Blasphemy is the Tripwire for Free Speech

My friend Walter Olson has an essay in Time magazine about the barbaric murder at the office of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. He rightly points out that blasphemy is now the primary front on which the battles over free speech are fought.

If you defend freedom of speech today, realize that “blasphemy” is its front line, in Paris and the world.

There is no middle ground, no soft compromise available to keep everyone happy–not after the murders at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Either we resolve to defend the liberty of all who write, draw, type, and think–not just even when they deny the truth of a religion or poke fun at it, but especiallythen–or that liberty will endure only at the sufferance of fanatical Islamists in our midst. And this dark moment for the cause of intellectual freedom will be followed by many more.

Can anyone who has paid attention truly say they were surprised by the Paris attack? The French satirical magazine had long been high on a list of presumed Islamist targets. In 2011—to world outrage that was transient, at best—fanatics firebombed its offices over its printing of cartoons. Nor was that anything new. In 2006, the Danish cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten had to go into hiding for the same category of offense, as had author Salman Rushdie before them…

That fear has been felt in the United States as well. Yale’s university press, in publishing a book on the Muhammad cartoons controversy, chose to omit printing the cartoons themselves, on the grounds that doing so “ran a serious risk of instigating violence.” (The late Christopher Hitchens brilliantly assailed the press for its lack of courage.)

I think this is one reason why blogging is so important. A media corporation with physical offices is a relatively easy target for such violence, but thousands of bloggers working from home can publish harsh criticism of Islam and cartoons making fun of Islam with virtually no risk (at least in the United States). That’s why I republished the Danish Mohammed cartoons on my old blog at ScienceBlogs. It’s also why Freethought Blogs exists, at least in part.

When National Geographic took over ScienceBlogs, they immediately began talking about “standards and practices” and I asked the VP of NatGeo who was in charge of the project what they would not allow us to write. He immediately mentioned those cartoons, saying that NatGeo is in some 98 countries and is very sensitive about offending other cultures and they wouldn’t allow those cartoons on the site. I immediately told him that was a deal breaker and began making plans to start my own network.

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  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    When National Geographic took over ScienceBlogs, they immediately began talking about “standards and practices” and I asked the VP of NatGeo who was in charge of the project what they would not allow us to write. He immediately mentioned those cartoons, saying that NatGeo is in some 98 countries and is very sensitive about offending other cultures and they wouldn’t allow those cartoons on the site. I immediately told him that was a deal breaker and began making plans to start my own network.

    Ed Brayton, you sir are my hero.

  • Trebuchet

    National Geographic, to which I have subscribed fro about 55 years, has sold its good name down the river. Their TV channel consists mostly of Fox-produced I-love-the-police crap.

  • Sastra

    Kudos, Ed.

    Either we resolve to defend the liberty of all who write, draw, type, and think–not just even when they deny the truth of a religion or poke fun at it, but especially then–or that liberty will endure only at the sufferance of fanatical Islamists in our midst.

    It would be ironic if atheism thus becomes more nationally and internationally acceptable to the mainstream as we all stand together against a common enemy.

    And the phrase “militant atheist” is finally retired.

  • peterh

    Accusations of blasphemy should be seen as a badge of honor, a willingness to stand against brutish and autocratic tyranny. Those who don’t understand don’t understand.

  • cynix

    There should be no middle ground. Apparently for the MSM their answer seems to be to give these insane murderers what they were after by self-censoring.

    A good point about blogs but to assume that people this far gone in their fanatical fantasy world would care just how direct and immediate their threat was, seems a bit optimistic. Can’t get to the bloggers? Attack outlets (libraries and such).

    I’ve seen a number of comments on various allegedly liberal sites about how we have to be very careful not to offend anyone. How, I wonder? By banning everything? How sad that the nonexistent ‘right’ not to be offended seems much more important than things like free speech and freedom of the press.

    With apologies to Walt Kelly: We have met the enemy. He is us. We unconditionally surrendered. It sometimes seems.

    Keep up the good work.

  • eric

    Apparently for the MSM their answer seems to be to give these insane murderers what they were after by self-censoring.

    I agree that in 90% of “not going to show” cases, MSM outlets are probably selling out the defense of free speech for profit and popularity. But there is a kernal of a real reason to hold back that some of the ‘good’ media outlets must grapple with too, which is: is it right for a media executive to put their employees in the line of fire. Especially given that, for US companies, the person who ultimately decides whether to republish a Charlie Hebdo cartoon (for example) may not even work in the building with the employees who are targeted, and thus may not share any of the risk. When the employees are on board and want to publish the cartoon, that decision is easy: you do it. But IMO its a much more ethically gray decision when they don’t. Then you are conscripting other people to fight your war for you (and in the case of the exec who doesn’t work in the building, you’re pulling a Cheney-esque move of conscripting others to risk their lives while not even risking your own). You can rail against them that the importance of free speech is such that they ought to want to fight for it – that especially as journalists, defending free speech is a cornerstone to their entire way of life – but ultimately if they don’t volunteer, its not clear to me that the morally right thing to do is to volunteer them.

  • dingojack

    On the other hand, don’t throw the baby with the bathwater.

    Fanatics of all stripes are the enemy here, not moderates. It’s the ability of to compromise* that will get us through.

    Dingo

    ———

    * note: ‘compromise’ doesn’t equal ‘not offend’, it means having the ability to be offended and yet find a non-violent (non-escalating) and creative solution to that feeling.

  • dingojack

    On a tangent. On the news today they were complaining about how French-Muslim leaders are not issuing statements condemning this mass murder. Funny, I don’t remember non-Muslim Leaders being emotionally blackmailed into condemning murders by members of their own communities. Why is that?

    Dingo

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    dingo

    But surely even the most namby-pamby of believers helps to create conditions ripe for the most virulent one.

    And not just Islam, but in any religion.

  • dingojack

    But not non-believers?

    Dingo

  • dingojack

    Also is there any hard data to show that belief is the ‘gateway drug’ into becoming a mass murder? Are there any mass-murdering squads of Unitarians, Quakers or Amish* around? I don’t remember hearing about them (Thanks lame-stream media!)

    Dingo

    ———

    * The latter seem to prefer sexual-abuse to murder. >:(

  • eric

    On the news today they were complaining about how French-Muslim leaders are not issuing statements condemning this mass murder.

    Many of them already have. This article for example mentions three prominent french muslim groups/mosque leaders doing so.

    Right now, for me, I’m not trusting the western media to get the overall picture right in either direction. Some sources are probably overhyping how much muslims are condemning it, while others are probably overhyping how silent they are. I’m not splitting the difference, either, I’m just going to say that right now the picture is pretty muddy and its hard to draw a conclusion.

  • John Pieret

    Je suis Charlie!

    Somebody had to say it first.

  • eric

    But surely even the most namby-pamby of believers helps to create conditions ripe for the most virulent one.

    And not just Islam, but in any religion.

    Empirically I don’t really see it. AFAIK there’s no significant crime rate difference between believers and nons. It sure would be nice and sensible if irrational beliefs correlated with overall bad behavior (theft, murder, etc.), but human psychology is not nice and sensible. If we don’t see such a correlation, the rational thing to do is abandon the hypothesis, not maintain it in the face of contradictory evidence. Far and away the strongest correlate with virulently bad behavior is being male. After that, IIRC the next strongest correlate is being something like 18-35 years of age. It does not make sense to me for anyone to place heavy emphasis on ‘fixing’ a noncorrelate (or at best a very minor correlate) when we know what the real, big, correlates are.

  • http://composer99.blogspot.ca composer99

    I’d certainly like to see a cite showing that a body of moderate/liberal/privately devout/apathetic religious people paves the way for the emergence of violent extremism, in the absence of more compelling causal phenomena.

    On topic, it’s easy, I think, to complain about media as a whole “surrendering” or “selling out the defence of free speech”, but at the end of the day, not giving offence to people out of hand (or out of spite) is rightly considered a common courtesy for a reason, and is itself also an exercise in free speech. (Parenthetically, the kind of people who come on to FreethoughtBlogs to spout misogynist BS or preach religion in everyone’s faces are (a) deliberately attempting to be offensive and (b) correctly dismissed as trolls.)

    Just as freedom of speech means you can, in your own private space or in the public square, say whatever you want (as long as you can accept the consequences – e.g. shunning, losing elections, losing money, or even being sued (*)), however offensive, and for whatever reason you like, so does it mean you can not say it, again, for whatever reason you like, including the reason of “I don’t want to give offence” (or even “I don’t want to get shot”).

    (Parenthetically, just like freedom of association and freedom of religion mandate freedom from association or religion, at least in private, so to does freedom of speech mandate freedom from speech, at least in select private spaces. Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish whatever it wants, even the most cruel satire of Islam’s so-called prophet. But Muslims have the right not to be exposed to it non-consensually in their homes or mosques. (**))

    (*) With the proviso that consequences for speech cannot be rights-violating or violent, unless your attempt to exercise your speech is itself rights-violating. Publishing, say, child pornography rightly earns one the attention of the constabulary and prosecutors.

    (**) With the proviso that Internet use on “public sphere”-like websites (YouTube, Yahoo!News) or sites not specifically designated as “Muslim spaces” (or use of other media not specifically designated as “Muslim spaces”) carries the necessary risk (and implicit consent to same) of being exposed to such messages.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    A media corporation with physical offices is a relatively easy target for such violence, but thousands of bloggers working from home can publish harsh criticism of Islam and cartoons making fun of Islam with virtually no risk (at least in the United States).

    Well, yeah, except all those bloggers are using platforms provided by media corporations, which, as you just noted and we all know too well, media corporations are well-known for their cowardice and eagerness to cave to just about any thin-skinned nimcompoop who throws a tantrum. I trust we all noticed how “brave” our media corporations were in facing down totally bogus threats of unspecified retaliation from still-unknown parties against theaters that showed a certain stupid comedy about Kim Jong Un?

  • laurentweppe

    On a tangent. On the news today they were complaining about how French-Muslim leaders are not issuing statements condemning this mass murder.

    Funny: french Muslim leaders spent yesterday’s evening publicly condemning the slaughter in every media.

    So basically, non-murderous french muslims unanimously condemned the slaughter, and predictably, dishonest white dudes spew bald-faced lies about it.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    But surely even the most namby-pamby of believers helps to create conditions ripe for the most virulent one.

    And not just Islam, but in any religion.

    You really need to flesh that vague assertion out, at least into something down-to-earth enough to be falsifiable. Start with some kind of cause-and-effect link.

  • Synfandel

    dingojack wrote, “On the news today they were complaining about how French-Muslim leaders are not issuing statements condemning this mass murder.”

    According to Al Jazeera English:

    France’s Muslim leadership also sharply condemned the shooting as a “barbaric” attack and an assault on press freedom and democracy.

    “This extremely grave barbaric action is also an attack against democracy and the freedom of the press,” the French Muslim Council said in a statement.

  • abb3w

    @14, Eric

    AFAIK there’s no significant crime rate difference between believers and nons.

    Poking the GSS, the religiously unaffiliated are historically more than four times as likely to have been arrested than the strongly religious. (The 2012 sample has a much smaller difference than those in the 1972-1984 data, but still significant.) Contrariwise, the GSS also indicates that blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites; and Ed has previously pointed to data which strongly suggest that the racial disparity is more a result of police attitudes than from differences in the rates that crimes are committed.

    @14, Eric

    Far and away the strongest correlate with virulently bad behavior is being male.

    Check out the social dominance orientation social psychology metric; it appears a more direct correlate.

  • http://composer99.blogspot.ca composer99

    Predictably, radical British imam Anjem Chouadry has blamed the victim (indirectly, by blaming the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo to “provoke Muslims”).

  • http://composer99.blogspot.ca composer99

    Oh, yeah, link.

  • dingojack

    Laurent/Synfandel – *whew*, lucky you’re here to correct my memory of last night’s 7:00pm News!* I mean, how foolish of me to imagine I might know better what I experienced than you obviously know what I experienced. What was I thinking!?!

    @@

    Dingo

    ———

    * 9:00am Paris Time, 07-Jan-2015.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @dingojack

    Also is there any hard data to show that belief is the ‘gateway drug’ into becoming a mass murder?

    Right. Beliefs had nothing to do with why two people stopped a car in the street, announced purported intentions and reasons, and shot a dozen people. It was a completely spontaneous accident, like sleep-walking.

    Maybe you meant “religious beliefs” instead of “beliefs”. I honestly don’t know if that’s what you meant. If that’s what you meant, it’s not quite as ludicrous, but it’s still stupid.

    Of course, many people have those beliefs and don’t become mass murderers. The relationship is causal, but there are many other very necessary conditions e.g. causes to facilitate and allow someone who feels it’s right to murder for reasons X to actually murder for reasons X. Plenty of people probably want to kill their spouses, but they don’t because the police, etc etc. Now, when you add in a belief that if they do kill their spouse then they will go to paradise, I expect that the likelihood that they will go up that they will kill their spouse. This simple psychological reasoning seems unavoidable. If someone wants to commit some violence and also believes that they will be rewarded for it, the rate of that violence can only go up with people with that belief.

    What seems to be is that many liberals refuse to recognize the possibility that many religious people in the world seriously believe what they say they believe. I think that’s foolish.

    @eric

    AFAIK there’s no significant crime rate difference between believers and nons.

    While technically not criminal, it is outrageously immoral to support the Republican party, and at least in my country there’s a very high correlation between religious belief on that one.

    I’d certainly like to see a cite showing that a body of moderate/liberal/privately devout/apathetic religious people paves the way for the emergence of violent extremism, in the absence of more compelling causal phenomena.

    I don’t see any Zeus or Apollo terrorists today. Do you? I see Christian terrorists, Muslim terrorists, Jewish asshats, Buddhist terrorists, etc. It’s a consequence of there no longer being large cultural movements surrounding the worship of Zeus and Apollo.

    One way out for you is what dingojack tried above – to claim that religious terrorists always do violence because of other reasons, such as economic and political – never actually for religious reasons. However, you used the phrase “violent extremism”, which suggests that you recognize that it is extremist (religious) beliefs which are partly fueling this behavior.

    @abb3w

    That might be falling prey to the same problem of all of the studies showing religion improves one’s life and well-being. It’s comparing religious people vs mere non-religious people. It’s not controlling for people with support structures vs not. It’s also not controlling for people with a strong self-identity – whether secular or not. When you do that, the difference largely evaporates.

  • dingojack

    EL – It’s you who are falsely conflating issues.

    Is there any proof that belief, of any kind, causes extremism? I mean actual hard data (as I indicated above, but you’ve seemed to have forgotten)?

    How does:

    “But surely even the most namby-pamby of believers helps to create conditions ripe for the most virulent one.

    And not just Islam, but in any religion.” – richardelguru (#9)

    stack up with the data? Is belief, in actuality, a ‘gateway’ to extremism?

    Dingo.

  • dingojack

    In other words is belief a causal factor, rather than a correlated factor?

    Dingo

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    Is there any proof that belief, of any kind, causes extremism? I mean actual hard data (as I indicated above, but you’ve seemed to have forgotten)?

    You are speaking gibberish.

    Again, do you think it was an accident like sleep walking? Certainly you agree the shooting was premeditated, planned, volitional. That means it’s the result of certain beliefs in the heads of those two people. Their beliefs caused them to behave in that way. Unless you think people are fonts of pure chaos who don’t act in accordance with their beliefs (and values, etc.).

  • dingojack

    Anecdote is not evidence…

    Dingo

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @dingojack

    I have no idea what you are saying. You asked: “Is there any proof that belief, of any kind, causes extremism?” I explained how human behavior is obviously determined by a person’s beliefs and circumstances, and no more. We can call that “caused”. Further, when someone willingly engages in extremism of any kind with premeditation, it is obviously determined by the persons’ beliefs and circumstances, and no more. What else could it be? It sure isn’t sleepwalking.

    You then say “Anecdote is not evidence…”. I fail to see how that even addresses the discussion at hand. What you said makes absolutely no sense to me. I don’t see how it’s a rebuttal. I don’t see how it’s related to the conversation at all. Really, what the fuck?

  • dingojack

    Firstly, you’re conflating the individual case (what you’re trying to argue) with the general case (what I’m actually asking about). What motivates a specific person is difficult to tell, what motivates many people can give us an idea of the strength of various motivations and their correlation to various outcomes. This, in turn, allows us to predict and counter extremism in all forms.

    Secondly, you’re making the old ‘religion is a mental illness’ argument, religiosity is only an intersecting subset of mental illness. It is not a mental illness per se. Similarly, extremism can be cause by religious fervour, but there may be other factors at play, it is not a cause per se. Leon Gary Ridgeway was a mass-murderer, but not religiously-motivated; Martin Luther King Jr. was religiously-motivated but not a mass-murder. One state isn’t causal to the other state.

    Understand?

    Dingo.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    What motivates a specific person is difficult to tell,

    We have words for what motivates people, “beliefs” and “circumstances”. Whatever their beliefs are, whether religious or not, the word we have to describe those motivations is “beliefs”.

    I don’t know what you are saying. I don’t think you’re speaking English. If someone accepts something as true, then they have a belief that it is true. For example, I believe the sky is blue. I believe that we should act to make the world a better place. I believe evolution is true.

    Secondly, you’re making the old ‘religion is a mental illness’ argument, religiosity is only an intersecting subset of mental illness.

    What the hell? Where the hell did I say anything remotely like that? Quotation please. One of the reasons I think religion is so dangerous is because completely sane, rational people can believe it. Most religious extremists are not crazy. They have crazy beliefs, but they are not crazy. It is not a mental illness (as I understand the term “mental illness”).

    Similarly, extremism can be cause by religious fervour, but there may be other factors at play, it is not a cause per se.

    That sounds like a rebuttal to a position I have not been defending. Have you even read anything I’ve written in this thread? There are more kinds of beliefs than just religious beliefs you know.

    Understand?

    No. You’re having a conversation, but with someone other than me. You’re having a conversation with the strawman of me who is in your head.

  • abb3w

    @24, EnlightenmentLiberal

    That might be falling prey to the same problem of all of the studies showing religion improves one’s life and well-being. It’s comparing religious people vs mere non-religious people. It’s not controlling for people with support structures vs not. It’s also not controlling for people with a strong self-identity – whether secular or not. When you do that, the difference largely evaporates.

    If you can suggest which GSS variables might be useful proxies for such, I could try controlling for those. The closest I can think of would be using some of the “number of people named _____” questions, which might allow constructing some baroque and crude proxy for the former; the latter doesn’t seem well-defined enough for any proxy to be clear.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @abb3w

    I am taking a lot of my information from:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4291

    and similar expert opinions.

    I do not consider my sufficiently educated to have an authoritative opinion on examining the details of such studies myself. I think I am looking at the questions asked to the public which you reference here:

    http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GSS10PAN_CB.asp

    >1226) I-RELIGION: What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion? (Recoded for use with online analysis) (I-RELIGION)

    If the question and answers text is accurate, then it does suffer from the problems I highlighted above. It doesn’t include “agnostic”, “atheist”, and/or “humanist”.

    Further, I see the same problematic question about church attendance here:

    >136) How often do you attend religious services? (ATTEND)

    >1228) I-ATTEND: How often do you attend religious services? (Recoded for use with online analysis) (I-ATTEND)

    From a brief skimming, there doesn’t appear to be any similar questions about attending non-church groups, such as atheist groups, humanist groups, or any other kind of social gathering outside of a religious context.

    So, it seems that the GSS questions themselves are insufficient. They need more and better questions.

    I suggest reading the critique by Dr Richard Carrier (link above).

  • dingojack

    EL – If concepts like ‘analogy’, ‘individual’ and ‘population’, ‘correlation’ and ‘causality’ are beyond your understanding, I think you need to go away and get ‘up to speed’ (that’s a metaphor) and come back when you’re ‘better armed’ (another metaphor)…

    @@

    Dingo

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @dingojack

    You still have not made a proper point. You still are not talking about your original assertion that “this has nothing to do with

    beliefs”. Again, if extremists are not acting in accordance with their beliefs as moderated by their circumstances, then what do you think happened? (Not just religious beliefs, but the totality of their beliefs regarding the world, science, math, reason, morality, etc.) Do you think it’s often accidental? Often sleepwalking?