The oldest image of Jesus Christ is a crude, mocking caricature

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

Hussein Ibish

We can have laws against blasphemy or we can have religious freedom. We can never have both.

We have every right to take offense and to give offense. But we should not seek to take offense. And we should not seek to give offense.

Since blasphemy is a theme today across much of the Web, let me quote again some wise words from David Dark’s fine book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.

This is from Dark’s chapter on “Questioning Our Offendedness”:

It might be of interest to note that the earliest known pictorial depiction of Jesus on the cross was a cartoon. Often referred to as “The Alexamenos Graffito,” it’s a crude drawing of a human figure raising a reverent hand toward a crucified individual with the head of a mule. Discovered on the plaster wall of an ancient Roman school, this second-century parody of a certain Jewish Messianic movment includes, scrawled beneath the caricature, a taunt perhaps best translated as “Alexamenos worships his god.”

I wish this particular cartoon could find wider distribution because it dismantles the image of the Christian, historically speaking, as a member of a special interest group, a sleeper cell for a political party, or a power constellation of offended people looking for something to boycott. …

It probably would have been out of keeping with the presumed ethos of the Jesus whom Alexamenos dared to admire to angrily condemn the ridicule as unacceptable (with a hint of violent reprisal). If the Sermon on the Mount is any indication, Jesus taught his followers that suffering public denunciation is part of the deal. Proclaiming the kingdom of God does not include shouting down anyone who finds your proclamation unconvincing. …

The feeling of offendedness is invigorating. It might even be an effective way to bend a population toward a tyrant’s will. But we must never settle for it. We must not confuse an accelerated pulse rate for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We must interrogate our offendedness, hold it open for question. …

Feeling offended is a reassuring sensation. It’s easier than asking ourselves if the redeeming love of God is evident in the way we communicate with people. It’s easier than considering our relationships with the huddled masses throughout the world who find themselves on the wrong end of our economic policies and other forms of warfare. Perhaps our cutthroat ways bear some relationship to our confused notions of God. Maybe we think God, as an intergalactic economist, is a survival-of-the-fittest type. … We might even think that being offended and angry and on the defensive is to be more firmly aligned with the Almighty. …

To keep it all simple and safe, we often become selective fundamentalists. We know where to go to have our prejudices explained as just and sensible, our convictions strengthened, our group or political party reaffirmed. We process whatever already fits the grid that is hardwired (or re-hardwired) in our heads. It’s difficult for anything else to get through. We’re easily offended. Maybe we’re looking to feel offended, which can make us feel better about ourselves. Feeling offended summons a sense of being in the right, a certain strength, a kind of power, an espresso shot of righteous indignation. And if the image of God hardwired into our nervous system is easily offended and put off by certain people and their offensive behavior, there’s a feeling of being that much closer to the winning side, that much more likely to be numbered among the elect, the saved, the documented.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What then is the difference between someone in a bar saying “kill all fags” to someone else at the bar, who, observing a known gay person also in the bar, attempts to kill that person on the spot, and someone on TV saying “kill all fags” to a broad audience, one of whom, upon observing a known gay person, attempts to kill that person on the spot? Or am I mistaken and the first scenario places liability for the attempted murder solely on the person who committed it, not shared by the one who incited it?

  • bobnelsonfr

    I don’t think we’re talking about two different things — I think you are amalgamating them, perhaps not consciously. 

    You begin, here by insisting on “blasphemy”… but at the end you generalize again: “Any law that proscribes speech of certain subjects is vulnerable to abuse.”

  • aunursa

    Oh? Tell that to the victims of hate crimes.

    You are confusing  hate speech with hate crimes.  Prosecute those who commit hate crimes. 

    Why not? Is there any value in what the Phelps clan does?

    Irrelevant.  The First Amendment does not just protect speech that is determined to be of value.  And “value” is a very ambiguous term.  I would not want my right to spread a message subject to anyone else’s determination of whether my message has value. 

  • aunursa

    For anyone who supports criminalizing hate speech:  I ask you to provide a definition of hate speech – or guidelines on what constitutes hate speech – that would not include content from the Bible or the Koran.

    Alternately, admit that legislating and enforcing laws against hate speech would result in the banning of those books.

  • bobnelsonfr

    I believe that once we accept that it’s OK to prevent people by force from expressing their opinions, we will end up doing a hell of a lot more harm to one another than the Phelps family could ever dream of doing.

    On what do you base that belief? Real-world experience, in Europe, proves the contrary. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    What then is the difference between someone in a bar saying “kill all fags” to someone else at the bar, who, observing a known gay person also in the bar, attempts to kill that person on the spot, and someone on TV
    saying “kill all fags” to a broad audience, one of whom, upon observing a known gay person, attempts to kill that person on the spot? 

    In practice? The strength of the impulse is much stronger in the first case. (If the bar contains only themselves, the potential shooter, and the potential victim, the impulse is even stronger. If there are three or four other potential shooters all pointing their guns at the potential victim, the impulse is stronger still.)

    Under the law? Typically no difference at all, as far as I know. (Under U.S. law, that is. Other jurisdictions, other ways.)

    There probably exist laws in some U.S. jurisdictions, and almost certainly exists U.S. case law, that treats the former case as you describe (much as there exists case law that treats queers hitting on men at a bar as legitimate grounds for assault, but no case law that treats men hitting on women at a bar that way). It’s a big country, and lots of decisions get made.

    As for what the legal principle underlying that case law is… beats the shit out of me. In practice, I suspect it reflects the intuitions of the people who happened to be in the courtroom. (Ditto for the case law about “gay panic.”) Case law, by its nature, is often pretty screwed up.

  • aunursa

    Someone saying that black folks or abortion providers need to die, and then someone else killing black folks or abortion providers and citing the first person as inspiration, that’s not the first person’s speech being a direct cause of death?

    Hundreds of millions of people read the Bible each day and consider it a blueprint for how to live their lives.  And then they go out and do not attempt to kill gay people or people who violate the Sabbath or disobediant children.

  • bobnelsonfr

    Seems likely… if the ban is real. I took a quick Google, and found lots of sites that said this is the case… but none were Canadian…

    I don’t know chick tracts, but from what Wikipedia says about them, they might well qualify as hate speech, particularly for their homophobia.

  • Eminnith

    Why I do not want to see hate speech laws in the United States of America:
    Because in today’s political climate, and in the political climate I expect we’ll have for at least the next several years, any hate speech law would be written with the input of the Religious Right. Who wants James Dobson deciding what we’re allowed to say?

  • bobnelsonfr

    I think there are a couple of non sequiturs here. 

    (As for “from Europe”, I should clarify: I am an American citizen, a US Army combat veteran, and I travel frequently to the US. I think I am both qualified and entitled to express opinions on American matters… and also on Europe. I think that having both points of view is… useful.)

    What does condoning Phelps’ very unChristian behavior have to do with your Atheism? Do you behave in a similar fashion? If not, why do you imagine that stopping their heinous behavior would have any impact whatsoever on you?

    And again… hate crimes don’t come from nowhere. They are ramped up by hate speech. Hate crime laws are too late — the crime has been committed. Don’t you think it would be better to work to prevent the crime from ever happening?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > we will end up doing a hell of a lot more harm
    Real-world experience, in Europe, proves the contrary.

    Does it? Awesome! I’m delighted to hear that… I didn’t realize our understanding of social harm had advanced that far. Just goes to show you how inadequate a lay person’s understanding of complex fields can be.

    Me, I base my belief on mere personal experience and intuition. Not reliable at all. I thoroughly endorse legislators ignoring my uninformed opinion in favor of actual settled science in fields where settled science exists, and if it turns out that politics is now one of those fields, great! I’ve been looking forward to that day for decades.

    Out of curiosity, who has measured the harm, and what techniques have they used to measure it?  Or estimate it, where they can’t measure it directly?

    Or are you using “proof” here in a looser sense, to mean something like “supports”?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    Don’t you think it would be better to work to prevent the crime from ever happening?

    Depends on the mechanism.

    For example, I don’t think it would be better to arrest people who we think might be about to commit a crime, even if that prevented the crime from ever happening.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t follow.

    I am not arguing, I do not think I have ever argued, that the statement “kill all fags” is unprotected and ought to be prosecuted, except in instances where someone heard it said and took it as a command to go kill a gay person.

    And it would be damn hard to prosecute the people who put that line in Leviticus. People who quote that line in a context where they intend it to be taken as a command rather than as an instance of people in the era Leviticus was written having different cultural pressures (in particular, if two people were having gay sex, then probably neither was having het sex, which meant neither was making babies, and with infant mortality like it was, the tribe needed babies, so gay sex could reasonably be argued to actually be hurtful), those people ought to be prosecuted for incitement to violence, if, again, someone takes them up on it.

  • aunursa

    I am not arguing, I do not think I have ever argued, that the statement “kill all fags” is unprotected and ought to be prosecuted, except in instances where someone heard it said and took it as a command to go kill a gay person.

    So whether or not it’s a crime in based – not on the content of the speech — but only on the response of the listener? The result of your argument is that the same speech would be considered criminal in one case and not criminal in another case based on something that is out of control of the speaker.

  • aunursa

    And it would be damn hard to prosecute the people who put that line in Leviticus.

    Not just one line in Leviticus.  The Bible has a lot of nasty things to say about a lot of people whom it declares are deserving of punishment including death.  And yet hundreds of millions of people are able to read the Bible and go about their daily lives without killing gays or disobedient children or Sabbath violators or any other people whom the Bible deems are an abomination to the Lord and deserving of death.  Amazing!

  • bobnelsonfr

    Ummm… Dave?? Are you really asking me to prove that anti-hate-speech laws don’t cause harm? You’re asking me to prove a negative? 

    No Dave, this works the other way around. There have been such laws in Europe for decades, and there is no evidence of slippage down the slope. 

    No need for snarky, Dave.

    I base my belief on mere personal experience and intuition. Not reliable at all.

    But of course these are reliable… on just a few conditions. “Personal experience” is fine… as long as you are familiar with all places and all people. Intuition is good, too, if you are omniscient.

    So if you are omniscient, then your methods are valid.

    Pleased to meet you, God.

    Please excuse my turn at snarky, but seriously… boasting about opinions without facts??

  • The_L1985

     “Ummmmm… The Wikipedia article specifically says that the last imprisonment was in… 1921! Seriously!!”

    There is a law currently on the books in Alabama that makes it illegal to operate a motor vehicle without shoes on.  I doubt that anyone has been arrested for driving-without-shoes in quite a few decades.  However, a lack of imprisonment over a law doesn’t mean that the law itself is not still on the books.

  • Carstonio

    That generation was meant to express a free-speech principle. I see blasphemy laws as more vulnerable to abuse than laws proscribing speech against people based on characteristics. That’s because religions are powerful organizations that make varying degrees of claims to truth, so often (not always) they have a vested interest in controlling speech. Your post seemed to suggest that blasphemy was a form of abuse, and I doubt that speech against a deity can be compared to speech against a minority group.

  • bobnelsonfr

    How about arresting people who suggest killing {fill in the target category of the hate speech}? The nutcases who end up committing hate crimes have usually been stoking their hatred on sources that could have been closed down.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If no damage is done, then yeah, not worth prosecuting. Isn’t that true of everything that’s been declared a crime? It’s been declared a crime because it does damage to someone or something? Not that words alone can’t be damaging, of course, but we have a commitment to free speech in this country, and I do not recall anyone ever saying that it is still bad to shout “fire” in a crowded theater if the theater patrons’ response is to either stay sat or to proceed to the exits in an orderly fashion. The problem with shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is that the expected response is a mad rush to the exits and at least one person with bootprints on their face.

    People should not, of course, say “kill all fags”, and people should pretend Leviticus doesn’t say it either. But unless someone actually tries to do it, it’s the kind of problem where criminal prosecution will make things worse, not better.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You’re supporting my point, you realize.

  • bobnelsonfr

    So… you think it is a good idea to create future policy on the basis of  laws that are still on the books, but that no one enforces?

    Or do I not understand your point here??

    ;-))

  • The_L1985

     No, the first person’s speech is an indirect cause of death.  For it to be a direct cause of death, the speaking of the words itself would have to kill the victim, without any listeners being necessary. :)

  • EllieMurasaki

    So someone in a bar who says “kill all fags” to someone else in a bar, and the second person spots a third bar patron who happens to be openly gay and the second person attempts to kill the third, the first person is in no way responsible?

  • bobnelsonfr

    I have no opinion on “blasphemy laws”. I know of none, in any modern country, so I don’t know if there is any objective way to form an opinion.

    I was speaking of anti-hate-speech laws, which do exist, which do preclude Phelps-type behavior, and which are not subject to abuse.

  • The_L1985

    Ideally, there would be no difference.  Telling someone else to kill, in either case, indirectly causes murder.  The direct cause of the murder is still the person using the gun, knife, or what have you to kill the victim.

    However, for conspiracy-to-commit-murder laws to come into play, it’s generally agreed by most law enforcement that you have to have a specific murderer in mind.

  • aunursa

    If no damage is done, then yeah, not worth prosecuting. Isn’t that true of everything that’s been declared a crime? It’s been declared a crime because it does damage to someone or something?

    No.  It’s a crime because it violates the law, not because there is an actual victim.  If you drive 10 miles about the speed limit, you can be cited for a violation even if everyone else drives at the same speed and there is no actual victim.

    The problem with shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is that the expected response is a mad rush to the exits and at least one person with bootprints on their face.

    A person who shouts “fire” in a crowded theater can be prosecuted whether or not the speech causes panic and injury.  It’s a crime regardless of whether there is any actual injury.

  • aunursa

    I fail to see how I am supporting your point.  Hundreds of millions of people read what could be considered hate speech and do not go out and kill other people.  That supports my point that hate speech does not directly cause people to commit crimes.

  • aunursa

    Ellie: By your reasoning someone would not be able to determine before he acts to spread a message whether or not his intended act is a crime.  That concept is wholly contrary to the American criminal justice system.

  • The_L1985

     America is not Europe.  This is a country where a renowned astronomer sued Apple Computers* for using his name–as a codename for a not-yet-released system (the official name was still under wraps) because “they’re using my name for material gain without my permission.”

    People will accuse anyone of anything over here.  It’s pretty much a defining feature.

    * Before the sweatshops and the general being-evil thing got started, but after Macs took off

  • EllieMurasaki

    I have officially lost track of your argument. If someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded theater can be prosecuted (and, you seem to imply, should be prosecuted) for doing so even if no one is hurt, then what on earth means that people who say “kill all fags” on national TV cannot and should not be prosecuted even when someone is hurt and the person doing the hurting cites the TV person as inspiration?

  • EllieMurasaki

    So someone who says that they’re acting on someone else’s instructions to kill all fags, they are assumed to be lying, because everyone else who hear such instructions have better sense than to try?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Obvious solution: don’t say anything that suggests it’s a good idea to hurt someone.

  • The_L1985

     They also lie blatantly about the beliefs and practices of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Satanists, atheists, and all other people who aren’t the exact same kind of Christian as Jack Chick.

    You can read the original tracts themselves at chick.com and they’re pretty much all horrible.  (Dis)honorable mentions go to “Allah Had No Son,” “The Death Cookie,” and basically any dumbed-down version of another tract “for African-American audiences.”

    There are 3 tracts I know of that have been discontinued:
    - a tract that explains how Dungeons & Dragons and other such board games lead teenagers headlong into the occult
    - a tract that implies that even if you’ve raped your own prepubescent daughter (no, really), everything will magically be OK again if you repent and say the Magic Prayer
    - a tract that insists that Christian rock is Satanism in disguise.

  • The_L1985

     There is a difference between being an indirect cause of death, and not being a cause of death at all.  There are differing amounts of responsibility, yes, but in both cases we can all agree that the person saying “kill all fags” has done something wrong.

  • aunursa

    Falsely shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theater is imminently dangerous and likely to result in injury or death, therefore making it a direct cause of such.  It’s highly likely that falsely shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theater will result in unnecessary injury.

    While I’m not certain about “kill all fags”, saying something like “fags should die” in nearly all cases is not imminently dangerous because it does not put anyone in imminent danger.  It would be a rare person who would hear that sentence and then immediately seek to kill another person based entirely on hearing that sentence.

    Therefore your two examples are not comparable.

  • The_L1985

    I never said that.  All I said is that those laws are still on the books.  The following chain of events happened:

    1. Another person said that several European countries have blasphemy laws on the books, and several others only abolished their blasphemy laws recently.

    2. You apparently equated a lack of blasphemy convictions with a lack of blasphemy laws.

    3. I responded with the statement that I made.

    Even if a law is not enforced, the knowledge that that law exists can affect people’s behavior.  In the case of blasphemy laws, a person may be very afraid to say something that may be construed as blasphemy even if the law itself hasn’t been enforced in quite some time.

  • EllieMurasaki

    But people keep insisting that the person who says “kill all fags” on TV is not responsible for one of their viewers trying to do so. Why?

  • aunursa

    So someone who says that they’re acting on someone else’s instructions to kill all fags, they are assumed to be lying, because everyone else who hear such instructions have better sense than to try?

    Not exactly.  Someone who kills someone else is responsible for the murder.  Someone who instructs someone else to kill a specific third party is responsible for the murder.  Someone who issues a broad statement that certain people deserve to die is not directly responsible for any ensuing deaths caused by a listener who decides to kill a third party based on the speech.

  • AnonaMiss

    What does condoning Phelps’ very unChristian behavior have to do with your Atheism? Do you behave in a similar fashion? If not, why do you imagine that stopping their heinous behavior would have any impact whatsoever on you?

    And this is how we know you’re from Europe.

    Kidding aside, I believe Louis’s point is that in the USA, we have people in positions of power who would try to use hate speech laws as a way of policing blasphemy; and in many parts of the country, they could get away with it. Imagine what anti-hate speech law enforcement would look like in Israel or Bahrain, and you’ve got a decent idea.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Supposing ‘rare’ means one in a hundred, an audience of one almost certainly won’t include someone who’ll do it. An audience of ten, probably not. An audience of a hundred, maybe not. An audience of a thousand, probably. An audience of ten thousand, almost certainly.

  • The_L1985

    Here are some possible reasons:

    1. They feel that the person is morally responsible, but can’t or shouldn’t be held legally responsible because such a law would be easily abused.

    2. They feel that the person is morally responsible and should also be legally responsible, and that the TV personalities are only getting away with it due to the corruption brought on by wealth, power, and fame.

    3. They feel that punishing the direct murderer, and implying that the person on TV is a bad person for saying these things, is enough–and that, somehow, mere disapproval will cause that person to stop spewing hatred on TV.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I deny your accusation of boasting.
    I also deny your implication that personal experience does not include any facts.

    Trying to get away from all the snark… let me approach it this way.

    I know some communities in which topics controversial within the community just don’t get talked about in public. When I lived in such communities, I was harmed by that convention, because they prevented challenging certain widely held ideas (for example, the idea that queer relationships aren’t as moral as straight relationships).

    If the residents of such communities were to tell me that they don’t see their standards causing any harm in their communities, I would disagree, but not know how to begin convincing them otherwise… especially if they dismissed my personal experience as not worth paying attention to, and insisted that the burden of proof lay on me to show that there was harm.

    Ultimately, my response would be “Good for you. I prefer to live in my community.” In fact, that is typically my response.

    Supposing that you agreed with me that their standards were in fact harmful, do you think I have any obligation to prove this to them? If so, how would you recommend I go about it?

  • aunursa

    All the time I read comments on this board that suggest it’s a good idea to hurt people, that suggest that it would be a good thing if certain people would suffer and die (e.g. Republican lawmakers, certain Supreme Court justices.)  By your reasoning such statements could be considered punishable hate speech.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Someone is not responsible for a death that would not have occurred if that someone had kept their mouth shut?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Nope, I don’t think it would be better to arrest them either.

  • bobnelsonfr

    I agree that America isn’t Europe… but I don’t see the relevance, here.

  • AnonaMiss

    Please see my previous post, which apparently got de-linked from the post of yours it was in reply to.

  • Madhabmatics

    This argument is dumb as hell, realtalk.  We’ve got half the thread going “Oh man, if you ban hate speech then the bible and the koran will be banned and so will blasphemy!” and yet we actually, in real life, have a ton of countries with hate speech laws that somehow do not result in both the repression of religion and anti-religion.

    Then we have people acting as if “blasphemy” is all hate speech. That’s dumb too, blasphemy encompasses a whole lot of actions – some of which will be hate speech, some won’t. Salafis believe that the way Ismaili pray is blasphemous, but that’s not even close to hate speech. Hate speech laws (again, as they actually work in the real world where humans have implemented them, and not in pretend world where they will immediately ban saying “Yeah I don’t like The Prophet”) do not require you to respect a religion or it’s teachings.

  • aunursa

    Certainly the Phelps family has received widespread, likely worldwide coverage, for the verbal diarrhea that routinely spews forth from their mouths. How many documented cases can you provide of deaths resulting from people who responded as a result of the Phelps’ hateful speech?


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