Deeply Cherished Dogmatism

An article by Bruce Bawer in Reason raises some very basic issues.

For many Europeans, the murder of one of the Netherlands’ most outspoken public figures underscored the importance of protecting freedom of expression…Many members of Europe’s fast-growing Muslim communities, however – along with more than a few non-Muslims eager to keep the peace in an increasingly anxious and divided continent – draw a very different lesson: the need to curb freedom of expression out of respect for Muslim sensitivities…Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain agreed. “Is freedom of expression without bounds?” he asked. “Muslims are not alone in saying ‘No’ and in calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs.”

Safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs – that puts the problem about as clearly as it can be put. There are difficulties with free speech absolutism, because speech can invoke and indeed create hatred and rage (can do it in minutes), and hatred and rage can all too easily lead to persecution, violence, murder, genocide. That’s not a secret. But that’s not the issue Sacranie is worrying about – he’s worrying about a different one. He’s worrying about the issue or pseudo-issue of ‘vilification’ of ‘dearly cherished beliefs’ – and that is indeed a very different issue and a different kind of issue. And, frankly, I’m having a hard time thinking of a good argument for his view. I can think of bad ones, but no good one. I think beliefs are just the kind of thing that need to be able to withstand challenge of all kinds, because the alternative is pure dogmatism, authority, revelation, fiat, assertion, because God said so, because the priest/mullah/rabbi said so, because the leader said so, because I said so. Well the hell with that.

Sacranie probably thinks and would probably like us to think that beliefs that are ‘dearly cherished’ – in the way a dear little baby is cherished, in the way a sainted mother is cherished, in the way a loyal loving friend is cherished – ought to be protected from putative vilification in the same way that cherished people ought to be protected. But that’s exactly wrong. Beliefs aren’t people, they can’t be hurt either physically or emotionally. People who hold them can, of course, but that is – surely – a necessary part of thinking at all. We grow attached to our own beliefs, of course, but the more we try to make them immune, the less worth loving they will be, because they will become rigid, dogmatic and stupid. In that sense, nobody does anyone a favour by treating beliefs as sacrosanct and immune from criticism or mockery.

I didn’t know this –

In April, after virtually no public discussion, Norway’s Parliament passed a law that punishes offensive remarks about any religion with up to three years’ imprisonment – and places the burden of proof on the accused.

Godalmighty – really? That’s grotesque. B&W clearly badly needs a correspondent in Norway.

Bawer gets the next one slightly wrong though.

Three months later, Britain’s House of Commons approved a bill that would criminalize “words or behavior” that might “stir up racial or religious hatred.” (On October 25, the bill’s most restrictive provisions were rejected by the House of Lords—an ironic example of a non-democratically elected body standing up for democracy by rebuking a democratically elected body.)

But that’s not right – because it’s not democracy that the lords stood up for. That’s rather the point. They stood up for rights or freedoms (or both, or the two seen as one thing) as distinct from democracy. That’s why mechanisms for protecting basic rights and freedoms are needed: because majorities (so, democracy) are perfectly capable of voting to take away rights and freedoms – and that is the objection to the religious hatred bill, that it would do exactly that.

Bawer concludes with the Jyllands-Posten cartoons – perhaps a little too optimistically in the light of what Louise Arbour has just said on the subject.

Artists and editors received death threats; the embassies of several Muslim countries lodged a complaint with Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who refused to meet with them “because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so”); and 5,000 Muslims protested in the streets of Copenhagen. Jyllands-Posten’s besieged editors, however, stood firm, writing, “Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure – unconditionally!”

Danish prime minister (possibly also muddling democracy and freedom, but never mind) and editors, well done; embassies of ‘Muslim countries’ (what is a ‘Muslim country’ anyway – can there be such a thing?), grow up.

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