Monday, January 30, 2012

Freedom of Speech and Freedom to Criticize


I spent the first four weeks of his year - a presidential election year - discussing the six points of Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists.

Faircloth followed up his presentation of these six points with a second list – a list of ten political objectives.

Whenever somebody presents such a list, there is an irresistible urge on the part of those who would comment on such a list to counter with their own “improved” list. Then the discussion gets bogged down in a trivial debate over the fine differences between each list.

I am going to struggle to resist that urge - and fail in at least one respect.

It is, after all, an irresistible urge.

The principle that I would put at the top of the list - a principle on which all of the others depend - is that the right to freedom of speech includes the right to criticize and condemn what other people believe. Governments shall not infringe on this right, but instead shall organize its institutions to protect speakers from private violence.

It is argued in some circles that a prohibition on criticism is required to "keep the peace". Somebody's beliefs get criticized, they become maniacal and violent, and the next thing you know you have suicide bombers in the shopping malls, on the busses, and interfering with airline traffic in various ways.

This strategy – that of banning criticism of groups who respond to criticism with violence – will fail to keep the peace for at least two reasons.

First, it teaches people that they can control speech just by threatening violence against those who say anything they do not like.

Have the American Astrological Society threaten suicide bombers any time somebody says anything critical of astrology, or have Steven Spielberg fans threaten to blow up the head offices of any company that prints a negative review of one of his movies. According to this philosophy of banning criticism to keep the peace, criticisms of astrology and Stephen Spielberg movies would have to be banned.

After all, we cannot possibly blame the astrologers or Steven Spielberg fans for threatening violence. That is out of the question.

We can imagine a group of scientists who accept a disease theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs threatening to detonate bombs in any classroom where a professor advances an asteroid impact theory. Using the idea, teaching that there are flaws in the disease theory would have to be prohibited.

In fact, those who accept the theory of evolution could put this philosophy to use. Just threaten to kill people any time somebody criticizes evolution, and criticizing evolution would be banned.

Except, scientists (and science as a practice) thrives on criticism. Remove criticism from science, and science itself will come to an end.

The flaw in the philosophy of banning criticism when those criticized threaten to respond with violence is that it gives political power to those who threaten violence. As such, it becomes

We can see from these examples that the organizations that control speech are those that are willing to use violence against its critics. We do not expect prohibitions on criticisms of astrology and Steven Spielberg precisely because these are not organizations prone to violence. How are we going to decide what to prohibit and what to permit? The answer that this philosophy provides is to identify groups willing to respond to criticism with violence and ban criticism of those groups – to “keep the peace”.

One of the effects of this philosophy will be expand the number of groups that decide to respond to criticism with violence. While I doubt that astrologers, Steven Spielberg fans, or scientists will likely take up the practice, there are a lot of organizations that might find it tempting.

Second, ultimately if you follow this philosophy, the state as to choose a set of beliefs and defend it from all criticism by threatening to punish all critics. Assume that you have a group that believes X. Well, then, everybody else who believes Y - where Y implies not-X – is necessarily “critical” of the belief that X. If one group believes there is only one God and Mohammed is its prophet, then anybody who does not accept this must hold that it is not the case that there is only one God and Mohammed is its prophet. To refuse to believe X – or to at least announce that one does not believe X – can be taken as an insult to everybody who believes X. It says to all believers, “I think you are wrong. I am better than you because my belief is true and yours is false.”

The state will have no option but to choose a set of beliefs and to prohibit anybody from denying the :”truth” of those beliefs.

I want to add that, while I have used religious examples in this post, everything I have written would apply to atheistic political movements as well. I have known Ayn Rand Objectivists who spoke passionately in favor of the use of violence against the state. Atheistic anarchists and communists have taken this route. It is not impossible for an atheist organization to take the position that claims made critical of atheism and in defense of religion are socially destructive and should be met with violence. From which it would then follow that, in order to "keep the peace", criticism of atheism should be prohibited.

I also suspect that, if there were a successful movement to ban the criticism of beliefs in order to "keep the peace", that it would not take long for some atheist group somewhere in the world to start threatening violence against its critics while making reference to this prohibition on criticism.

What is the first item on my list of political objectives?

Government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to criticize other beliefs through words and pictures. And instead the government shall establish its institutions so as to protect critics from those who would respond to criticism with violence or threats of violence.

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