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Debate on the Freedom to Offend4 min read

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As mentioned, NPR is putting up audio from a powerful IQ2US debate series, and I just finished listening to the abridged version of the Freedom of Speech debate.  Most of the arguments did not connect because, while both sides agreed on some freedom, they were trying to prevent the abuses of the two extremes, and did not really argue well about how they would prevent such extremes if their proposition were accepted.

Those in favor of limiting “offensive speech” were trying to prevent bullying of the minorities by the majority, and language that leads to social ostracism, hate, and violence.  They also rightly noted that we already limit some speech, such as slander, incitement to violence, and sedition.  They alluded that offensive and mocking free speech, when applied to institutions, races, or religions, is really the same as slander against individuals, since individuals bear the brunt of the effects of such criticisms, and because people’s personal identities are in part based on their group membership.

Those in favor of the right to offend were trying to sustain the protection that free speech gives us against tyrants, that allows us to rightly criticize ideologies, esp. religions, rather than giving them the insulation of faith as if that allows them to say whatever they like.  They acknowledged that speech is powerful and dangerous, but less dangerous than the alternative of having to constantly define and police what is offensive, and giving our freedom over to some central authority rather than relying on the power of public debate to establish common truth.

A good example of both sides of this argument came in the example of abolition and civil rights in the US.  For years, the white majority was able to subjugate and mistreat blacks, not only by law, but because culture was filled with what we today call “hate speech” – theories that blacks were inferior, outlandish cartoons that furthered the idea that blacks were apish brutes, and public language that routinely denigrated blacks.  Those who in the recent debate pointed to this argued that allowing such speech to legally continue furthers the subjugation, nominalization, and discrimination  against people.

However, those in favor of free speech then noted that making such speech illegal would probably not have hastened the demise of slavery, but rather, would have stifled open debate on the issue, and might have actually hindered the deeper transformation that in most senses eradicated the roots of racial discrimination.  If the powers that be or religion remain beyond criticism, we have removed a powerful and peaceful method for dethroning them.  So what if we still have people that spew nazi or racial ideas?  Removing their freedom eventually removes our own.  I probably have not stated these arguments as well as I could have, so listen for yourself.

My favorite quote is this end statement from Christopher Hitchens:

The real question before us is this: “Is nothing sacred?”  What we’ve really been discussing is whether there is such an offense as blasphemy or profanity…What I will not allow anyone to prevent me from saying is that it is wrong and always has been for churches [and] powerful secular institutions to claim exemption from criticism, which is really what is being asked here.   Does Islam respect my right to unbelief?  Of course it does not.  Does it respect the right of a Muslim to apostacize and change  belief?  Of course it does not….I can name four or five [personal] friends who have to live under police protection for commenting on Islam, and this is getting steadily worse all of the time.

And it is grotesque.  Here is an enormous religion with gigantic power that claims that an archangel spoke to an illiterate peasant and brought him a final revelation that supersedes all others.  It’s a plagiarism by an epileptic of the worst bits of Judaism and Christianity.  How long do you think I’m going to be able to say that anywhere I like?  It would already be a risky thing in many places.