Against human rights

The UN is holding a Durban Review Conference concerning human rights in April 2009. Canada is already boycotting it, and a few other Western countries are also suggesting they might. Wrangling about Israeli-Palestinian matters seems to be at the heart of the controversy.

Among secularists, there’s an extra concern that Muslim organizations have successfully pressured the UN to endorse curtailment of free speech when “abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.” That is, there is a good possibility that speech giving offense to Muslims might be considered an abuse. (For background, see Free Inquiry and MacLeans articles.)

Something to worry about, yes. But I think that as Western secularists, we bring the trouble on ourselves in part. We keep insisting that human rights should be universal, and that these rights should include unrestricted free speech.

A common critique of human rights charges that these rights are products of a Western, individualist moral consensus, derived from the historical experience of Europe and its derivative settler societies. Claiming they are universal and imposing them on the rest of the planet is uncomfortably close to colonialist talk of a “civilizing mission.” Even in secular guise, this sort of Enlightenment universalism is very much heir to a Christian missionary urge.

There is a good deal of truth to this charge. So, we might say that we don’t want to impose our idea of rights. Instead, we put rights up for negotiation, to try and achieve a truly universal consensus. Indeed, we want a consensus that is not distorted by power, including the superior commercial and military power enjoyed by Western countries today. Such a consensus, presumably, should be what institutions such as the UN are trying for.

In such a case, however, we should not expect an expansive, secular, individualist notion of free speech to emerge from this consensus. What is more likely to happen is that we end up with a lowest common denominator of human rights, something that condemns the kinds of atrocities just about everyone professes to recoil from, while being much weaker on cross-culturally controversial matters. Muslim countries will discourage much in what we think of as women’s rights, the United States will object to reproductive rights and workers’ rights, Europeans will dither, etc. etc. Maybe we’ll get a consensus on a strong stance against outright genocide, though that will immediately invite political wrangling about what counts.

Maybe that’s too cynical; maybe we can achieve more. After all, there is a pressing problem people around the world confront, of achieving some kind of peace between people with different cultures who live side by side. Some variety of multiculturalism, in that case, seems to be a possibility. But that is not entirely benign. Multiculturalism is not at all the same thing as a cosmopolitan ethic, nor is it individualist in character.

Take, for example, the matter of free speech and offending Islam. It’s easy for secularists to advocate very expansive free speech rights. If you’re like me—cosmopolitan, secular, suspicious of all “thick” forms of community, obsessed with intellectual criticism—there’s very little question where your interests lie. Yet balanced against that, there are the interests of devout Muslims to avoid the harm caused through free speech.

Among Muslims, there is a strong, nearly universal consensus that certain forms of public criticism of Islam, the Quran, or the Prophet are inherently insulting and harmful. This includes much that Western secularists would consider merely forceful criticism normal in spirited public debate. The Muslim consensus gets weaker when the question of stopping offensive speech comes up. Some think that governments should ensure a climate where Muslims can practice their faith without enduring disrespect; mild sanctions against offenses to the Muslim community would suffice. Some, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, call for (and get) more substantive legal sanctions preventing offenses to Islam. And there are even a number who defend drastic penalties, including assassination of offenders. But the wide variety of sanctions envisioned should not obscure the strong Muslim consensus that offenses to Islam should not be protected speech. From a Muslim point of view, such speech is no more worthy of protection than shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.

This is not an absurd position. No right comes without limits. The limits are up to political negotiation, and as interested and affected parties, Muslim communities have a legitimate part in these negotiations. Moreover, the Muslim position cannot be set aside as objecting to speech that does no harm. It does harm. Muslims are offended and insulted by acts such as impious caricatures of the Prophet. This is not harm comparable to danger to life or property, perhaps, but it is harm. Respect is an important human need. And given that most humans find respect and a meaningful life in the context of a tight community of faith, acts that erode respect and the position of a community do real harm to individuals.

There are other reasons to restrict free speech that are particularly relevant in a Western context, where Muslims are typically part of immigrant communities. One is that criticizing Islam in certain ways can be very much like shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. For whatever reasons (culture, economic condition, etc.), criticizing Islam can reliably lead to serious community unrest culminating in violence. Governments have an interest in protecting the peace. In the political negotiations over how to best achieve this, restricting the problematic speech is as much an option as is trying to get Muslim communities to react differently. Given the deep and historically rooted moral consensus against religiously offensive speech in a Muslim environment, discouraging the more forceful varieties of criticisms of Islam may well be an easier, cheaper option.

Another reason is one articulated by multicultural leftists, even Marxists who may not be too friendly toward certain social aspects of religion. They see forceful opposition to Islam in the context of Muslims being a minority, disadvantaged group who are subject to scapegoating. They describe free speech offensive to Islam as being similar to Nazis using anti-Semitic speech: “Germans excoriating Jews as ‘vermin’ were exercising their right to free speech — before also exercising their right to light the furnaces.” The analogy may be overblown, but there may be some legitimacy to restricting speech that, whether intended or not, has a predictable side effect of being used as a weapon against a minority community.

Political conservatives may have their own reasons to restrict speech in certain contexts, even though they act as champions of free speech when it suits their Muslim-bashing purposes. In The United States, conservatives have never had much trouble with making life miserable for socialists, for example, whether by legal or extra-legal means. They have seen themselves (with some justification) as protecting a cultural consensus and way of life against enemies who clearly want to undermine the consensus. Muslim objections to impious criticism are similar in many ways.

Now, all of these considerations do not move me too much. My standpoint and my interests drive me toward an expansive view of free speech, even after reflecting on the possible reasons to think otherwise. But I have to defend these interests politically, in an environment where few may share something close to my interests and my way of life. I am fortunate that I live in a Western country that (however imperfectly) has a historical experience favorable toward free speech. But that’s only a starting point. I can’t say “that’s our tradition” and that’s an end to it. (There are plenty of things I don’t like or can’t identify with in “our tradition,” particularly when that is a white Protestant tradition.)

I would not be surprised if conceptions of free speech and human rights in Western societies move toward more of an accommodation with Muslim interests. I would like things to go otherwise. But I don’t see this happening if we indulge in Islamophobia, and particularly not if we do not properly engage with the substantial reasons put forth to restrict speech. We have to acknowledge the harm devout Muslims encounter in a more critical climate, and yet (if we can) produce reasons to override such concerns. And I think such reasons will have to refer to a particular, local historical experience—not any universal notion of human rights.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17446569811858082125 Ted Diesel

    Greetings Dr. Edis,

    Please don’t take the following critical remarks too personally. I gather from reading your recent posts that your style here is very reflective and open to considering opposing views. Consequently, I am not sure that I grasp the fine points of your personal position, and we may be in more substantial agreement than the below might be taken to imply. But since this is an issue I regard as important, I wanted to speak up.

    In my view, submission to a “consensus” on the issue of free speech invites disaster. At its root, religion is opposed to the right to express your ideas, however unpopular or distasteful they might be. I recommend Craig Biddle’s article Religion vs. Free Speech in connection with this topic.

    The example of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater obscures the issue, but we can untangle it. If someone falsely shouts “fire,” he throws the theater audience into an emergency situation in which it becomes temporarily more acceptable to disregard others’ safety in order to preserve an immediate (perceived) threat to one’s own life. Thus the shouter is in a real sense responsible for whatever injuries occur in the short duration of the emergency.

    By contrast, consider a cartoon printed in a newspaper that offends a Muslim (or a Christian, or even an atheist) in a visceral way. To say that “for whatever reasons” the publication of this cartoon “can reliably lead to serious community unrest culminating in violence” glosses over the fact that people have free will. If somebody wants to contend that a cartoon can send someone into a trance and make him turn violent involuntarily, I simply don’t buy it. Such a view is particularly farfetched when the violence is at the level of setting fire to a foreign embassy, which was done in response to the famous Danish cartoons. Rather, while “culture, economic condition, etc.” may play a role, what we have is, ultimately, a person who has decided to become an uncivilized thug.

    Now I would not say that we (of the United States, say) should “impose” free speech “on the rest of the planet.” But we mush be clear about what this means. I do not think that the U.S. needs to march into every country on Earth and secure free speech everywhere. But if some foreign religious leader says that he is offended by a certain book and a U.S. publisher should be forbidden from producing it, in my view the publisher should be able to proceed with publication knowing that the U.S. government will protect its right to do so. Otherwise, it is the arbitrary will of that foreigner that is being “imposed” on us.

    I also must concede that there certainly is such a thing as speech that is gratuitously inflammatory. In ordinary circumstances, I would say that the proper response is to simply shun those responsible (or respond through speech of one’s own). A boycott, for instance, could be perfectly understandable and justified. But once threats are made or attacks are perpetrated by the offended, the violent individuals should be punished and the offending material should be published far and wide out of principle.

    Now consider the real question, that of what kind of speech should be legal. Once we allow that some “offensive” speech can be forbidden, where does it end? Unmoored from a rational standard and based on pure emotion, the race will go to the men who are the quickest to take offense and the most strident in their complaints — and the most prone to fits of violence. Is a book refuting arguments for God “offensive to Islam” (or to Christianity) and thus worthy of being banned? To someone who takes religion seriously enough, it is. The end of this road is generation after generation of warring mystical sects who just “can’t control themselves” when somebody on the other side “insults” their own.

    The “harm” done to a man confronted with the publication of an idea or image offensive to him is nothing, compared to the prospect of serious rational thinkers being afraid to speak their minds due to fear of violent reprisal or arrest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04167895579592046507 Bongallu

    “I am fortunate that I live in a Western country that (however imperfectly) has a historical experience favorable toward free speech.”

    The accent is on “imperfect.” Certain kinds of speech in the U.S. are censored by group consensus. Look at this: http://www.guernicamag.com/features/588/limited_access_1/

    So, you have two political parties that are almost mirror images of each other, and you have media that are similarly alike. Where is there space for dissenting views in the mainstream U.S. media? Socialism (well, let’s not get started on communism)and Al-Jazeera are un-American, therefore they cannot be allowed to speak.

    What kind of air play can views favorable to the Palestinian cause, for example, get in the U.S.?

    Thank God (Ooops!) for the blogs!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Ted Diesel: “submission to a “consensus” on the issue of free speech invites disaster.”

    It does. But that’s a tension inherent in the notion of rights. We enact rights through politics, which usually means trying to achieve some consensus between various interested parties. But one of the motivations for asserting rights is to have these rights protected from changing political winds.

    “Rather, while ‘culture, economic condition, etc.’ may play a role, what we have is, ultimately, a person who has decided to become an uncivilized thug.

    Perhaps. The problem of keeping the peace remains nonetheless.

    I don’t see much disagreement between us concerning what we would prefer to see happen. But not everyone involved in debates over free speech agrees with a secular, liberal individualist point of view. I don’t think this comes down to thuggishness or irrationality either.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “A common critique of human rights charges that these rights are products of a Western, individualist moral consensus, derived from the historical experience of Europe and its derivative settler societies. Claiming they are universal and imposing them on the rest of the planet is uncomfortably close to colonialist talk of a ‘civilizing mission.’ Even in secular guise, this sort of Enlightenment universalism is very much heir to a Christian missionary urge.”

    The same sort of objection applies to science and perhaps to mathematics and logic as well. The fact that an idea comes out of a certain nation or culture does not mean that the idea is true only relative to that culture.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “Among Muslims, there is a strong, nearly universal consensus that certain forms of public criticism of Islam, the Quran, or the Prophet are inherently insulting and harmful. This includes much that Western secularists would consider merely forceful criticism normal in spirited public debate.”

    Is this really a cultural phenomenon, as opposed to a human psychological phenomenon?

    If you substitute “Christians” for “Muslims”, the “Bible” for the “Quran”, and “Jesus” for “the Prophet”, doesn’t this still hold true, for the most part?

    This seems more like a universal human prejudice/tendency (egocentrism and sociocentrism): OUR beliefs and practices are true and good; THEIR beliefs and practices are false and evil. Anyone who challenges OUR beliefs and practices is taking sides with the devil and deserves to be punished, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Bradley Bowen: “The same sort of objection applies to science and perhaps to mathematics and logic as well. The fact that an idea comes out of a certain nation or culture does not mean that the idea is true only relative to that culture.”

    In this case, the objection has considerably more weight.

    There is good reason to think that human rights have no substance without the kind of political process that enacts rights. Human rights depend on human interests and agreements. Universal rights are an aspiration. Without a convergence of interests, without a set of agreements that allow such an aspiration to succeed, talk of universal rights is hot air.

    “If you substitute “Christians” for “Muslims”, the “Bible” for the “Quran”, and “Jesus” for “the Prophet”, doesn’t this still hold true, for the most part?”

    It depends on how far you want to push the parallels.

    Many of the instances of attempted censorship in the United States have a Christian impulse, yes.

    But you’ll have trouble finding playwrights or stand-up comics in the Muslim world who could do anything similar to the “blasphemy” that is now a matter or course where Christianity is concerned. And while many Christians deplore what they consider blasphemy and try to deny it funding or drive it out of town, they hardly threaten to assassinate anyone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Is there a right not to be offended? If there were such a right then a violent response to offense might be justified. After all, as John Locke recognized, a government that violates the people’s rights may justly be overthrown, even violently. But I see no basis whatsoever for asserting that anybody in any culture at any time has a right not to be offended. If there is no right not to be offended, then there is no justification for using coercion or violence to suppress offensive speech. People do have a right not to be trampled by a panicked crowd. That is why shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not permitted. People do have a right not to be assaulted by an angry mob. That is why inciting to riot is a crime. But what possible justification can be given for saying that anyone has a right not to be offended? Should we say that if the offense touches on someone’s religion, then this is so exceptionally offensive that its suppression should be allowed? But why make an exception for religion?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith Parsons: “Is there a right not to be offended?”

    Well, if you ask me, I’m of the “nonsense on stilts” school regarding rights anyway.

    If you ask others, well, maybe. In places where offenses against Islam are legally sanctioned, you may get reasons such as public order cited, or the right of people to free from a climate of disrespect that inhibits their equality as citizens. It’s not a right not to be offended that comes up, though in practice that’s exactly what it is.

    In more conservative Muslim environments, there’s not even much pragmatic justification needed. I mean, it’s blasphemy, what else needs to be said?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    When discussing free speech and other civil liberties we should be focusing on government coercion. From this point of view its easier to draw the line and say that government should not intervene to suppress speech for no other reason than it insults their prophet or deity or religion or other beliefs regardless of whether the belief being criticized or insulted is a majority or minority belief. Furthermore, government has an obligation to prosecute and punish all citizens who commit crimes against someone else regardless of whether or not that someone else said something critical or insulting which provoked the crime.

    This approach respects all sincere beliefs equally and all citizens equally and as such it respects people who, after all, are different from other animals in large part because we form and are influenced by more wide ranging and complex sets of beliefs. Any approach that is rooted in giving the majority beliefs special legal privileges for no other reason than that they are held by the majority is what is nonsense. All ethics is rooted in reciprocity and equality and universality, its don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you and your closest relatives and friends. Civil rights are not nonsense, they are the logical and necessary extensions of basic civility and ethics and justice.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “There is good reason to think that human rights have no substance without the kind of political process that enacts rights. Human rights depend on human interests and agreements. Universal rights are an aspiration. Without a convergence of interests, without a set of agreements that allow such an aspiration to succeed, talk of universal rights is hot air.”

    While the point above is relevant to the issue, I’m not clear on how this relates to my objection that ideas in science, math, and logic also arise from particular historical and cultural sources, just like ideas about rights have. Perhaps you could explain further.

    In any case, I will continue to push the analogy. An important distinction to keep in mind here is that between a norm on the one hand and the imposition, enforcement, or promotion of a norm.

    Science does not do itself. Humans do science. Science, math and logic are human endevors that are guided by norms. As in my recent discussion of Faith and Reason, one can choose to embrace the principle of non-contradiction, or one can ignore or even oppose it. The idea that one should try to avoid logical contradictions is a norm. People can follow that norm or not.

    Given the normative aspect of science, math, and logic, I think your point above might also apply to these human endevors, and thus your argument may prove too much:

    There is good reason to think that science has no substance without the kind of political process that supports scientific thinking and inquiry. Science depends on human interests and agreements. The general acceptance of scientific thinking and support for scientific inquiry is an aspiration. Without a convergence of interests, without a set of agreements that allow such an aspiration to succeed, talk of science is hot air.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Bradley Bowen: “I’m not clear on how this relates to my objection that ideas in science, math, and logic also arise from particular historical and cultural sources, just like ideas about rights have.”

    With chemistry, the best description of what is going on takes you beyond the political negotiations inherent in any human enterprise. You have to account for external constraints, in particular, chemists’ interactions with their objects of study. As a result, you can legitimately say that a chemist discovers things about the world, rather than just enacting social conventions.

    I don’t think this is true with rights. Nothing need be added to a description of what people do when they are discussing rights besides human interests and agreements. If you don’t have cross-cultural agreement on human rights, you don’t have universal rights. You only have an unrealized aspiration, like an unbuilt bridge.

    With chemistry, you might be able to get away with saying that if some group does not accept chemistry, this is irrelevant. Chemistry may still be part of our best guess about a universally valid description of how the world works.

    With rights, the notion that we know the proper set of universal rights while others are mistaken is, I think, self-delusion. It is pointing to a blueprint when we need a real bridge.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17446569811858082125 Ted Diesel

    Dr. Edis,

    You write: “With rights, the notion that we know the proper set of universal rights while others are mistaken is, I think, self-delusion.”

    Well, I hope you don’t think it’s impossible to make a case for moral rights that is objective in some meaningful sense. Rather, perhaps you just haven’t yet heard a convincing rational argument for moral rights?

    You might find Tara Smith’s Moral Rights and Political Freedom (1995) interesting. She characterizes rights as “individuals’ moral claims to freedom of action,” (p.18) arguing specifically that “rights to freedom are necessary for human life” (p.31). While basing her case on man’s nature, she distinguishes her position from the Natural Rights tradition; she states that “rights do not exist prior to our appreciating the usefulness of such a concept.” Her formulation is that “certain unalterable facts about human beings joined with the objective of maintaining our lives warrant the recognition of rights” (ibid).

    (To the extent that I am familiar with this book — I haven’t read all of it, and I am not a philosophy expert in any case — it is basically in accord with Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Likewise with the briefer account of rights in Leonard Peikoff’s comprehensive Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which may be more readily available.)

    Once we have a rational case for certain general moral rights (i.e., those rights that ought to be legally protected on behalf of all ordinary individual men), we then have an ideal towards which to push legal rights (i.e., those rights actually secured by law in a given country). Obviously, the hard pro-free-speech line I take isn’t universally admired, but I think that spirited and rational argumentation can help to change enough minds to make a positive difference — hopefully within our lifetimes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Epistemic norms are standards which promote justified or rational beliefs. Surely there can be such a thing as objective epistemic norms–those which if followed, given the facts about human faculties and the nature of the world, have the consequence of promoting true/justified/rational beliefs.

    Seems to me that moral norms can be objective in exactly the same way–those which if followed, given the facts about human biology and social nature, along with the nature of the world in which we leave, have the consequence of promoting human flourishing/happiness/etc.

    Both are, in effect, conditional rules that say if you desire outcomes of a certain type, then follow certain rules and methodologies, establish certain institutions, etc.

    In neither case is there clearly a single set of correct norms, but it’s also the case that there are objective facts about what kinds of consequences will follow.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I probably will not be able to make my point any clearer than Jim Lippard has already done.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Well, you could have done better by correcting my mistaken use of the word “leave” where I meant to use the word “live” in my second paragraph. Oops.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chemistry is part of “a universally valid description of how the world works”, and if some group of people rejects chemistry, this is irrelevant, because we who believe in chemistry are right, and they who reject it are mistaken.

    Note that “valid” and “right” are evaluative terms. Some epistemic norms must be assumed to arrive at these evaluative conclusions.

    You, Jim, and I would agree that there is no single universally valid set of human rights (or moral rules either). We would also agre that identification of a human right is not a description of the world or how the world works.

    In that respect, human rights are similar to laws. Differnt sets of laws may be appropriate for different countries and cultures, and there is no single set of laws that is the ONLY correct or appropriate set of laws for a given country or culture.

    But neither laws nor rights nor morals are purely subjective and arbitrary. Most countries and cultures, for example, have a prohibition against murder. Why so? Is this just an accident? a coincidence? a common human bias?

    Life in a country that has no constraints against murder would be nasty, brutish, and short. Would you want to live in such a society? I wouldn’t. Most people want to stay alive as long as possible. Most people don’t want to be arbitrarily killed on the whim of some other person. Most people don’t want their spouse or children to be murdered.

    There are laws against murder in various cultures and countries around the world because people prefer civil, peaceful, long lives to life that is nasty, brutish, and short.

    Is there a divine law or an objectively existing moral law against murder? No. But there are common human desires and aims that are promoted by having social or legal constraints on murder.

    If some group of people decides that they are just fine with allowing murders to go unpunished, this is irrelevant. A strong case can be made that this group is making a very real mistake.


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