I’m as strong an advocate of free speech as you’re likely to find. I think there are plenty of things we should choose not to say — certain racial epithets, for instance — but if you want to go ahead and be an ass and say them, I’ll defend your right to do so ’til the sun goes down. Applying social pressure in an attempt to shape speech choices is fine with me; restricting absolute speech rights is not. I expect other people to treat my speech in the same way.
To many people in the west, this attitude is utterly normal. Expected. Assumed. I know not all European countries safeguard speech to the degree we do here in the U.S. (where it is, for instance, perfectly legal to deny the Holocaust, and you can wear whatever religious symbols you choose), but in general, I think people living in western nations are steeped in a free-speech ethos.
That’s great. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
But there is a problem: the free-speech ethos is so enveloping that it’s hard for us to understand why or how anyone might be against free speech. This inability to see “free-speech cultures” from the outside means that we’re taken by surprise by events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It is simply inconceivable to us that there are people out there who truly believe that freedom of speech is not just unnecessary but actively bad.
Over the last day, I’ve imagined defending the concept of free speech to some sort of fundamentalist. In today’s world, we might tend to assume this fundamentalist is Muslim, but many other religious traditions have also had powerful impulses against free speech. So let’s just make this fundamentalist — I’ll call him “Bob” — a generic monotheist and leave it at that. In my head, the conversation goes something like this:
Me: I know you find this artwork religiously offensive, but the right to free speech must trump any one religion’s views about what is and is not offensive.
Bob: Why? Why should the right to free speech be more important than what God says about how we’re supposed to behave?
Me: I don’t share your beliefs about how God thinks we should behave, so they don’t apply to me.
Bob: Sure they do. It doesn’t matter what you believe. It matters what’s true, and what’s true is that God has said we are not to do what this artwork does. Your disbelief doesn’t have any impact on what’s true. God’s rules apply to you whether you think they do or not.
Me: But don’t you see that we live in a religiously pluralistic society? We all have to get along with one another — Christians, Jew, Muslim, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, pagans, whatever. If we try to take one religion’s rules about what is and is not offensive and impose them on everyone else, we’ll have endless strife and bloodshed.
Bob: Your underlying argument is flawed. We shouldn’t be living in religiously pluralistic societies to begin with. Such societies should not exist. All those other religions are wrong. Everyone needs to convert to my religion, which is true.
Me: You can’t force everyone to give up their own religion and follow yours. They’d be miserable. Religious beliefs are deeply personal and connected to people’s cultural heritages. Every person must have the freedom to follow their own beliefs.
Bob: Nonsense. Beliefs are either true or false. Many people believe things that are false, and their wrongness endangers themselves and others. What’s a little misery now compared to eternal damnation? Your live-and-let-live attitude is actually cruel. You’re denying the majority of people in the world the opportunity to know the truth and be right with God. If they were forced to convert, some percentage would come to truly believe in the truth, and the world would be better off. Permitting pluralism is irresponsible; it’s a sign that a society doesn’t care that most of its members will be damned.
I have no answer for Bob, at this point. There is no convincing way for me to argue against what he’s saying.
Bob inhabits a different world than the one I live in. To me, offensiveness is deeply subjective. What offends one person does not offend another. Things aren’t offensive or non-offensive; rather, they are found or not found offensive. That’s because what is true, in the largest sense, is mysterious to me. I don’t think we have access to that kind of certainty.
I look at Bob, who is utterly convinced of the absolute truth of his beliefs, and then I look at someone else — “Sally,” let’s say — who is utterly convinced of the absolute truth of her beliefs, which are not only different from Bob’s but incompatible with them. And I think, “Who am I to decide that Bob’s right and Sally’s wrong, or vice versa? The only possible solution is to let both Bob and Sally do their thing, safeguarding the rights of each.
But Bob doesn’t think that way. For Bob, what’s true is clearly knowable and absolute. When everything is clear, freedom of speech is simply an opening for falsity to creep in and mislead people. People who think like Bob thinks cannot be convinced of the value of free speech.
It’s worth noting that my attitudes — the uncertainty of truth, the value of pluralism — are based on values and beliefs just as much as Bob’s attitudes are. There’s no higher level of reasoning I can call on to convince him that pluralism is good. It’s simply what I believe, and I probably believe it largely because I was raised in a culture that embraces it. Given Bob’s beliefs, his views are no less “rational” than mine. If he’s right about the nature of God, then his attitude makes perfect sense.
I just don’t think he’s right.
But he does.
This is the sort of difference that leads to insolvable problems. And bloodshed. Lots and lots of bloodshed.