Why Liberty means Blasphemy

The great Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, defined an arrest as: “a blinding flash and a blow which shifts the present instantly into the past and the impossible into omnipotent actuality.” To be cordoned off as though one is oneself a crime-scene, demarcated and defined as that which needs to be investigated, probed and prodded. Orwell once described himself as hated by very many people only once in his life: as a police officer in Moulmein, Lower Burma. He goes on to describe this as concurrently the only time he was important enough for this to actually happen. Hatred here does not repudiate importance and vice versa. This all coagulates into a set view of a hatred for authority which disperses with human frailty, with a single vision of their place – You may not set foot here, you may not say that here, you may not do x to anyone. It is with this notion that we must ask the following: Should people be arrested for saying certain things? If so, what should people be arrested for saying in our present civil society?

The “classic defence” of free speech is widely regarded as John Stuart’s Mill’s beautiful On Liberty – more specifically the second chapter. Free speech is said to be a right, yet we must first ask ourselves what is this rubric called “rights” and how does “free speech” fit into it.

Mill describes a right as follows:

When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education and opinion. If he has what we consider a sufficient claim, on whatever account, to have something guaranteed to him by society, we say that he has a right to it.

It seems however that this does not at all clear up what a right is. What I mean is that at some point in our history it was an axiom to consider woman as not having the right to vote, as people of darker hues to have lesser or fewer rights than those of pinker. Thus, our definition of rights goes nowhere nearer to clarifying the matter of whether x, y, or z should be or are rights at all.

However, rights are contested and projected. Now it is common for modern (dare I put in “Western”) people to consider equal treatment of the sexes and to dismiss racism as unhelpful in our classifications of people (we might as well use eye-colour or length of lips for such banal distinctions). The reason why – even if, like me, you are doubtful of notions of “progress” – is that the terms of rights are contested. This fits in with another beautiful phrasing of Mill’s, in which he states that unless an idea or opinion is “fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

So, whilst we have a vagary of what a right is, we must be sure to note that this does not tell us that x, y, or z ought to be rights. For now let us say that rights are things to which we are allotted by society and which society ought to protect us in their consumption, diffusion and utility.

The right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” is a famous line (from the amazing United States Declaration of Independence). One can have a right to free speech. Yet one can also have a right to consume toxic substances which serve almost no other purpose but self-debilitation (alcohol for example). One has a right to ones own time, freedom of movement, etc. But wait! Certain governmental areas are off-limits to citizens, offices are protected from invasion due to the valuable information they contain, homes are not to be walked into by anyone. It does not look as though rights really stand for anything, since there are always exceptions to them. But this would be to have a pessimistic, unhelpful and incorrect view of rights.

Are we truly free? It seems to me that we are not. But that is a good thing since I think here “absolute freedom” is not a good thing to have. “Absolute freedom” would amount to a repudiation of rights, since it would entail no restrictions or limitations on our actions – one could consider it as the hypothetical “state of nature” that Hobbes considers in Leviathan. We need restrictions to allow for ordered movements to allow societal flow. “Absolute freedom”, as I define it here, would mean that law, government and formalised institutions would be unnecessary since these exist to serve, protect and further our rights. At times, true, it does not feel like it. But at present, these are goals and aims of these institutions.

Similarly, we do not have – nor should we want – absolute freedom of speech. Freedom of speech, remember is itself a right, but one that is also hard to define. In a recent spate of “blasphemy” in Cape Town, Errol Naidoo has brought into sharp contrast the contesting criticisms between homosexuals and Christians (in the same link, I show why this reasoning is flawed on his part). In the past, sure, we can see that blaspheming was considered very unPC – very much an encroachment on people’s rights to their practising of religion. Since the gates of dogma have slowly been removed of their steadfast watchmen, we have seen that the gates actually protect nothing but insecurities and irrationality. That however does not stop people from continuing to believe and practise their faith in private. What it has introduced is the now accepted proposition that ideas may be contested openly, whilst people can be respected.

Freedom of speech does not mean we should mock, deride, and make snide remarks about people at every available opportunity. Not only is it exhausting and inconvenient, it also does not help to further the causes of liberty, respect and equality. The difficulty does not lie in which, for example, faiths or political movements we are allowed to mock, but how mockery and satire contributes to overall flourishing of a society, when by their very definitions they are negative aspects toward certain people. To put it another way: How can freedom of speech – which is only contested when those who are critical and therefore negative toward a set of ideas or opinions are silenced – at all help society when it allows for mockery and satire as its hallmarks? Mocking one’s leaders can’t make their lives easier to help lead our societies, so why should we allow it?

This is a fair question, but one that misses the overarching point: The feelings of one person or one group should not prevent the overarching methodology of critical thinking to be repudiated for the whole society. When we mock a leader, say Jacob Zuma, is his job easier? No – but who said anything about making our leaders’ lives easier? The main point is that it indicates a society that is able to mock its leaders when they make ridiculous statements like having a shower will get rid of AIDS, or only Afrikaners are true white South Africans. Being able to mock indicates that one is not governing sheep who accept where their leader points his staff. It indicates that freedom and critical thinking are walking hand-in-hand, ready to point out where along their path the leader is not directing us.

In this instance, this derision fits in with the rubric of a right because it indicates liberty. It indicates that the personal autonomy of the individual citizen is no more reprised from him for allowing his critical faculties to engage with satire or mockery, because the target of his mockery is failing in his or her own critical faculties. This is the instance in which freedom of speech must be defended.

It may seem arrogant to suggest that if Mary is not living up to Bob’s standard of “critical thinking”, Bob is allowed to mock Mary and defend himself by invoking freedom of speech. Of course, the beauty of liberty and personal autonomy raises itself on its two legs to justify this: Mary is allowed to clarify, defend and present her own case for her decision or opinion which “offends” Bob’s critical faculties. It is the beginning of a dialogue and not the invocation of silence which is so important. Mary, in this instance, can not say that Bob is not allowed to criticise her ideas. Freedom of speech basically means allowing a dialogue between two opposing forces to take place; whereas no freedom or arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech give the lie to despotism, arrogance and egotistical bullying.

For this reason, so-called “blasphemy” is a human right. Blasphemy may be defined as mammalian utterances of divine denigration. By breaking down this definition – with the ribald fanatical Muslims and Christians serving as the broadside to this investigation – we can see why we are all partisans to it. Not just “atheists” but even the faithful commit blasphemy every day.

Mammalian utterances of divine denigration (all following definitions are from Webster)

Mammalian adj for the root word mammal n. : any of a class of warm-blooded higher vertebrates.

Utterance(s) n. 1: something uttered ; especially : an oral or written statement : a stated or published expression; 2: vocal expression : speech

Divine adj:  of, relating to, or proceeding directly from God or a god <divine love> b: being a deity <the divine Savior> c: directed to a deity <divine worship>

Denigration n. 1: to attack the reputation of : defame <denigrate one’s opponents> ;   2  : to deny the importance or validity of

Notice the inherent absurdity of blasphemy. We must recognise that it is not some deity’s feelings being hurt, but those who proclaim a belief in him. We are, thanks to the fact that most of their believers are dead, allowed to mock the Roman, Aztec and Norse gods. Indeed, when was the last time someone was struck with ill-luck and was told it was because they had not praised Odin lately? And, the corollary, how many times has some good fortune favoured the life of some “soul” and thanks was given to the war god Ares?

Blasphemy is a victimless crime in the extent that the target of mockery does not exist. I do not deny the feelings being hurt by the faithful, but they must understand that they can not invoke god’s feelings to justify their own. They are committing a religious crime of a serious nature by not praying 5 times a day – or if they are praying 5 times a day, they are not accepting Jesus as lord and saviour. In each case, according to Islam or Christianity, they will be punished.

Let us ask a question relating to this: Should a Christian cease from eating pork or drinking wine, if a Muslim expresses that she is “offended” by this behaviour? Notice this: Group A is asking for Group B – which does not believe Group A’s tenets – to cease certain actions because of Group A’s tenets (which Group B, remember, does not believe in). It does not seem a remarkable conclusion to say it is quite arrogant, childish and bullying to suggest that Group A is right to simply assert their offence as a justification for certain actions of Group B to stop.

Let us return to the example I gave. Should the Christian stop drinking wine to cease offending the Muslim? If one considers the blanket consideration – where we looked at Group A and Group B – one would be correct to say the Muslim here is being ridiculous. By definition, the Christian does not believe the tenets of Islam and therefore can behave according to his (and the society’s – this is my next point, so hang on) standards. He is not harming anyone by drinking wine (provided he does not do it in excess, is driving after, etc.).

Similarly, those who are accused of blaspheming – so called “godless” – do not believe in any religious tenets. Like the Christian in this example, it is simply arrogant and chauvinistic to assert that one’s tenets and beliefs be respected – even though those who offend do not believe them. There is no good reason to silence those who do not believe from criticising or mocking religious ideas. Christians mock Muslims and Muslims return the favour; non-believers do it to everyone (the worst you could say is that they are not targeting one group!). Remember this about freedom of speech: those we criticise are allowed to invoke the same fundamental rights to respond. Thus, they can mock non-believers in return. They can also inform non-believers why their religion is actually true, with evidence, logic and reason. It is not asking a lot. It raises an eyebrow of suspicion when we criticise someone and they simply tell us to not criticise.

“Why not?”

“Because it hurts my feelings.”

“But what you are doing is illogical/wrong because of x, y, z.”

“You must be silent.”

The dialogue is closed off. The worst part is not so much that those who – like myself – criticise religion are not allowed to partake in a dialogue, but those who silence us are themselves victims to the silence they have imposed. When we build a wall to prevent others entering, we can also prevent ourselves from leaving.

Some may have a detected a rat, recently. The example I gave about the Muslim and Christian is missing a central point: context. Even in context however it is the secularists that are triumphant. Here are a few contexts for our example:

The Christian’s House

If the Muslim demanded that the Christian, whilst they were in his house, cease to drink wine, we would have every reason to support his decision to do as he pleases. This means he can, depending how much he likes/loves her, cease or continue. If it is a random acquaintance he may just cock an eyebrow and down his bottle. It is his house and therefore his own place of freedom. (It is why I am sceptical of most non-smocking ventures, as it seems to be an imposition of one group over another, with no basis in evidence. I hate smoking and being around people who smoke, but I do not support any of the recent bans. I will simply not go to areas where people smoke. It is like going to a rock concert so you can complain about the loud guitars).

The Muslim’s House

Now, here is where the Christians’ choice is limited. In the example we saw in the Christian’s house, there were certain freedoms because it was his. Now, if it is a Muslim’s house, we should respect the people we are attending enough to condone to their rules. Similarly, when I enter a mosque, I remove my shoes, wear a kuffiya; when asked to hold hands to say grace at friends’ houses, I comply. It is a matter of respecting the people we love, not their ideas. Indeed, it means nothing to me to bow my head, to remove my shoes. I lose nothing, whilst others are satisfied. Whereas, I would not gain anything by trampling around a beautiful mosque with my shoes or refusing to bow my head and, furthermore, my friends would be saddened by my arrogant behaviour. So, if the scenario previously conveyed is within the context of the religious person, it does take a different turn.

Within a Secular Society

However, we live in a secular society (well, those of us who live in South Africa and many parts of the world). This means it is not religious. One might consider it a massive household of someone who does not adhere to religious creeds. This means that, just as the Muslim had little or no right to impose her beliefs on the Christian in his household, no religious group can impose their beliefs on people who do not believe in any religious creeds. Blasphemy, remember, is only wrong to those who are religious. It is only considered blasphemy by those who are themselves believers in sacred things (I do not believe that anything is “sacred”). It is only blasphemy to those who are believers.

We who do not believe can not be expected to adhere to random mythologies – in the sense that it is only a crime or immoral if one is already within that framework.

It is our right, by living in a secular society, to partake in criticising ideas, opinions, institutions and people we deems worthy of criticising. It is their right, by living in the same society, to respond accordingly. It is not their right – however – to demand silence, restriction and limitations simply on the basis of their feelings being hurt. As creationist fiction offends my sensibilities with regards to science, I do not demand that they be silenced. Indeed, we want evidence. That is a dialogue and why they are allowed to write and publish. It is their right.

Thus, blasphemy is only a problem – like the “Problem of Evil” – for the religious. I can explain evil by concluding we live in an uncaring, ignorant universe, which is culminating in its own destruction; I can get over blasphemy because I do not believe in sanctity, or the tenets of religions. I am not asking the religious to stop practising their beliefs, forcing them to blaspheme, and so on. Therefore, they should not ask me to do the corollary.

Blasphemy is part of free speech because free speech allows for criticism, back and forth. It is the beginning of a dialogue – since the only way we can “progress” as a species, is to talk to one another, clearly and without fear of being murdered for it. In fact, we must stop calling it blasphemy and call it open criticism. It is only blasphemy according to the religious. I am not – therefore, it is an open criticism.

Open criticism is part of free speech, as free speech is a right. Thus open criticism must serve as a beginner of conversation. It is not there to be closed off by the hand of the faithful, if they are partaking in a secular society. When they enter our extended household of secular considerations, by all means, practise your religions. But, even as Jesus said, you must be prepared to be mocked for your beliefs. One can not believe in free speech and retain an essence of blasphemy for the entire society. It is a right we are all allowed to partake in: silencing one group is to give in to Dark Age politics and to forgo the piercing light of reason.


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