Freedom of speech vs. umbrage

I may not like the things you believe and, by the way, the fact that you believe them makes me think less of you as a person. I may despise you personally for what you believe, but I should be able to say it. Everybody needs to get thicker skins. There is this culture of offence, as though offending someone is the worst thing anyone can do.

-Salman Rushdie in the Guardian (via Neil Gaiman's Blog).

Rushdie's words struck a chord. It seems that more and more we're hearing people bleating about offense to their religions and blasphemy against their gods and prophets. Just as the religious cultists of the world are free to express their views in public, the rational people of the world should also be free to point out how astoundingly stupid those views are.

One thing I've found: it's not enough to let extremist views stand. People don't all see through the contradictions and falsity of religious rhetoric. When prominent preachers blame natural disasters on a country's permissive laws, silence is not a useful criticism. Silence just means that some genuinely confused listeners won't get to hear that there is an opposing view.

Freedom of speech must never result in censorship of dissenting views. You're free to talk about your invisible friend and his/her life rules. I'm free to laugh at your concept of an invisible friend.

But, how is it that such a simple freedom is being eroded? Wacky Cult Member X merely has to project a strong enough link between their wacky beliefs and their personal identity to be able to claim that ridiculing a wacky belief is ridiculing all cult members. So, either you suppress your criticism, or they claim you're vilifying the person. Simple, isn't it?

I say: here is a very stupid idea. A priest's incantation transforms a mass-produced cracker into the (completely undetectably different) essence of the body of a person who supposedly lived and died 2 millennia ago, so that religious cult members can eat it as part of their ritual.

Some Catholic says: That's not stupid. I believe it. That means you're calling me stupid. You're trying to wipe out my important cultural heritage. You're harassing me. Help. Help. I'm being repressed.

I say: I'm not criticizing you. I didn't even know you until you spoke up to align yourself with that stupidity. If you choose to believe that which appears to be stupidity in the modern world, then the burden is yours. You've willingly put on the dunce's cap and you should not expect either respect or silence.


I believe in freedom of speech too, but don't tailor it to your fit. After all, many people disagree with you. You believe their beliefs are stupidity. That's fine, and you have every right to say it.

But what of views that you personally find distasteful? Say, "the natives of this country tend to be dishonest", or "that race of people has subaverage intelligence". In my view, that falls under precisely the same freedom-of-speech umbrella as your example.

I'm not sure whether you agree with the above. You seem to be drawing a distinction between criticizing a person and criticizing a belief, and suggesting that the latter is more acceptable than the former. To me, that seems like a hard line to draw.

Judah, you seem to be suggesting that I would in some way prohibit freedom of speech when someone wanted to say race-related things. Not so. (I do draw the line at speech that could incite violence against any group.)

If someone said "that race of people has subaverage intelligence" (like people were saying in the bell curve debates a decade or two ago) and you thought it was wrong or stupid or possibly right but socially irresponsible etc., then the appropriate response is not to curtail freedom of speech but to answer, to criticize the beliefs being expressed. Censorship grants too much silent unaccountable power to those who apply the gags.

I think it is fair to recognize the real difference between a person holding a stupid belief, and that same person after they've broken away from the ignorance or the social culture that helped maintain the stupid belief. One can (and I think should) criticize a belief rather than the person who holds it, because people can and do change their beliefs.

If I must respect persons so much that I cannot call their silly ideas silly, for fear of being accused of saying that they are silly persons, then you can forget freedom of speech.

Being able to take umbrage at something someone else has said is based in the accepted norms of society. It is an issue of what is considered polite.

Polite: Marked by or showing consideration for others, tact, and observance of accepted social usage.

Is it possible to take advantage of peoples politeness to suppress certain points of view? Absolutely. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater--politeness is on the whole worth having. It definitely beats having brawls on the street every time someone opens his and or her mouth.

So you say "A priest's incantation transforms a mass-produced cracker into the...."* I think to myself on reading this, "That's a pretty rude thing to say." Obviously it is intentionally rude, but I have to wonder at the cost benefit ratio on statements like that.

I suppose one could argue that there is a straight line from believing that to believing that God sends hurricanes to New Orleans because of licentious Mardi Gras celebrations, but I have to say I know people who believe the first but not the second. I also know cracker backers who believe just as firmly in evolution.

There is a reason that polite society frowns on comments that feel disparaging to members of that society, and the reason is that without those social norms society can no longer function. The question of when people should be allowed to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes is to be found in the distinction between telling your wife that "those jeans make you look fat" and "there is a booger hanging from your nose." Sometimes you have to chance the consequences; but sometimes it is better not to.

*Does the period go before the quote? Is there a space after the ellipsis but before the period? While I don't care enough to actually look it up, I'm none-the-less annoyed by it. Sigh.

John Wellington Wells:

So you say "A priest's incantation transforms a mass-produced cracker into the...."* I think to myself on reading this, "That's a pretty rude thing to say." Obviously it is intentionally rude, but I have to wonder at the cost benefit ratio on statements like that.

Ok, I take your point on inflammatory language. As soon as I describe a "prayer" as an "incantation", I've created a jarring connection between a prayer (something that a Catholic would consider right and proper) and a magic spell (something that a Catholic would consider to be evil). The result is then considered shocking and rude. The cost/benefit depends very much on whether making that connection forces thought, or just raises the shields.

I refer to the Catholic deity as "a person who supposedly lived and died 2 millennia ago" to signal that the evidence for the very existence of historical Jesus is sparse (and almost all provided by writers heavily invested in the Jesus religion). For people who've been taught from the New Testament as an unimpeachable source, this too is probably shocking. I don't think this part is rude at all, but I guess someone who is deeply in love with the concept of Jesus would interpret it as rude.

And I call their "religion" (a term they deem respectable) a "cult" (something they've been taught is bad). Here my language is ruder and more provocative than it need be. The word "cult" has implications of spuriousness, but it also connotes unorthodoxy, which is definitely not applicable to catholicism.

Maybe I'm getting too intolerant of incoherent nonsense. Transubstantiation - the idea that the "essense" of something physical changes in a completely undetectable way because of a ritual, and thereafter actually is the broken body of a god - frightens me. I can understand those who take the transformation to be purely symbolic. But when ordinary Catholics believe in literal transubstantiation enough to deliver death threats to someone who desecrates a cracker, a polite description of their unsubstantiated beliefs seems inadequate.

Perhaps this nonsense is the dangling booger of the religious mind.

John Wellington Wells:

*Does the period go before the quote? Is there a space after the ellipsis but before the period?

The order of period and quote depends on which side of the Atlantic. In the USA the period always goes inside the quote, even if it would make sense outside. As for ellipses, I haven't a clue.

People hold all sorts of beliefs. Some people believe the number 13 is unlucky; some believe in aliens; some in alien abductions; some in alien abductions for immoral purposes; and some that torturing possible terrorists is a good policy. Odd beliefs seem endemic to the human condition.

And then there is religion, where belief in the face of contradictory evidence is specifically singled out for praise.

In any case, I've just read the linked articles at the top. There was some kid who intentionally decided to tweak catholics. If I were a catholic, I'd be thinking to myself he was a pretty obnoxious kid. He was getting death threats for it, which seems admittedly loony, but there are hundreds of millions of catholics in the world. You seldom have to break 1000 people to find outright loonies. Then P.Z Meyers called the whole thing stupid and loony (more power to him, glad someone speaks up and all that), and then offers to really desecrate a cracker. See above note on number of catholics and breaking the 1000 person barrier.

What in the world is the gain from going the extra mile in high dudgeon to offer to really desecrate a cracker? If he were guesting in the house of the Imbobo people of Lower Lakistashistanika, would he smash the wooden idols he saw on their mantel? He's confusing his belief that people are being silly and superstitious with the fact that when you have enough people annoyed, some of them are going to go over the top. And proving it by going over the top himself.

I guess part of Myers' point is that religion supports these loonies. There are quiet, calm, peaceful, tolerant people who just want the simple freedom to have their own beliefs (a position I have a lot of sympathy for) despite the having no evidence or the existence of contradictory evidence. And these "nice" religious people provide a huge political power base for the extremists who happen to have the same irrational beliefs, but see the maintenance of their beliefs as a burning passion.

What is to gain from upsetting these "nice" people? How about the lives and health of thousands of Africans?

And note, there is a big difference between desecrating a cracker that someone has sent to you (and quite likely hadn't been blessed by a priest - how could you possibly tell?) and going into someone's house and destroying their property. The cracker desecration is a purely symbolic act. It's not an extremist act like a death threat.

I don't know whether the P.Z. Myers blunt approach will work to weaken irrational beliefs, but it doesn't seem to me that the polite approach has done anything. Leaving people's beliefs undisturbed, unconfronted, unridiculed is a vote for the status quo, and that is hurting real people.

Here in the U.S. the extremists ran a huge block of the country, using religion to support slavery. Now, 150 years later, that whole block of the country is still a huge power base for ignorance and idiocy.

But, if you use voting republican or democrat as a proxy*, you can see the places where that starts to break down... mostly places where, via census bureau, there is a large influx from other parts of the country (looking for jobs/weather/whatever). It's nice people's views being changed by exposure to other nice people's views.

I've met very few people in my life who, on their views being ridiculed, will say "hey, wait a sec, you're right!" There is no more effective way to get a group of people to stand together than to attack it. The P.Z. Myers blunt approach is preaching to the choir (hee hee) of the already converted, and is actually a negative for gaining more converts.

*: Not the best proxy in the world, and effective in that region only because the republican party is much more closely identified with the more idiotic southerners. Also not effective amongst the black population, which contains a similar number of idiots, but typically votes democratic as a block.


And note, there is a big difference between desecrating a cracker that someone has sent to you (and quite likely hadn't been blessed by a priest - how could you possibly tell?)

If you could tell, I imagine you would be headed to church. And doing quite a bit of time in penance as well.