UN vs free speech again

Johann Hari has an opinion piece in The Independent, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”.

I don’t seriously disagree with anything in it. But then, maybe that is precisely the problem. I live and work in an academic environment, where I take free discussion for granted. I’m a fully paid-up member of the Argumentative Bastards Union. I have an unhealthy obsession with religion, from the perspective of a nonbeliever who constantly asks what the *&^%$#@ is going on with supernatural beliefs. It would be amazing if someone like me was sanguine about Muslims and multiculturalists using the United Nations to enforce a religious right not to be offended.

But how do I make an argument that can appeal to a broader base? Most people do not share my rather narrow and particular set of interests. Even modern, liberal-minded people feel the force of claims that giving religious offense crosses a boundary of decency. Many liberals agree that giving equal consideration to people entails sincere respect for their identity-defining beliefs, especially when these beliefs are central to those communities that make what people are. (Indeed, if you don’t see how deeply many Muslims are offended by certain kinds of criticism, and don’t see how this is often real harm to them, you’re missing something very important about this debate.) I can’t appeal to universal moral principles or individual rights as established agreements, because such agreements are exactly what are up for dispute here.

So, now what? Hari preaches to the choir; I don’t see much in what he says that could help us build a broader coalition in favor of more expansive free speech. (There’s nothing wrong in shoring up the base, but it’s worrisome if we always preach to the choir.) How do we appeal to more common interests, so we can persuade at least more liberal-minded people that deferring to religious communities about criticism harms such common interests?

Failing that, what are the prospects of at least saving some quasi-public domains as places where criticism can be freer? Just academia won’t work; we are too easily influenced by the outside world. (Witness the current levels of multicultural cant on campuses.) I wouldn’t expect too much from the Internet; there too often free speech means free invective, driving out intelligent criticism.


About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University