A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

When Freedom of Speech Meets Privilege

In the wake of the the Charlie Hedbo massacre, the always quotable Pope Francis I took the opportunity to weigh in. Did he condemn the violence and urge greater tolerance? Not exactly.
Asked about the attack that killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo – targeted because it had printed depictions of the prophet Muhammad – he said: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.

“There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

He gestured to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side, and added: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Cautioning against provocation he said the right to liberty of expression came with the obligation to speak for “the common good”.
It seems no matter how many times I point this out I always end up needing to repeat it again: "Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views." Anything else is simply not free speech.

The problem that Pope Francis has here is that his beliefs and his institution has enjoyed a position of privilege for a very long time. Oh, I grant you that they struggled for recognition in the beginning as the Roman Empire wobbled back and forth between Christian and pagan beliefs but eventually the matter was settled by law and sword that Christianity was the official religion and all others were eradicated. In its golden age after the fall of the empire the Catholic Church was still the supreme power in the Western world (and perhaps the entire known world if it hadn't been for those pesky Persians) making kings and their kingdoms dance to their tune. There was a time when even suggesting anything contrary to official church dogma could earn you a visit from an Inquisitor and if you didn't recant quick enough you'd be lucky to get away with your limbs intact, let alone your flesh unburnt.
We no longer live in a world where the Church can terrorize the average citizen with torture or death with impunity, but that assumption of privilege is still there. Today in the secular world you can criticize art, fashion, news, parenting, politics and just about anything else that we interact with, but woe betide those who dare to criticize religion or religious beliefs! "You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

Actually, yes. Yes you can, and you should. There is no idea, no concept, no institution or practice that is so sacred that it should not be held up to scrutiny and criticized. It doesn't matter if your religion is Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Zoroastrianism, your beliefs are no better than anyone else's and if you think otherwise you are invited to show us how. We've been waiting for that evidence for thousands of years, and I'm not holding out hope that any will be forthcoming in the next few thousand years.
Christian Privilege
As an atheist, my beliefs (or lack thereof) get mocked all the time. There are sites and forums dedicated to creating extreme caricatures of who I am and how I behave, and guess what: that's fine. If you think my opinions are wrong you're invited to explain why. I will do my best to defend them and we'll see who wins in the open marketplace of ideas. What Pope Francis is declaring is that the marketplace of ideas is not open where religion is concerned, that religious ideas should be sheltered from criticism where they might be exposed as false. This tells me he's afraid of criticism, and that can only lead me to suspect that he's afraid his beliefs are false and he doesn't want anyone to admit that the emperor doesn't look good in his birthday suit.

Violence is never justified in the defense of beliefs, no matter how offensive you may think something is. Offense is not an argument, and it's not a trump card, it's censorship. If your ideas can't be defended then they don't deserve protection, they deserve to be destroyed under critical analysis. You can't bully me by crying out that you're offended. You just provoke me to insult you again.

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