Bullying or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech?

Bullying or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech? November 13, 2011

Jaime: Did you see the Republicans just endorsed the right to bully in schools as long as it’s done in the name of religion.

Kelly: They did not.

Jaime: Yes. They did. They perversely added to anti-bullying bill the right to bully as long as such bullying was based on “sincerely held religious or moral convictions.”

Kelly: No, that provision of that law specifically distinguishes that the anti-bullying law is not to be construed as a violation of first amendment rights. It reads: (8) “This section does not abridge the rights under the first amendment of the constitution of the United States or under Article 1 of the state constitution of 1963 of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian. This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely helf religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil or a pupil’s parent or guardian.” Basically it is only protecting whatever would be protected under free speech rights and saying that does not qualify as bullying. Not that any statement made by a religious person is not bullying.

Jaime: That’s religious privilege! And a “how-to” guide for bullies! All they need to do is claim that what they are doing is expressing their religious beliefs or couch their abuse religiously and they are off scott-free!

Kelly: No, it’s not only religion that is being protected, it is all free speech and it is all expression of sincerely held moral beliefs. This equally protects a student who tells another student that her religious views are harmful to gays as it protects a religious student who sincerely believes being homosexual behavior is wrong from voicing that opinion. And the word “sincerely” is specifically included, which should account for your concerns about bullies insincerely using religious language as an excuse to bully.

Jaime: But who is going to be the judge of sincerity? This is a loop hole they can drive a truck through.

Kelly: Well, a sincere expression of religious or moral belief should not do all the things that the law explicitly prohibits: it should not interfere with students’ feelings of safety or their abilities to be educated without disruption, it should not have “an actual and substantial detrminetal effect on a pupil’s physical health or mental health causing substantial emotional distress” or substantially interfere with the operation of the school. Allowing that sometimes people can say things that are controversial and it not be misconstrued by the hyper-sensitive as bullying is not the same as condoning words and actions that cause actual emotional harm, actual threat, and actual disruption. You can allow students to express their views on religion and morality without allowing them to do it in ways that are demonstrably harmful. This provision you’re so worked up about just distinguishes between the two different things. I would think you of all people would appreciate its inclusion.

Jaime: I would? You would expect me to protect the right of religious people to threaten children with hell for being gay and then be able to plead religious privilege and get away with it?

Kelly: No, I would expect you to protect free speech more generally. I would expect you to want the first amendment reaffirmed clearly so that people do not construe your moral criticisms of religion as bullying. You say a lot of incendiary, accusatory things about the dangers of religion. Do you want the law to confuse that for threatening, disruptive, and emotionally distressing behavior by religious people? Or do you want it to be clear that as long as you are only expressing sincere religious and moral convictions that you are within your rights and should not be confused with threatening, disrupting, or emotionally bullying anyone? You were quite worked up about precisely this point the last we talked.

Jaime: Look, that’s different, attacking religions is attacking ideas and institutions, it’s not attacking people. It’s not as personally threatening and demeaning as what religious people want the protections in that bill for. They want protections in that bill so that they can send their kids into the schools to carelessly fuck with vulnerable gay kids’ minds. They want their kids and Christian teachers to be able to tell these isolated, confused, unjustly embarrassed gay kids that they are sinners, that god hates them the way they are, that they need to stop feeling their natural sexual emotions, and that they must become Christians–or they will go to hell. Threats of hell directed at you for what you are are emotionally fucking distressing.

Kelly: Well, if they’re—

Jaime: The epidemic of gay suicides in our country is appalling and it is sincerely held religious bigotries which perpetuates it by giving a green light and a morally encouraged vessel for anti-gay bullies to torment gay people as much as their hateful hearts desire and still feel a holier-than-thou conscience at the end of the day. Even after the kids have killed themselves they can wash their hands clean and take the suicides as “proof the kids deep down knew they were perverted”. We have seen the consequences of letting “sincerely held religious convictions” go unchecked in schools. Kids die. Ashamed and alienated for no good reason besides prejudice.

Kelly: But there’s a difference between—

Jaime: And it’s no less prejudice if it is a prejudice based on unjustified religious beliefs than if it were based on unjustified racial beliefs or unjustified xenophobic beliefs. You wouldn’t let kids “sincerely state their religious or moral conviction that blacks were inferior to whites” would you? Or to use the n-word based on that “sincere” conviction, would you?

Kelly: Look, we could swing the door the other way. Religions are identities, not just ideas or institutions as you want to conveniently only acknowledge. People associate their religious identities deeply with their families, their most cherished and life-orienting values—

Jaime: But they shouldn’t—they are just ideas and they should be open to criticism. And a prejudice is a prejudice, even when it’s someone’s “life-orienting” value. Should the son of a klansman be allowed to go to school in a white KKK hood because that’s an expression of his family’s “life-orienting values”?

Kelly: Are you done now? Or are you going to let me talk.

Jaime: I’m sorry, I just can’t believe you’re defending these bullies.

Kelly: I just wish you would see how hypocritical you are in bullying me here.

Jaime: Bullying?? I’m just “sincerely stating my religious and moral convictions”—I thought that was okay with you no matter what they were.

Kelly: So, by your sarcasm I take it you’re admitting you’re being as bullying and obnoxious about your beliefs as you accuse the people you want to silence as being about theirs.

Jaime: So, now in your book it is not bullying to threaten vulnerable, cognitively-still-developing kids with eternal torment for their natural budding sexual feelings. But it is bullying to say that the tormentors should stop tormenting. How Orwellian! I thought you were an atheist, Kelly. I thought you opposed the theocratic fundamentalists.

Kelly: I do oppose them. I also oppose acting like them as an atheist. So stop twisting my words around and let me explain myself.

Jaime: The floor is yours. Give me your “sincerest” religious and moral convictions.

Kelly: Look, what I hate most of all is when one interest group gets governmental power to impose its vision of the good life on everyone else. We often think of this as the religious using the government to force everyone into their religion but it could go the other way too. There have been atheistic regimes which have been equally discriminating against religious consciences as theocracies have been against irreligious ones.

Jaime: But those states weren’t acting in the name of atheism—

Kelly: I don’t care who or what “name” they were acting in. They oppressed people. That’s enough! The government should not be deciding the good life for people. I think the philosopher John Rawls is especially helpful here. The government should provide laws which we could all agree on behind a “veil of ignorance”. Imagine us all not knowing who we would be in society—gay or straight or bi, religious or irreligious, from a majority religion or a minority religion, transgendered or cis-gendered, an immigrant or native born, poor or wealthy, white or black, female or male, etc. Imagine we did not know any of that stuff. What sorts of protections would we want? We would want as much latitude to pursue each conception of the good life we might wind up having without interfering in too burdensome a way on each other conception of the good we might have. So we would want the right to be religious, but not to the point of infringing on the right to be irreligious, and vice versa. Were we not to know in advance of living in society, which pair of shoes we would wind up preferring, we would want to be as maximally free if we were in either pair of shoes. Does that make sense?

Jaime: Yes.

Kelly: So, if we belonged to a religion and thought the good life entailed adhering to that religion strictly and obediently as a matter of identity, the law should allow that as much as possible without infringing on the rights and well-being of others. And if we were gay we should be able to pursue the correlate good life for ourselves, also as much as possible without infringing on the rights of others to pursue their own conceptions of their own good lives. And this would go if we were both gay and religious too or straight and irreligious, etc., etc. Is that agreeable?

Jaime: Yes.

Kelly: So, behind the veil of ignorance, we cannot choose that all religious expressions be classed as prejudices and prohibited whenever they are founded on beliefs in holy texts or deference to tradition, etc. That begs the question of whether or not such an approach to life is immoral. It basically rules out religious beliefs legally.

Jaime: No, they can still believe harmless things. But when their beliefs are racist or homophobic there can be reasonable restrictions on their expression or their forms of expression in places where they can harm vulnerable people, like children.

Kelly: Sure, kids should not be forced to endure being called the n-word or “fags” or any other abusive terms but I think this law covers that kind of thing. But you wouldn’t want religious kids to be legally protected from other kids telling them their religion is wrong or is stupid, do you?

Jaime: No, I think it is great that kids should be able to debate healthily. Otherwise they may never learn to think for themselves. There should be more openminded discussion among kids with their peers about religious ideas because otherwise some will only ever hear what their church and family has to say about anything, and never be challenged to form their own opinions.

Kelly: So then how can you want to silence all statements of sincerely held moral and religious objections to homosexuality. Isn’t that also part of kids learning to deal with moral issues by robustly debating them? Wouldn’t it be unfair to have the school impose a set of values–“gay is good” and a priori rule out the other half of the country’s opinion that it is not. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I vehemently support gay rights and homosexuality being acknowledged as fully morally equal to everyone else. But if we are to be fair can we try to use governmental means to end the debate, to make it so the other side cannot even speak or that kids can never hear the other side out—even if only to discover the vacuity of its arguments? Why not win this in the sphere of debate, instead of through legislation?

Jaime: Because it is too demanding to ask gay kids, who are already at risk for incredibly unfair and unmerited confusion, alienation, and shame, are not in a position to debate from a fair equal footing. They are more likely to doubt themselves over flimsy arguments made against them. They are in many cases unlikely to get emotional support at home to back them up. A devoutly religious kid who gets challenged by an atheistic kid is usually going to have a tremendous amount of familial, religious, and communal support for her beliefs. She comes from a privileged class (the religious) and likely plenty of preparatory indoctrination. Gay kids don’t have that. They cannot take the assaults on their identities. They are not only as firmly formed yet but they also do not have the kind of emotional and communal support religious kids get. Plus, religious beliefs, no matter how much a matter of identity, are changeable when shown false. I don’t know of an epidemic of religious kids killing themselves over atheists telling them there is no God. Sexual orientation is deeper. It’s not changeable. Kids giving other kids misinformation and moral and religious threats can cause a lot of avoidable psychological pain. And what is especially problematic is the teachers being allowed to tell kids their sexual orientiation is immoral. This seems really invasive and potentially damaging. Where is the conscience clause that atheistic teachers can tell students there is no god or that some particular religion is inferior to another. There is not one in most schools, I think. The idea is that whether or not such would be protected free speech out of school, it’s an improper use of authority over young minds in school to proselytize.

Kelly: But presumably you would affirm teachers being allowed to give kids pro-gay messages and tell a gay student that it is natural and ethical to be gay, right? Or should the school be neutral entirely? And if the school should be neutral entirely, then what if now a gay kid has lost the only shot at finding an adult in his life outside his church and family who might have been able to help him. Do we really want to clamp down on free speech to that extent?

Jaime: Well, maybe this is a limit of Rawls and the “veil of ignorance” then.

Kelly: How so?

Jaime: Some conceptions of the good life, if adopted by everyone, would destroy open, liberal democratic society itself. We have to be able to say that you can pursue your own conception of the good life whatever it is, but that nonetheless there is a minimal conception of the good life that we all need to recognize if we are to be an open society. If everyone’s private conception of the good life became authoritarian, for example, then everyone would vote for authoritarian policies and it would be the end of open, liberal democratic government, and then no one laws would be made with the veil of ignorance’s respect for diversity. Similarly with racist conceptions of the good life. They turn into racist legislation that undermines the “veil of ignorance”. This means either behind the veil of ignorance or in addition to it we need to find a space for laws to vigorously play favorites in favor of autonomous and inclusivist conceptions of the good life over exclusivists. This means that it is okay to sometimes, in some places—like schools—an open and democratic society needs to prioritize speech which encourages inclusion of all races, religions, and sexualities, and place careful restrictions on speech which encourages unjust discrimination. Otherwise the veil of ignorance approach to justice will itself be endangered and it would be foolish, behind the veil of ignorance to affirm that.

Kelly: So, no atheist talk in schools then? Since it might whip up hostility against religious people?

Jaime: But it would not if it was just expressions of disagreements over ideas but did not involve name-calling or harassment or threats or alienating people, etc.

Kelly: But sincerely and earnestly stating that one thinks that being gay is immoral is equivalent to name-calling, harassing, threatening, threatening, and alienating gay kids.

Jaime: From teachers that’s quite damaging to gay kids. They are in a uniquely vulnerable position.

Kelly: What about not from teachers. What about from other kids?

Jaime: I think even from other kids, it’s tantamount to bullying. Kids should be left alone on that subject or included. I would never approve of black kids being forced to hear out racist kids, I cannot approve of gay kids being forced to hear out homophobic ones.

Kelly: But religious kids would have to hear out atheistic kids?

Jaime: Well, not in unwanted phone calls or by being forced to participate in debates that make them uncomfortable. But statements of atheist kids’ views, mutually and freely participated informal debates on the topic between kids with no teachers involved, exposure to the existence of atheist kids—that’s all fine and, even necessary. Atheist kids need to be allowed to express themselves equally with religious kids. And religious kids deserve all those same rights to informally be able to advocate their ideas as long as they don’t cross the line into harassing individuals. It’s totally different to give atheists and religious kids both equal right to defend their specifically atheistic or religious beliefs than it is to give homophobes equal opportunity to express themselves as gay kids.

Kelly: And when the religious kid is a homophobe, she has to omit that part of her beliefs? But an atheist kid does not have to omit her support of gays from hers?

Jaime: Right.

Kelly: And that’s not a double standard?

Jaime: I don’t think so.

Kelly: I don’t know. It still sounds like one to me. And a standard which would be applied to atheists in ways you wouldn’t like as soon as “blasphemy” starts getting counted as a form of “bullying”.

Your Thoughts?

Prior Debates Between Jaime and Kelly:

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”

A Debate About the Wisdom of Trying to Deconvert People

Atheist Fundamentalism?

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