Monday, January 19, 2015

Blasphemy and Issues around Free Speech

by Gary Berg-Cross

The recent Charlie Hebdo shootings have stirred a range of discussion, some reasoned and some emotion driven about persistent topical ingredients such as;
·         How do we and should we define the border between freedom of expression and hate speech?
·         Does religion or associated ethnic groups with their values have special status to consider?
·         What is the role of history, including facts and law in deciding these things?
·         How does this debate relate to extremists and to establishment power structures?

People, cultures and groups will differ as to what “facts” and assumptions are to be used in the debate, some of which we see embedded in the above questions. Some very liberal people’s preference is to defend freedom of all kinds of expression, including mockery and
incitement without any limitations. That's really free and there are no real borders to worry about.  There is no hate speech. It’s a mature & proper view and perhaps take maturity, tolerance and polite reflection all around to work.  Maybe it is the goal, but we have various types of hate speech or its equivalent enshrined in law. So we have to deal with gray areas that may vary from country and culture. there is also the idea of civilized discourse. I'm in favor or that too and the idea of this can also vary from place to place.  There may be practical issues to get to the idea of free speech and civilized discourse on the way to enlightenment without conflict or giving in to bullies and crazies. Every culture has some small percentage of unstables and events often afford them opportunities to make an impact and get into the spotlight.

Then there is the emotional vs. rational aspect of our behavior. We are not always reflective or tolerant and some things get the emotions fired up, even among rational, secular folks. Take something as simple as the proposition to respect a person’s right to believe whatever they want – so long as that belief does no harm to others. Of course harm is a judgemental thing -hurting a believer's mothers feelings may not be harmful to me, but it may be the way a belief culture wants things to be and mutual politeness may allow this if all other things are equal.  Alas, they are rarely so.  It is this unevenness that makes finding a useful position difficult.  Indeed certain groups are protected by laws and others by convention which builds in some unevenness. 

Non-believers might think a "no harm respect-all" standard is an improvement over what we have now– believers should respect nonbelievers as people and not disrespect them as people.  We are human too and recent events might offer a teachable moment for respecting people.  Whether we should respect the belief itself is quite another matter that eventually leads to argument. When can we speak up about the silliness of other's belief?  

In a simple respect position non-believers would leave faith-based believers to their own thoughts.  And indeed this seems to me what many of us on the nonbelief side do - new atheists and anti-theists aside. This might be a nice peaceful world, if that was all there was to it. But there is history and custom to consider  and these conflict respect for people with having to respect certain beliefs - the religious ones for example.

For a long time, well maybe for as long as we know, believers don’t leave non-believers alone.  Believers have their hooks into the power structure and get laws, such as Blasphemy statutes, passed, which do beyond disagreeing with the belief and take action on non-believing people, such as not allowing them to hold office. 

For evidence let’s look at the International Humanist and Ethical Union. They have released their annual global report Freedom of Thought Report 2014, on discrimination against humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, and their human rights and legal status. As input to the report, a group  called Atheist Ireland contributed information about religious discrimination in Ireland as part of the overall process of developing the Report.

Here are some of the General systemic issues noted on how nonbelievers are affected in Ireland: 

§  There is systematic religious privilege
§  Preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general
§  Religious groups control some public or social services
§  State-funding of religious institutions or salaries, or discriminatory tax exemptions
Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; Establishment of religion
§  Official symbolic deference to religion

Much of this is due to article 44.1 of the Constitution of Ireland in which

 “the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion”.

This clause, smells of the concept of blasphemy - the act of insulting or showing a lack of reverence for God, religious or holy persons or things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.

This Irish thing is surprisingly close to a foundational tenet of Islam, namely, submission to Allah (the Arabic word for a universal “God”). There may be thankfully fewer acts of violence seen in Ireland than the Middle East for a variety of reasons. These things happen when people are stressed and conflicts are ongoing. There are sometimes sparks from a real war with people being killed and tortured that lead to violent response.

Coming back to what we saw for Ireland, a contextual question might be “Is it legal to draw and publish caricatures like these in Europe?”

Well we think clearly yes, but it turns out with reservations, legal ones at times.

There are still laws in Europe criminalizing blasphemy, although there has been a trend to decriminalize it over the last 40 years. In the Netherlands, it was only abolished completely in 2014
In the US prosecution for blasphemy is in theory "unconstitutional” after the 1952 Supreme Court case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson. But there are still laws on the books.  So although we aren't whipping people anymore we aren't pure on this issue of free expression that we hug to our breast.  We can do better.

The extremist claiming the attack in Paris declared that it was revenge for the publication of caricatures in the Charlie Hebdo symbolically depicting the Prophet Muhammad, as a terrorist, but also as revenge for torture they cited in Iraq.  The equating of a proclaimed prophet as a terrorist is certainly provoking.  As some have noted characterizing killers of abortion clinics as Christians, perhaps with a picture of Jesus doing the bombing would not be a fair, mocking characterization.  We don't blame world wide Jewry of depict Moses as a bomber of Palestinians in Gaza. A few fringe zealots and defenders of belief turf may take react violently, but we don't blame or satirize an entire religion.  They are often few, such as our US Koran burners or government building bombers, but allow broadly the scapegoating of the other side and may use religious cover for this. But then the caricature of the Prophet is also broad in seemly condemning an entire religion using its prophet symbolically.  It would seem that civilized cartooning as part of debate could be smart enough not to smear an entire religion in anger.  But maybe that is the point and one that can be debated in a civilized fashion.

There is another practical side to this too.  Some defend a more limited conception of freedom of expression to avoid the downsides.  The idea here is that some speech may incite violence and cause hate speech. Certainly we recognize this is some aspects of social media.  Ever been banned from a web site for heated argument?  What about police who crack down on targets that talk back.  Their speech seems quite limited, but perhaps if they used satire it would go better.  Well maybe not.  We read how French police are rounding people up because of the stuff they "said", including a drunk driver who was arrested for apparently feeling his freedom expression too much, and talked tough.  As troubling as well, is a know French comedian who made a joke in poor taste on Facebook. He was arrested.  There seem to be practical limits, especially if you are talking to the power structure in your society as opposed to one that your power structure is in conflict with. And that is another point people have made about Charlie Hebdo. Their criticism has been characterized as more of punching down to a minority group and its religion in the country but at odds with the power Charlie H rarely punched up against that power structure it is claimed. As one letter to WaPo put it:

It is easy to claim to promote and stand for freedom of expression and to wrap oneself in the mantle of righteousness at the expense of those who are already beleaguered, downtrodden, marginalized and oppressed. But it is a gross abuse of a worthy principle, and there is nothing admirable or praiseworthy about it.

 Freedom to speak is not nearly absolute especially when it makes groups in power uncomfortable. Secularists have understood and experienced this for a long time. You might have a right to say what you feel to the law yet you might get arrested or charged with disrespecting a law officer. Some have been killed.

As advice here, consider this practical, civilized point of  view from the David Ignatius posting , “Sorry, but this war-on-terror mobilization is the wrong response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.” It would repeat mistakes the United States made in its reaction to Sept. 11, 2001.

“The role of religion in all of this is dangerously exaggerated,” says a former State Department official who now organizes private-sector efforts to counter extremism. “When we get stuck in a religious debate we are never going to win, we miss the point, which is that extremists are offering young people a sense of belonging, an outlet for adventure, and some kind of enhanced status. To combat this, we have to appeal to them as young people more than we have to appeal to them as Muslims...
Cracking a joke or publishing satire has its place in this discourse, but so does delicacy and civility. If we want to rise above barbarity, sometimes our humor needs to rise above as well. It doesn't mean we need remain silent in the face of fraud, atrocity or illiberality or discard our fundamental right to free expression. It just means instead of a sledgehammer, sometimes the knife of subtlety is a much better tool..”

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