only through open discourse can we learn from others and encourage them to learn from us.
Liberals and other defenders of free speech are not lacking a moral compass. Their defense of freedom is not absolute nor is it based on an unprincipled “anything goes” philosophy of life. America’s founders recognized that freedom, while being a necessary condition for human flourishing, could not be absolute. Liberty, if exercised without limits, would give people license to abuse others and deprive them of freedom. This would be self-defeating. The existing limits on individual liberty are intended to apply to actions that are “other-regarding.” State power may rightfully be exercised over the individual, against his will, only to prevent harm to others. A government official’s desire to prevent me from harming myself is not adequate justification for curtailing my liberty, although states have made exceptions with, for example, statutes requiring seat belts and motorcycle helmets. In general, liberals accept a system that permits the widest possible individual freedom consistent with a like liberty for all. They have also interpreted freedom primarily in negative terms, as freedom from external interference or constraint.
Popper’s Objection: Unlimited Tolerance Must Lead to the Disappearance of Tolerance (the ‘Paradox’ of Toleration)
. . . Some maintain that moral right and wrong are always relative to a particular culture or belief system. That is, the truth of moral statements is culture-relative. Thus, there is no absolute answer to moral questions, such as whether it is wrong to circumcise females. In some cultures, practices like female circumcision or suttee (the requirement that a widow throw herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre) are accepted norms. In others, these practices are seen as morally wrong. There is no single truth that could be used to measure the moral claims of one society, or one time against those of another. “Truth” just is the way a particular society envisions the world. Because the relativist makes so few demands on the meaning of truth, it becomes impossible to distinguish it from fiction. “Truth” becomes indistinguishable from perspective.
Some liberals embrace moral relativism because they have been duped into accepting the claim that universal moral principles are ethnocentric and intolerant. On the surface, relativism might appear more tolerant of both individual and cultural differences. But this is simply not the case. In practice, relativism neither promotes nor guarantees tolerance and serves only to justify oppression, discrimination, abuse, and inhumane practices within any given culture. The relativist’s preferred policy of tolerance between cultures provides a veneer of “rectitude” for international policies that protect intolerance within cultures. . . .
Nowadays, we are so timid about offending anyone, even religious people who rationalize treating women as subhuman chattel, that we dare not raise the least objection for fear of being accused of “racism” or “cultural imperialism.” Never mind that we have already criticized the same abuses within our own culture when they were rationalized by our own religious traditions. Yet no one in our own culture dares to label us “sexist” or “inhumane” for our frightening tolerance for sexist abuses of women in other cultures. What this suggests, of course, is that we are not fully convinced that sexism is morally wrong within our own cultural context.
Political correctness is shorthand for socially acceptable speech or behavior—the values status quo. Ideas about the kind of speech or behavior that is socially acceptable vary dramatically from culture to culture and from time to time. In 1950s America, racial segregation and discrimination were P.C. In Nazi Germany anti-Semitism was P.C. In India at certain times suttee was P.C. I think these examples are sufficient to show that what is politically correct at any given time in history is not necessarily a guide to moral infallibility.
We do not wish to live in a society in which behavior X is wrong “because we say so.” We want to say so because X really is wrong. This implies that what makes it wrong has to be some standard independent of mere cultural popularity. It may be frustrating to lack absolute certainty about what this standard is, but as human beings we all possess reason. Hence we can, by means of open, interdisciplinary debate and discussion, reach some tentative agreement about what is right, or at least what is not right behavior in a human context. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents an inclusive, cross-cultural attempt to lay down some minimum moral standards. The preamble to the Declaration states that the document is “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” that member states and the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction shall strive to promote. Chief among these common standards must be our right to express our views, including views that dissent and offend. Toleration means valuing diversity enough to speak out in its defense. The only threat to an open, tolerant society is our refusal to do so. If we do not value toleration for unpopular opinions, then we forfeit our right to live in a tolerant society.
Though not all could be included here, I have outlined some objections to freedom of expression: the idea that extreme speech incites either violent acts or hatred, that tolerance is a weak-willed alternative to moral conviction, and that too much tolerance will destroy tolerant societies. Although others may disagree with my arguments, I hope they have been adequate to show that the above reasons for governmental censorship are unconvincing and that no limits on freedom of expression are justified.
T.M. Murray is at Oxford Brooks University, Westminster Institute of Education in Oxford, England.
Second Prize Winner
A Statement against the United Nations’ Resolution on the ‘Defamation of Religion’
Free expression has its source in the Ancient Greeks. However, perhaps its most lucid defense and elucidation arose during the period of thought known as the Enlightenment (in eighteenth-century Europe). This was a very Euro-centered (as opposed to Euro-centric) outlook in that its most prolific supporters and defenders were European: they ranged from Voltaire to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from David Hume to Immanuel Kant. Today, rather than speak about the defense of the Enlightenment, we speak of the defense of Enlightenment values. We have already seen that without free expression we would be slaves to tradition and backward thinking, never able to progress in our thought beyond the confines imposed by the past.
One can see free expression’s relationship to the Enlightenment as a whole, which Kant defined beautifully: “[The Enlightenment is] man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude [dare to know]! Have your courage to use your own understanding! That is the motto of enlightenment.”
Kant continually stresses courage because, as we have seen, it takes courage to accept many ideas that confront us today. It takes courage to strip ourselves free of traditional thinking, especially ideas that make us the center, literally, of the universe and the center, metaphysically, of God’s consideration. . . .
It is because of Enlightenment values that we can afford to have things like universal human rights, advances in science, and greater access to information and knowledge. Free expression yet again makes itself apparent in an important way of thinking: we have seen it as the cornerstone of science, of better political policies liberating people from oppression because they are, for example, black or female, and now we see it again as the single ability that encapsulates the whole of Enlightenment thinking.
Those who oppose free expression were and are usually those who have something to gain from imposed, traditional ways of thinking: it was the reason the Church did not want Bibles to be printed so freely, lest the common man gaze upon the inconsistencies inherent in God’s word; it was the reason oppressive regimes . . . towered heavily over the words of the press and political fighters.
But today the most vitriolic opponents of free expression are those from religious lobbies, directing their opposition against those who either criticize or mock the tenets of their religion. There are many examples of this, especially from the Islamic world: the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, calling for his death and that of his publishers and translators; in 2005, the Danish cartoon fiasco, which resulted in 139 deaths; the murder of Theo van Gogh, who made a film called Fitna that criticized Islam’s enslavement of women; and the banning of Sherry Jones’s Jewel of Medina around the world, an historical novel about the relationship between Islam’s prophet Muhammad and h
is most beloved and youngest wife, Ayesha.
In each case, someone has viewed Islam as it should be: as simply another human phenomenon. As we have seen, being human means being fallible. Thus to view Islam as fallible and human, rather than “holy” and “sacred,” is to undermine many people’s deeply held beliefs. This is to open up the chasm of human frailty so terrifying to many. Of course, the other major reason Muslims are attacking critics has arisen from the horrid racial element of associating all nonwhite Muslims with terrorists, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Using the latter to explain all criticism of Islam has been a technique of many Muslim countries, groups, and leaders. Of course, there is a difference between bigots who call all Muslims terrorists and those who rightly criticize the doctrine of Islam. The former attacks people while the latter attacks ideas. Free expression is best used to criticize, attack, mock, and deride ideas, but it can also be used against a particular person, sometimes effectively. Although some defenders of free speech like Nigel Warburton might see this as a limitation on free speech, I see it as improper usage of our most important right. I will defend this point in the next section.
For now let us examine the goals of Muslim lobbyists within the United Nations who hanker for a ban on free expression when it comes to Islam.
Since its adoption in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has been opposed by various Islamic countries on the basis that Islamic communities require special rights. The collective group promoting this view is the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), made up of fifty-seven member-states. The OIC has argued that the “Western” UDHR does not take heed of Muslim views, and for decades it has been passing annual resolutions in the upper echelons of the United Nations to suppress criticism of religion under the guise of “defamation.” Of course, the OIC forgets that many Muslim countries were part of the formulation of the UDHR—even if they had reservations about certain aspects of it.
The OIC has mistakenly viewed race and religion as synonymous. Indeed, there is a report from the U.N. entitled: “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism on the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred and the Promotion of Tolerance” [emphasis added here and for subsequent italics]. From this source, the title “Islamophobia” has come into use, defying definition but used by many (including the general public) when talking about criticism of Islam. By giving a racial flavor to criticism of Islam, Muslim apologists have their work done for them when critics silence themselves.
And this does not amount to simply abstract considerations. Consider the growing influence of the OIC. The following occurred on June 18, 2008:
The representative of the Association for World Education, in a joint statement with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, had denounced the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and of girls being married at the age of nine years old in countries where Sharia law applies [most of these are countries that are member-states of the OIC].
The speaker, David Littman, was interrupted by no fewer than 16 points of order and the proceedings of the Council were suspended for forty minutes when the Egyptian delegate said that “Islam will not be crucified in this Council” and attempted to force a vote on whether the speaker should be allowed to continue. [International Humanist and Ethical Union, “Discussion of Religious Questions Now Banned at UN Human Rights Council,” June 23, 2008]
Effectively, this means that criticism of religion is not possible in the most important organization aimed at promoting and maintaining global peace. Some might argue, as the representatives have done, that criticizing religion is counterproductive to maintaining peace: indeed, one need only consider the examples I mentioned before, such as Salman Rushdie or the Danish cartoons. Yet it is not a matter of silencing critics that will show their criticism false. As Peter Singer has highlighted, this gives rise to suspicions that the OIC and its member-states cannot answer the critics and, therefore, have to resort to silencing. If they want to soften the blows of constant criticism, they should use the same right that they wish to see eroded: free expression. Recalling Warburton’s statement that “Commitment to free speech involves protecting the speech that you don’t want to hear as well as the speech that you do,” this means that our ability to criticize these nations means they can respond in kind. They must be able to say why critics of Sharia law and, with it, adultery and underage marriage, are wrong. Free expression is a two-way street. The OIC is happy when the traffic of ideas flows in its direction but unhappy when the headlights shine on them from the opposite direction. This is neither a respectable nor mature approach to our most important liberty.
Let us look at the proposal itself (U.N. Doc. A/HRC/10/L., 2009). The prelude states: “The Human Rights Council—Reaffirming the pledge made by all States, under the Charter of the United Nations, to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” It then makes this ludicrous statement: “Stressing that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence” (par. 10).
The entire idea makes no sense in human rights terms for the simple reason that human rights belong to persons and individuals, not ideas or beliefs. With this simple understanding, the entire approach falls flat. Ideas are just that: ideas. They are not perfect or infallible since they reside in human minds. Even if they were bestowed by a divine figure, they still rest in the fallible brains of talking apes. A human talking about perfection is as logical as a monochrome monitor showing color. It simply cannot be done, and when it is claimed to be, we need to be very doubtful.
Similarly for beliefs. The statement “I believe this is true” makes little sense in most cases, since something is either true or it is not. One’s belief is irrelevant to whether x is true or not. Usually it can be proved empirically; or if it is a metaphysical position, it still has nothing to do with beliefs and everything to do with good philosophical reasoning. That is why people are able to justify almost anything: their politics, career, choice of partner, and so on (this does not make their justifications true or good, but at least there is an attempt at justification if one asks or pushes for a reason).
But something so fundamental as “meaning” is “believed to be true” because of religion; devoid of rationality, it rests entirely on faith, and when light is shed on it, it coils into the posturing of a wounded creature.
Ideas do not deserve protection because ideas can be wrong. This was John Stuart Mill’s major claim against censorship in the famous second chapter of On Liberty. If the OIC is indicating what we cannot speak about, then they have become censors. They have decided what may be spoken about, or at least resorted to forcing others to agree with them. Like censors, they assume something fundamentally opposed to being human: infallibility. If you claim that something must be censored, you assume that you know that it is better for it not to be viewed, publicized, distributed, and so on. But of course, you cannot know this. A simple glance through history will show that banning or silencing that which upsets the status quo is pushing only below the surface that which will inevitably rise again.
Numerous religious authorities, as we have seen, wanted many works of science and literature banned: the great James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, many of Bertrand Russell’s more polemical books, Galileo’s works, and even the Bible itself. David Hume could not publish his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion while he was alive—it today remains the best one-volume critique of monotheism. Many works of science, literature, and philosophy that have pushed us further toward understanding the world have seen the flames. These works were censored. Yet we can safely say that these books did not result in the moral decay of society; indeed, books like those of Galileo, Darwin, and Mill are central to our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our lives.
What remains important is this: one cannot assume infallibility; therefore, to silence dissent is either unjustifiable or despotic. The point behind expressing ideas, even if you do not like them, is that you must counter them with the same ability your critics use. If the OIC is unhappy about what “Westerners” are saying about their religion, they must indicate with empirical evidence why the criticisms are false. This childish attitude of keeping opponents quiet because you do not like hearing what they say or express belongs in a schoolyard, not in the United Nations. Simply asserting that it is a human rights abuse will show itself to have no basis in international law. Indeed, as many legal experts highlighted at the time, the OIC has no legal basis to make the claim that defamation of religion is an abuse.
Who is being abused—the women who are being stoned to death or the men who are doing the stoning? To the OIC, they are defending the latter by claiming hurt feelings or offense. But offense is not a justification for silencing opponents. Offense is a matter of individual and subjective opinion; the same expression might amuse the majority but offend a minority. Does the minority’s offense mean we do not allow the expression to continue? It certainly cannot be a democratic decision. As John Stuart Mill so memorably phrased it, we must actively work against the “tyranny of majority” opinion. Just because the majority holds it to be true does not make it so. “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd,” said Mill’s godson Bertrand Russell. “Indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.”
If it is not democratic, we must at least understand the inherent nature of free expression. This is why defending it as an ability has a particular advantage. Free expression, as we have seen, is important for the growth of our species. We need to be grown up enough to realize that we live in an increasingly integrated world, with various hues of ideas becoming a kaleidoscope of the human endeavor. We need to be mature enough to realize that with this integration comes ideas we may not like, things we do not want to see, expressions we may not want to hear. But what has led us to this point of freedom in most places in the world is directly related to questioning authority and not living an unconsidered life.
By giving into the childish whining of Muslim countries, we are not only debasing what many have died for; we are patronizing the very countries we wish to “not offend.” We are saying to them: “We may have free expression; we may learn how to maturely deal with critics. But because you are offended, we are going to silence all discussion around your religion because you are not democratic, Western, capitalist, and so on.” Thus, the “othering” that Amartya Sen warns about finds itself reinforced by those who are meant to be aware of it. Instead of breaking down barriers to make us into a global union of humanity, the United Nations is doing exactly the opposite: creating more borders and more differences. By giving into religious bullying, the U.N. is doing the exact opposite of what it is meant to do.
If this does not give us pause, then the U.N. has become nothing more than a weak, posturing, hand-wringing liberal ideal afraid to actualize its goals. To see how far this complete reversal of goals has gone, consider this 2008 statement on behalf of the Center for Inquiry by Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske:
On March 28th, 2008, the Council actually undermined its own ability to protect free speech. An amendment to a resolution on freedom of expression (passed 27–15, 3 abstentions) now requires the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to “report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.” . . . Instead of traveling the world in search of instances in which free speech is unjustly limited, the Rapporteur will now do just the opposite, in an effort to police “abusive” speech. The protector has become the oppressor.
The worst part of all this is the unjustifiable nature of the OIC’s claims. The rights they speak about are already protected by the UDHR and other important documents. There is no right to protect your beliefs from criticism, because your beliefs are ideas. And ideas could be wrong. If they are not wrong, it is up to you to show your critics why. It is not up to you to cover their mouths.
Free expression is our most important ability. It is a tiny flame held to a very foggy existence. To clear that fog, we must breathe fresh life into these discussions and be firm in cupping the flame close to our chests. As fragile as this ability is, it remains powerful. It can set the whole world aflame if we are not careful. That is why free expression, today, matters more than ever; because those of us who defend it must also protect it from itself. But as we have seen, rather than putting barriers around free expression, we can defend the barriers themselves as good enough arguments. It is time we held the flame high without fear of the fog consuming it.
Tauriq Moosa is a Master’s student in applied ethics at the Centre for Apllied Ethics at Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa.