The norms are different

Nigel Warburton comments on the Secretary General’s advice.

If all those who speak, write, express their views have to respect all religious sensitivities, then what can anyone say? Some religious group is likely to be offended by almost any expression of a view. Does the UN want to stop us watching The Life of Brian, Jerry Springer the Opera, etc? Will atheists have to keep quiet about their beliefs for fear of offending religious sensitivities?

Pub Philosopher does the same.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that freedom of expression should be exercised in a way that respects religious beliefs. But then it wouldn’t be free speech, would it?

The Thinking Man also speaks up.

Why should religion be off limits? On what basis is someone going to say: don’t speak bad about my religion? Does this mean that Mr. Ki-moon accepts and respects, the right of countries where sharia law is the norm, to kill anyone who tries to convert to Christianity? He must! He obviously can’t speak against it, since that would amount to not respecting the religious beliefs of those people.

I haven’t found anyone talking about not being rude to people at the dinner table. Perhaps they don’t think that’s relevant.

Good, because it’s not. It’s a category mistake to think it is. The norms are different; the customs are different. Ban Ki-moon wasn’t talking about the dinner table, he was talking about free expression, which means public discourse: books, journalism, media, debate, political campaigning. If a friend rebukes another friend for being rude, it is nonsensical to reply ‘I have a right to free expression!’ Of course you do, but that’s not the point. By the same token, if someone writes a book, it is nonsensical for a reader to complain that the book is impolite. Readers don’t get to demand that all books (and all newspapers, all magazines, all tv shows, all songs, all cartoons, all everything) be polite to them personally. That’s not what books are for. It is what personal relations are for (broadly speaking); it is not what books are for.

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