Sam Harris on the Innocence of Muslims affair

I see that Sam Harris has published a post on the violent responses to what he calls “an unwatchable Internet video titled ‘Innocence of Muslims.'”

There is much in the post to agree with. For a start, I agree that Innocence of Muslims, or the trailer for it, or selection from it, or whatever the hell that was, is (pretty much) unwatchable. I did actually force myself to watch the damn thing (you can find it easily if you really must), but it is atrocious in every possible respect – bigoted, scurrilous, disjointed, and suffering from the most abyssmal production values since Plan 9 from Outer Space (I know I’m not the first to make the comparison, so apologies to whoever was).

Harris dismisses as “obscene” such questions as, “What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book?” I think that’s going too far. It does appear that the film was deliberately created to express hatred for Muslims and to provoke a violent backlash. In the circumstances, we can ask these questions about it, especially when we add in further issues such as (apparently credible) claims of actors being conned into thinking they were involved in a very different project. There is much to discuss about the film itself and the circumstances of its production, even if, at the end of the day we agree with Harris that:

Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.

Yes, that’s right. We do get to express our repudiation of belief systems, including Islam, without being constrained by the power of the state, or so I want to argue (and have done in the past). We can go on to criticise prophets or anyone else. Harris is pretty much correct when he says:

The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance.

Yes, pretty much right. Only “pretty much” because there’s an element of exaggeration to quibble about, the way it’s been worded. The problem is not so much that we can’t “think aloud” on certain topics as that we cannot publish those thoughts widely, once we’ve sorted them out, should we take certain strong stances. But even when the point is expressed in a less rhetorical way, it’s true that an important freedom has been lost, not through the actions of the state but through the willingness of some Muslims to resort to murder in response to what they see as insults to Islam or their prophet.

How should the state and its officials respond – and how should we request that they do so? They may be tempted to suppress some kinds of anti-religious speech and to demonise the speakers as racists and criminals … and in some cases they may even be correct that they are dealing with racists or something very similar. Even leaving aside basic concerns about freedom of speech, however, this response can be counterproductive. If an impression is created that political power is being used to silence opposition to Islam, this will merely add to the resentments against Islam that are already present in Western societies, and which have now been fueled by the violent, in some cases murderous, responses to Innocence of Muslims. More generally, when religious leaders and organisations try to prevent certain speech from being heard or certain images from being seen, this adds to the layers of distrust and resentment. The effect is exacerbated if governments get in on the act, actually assisting to suppress speech and images.

We would all do well to scrutinise ourselves as individuals, and to be alert to possible racism, even unconscious, somewhere within our motivations. It is best, however, if the state adopts a strong stance of insisting on freedom of speech. As I say in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, a liberal attitude might permit some ugly speech, and Innocence of Muslims is a very good example, but the long-term effect will be salutary:

…the long-term effect would be to reinforce a valuable lesson: ideologically opposed groups of whatever kind — religious, political, or philosophical — must make their own way, enduring criticism, and even satire, from their opponents, without asking the state to interfere.

But will that just make extremist more likely to resort to self-help in the form of violence? I doubt it. As Kenan Malik has argued, a political culture that defends freedom of expression removes some of the resources that extremists draw upon. If we seriously maintain a highly liberal political culture, we make it more difficult for extremists to take, much less justify, violent offence and react with violent action. We deny the extremists the false moral legitimacy that they claim.

Yes, Innocence of Muslims is pretty much as bad as you can imagine it to be, and that is worth discussing – along with whatever fraud may have been involved in the production of the film. We should feel free to say all that, but then move on. It in no way justifies violence, and nor does it justify any withdrawal by the state from a strong emphasis on freedom of speech.

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90 Comments.

  1. The trailer is so poorly produced that it makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like a David Lean film.

  2. :razz: The Muslims will unite under the king of the South and invade Israel and the North . But the North ,the EU would come down and tame them . This is what had been prophesied in the bible . For they cannot see and understand the truth and live like the others.

  3. Russell:
    I think it’s worrying that you wrote this post as though you were an American without any knowledge of how jurisdictions and cultures view the matter of hate speech and its dissemination. That can’t be true of course because as you tell us you have written a big book on the subject. As an Australian you undoubtedly know that the producer of this film would be facing severe penalties at the moment if it had been shot in Australia.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech_laws_in_Australia

    Similar legislation can be found in the U.K. and Canada.

    Untrammeled ‘free speech’ is an American fetish and unique to them. It’s idiotology mate.

  4. As it happens, Michael, I have written quite a lot on religious and racial vilification law in Australia.

    My study of hate speech laws in this country, and how they operate in practice (e.g. in the Catch the Fire Ministries case), has reinforced my views. Nothing in the post is based on some sort of American free speech absolutism.

  5. I followed the link given by Michael, and only 1 Australian State according the the information there makes it an explicit offence so I’m not sure what the point was as the rest focus (quite rightly) on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability.

    Nor is there much made of the simple fact that the existance of another ‘god’ or religion is an automatic offence to another ‘god’ or religion ie a blasphemy.

    Laws enacted for popularity are usually bad laws particularly here in the UK where politicians have difficulty in understanding that race and religion are not synonymous terms. It is often heard here that speaking out against (for examlple) islam is often called, erroneaously, ‘racist’. Erroneous as muslims come from all backgrounds, skin colours and ethnic groups, as do christians etc.

    Religion is a matter of choice, just like political beliefs, and unlike gender, skin colour, disability which are not choices, and as a choice religion deserves no more protection than political beliefs.

  6. “The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost.”

    This coming from a man who has stated:

    “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

    Couldn’t make it up.

  7. I am wondering how many rioters and killers have actually watched this, boring ridiculous film. Similarly how many of those Rioting and issuing death threats against Salman Rushdie had actually read ‘The Satanic Verses, which they were then burning? My guess is a small minority in both cases. If that be the case, the question arises, why are you behaving in this way over something you know little or nothing about? I am reluctant to go into further details concerning this, other than to quote Voltaire “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”

  8. “Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.” – Harris

    More and more people are coming to the view that hate crimes trump the ‘right’ to free speech. I am one of those people.

    Criticism of anything or anyone — with courtesy, and respect for the beliefs of others — is acceptable. To burn the Koran, or the Bible, for example, is not. [I am not Muslim or Christian.]

  9. Steve Merrick:

    What if I want to burn Marx’s Kapital? Would that be okay? After all, many people are Marxists.

    How about Darwin’s Complete Works?

    Lots of people believe in Darwin.

    How about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason?

    There are not so many Kantians, but they should be protected from book burnings.

    Or maybe not?

  10. Steve:
    My general point about free speech being limited by law in democracies other than America is obvious. Canada and the U.K. have included intemperate and offensive criticism of religions in that. Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria have recognised this element of hate speech also.

    Russell:
    Your post falls clearly on the side of American permissiveness. I’ve read it again. Every little hedge you raise you subsequently demolish.

    . It does appear that the film was deliberately created to express hatred for Muslims and to provoke a violent backlash.

    You quote Sam Harris:

    Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.

    You agree with him:
    Yes, that’s right. We do get to express our repudiation of belief systems, including Islam, without being constrained by the power of the state, or so I want to argue (and have done in the past). We can go on to criticise prophets or anyone else.

    You continue to agree with him in detail and in principle. Your final point:
    We should feel free to say all that, but then move on. It in no way justifies violence, and nor does it justify any withdrawal by the state from a strong emphasis on freedom of speech.
    seems at odds with your initial recognition that the film was produced with the likely result of violent protest and death in mind. He planned it, his plan was successful and yet by you that’s o.k. How is that different from American untrammeled ‘free speech’?

  11. SWallerstein: the point is not book-burning, but the acceptance that people’s beliefs are often *sacred* to them, no matter how daft that may seem to you.

    You can be pragmatic, and treat things sacred to others with simple respect and courtesy, or you can force others to accept your ‘freedom’ to speak. If you choose the latter path, be prepared to kill people, maybe many millions of people…. :!:

  12. Steve Merrick:

    I try to treat everyone’s beliefs with respect and courtesy, even those which seem daft to me.

    What’s at issue here is not whether I myself treat beliefs with respect and courtesy, but whether a group of people who will not accept any criticism of their beliefs can blackmail so-called “free societies” through the threat of violence into curtailing some basic freedoms.

    As to my examples above, we know that Marxists, Kantians and followers of Darwin will not riot or burn embassies if the books that they hold to be “special” are burned.

    Thus, we can freely burn Das Kapital.

    One can even imagine a work of performance art in , say, the ex German Democratic Republic in which Kapital is burned.

    Now, why should we allow certain groups of Muslims to blackmail us into not burning their sacred books through the threat of violence?

    Once again, I myself do not burn Bibles, Korans or Kapital, if only because burning books contributes to air pollution.

    I even own two copies of the Bible (which I have read)and a copy of Kapital (which I have partially read).

  13. SWallerstein said: “we know that Marxists, Kantians and followers of Darwin will not riot or burn embassies if the books that they hold to be “special” are burned. […] why should we allow certain groups of Muslims to blackmail us into not burning their sacred books through the threat of violence?”

    Because “special” is nowhere near equivalent to “sacred”. I am truly a peace-loving person, but if you show contempt for what I hold sacred, and nothing else works, then I will kill you. :shock:

    The Muslims you mention are not blackmailing you, nor are they making overt threats of violence. But if you act (show contempt for that which they hold sacred), they will react. 99% of all humans will act in the same way.

    Be pragmatic and accepting, or be logical and well armed. I wish it could be otherwise.

  14. “If you choose the latter path, be prepared to kill people, maybe many millions of people…”

    I think you have become confused about who is killing who. If I outrage someone by abusing a symbol that has special significance to them, perhaps by making a mockery of a Ku Klux Klan uniform or representing a swastika in some disrespectful way, and that person responds by murderous attacks on others, those deaths would not be on me. And in that situation would you seriously advocate that we should treat those things with respect from now on or consider ourselves culpable for the consequences? Or might you instead choose to take on the attackers by deliberately outraging their feelings to show that you will not be intimidated into silence?

  15. “I am truly a peace-loving person, but if you show contempt for what I hold sacred, and nothing else works, then I will kill you. ”

    Seriously? You will kill people who say things that you very strongly disagree with? Can you give an example of one of those things?

  16. “99% of all humans will act in the same way.”

    This, by the way, is not only untrue for ‘most humans’ it is untrue for most Muslims, the vast majority of whom do not respond with violence to perceived insult or disrespect. I wish people would get a handle used on that obvious fact.

  17. Torquil Macneil said “If I outrage someone by abusing a symbol that has special significance to them […] and that person responds by murderous attacks on others, those deaths would not be on me.”

    Maybe not, but people would still be dead, something which you could have predicted, and prevented by expressing yourself more courteously.

    We have no problem treating (say) bears with respect, because they can and will kill us. Why are we so unwilling to extend the same treatment to our own species?

    And again: “special significance” is not equivalent to “sacred”.

    Torquil Macneil said “You will kill people who say things that you very strongly disagree with?”

    NO!!! I will kill people who treat that which I hold sacred with contempt, if I can’t stop them any other way.

    That which is sacred is not merely significant or important. It carries the same sort of weight as a lethal threat to a member of one’s intimate family. You can observe that this is illogical or irrational if you wish, but it remains part of ‘human nature’.

  18. Torquil Macneil said “…the vast majority of whom do not respond with violence to perceived insult or disrespect”

    Once again: to treat that which is held sacred with contempt is hugely more significant than a “perceived insult” or “disrespect”.

  19. “We have no problem treating (say) bears with respect, because they can and will kill us. Why are we so unwilling to extend the same treatment to our own species?”

    You are confusing two quite separate meanings of the word ‘respect’. I am cautious in the company of bears because they are dangerous, but I feel free to say what I like about them.

    “I will kill people who treat that which I hold sacred with contempt, if I can’t stop them any other way.”

    I find this very alarming. What are the things that you hold sacred and which you will kill over should people treat them with contempt?

  20. “Once again: to treat that which is held sacred with contempt is hugely more significant than a “perceived insult” or “disrespect”.”

    No it isn’t. You are using the word ‘sacred’ as if it had magical properties but all it means is ‘designated special significance’.

    Again, will you give an example of when you would kill over a gesture perceived by you to be contemptuous, or were you just swaggering?

  21. Steve Merrick:

    You’re using the term “sacred” in many different ways.

    Obviously, almost everyone has things which they would kill to protect, for example, the lives of their family or friends or their own lives or perhaps their property and so if you want to call those things “sacred”, then yes, almost everyone would kill to protect what they consider to be sacred.

    However, very few people whom I know would kill because someone shows contempt for books that they cherish or ideas that they believe in or for symbols which they value, which is what is at issue in the original post.

  22. Re Steve Merrick Sept 20th.

    “We have no problem treating (say) bears with respect, because they can and will kill us. Why are we so unwilling to extend the same treatment to our own species?”
    Some of our own species have the brutal, primitive, unreflective mentalities, of bears, so a pretence of respect is often shown, to avoid injury to oneself and others, or even death. This pretence often takes many sophisticated and sanctimonious forms.

  23. Michael, that’s very strange logic.

    But more generally, if you want to know my rationale for freedom of speech, there are plenty of places where I’ve discussed it. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State is about freedom of religion, not freedom of speech, but it does have a long chapter on the relationship between the two. So that is one place where I discuss the rationale for freedom of speech at considerable length. But you can track down plenty of other stuff on the internet that gives part of the story.

    As it happens, I do think that the Americans have this one more right than other countries, and I find a lot of the American jurisprudence useful. But that’s based on my own reasoning, not some prior commitment to the wisdom of the US or to absolutism about freedom of speech, and it’s certainly not based on ignorance of the European or Australian or Canadian jurisprudence.

    Furthermore, I do get into arguments with free speech absolutists. You’ll probably see some on this very site in the future.

    Now, if you want to argue that Innocence of Muslims is the sort of thing that should be banned, perhaps even on a basis that I’d agree with, then fine. I think that it might be possible to make out a respectable argument for that – presumably a consequentialist one of some kind. But you actually need to put the argument that drawing the line in a place where Innocence of Muslims would be banned would have net good consequences, e.g. banning it would reduce the tensions and violence in the world, while not putting pressure on what we might consider legitimate speech. I’m sceptical about that.

    First, there are plenty of pretexts for people in the Middle East to riot or plan terrorist attacks if that’s what they want to do. E.g., a lot of people now seem to think that the attack on the American consulate in Libya would have happened anyway.

    Second, some people In Western countries may genuinely be enraged by anti-Islamic films and the like, but would tensions be reduced by stronger anti-vilification laws in, say, NSW, where the Sydney riot took place last weekend? I see no evidence of that. On the contrary, trying to enforce such laws also creates tensions. Ahdar and Leigh argue pretty credibly that the net effect of these laws is to increase rather than reduce them. It certainly looked like that where I lived (in Melbourne at the time) when the Catch the Fire Ministries vilification case was running.

    It’s interesting how there has not, so far, been rioting over Innocence of Muslims within the US itself. Perhaps we’ll see some yet, but at this stage we might plausibly speculate that the approach of having a very liberal policy relating to freedom of speech lessens the likelihood of such rioting, because rioting about someone’s speech is more or less pointless. If the US constitutional position changed tomorrow, and more restrictive laws on people’s speech were consequently debated, enacted, and enforced, would this lower social tensions within the US? I very seriously doubt it. I suspect it might even raise them.

  24. Torquil Macneil: “You are confusing two quite separate meanings of the word ‘respect’.”

    I don’t think so. I used the word in two different ways, but I wasn’t at all confused. We should respect the feelings and beliefs of others, and we should respect others, who can be dangerous or deadly, like bears.

    Torquil Macneil and SWallerstein: neither of you will accept the meaning I am trying to describe using “sacred”, so I will use an invented term, “holyStuff”, instead. The emotional attachment to holyStuff can be such that any form of disrespect toward it is treated like blasphemy, and is at least as serious as a murderous attack on one’s child.

    You have referred to “symbol” and “special significance”, “very strong disagreement”, “designated special significance”, and so on. These fail miserably to express the seriousness of an attack on holyStuff.

    For example, to a committed Muslim, the Koran is not merely a book, it is a vessel that contains the actual words of God, the creator of the universe. To burn that book is to burn the holy word of God, and you clearly cannot understand how serious that might seem to be to someone who truly believes.

    I do not condone or excuse violence such as has taken place, but stop insisting on logical and robotic behaviour from humans. Expect them instead to act as humans always have. Allow for it, and don’t do or say stuff that you know will inflame anger and violence.

  25. Russell: re my comment at 7:45
    I can only go on what you write here and my examination of its reasoning is based on that. It seems logical enough to me but if you care to point out where it has gone astray I will take it under advisement. You seem to hold the view that the Americans have got it right: As it happens, I do think that the Americans have this one more right than other countries, and I find a lot of the American jurisprudence useful.

    You are dubious about the banning of such productions as Innocence of Muslims
    But you actually need to put the argument that drawing the line in a place where Innocence of Muslims would be banned would have net good consequences, e.g. banning it would reduce the tensions and violence in the world, while not putting pressure on what we might consider legitimate speech. I’m sceptical about that.

    How could the elimination of that film and others like it put pressure on rational debate? Allowing them to exist and thereby to flourish as part of the universe of discourse is what puts pressure on real inquiry. How does the Westboro Baptist Church advance anything? Would you be prepared to make that a baseline?

    Finally is it not a symptom of cultural imperialism to disregard the sensitivities of others in a time of instant communication. When the First Amendment was established a war could be over for two weeks before distant combatants got the news. The present day egregiously libertarian interpretation was not always the case.
    You write: If the US constitutional position changed tomorrow, and more restrictive laws on people’s speech were consequently debated, enacted, and enforced, would this lower social tensions within the US? I very seriously doubt it. I suspect it might even raise them.
    Seeing someone as a suspect or having a suspicion ought to be based on some indications or evidence. That counterfactual is at most a theory of interest. Stanley Fish and others demur and instead point to the harms caused by the persistent denigration and exclusion of others:
    http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-February-1998/fish.html
    His other articles in the NY times on ‘the harm of free speech’ are also worth reading.

  26. “…is it not a symptom of cultural imperialism to disregard the sensitivities of others”

    Beautifully put. :smile:

  27. Steve Merrick September 21, 2012 at 7:14 am
    “…is it not a symptom of cultural imperialism to disregard the sensitivities of others”
    Beautifully put.

    And how do you square that with people of one country murdering diplomatic staff of another country because of something someone else put on the internet? Isn’t imperialistic to think that people in other cultures should respect your culture at the expense of your own? Not just culturally imperialistic, but the hardcore imperialism of killing people like the Conquistadors?

    Incidentally, what are the things you hold so sacred that you’d start killing people if someone offended you?

  28. “what are the things you hold so sacred that you’d start killing people if someone offended you?”

    The same question again. I would not kill someone just because they “offended” me. Those of you who are asking these questions seem unable to grasp the emotional attachment we humans have to our most DEEPLY HELD beliefs. Words like “offended” and “disagreement” are WHOLLY INADEQUATE to describe how one might feel or react when such beliefs are attacked.

    As my own religious beliefs are not really sensitive in that way, I don’t think you could attack my religious beliefs in a way that might lead me to attack you in return.

    What’s missing from this discussion is empathy. As soon as we realise how other people feel about their beliefs being attacked, we can see straight away that courtesy is a must. Anything can be discussed, with care. There are no taboo subjects. But care and courtesy are required.

  29. Michael Reidy writes: “Canada and the U.K. have included intemperate and offensive criticism of religions in that”. Thankfully, the UK has not: the UK law is limited to threatening speech where the speaker intends to stir up hatred against people because of their religion or lack of it. The text of the Act also says that “Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents…”

    The government did want to make the law broader, but thankfully, cooler heads prevailed (including that of Mr Bean). Wikipedia has a summary.

    I might equally well say it is cultural imperialism for Muslim countries to expect non-Muslim countries to follow Muslim rules. Come to think of it, is there actually a reason why something being a symptom of cultural imperialism means it’s bad enough to ban it, or is this just an example of the worst argument in the world?

  30. @Steve Merrick – People who would want to use the threat of violence as blackmail would love your position on this issue. All someone has to do is say that they hold “x” as sacred, and then interpret any action they disagree with towards “x” as contemptible, and whatever violence they doll out is justified (justified in the sense that they are “like bears” and bears are just going to do that.)

    You can’t blame bears, and you can’t blame people who have DEEPLY HELD beliefs (Steve’s emphasis).

    Well, yes I can. In the fist place, I can blame them for having those beliefs. Then I can blame them for thinking that violence will in some way remedy whatever damage they think another’s contempt has done. I can blame them all day long, and hopefully law officials and courts will do the same.

  31. Steve Merrick: you seem to be saying that we ought to limit speech as a matter of pragmatism. The bear will eat us if we say nasty things about the Big Bear in the Sky, so better not do that, even if we think the idea of a Big Bear is stupid.

    There was a utilitarian argument against drawing Mo I saw a while ago which was based on the pain it causes to Muslims, making the point that we should be aiming for harm minimisation. Vladimir M’s responses pointed out what I think is a fatal problem for that argument and your own:

    “in conflict situations, it is often a rational strategy to pre-commit to act irrationally (i.e. without regards to cost and benefit) unless the opponent yields. The idea in this case is that I’ll self-modify to care about X far more than I initially do, and thus pre-commit to lash out if anyone does it.

    If we have a dispute and I credibly signal that I’m going to flip out and create drama out of all proportion to the issue at stake, you’re faced with a choice between conceding to my demands or getting into an unpleasant situation that will cost more than the matter of dispute is worth. I’m sure you can think of many examples where people successfully get the upper hand in disputes using this strategy. The only way to disincentivize such behavior is to pre-commit credibly to be defiant in face of threats of drama.”

    By this argument, Muslims are not acting irrationally, they’re using the sort of nuclear brinkmanship strategy written about by Schelling, in order to project power. Harris is right to say that the way to deal with this is the way one deals with any tantrum: by not giving in to it. If you don’t want the bear to eat you, train it, don’t panda to it.

    What is so sacred that you will kill someone if they wouldn’t stop critcising it, by the way? You’ve dodged the question quote a few times now.

  32. Steve,

    “What’s missing from this discussion is empathy. As soon as we realise how other people feel about their beliefs being attacked, we can see straight away that courtesy is a must.”

    You’re asking for courtesy but not giving any examples of what discourtesy would look like(in your view).

    The reasons people are asking you to elucidate is because they are doing you a courtesy to your views by asking you to make them clearer to them/us.

  33. Now, Sam Harris argues against censorship. Well, this is a change

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdGeBG8Iphg

    Also, contrast this defense of the freedom to offend with his comments about the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/08/13/ground-zero-mosque.html

  34. Paul Wright:

    The law in the U.K. appears to be taking both sides of the road at the same time:

    The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 amended the Public Order Act 1986 by adding Part 3A. That Part says, “A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.” The Part protects freedom of expression by stating in Section 29J:

    Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.

    This looks like a make-work scheme for lawyers. I am using the Wikipedia report:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech_laws_in_the_United_Kingdom

    Be that as it may the freedom to incite contempt purely on religious grounds is qualified. The part of the statute that you champion may have reference to proselytising or preaching to the infidels. You wouldn’t want to stop that, would you. Prof. Dawking would stop parents instructing their children. A bold move indeed.

    Is the quality of public discourse so much higher in the U.S. that you would wish to import it.

  35. Michael Reidy,

    I’m not a lawyer, but it looks like the loophole is the intention. So, if one ridicules, abuses or insults a religion, then it is legal provided that the intent to stir up religious hatred is absent.

    But, as you note, there is certainly some “tension” between the two parts you mention.

  36. Mike LaBosserie:

    I think that the law may be distinguishing between the proselytising aspect of religious discourse and the simply abusive. It is recognised that this attempt to persuade can be done in a benign way or out of respect and love for the other. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are religions that actively seek to convert others, to show them a better way as they see it. This has to be distinguished from vulgar abuse that only serves to denigrate and anger. It is up to the judge to distinguish between the two if difficult cases come up. Most people of common sense can tell the difference. To put it in a concrete way, the one puts tracts through the letter box or departs with a smile when informed of a lack of interest; the other kicks the door and shits on the lawn. The latter is what the movie does and a British judge would have no difficulty in seeing that.

    Irish Law:(wikipedia)

    In Ireland, the right to free speech is guaranteed under the Constitution (Article 40.6.1.i), however, this is only an implied right provided that liberty of expression “shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State”.[26] The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, proscribes words or behaviours which are “threatening, abusive or insulting and are intended or, having regard to all the circumstances, are likely to stir up hatred” against “a group of persons in the State or elsewhere on account of their race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation.

  37. The UK Act does indeed try to have it both ways, and the result is, of course, legal uncertainty and expansive rulings.

    We’ve seen this again and again: give a tribunal of some kind some sort of restriction on speech and it will be tempted to read the statute in a way that gives it teeth, thus reducing our practical freedom of speech and expression in a way that goes beyond the literal words – though drafting of these provisions turns out to be a nightmare in any event, so it is often difficult to know just what the literal words were ever really supposed to cover.

    This doesn’t prove that no restrictions can ever be justified, in any circumstances at all, on consequentialist grounds. No one who is prepared to accept consequentialist arguments should rule out some circumstance in which some restriction on anything is justified. Even John Stuart Mill favoured some minimal restrictions on free speech – e.g. the speech of a demagogue to a lynch mob actually about to lynch someone.

    But when it comes to attacking belief systems, symbols, etc., rather than using lies to destroy the reputations and livelihoods of individuals, I think there’s good reason to doubt the consequentialist arguments. I don’t see any evidence that vilification laws, defamation of religion laws, etc., have ever contributed to social peace. On the contrary, they can create a climate of greater tensions and mutual distrust, and of excuses to seek more restrictions, including by violence.

    Better, it seems, to accept robust give and take about these things, and to make it futile for people to seek more restrictions from the state. To make that futile, a good start would be for Western governments to dismiss out of hand any claims, in current circumstances, for further restrictions on the speech of their citizens.

  38. Michael Reidy: the law is less broadly drawn than the comparable racial hatred offenses as it lacks the “abusive and insulting” component and requires specific intent (see the CPS’s notes, for example).

    I’m not a lawyer, but it’s not clear to me that whoever posted the Youtube video would be guilty under this law since the videos do not make threats against Muslims. There are other laws, in particular, that there’s a religiously aggravated harassment offence which was successfully used to prosecute someone who left offensive cartoons in a chaplaincy room. Again, it’s not clear that the YouTube video can count as harassment.

    You wouldn’t want to stop that, would you. Prof. Dawking would stop parents instructing their children. A bold move indeed.

    This is confused: I haven’t said that I want to stop proselytizing. It’s you who is looking for greater restrictions on free speech, not me. Presumably if I found proselytizing highly offensive, you’d be in favour of me being able to call the police and have the evangelists arrested? (And it’s Dawkins, not Dawking: remember “Richard Dawkins” and “Steven Hawking” are not the same person).

    Is the quality of public discourse so much higher in the U.S. that you would wish to import it.

    This doesn’t look like a very good reason for restricting speech. Is the quality of discourse linked to the existence of the 1st Amendment? Even if it is particularly bad because of the 1st Amendment, does that outweigh the amendment’s benefits?

  39. Some of the things said here are distubring. Banning a Bible or Quran should be illegal? A Hate crime? Seriously? First the hatred of in the Bible and Text is astounding so by your logic, those books should be banned. To base laws on how people might react to something is extremely dangerous and bordering on facism. The U.S. has it right on free speech. And the person who took Sam Harris’s quote of context above might want to read this because he didn’t say what you claim he meant http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2

  40. Above I meant to say “burning”. Burning a Bible or Quran surely should not be illegal. I see it is only one person making the anti-free speech argument above so I am not as concerned as I originally was.

  41. michael reidy: You seem to expect that by labeling a strong legal affirmation as “American”, that somehow makes it wrong. Sorry, but if you really want to make an argument that some form of state censorship is a good thing, you’ll have to make a hell of a lot better of an argument than that.

    As an American, I can definitely say there’s a lot wrong with this country (military-industrial complex, unaffordable health care, large percentage of the population that’s extremely religious and conservative, etc), but our strong free speech protections are by far one of the most progressive things about this country. To my way of thinking, lack of strong free speech protections reveal the weakness of a nation’s democracy and civil society, not it’s strength. I can certainly understand the reason why Germany bans any display of the swastika, for example, but that’s a product of their past failures, not anything a country with a less tragic history should actually emulate.

  42. While we’re on the topic, could anybody who think’s “racial and religious tolerance” (read: neo-blasphemy) laws explain who such laws could possibly avoid becoming a massive gag order to strong atheist/secularist speech? What are the barriers to this becoming a very steep slippery slope?

  43. The proposition is very simple Steve, if you hold something sacred to an excess in value of human life, most people in open, multicultural, liberal societies are going to consider you a bad person. And you aren’t a peace-loving person when you spend your time issuing death threats, so don’t even bother trying to pretend.

  44. “you aren’t a peace-loving person when you spend your time issuing death threats, so don’t even bother trying to pretend.”

    That’s my credibility gone, then.

    “What is so sacred that you will kill someone if they wouldn’t stop critcising it, by the way?”

    My mention of killing you if you showed contempt for my own deeply held beliefs was a mistake, because my own religious beliefs are not that subject to contempt. I was trying (too) hard to illustrate a common feature of human nature. People do react strongly to that which they hold sacred being denigrated. I do not defend this, but it IS a common feature of human behaviour.

    If we permit hate speech in the guise of a ‘freedom’, then we must EXPECT reactions such as we have seen over the recent hate-film. I wonder what the reaction of American Christians would be to a film of Jesus and his priests, penetrating little boys, or something equally unpleasant? I doubt it would be accepting of the film-maker’s right to their opinions.

  45. “You’re asking for courtesy but not giving any examples of what discourtesy would look like(in your view).”

    To attack the believer, instead of the belief, is discourteous. To ridicule a belief, which is the same as ridiculing the believer, is discourteous. I’m not sure why I’m answering this question. We all understand what discourtesy is. :?:

  46. Iamcuriousblue:
    Wasn’t that first amendment written a long time ago and basically directed at the right to criticize the government. Did the framers of that constitution have Nazi marches in mind and the Westboro’ Baptist Church demonstrations? We have heard of Locke frowning on the crying of fire in a theatre but if deaths are caused abroad by ‘free speech’ should there not be a limitation on it in the light of the internet’s immediacy.

    Paul Wright:
    Deciphering the exact intent of laws is generally down to case and precedent. It’s early days yet.

    I saw Prof. Dawkins the other week talking to Lord Sacks at the Jewish New Year. He seemed milder than usual no doubt taking the lessons of history to heart about where free speech in relation to the Jews could lead. In my reading of literary fiction written before the Second World War it is practically universal to find Jews being disparaged. Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train for instance is atrocious. Rebecca West is the only writer I can think of that is positive about a Jewish character. There is a similar acceptance of anti-Muslim sentiment amongst many of our present day intelligentsia.

  47. Gary Smith said: “I see it is only one person making the anti-free speech argument above so I am not as concerned as I originally was.”

    And I am much more concerned than I was. [I assume the “one person” is me.] We have never had free speech, and we never will, because there are good and desirable reasons why we should not. The prevention of hate-speech is one of them.

  48. Steve MERRICK:
    “I do not condone or excuse violence such as has taken place, but stop insisting on logical and robotic behaviour from humans. Expect them instead to act as humans always have. Allow for it, and don’t do or say stuff that you know will inflame anger and violence.”

    Your assumption that human behavior is permanently fixed and predictable over time is wrong. I guarantee that a similarly purile critique of (say) the Catholic faith would have generated violent response in the relevent communities say 800 years ago to a degree orders of magnitude greater than in the present day. ie the predictable response of “the masses” has evolved over a long period.
    You also claim a figure of 99% of people would resond violently to similar criticism of things that are (subjectively) considered “sacred”. This is a gross exageration. I doubt that even a small percentage of muslims would have had a violent personal reaction to the filmin question. Further, there is no way that a similar send up of Jesus that you elsewhere postulate, would generate anything close to the current over-reaction.
    As human society (and groups within it) evolves
    over many generations, such cases of ridiculous and unjustified reaction and behaviour will become ever more rare. This trend is desirable and will only be achieved by continual challenging of illogical and destructive doctrines of behaviour whenever and wherever they arise.

  49. I want to remind people that we operate under a strict principle of charity rule here, which means it’d be good if we could avoid labeling our interlocutors’ arguments “puerile” (and that applies especially if we’re going to spell the word incorrectly).

  50. Jeremy:
    My admittedly incorrectly spelt use of the word puerile was used as an adjective describing the general quality of the film in question, “Inocence of Muslims”, and was not referring to any of the interlocutor’s arguments presented here.

  51. Ah, sorry. I misread the first chunk of your second sentence.

    As you were, everybody! :oops:

  52. If human nature can and does change, all well and good.

    In today’s world, the reaction to the film could easily have been anticipated. Only in America (a country where freedom of speech apparently tops hate-speech) could such a film have been legally made and distributed.

    It’s not that such a film advances any discussion or debate in any useful way. We knew before they started that the makers of the film weren’t keen on Islam. The film told us nothing more than that. :(

    The people who died, died for nothing. Their lives were wasted. It needn’t’ve happened. :(

  53. We should focus on what is basically wrong in all of this and that is the violent reaction to the film. Freedom of expression is not the problem. It is extremely important for any high functioning society and it should not be curtailed even if it occasionally results in the production of this sort of inflammatory rubbish.

    As for directing their anger against the USA; Its not as if the film was in any way officially condoned supported or even acknowledged as existing so I dont understand who the protesters are railing against when US embassys are attacked.

    The film was made by a small group of (presumably) anti-islamic extremists and could have been made anywhere by anyone. It has nothing to do with the USA but is clearly being used to stir up anti-USA and anti-West feeling amongst muslims and in fact was quite likely made for exactly that purpose.

    Free speech is not the issue: it is the medieval, irrational response that we see to ANY critique of islam that is abhorrent because it is fuelled and encouraged by many of that communities leaders for essentially political reasons.

    I am not religious in any way nor do I particularly have much time generally for US foreign policy. I would have the same opinion of any similar extremist reaction to material that was anti-christian, anti-budhist, anti-american, anti-authoriy or anti-anything else.

    If an opinion is seen to be expresed you listen, evaluate and reject or accept its premise…you dont kill people.

    No indeed, people did not have to die.

  54. With the ‘special’ vs ‘sacred’ comparison, I have to ask at what point does something become sufficiently non-sacred that it’s okay to critique it? Similarly, at what point does a criticism become an insult? I think you could reach a consensus with different groups of people, but it would be so subjective that I’d rather not draw a line, so as to not limit what can/can’t be discussed.

    As for the ‘don’t provoke the bear’ argument, it makes me think of an abusive husband who’s wife ‘forces’ him to beat her. And even when she tips toes around him, she still manages to upset him and ‘earn’ a beating. As a society, we’ve decided that we won’t allow husbands to do that, even though intervening pisses them off and might result in more beatings for the wife. I feel that we have to do the same with religious extremists.

    As for the film itself, I’m no expert on the Koran, but I’m curious as to how much in the film was clearly false. This whole situation would seem all the more worse if the claims/depictions in the film we’re largely true (even though they might be unpleasant for Muslims).

  55. michael reidy: Your arguments boil down some vague combination of “original intent” and the inability to forsee the ostensible consequences of free speech in a mass media age. For starters, I think “original intent” is an incredibly problematic way to interpret constitutional law, as if we are bound by their opinions (and if we stuck to those, slavery might very well be legal), or could really know what they would have thought of modern developments.

    In fact, the First Amendment has been an evolving body of law, with free speech protections having been greatly expanded over time, even with foreign and civil war, political violence, and revolutionary activity through the history of the republic. I think the ostensible dangers of free speech have been very well understood by the courts, who nonetheless understood the dangers presented by an authoritarian government to be far greater. I’ll add that one of the key places where the concept of free speech has expanded is in areas of media and expression that stand well away from “core political speech”. And this, from a liberal or otherwise progressive POV, anyway, has clearly been a good thing, as popular culture often stands well ahead of law in advancing rights in equality, gay rights being a prime example.

    And the details you bring up – why exactly *should* the government stop neo-Nazis or Westboro Baptist Church members from demonstrating? To protect the delicate sensibilities of people like you? To my way of thinking, these examples only have strengthened our civil society. The vile ideas that groups like this represent are profoundly unpopular, and only seem to become less popular every time the proponents bring these ugly ideas into the public square. The religious right on the whole has been very embarrassed by the rhetoric of Westboro, as it clearly reflects the most unvarnished versions of their actual positions. Civil society becomes only stronger for the presence of such antibodies.

  56. Brad Elliot asked “I have to ask at what point does something become sufficiently non-sacred that it’s okay to critique it? Similarly, at what point does a criticism become an insult?”

    It is *always* OK to question, or even criticise, with courtesy. It is *never* OK to ridicule or insult people, or their dearly-held beliefs. The distinction is not a difficult one to make. We are a social species; we have social skills that we use all the time. We all *know* the difference between a criticism and an insult.

    “X is wrong because it uses Y in daylight, which is invalid.” – A criticism.

    “No-one except an intellectual cripple could possibly believe X.” – an insult.

  57. @Steve Merrick – It seems that if your idea that no one should ever act insultingly, so much wonderful and enlightening satire would have to be thrown out the window as well. Animal Farm couldn’t have been written due to the insulting nature in which certain types of people were represented as pigs. Could someone find Candide or Gulliver’s Travels insulting? Christopher Hitchens certainly never shied from insulting those who he thought deserved it, yet it seems, to me, at least, that much of his work is valuable. Daily Show and Colbert…really insulting to a lot of politicians, and in my view, necessary to the public discourse in America.

    Some people, and some of people’s views, seem to deserve insult. Polite criticism just doesn’t get at how horrible one might find the idea of martyrdom or female genital mutilation.

    I don’t endorse dropping bombs on anyone, but I’ll support someone yelling at and throwing insults at the Westboro Baptist Church congregation as they leave one of their pickets.

  58. Ugh…missed a typo in the first sentence.

    “…should ever act insultingly were to be put into action,…”

  59. @Steve Merrick Although I agree that in a lot of instances, the line between criticism and insult is clear, I also think there can be a grey area where a person might find a fair criticism to be insulting.

    For example, I often hear people claim that since Muhammad consummated a marriage with a 6 or 9 year old, that he therefore was a paedophile. Someone could use this claim as a reason for not wanting to worship Muhammad (i.e. a criticism), but I suspect that Muslims would find this conclusion/criticism to be quite insulting. I don’t know if this is a factual claim, but I think it illustrates that there are opportunities to insult while presenting what could be reasonable criticisms.

  60. @Michael F – the satire argument is the only one I’ve come across that offers any real opposition to my position.

    Such satire as is genuinely insulting, I think we could afford to lose. Most of it doesn’t offer insult to any individual.

    Think about it: what does insult offer, apart from offence? Nothing. Insult is semantically void. It contributes nothing to a discussion.

    So why do the champions of free speech insist so strongly on their ‘right’ to insult (i.e. hurt) the subjects of their scorn and contempt? Because they enjoy hurting people? I can think of no other reason.

  61. Steve,

    I’d say that the defense of a right to insult need not be based on a right to hurt. Rather, the defense could be built around the idea that an insult is so often in the ear of the hearer. As such, to ban what is regarded as insulting could very well ban speech that has merit. For example, a person might be deeply insulted by a philosophical criticism of his faith or his view of the definition of art. However, that should not be censored.

    Roughly put, it seems reasonable to tolerate a degree of insult because of the fuzziness of the boundaries.

    I generally do agree that people should not engage in insults-after all, they are (as you note) aimed at negative goals. However, based on just my own experiences I would not be inclined to support banning insults because of the likelihood of a “bycatch”, to use a fishing metaphor.

    I do agree, however, with people maintaining standards of civility in the context of blogs and such. I’m fairly tolerant at my own blog, but I do have boundaries. Naturally, folks who want to exceed those are free to start their own blogs or find a more accepting environment in which to hate.

  62. @Brad Elliot “I also think there can be a grey area where a person might find a fair criticism to be insulting.”

    Agreed. But what you consider to be “criticism”, others might see as insulting. You offer an example, and you also admit “I don’t know if this is a factual claim”. I think it’s pretty clear that, if it isn’t factual, many Muslims could find it profoundly offensive. [I do not condemn or condone this, I merely observe that it is so.]

    So you have repeated something that could be an outright falsehood, crafted (as the recent film was) to offer offence to a certain group of people. If so, then you have knowingly repeated a calumny, disguised as “criticism”, presumably with the intention of causing offence.

    Even if your example appears in the Koran, it is still insulting to say “the Koran says your prophet is a paedophile”.

    If your intention is to discuss and to learn, and knowing that the subject is potentially contentious, I think you might have started with something more like “Can you explain to me how your Prophet is said to have married a girl so very young?”

    Yes, it’s a bit more work being courteous. But it allows plain discussion with a minimal risk of escalation. Consider: to a sincerely believing Muslim, describing the Creator’s messenger as a pervert is not ‘criticism’. This is something you could easily foresee. With the aid of this foresight, you could have avoided offering offence if you wanted to. But you chose not to. :shock:

  63. Mike “Roughly put, it seems reasonable to tolerate a degree of insult because of the fuzziness of the boundaries.”

    If we’re discussing philosophy, with all the ivory towers that involves :smile:, I might disagree with you. However, if we’re considering real life, I agree without reservation. Grey areas mean that we must use care in putting our principles to work.

    “…an insult is so often in the ear of the hearer”

    Agreed, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the hearer’s fault.

    Whoever I’m talking to, there will be something I can say to them that will cause profound offence, very likely leading to violence. While it is quite possible to do this by accident, in most cases the potential for insult could have been recognised in advance, and avoided.

    As long as we acknowledge the existence of grey areas, I think we can discount your observation. It could be used as (yet another) excuse by those who hate to “criticise”, couldn’t it? :sad:

  64. Steve your views are troubling and anti liberal, thankfully the majority of free thinkers will never agree with you. Anyway you ignored my question: if you want to ban hate speech do you want to ban the Quran and Christian Bibles? They are filled with some of the most hate filled speech that has ever existed and has less to death, misery and subjugation. Yes or no?

  65. *lead, not less, my touch screen phone sucks. Anyway Steve I have further questions: Who decides what is and isn’t hate speech? You? Who decides what does and does not add value to a conversation? You? Someone mentioned Christopher Hitchens above, did Hitchens deliver hate speech? Richard Dawkins? South Park? You asked how Christians would feel if people made a video about Jesus…it has been done and nothing happened. By the way, would you ban this as hate speech? http://www.theonion.com/articles/no-one-murdered-because-of-this-image,29553/ Hopefully you will come around to the fact that expression of any kind should be free, no matter how repugnant, because censorship is even more repugnant. The deaths of anyone who were murdered over a cartoon only have the murderer to blame, not the cartoonist. I would also suggest looking up the videos of Thunderf00t online, a British scientist now living in the US who burns difital copies of the quran and explains why free speech is important. I think you could learn a thing or two from him. Our right to free expression is far more important than someones elses right not to be offended, especially when no laws are broken (obviously freedom of speech does not cover the right to express interest in harming children, for example) and you can not take that away.

  66. <>

    By the way, what kind of people do you deal with that you think offending them will lead to violence? Where do you live? I am starting to think you are a sock puppet, no one could really hold these views, could they?

  67. Although I don’t agree with unlimited free speech, my position here is a purely pragmatic one. We all know that saying certain things will offend some people, and will likely cause violence, even death. You can shout until you’re blue in the face “It’s the fault of those who are offended”, but it won’t change the outcome.

    Is it morally acceptable to proceed with any action that you know will lead to suffering and death?

  68. @Gary – you make assertions about how I *ought* to think, but I see very little in your posts explaining WHY I should adopt your opinions instead of my own.

    WHY do you think that freedom of speech/expression should take precedence over the prevention of hate speech?

  69. @Steve Merrick “Yes, it’s a bit more work being courteous. But it allows plain discussion with a minimal risk of escalation. Consider: to a sincerely believing Muslim, describing the Creator’s messenger as a pervert is not ‘criticism’. This is something you could easily foresee. With the aid of this foresight, you could have avoided offering offence if you wanted to. But you chose not to. ”

    I agree that there are ways to say certain things in a more gentle/roundabout/less offensive manner, but I think there are contexts that may require a more direct and possibly more abrasive response.

    If my issue with Muhammad was that I couldn’t worship him because he had sex with a minor, I could likely phrase this in a way that didn’t use any unpleasant labels (such as paedophile), but I could still see someone reading between the lines and being offended. Similarly, I could explain to a Christian that I can’t worship the God of the Bible because he appears to endorse some things that I don’t agree with. If they pressed me for details, I’d likely have to specify things like slavery and the stoning unruly children, but I don’t think I could soften the criticism any further, and I may cause someone to be offended.

    As you had mentioned, I agree that we should strive to minimize the risk of offending someone, but I think that as we drill down to the core issues, it may be impossible to address something without causing some degree of offence.

  70. @Brad “…but I could still see someone reading between the lines and being offended.”

    But you’d’ve made the effort. :smile:

    Your comments appear reasonable, but posting the spectacularly offensive paedophile accusation, weakly disguised with “I often hear people claim that…”, detracts from your credibility, I think.

    In the context of this discussion, you could have chosen to express yourself in a way that was sympathetic and respectful to others, and to their deeply-held beliefs, but you did the opposite.

  71. @Steve Merrick
    What I was attempting to do was provide a hypothetical example where someone could be insulted by a criticism, and in this case, the example that I provided had some grounding in reality, in that people often bring up this paedophilia issue. I chose it because I thought it was a good example of something that could be a fair criticism while at the same time being deeply offensive. I’m not trying to defend the accuracy of that criticism, but other people do defend it. I suppose I could have just chosen something fictitious, such as stories in religious book X about a god torturing kittens, but I thought a real world example would better illustrate how criticism and insult can easily overlap.

    Regardless, my credibility has no bearing in this discussion. Arguments should fall/stand based on their own merits.

  72. @Brad, although there is an overlap – this is the real world! :smile: – insult and criticism are clearly distinguishable in most cases.

    In the case of your example, it’s difficult to see how something so deliberately crafted to insult and inflame could seem to you to resemble criticism. :shock: Perhaps a theoretical example would have been better, as you say.

  73. @Steve Merrick
    “..insult and criticism are clearly distinguishable in most cases.”

    I agree, but what I was defending was the notion that, because there are going to be cases where criticisms will also be offensive, we can’t demand that all criticisms must never be offensive.

    “… it’s difficult to see how something so deliberately crafted to insult and inflame could seem to you to resemble criticism…”

    What I had stated above was that someone could hypothetically use this as an argument for why they (and everyone else) should not worship Muhammad. Assuming the criticism could be backed up, then it would seem to be a valid reason for not worshipping/respecting someone. It may not be the best reason, but this is just a hypothetical scenario.

  74. @Brad: Your argument (that criticism may be mistaken for insult) is undermined by the provocatively-worded insult that you repeatedly submit as an example of ‘criticism’.

    You might find “Much ado about fighting” interesting. It may be found in New Scientist dated 22 September 2012. It describes and discusses “sacred values”.

  75. For clarity: @Brad, I have never “DEMANDED that all criticisms must NEVER be offensive”. I have asked *nicely*, I hope, and recognised from the start that some criticism might offer offence, no matter how sensitively the matter is approached.

  76. Steve,

    Regardless of how you feel about the word pedophilia and how insulting you find it to be, it does not detract from Brad’s argument at all.

    “If my issue with Muhammad was that I couldn’t worship him because he had sex with a minor, I could likely phrase this in a way that didn’t use any unpleasant labels (such as paedophile), but I could still see someone reading between the lines and being offended.”

    This is right. People are more than capable of understanding euphemisms and polite criticisms, and knowing what is meant when people use them.

    People will be offended if they want to be. Or they can choose to respond with reason to a criticism to their belief. They can choose reason even if they’re being insulted intentionally. They can also choose to ignore such ignorant critics entirely.

  77. @Ben, I suggest that you look at the NS article. As several other contributors have done, you seem to assume that a challenge to sacred values is like a challenge to any other belief. If you won’t take my word for it, perhaps you’ll believe an fMRI scanner?

    “Brain scans show that we think about sacred values is a fundamentally different way to regular preferences.” — NS 22-09-2012

  78. “…we think about sacred values is a fundamentally different way…” should read “…we think about sacred values *IN* a fundamentally different way…”. [My emphasis.]

  79. Steve,

    Although that is very interesting indeed and gives a fascinating insight into how our brains work, that does not provide sufficient, or any, reason for why these sorts of beliefs should not be challenged.

    If anything, we ought to be able to defend our most sacred values better than any other mere value. If I am going to hold some thing as sacred to me, I had better have a good, solid understanding of why I should hold it, and be able to explain why I believe it to others in a clear and concise way.

    Even if we’re are deeply, wholly insulted by a challenge to our sacred beliefs, and even if the challenge is presented in an insulting way, we must be able to defend our belief in an intelligent, humble and cogent way. If we cannot do this, we will need to reflect on why it is we hold this belief at all.

  80. @Ben, I think we’re comparing how we think human beings *should* be with how they actually are in the real world. We can work with what we have, or dismiss the problems because they shouldn’t exist. :?:

  81. Steve,

    I agree there is a difference. Again, though, that’s not the point.

    I never suggested “dismissing the problem,” however. Quite to the contrary, I’m offering one of many possible solutions to the problem. i.e. if someone is challenging your deeply held belief in an insulting way, or are insulted by the challenge in itself, respond in an intelligent, respectful way that does justice to your sacred values.

    Even if your opponent is acting with the most ignorant malice intended. Or you can walk away. Ignore them.

  82. The problem with sacred values is that insulting them can sometimes, in the real world, lead to violence which is out of control. [I.e. the people who are behaving violently are unable to control themselves.]

    I can already hear you responding that such people should control themselves better, but the empirical evidence is that they cannot, and do not.

    This is about accepting what is, in the real world. If something can be changed, and if we think it should be changed, there is nothing wrong with trying to implement that change. But that change is not in place today, and it won’t be in place for some time, if ever.

    Will you reserve your empathy only for those who strive to improve themselves as you suggest (and succeed)?

    The original posting describes a real problem that exists in the real world, now. We can respond to that problem, or we can not bother, requiring instead that others shall somehow modify their behaviour so that the problem will go away. To attempt the former is pragmatic, to attempt both is admirable, but to attempt only the latter fails to solve the problem.

  83. Steve,

    I’ve never made claims about the (un)real world other than to accept that there is a difference between the two. I’ve also not ‘asked for change,’ rather I’ve suggested an alternative to what happens in the “real world.” Albeit, one I believe takes more courage and strength than resorting to violence.

    I would not suggest that those people “should control themselves better.” Although it would be nice if they did, I merely point out what I think would be the better response.

    Please to not presuppose my arguments. However, you may continue to use them as a launching for yours if you like. I cannot stop you. But I do know what beating a dead horse feels like and what it feels like is this debate. I respectfully withdraw, you may give yourself the ‘W’ if you like.

  84. I think it’s hard for some of us to accept that the people who rioted in protest at the film were not simply indulging in childish tantrums, or trying to blackmail the world.

    This problem is not new, nor is the immediate solution: courtesy. Perhaps its newest aspect is a generation of individualists, who, when asked to practice courtesy, feel that their freedom of expression is under threat. :sad:

  85. Steve – Any ideas on the best course of action when courtesy doesn’t seem to work? Throughout history, there have been times when just living your life in a way that’s contrary to the instructions (texts) that some group holds as sacred is viewed as insult, and violence results.

    It might just be the case that we’ll never get rid of it in the real world, but it seems to me that the very act of holding certain things as sacred is detrimental to living harmoniously with others, and it should be the goal of rational, brave people to challenge these beliefs in the sacred. It’s hard for me to see, however, that courtesy is always going to serve this cause best. But I’m obviously biased.

  86. @Michael, when courtesy fails, we usually fall back on our old favourite, violence. :sad: We have had sacred values for a VERY long time. That they may be seen as detrimental to other things does not affect their existence or their longevity. You imply that something other than courtesy may serve this cause better. What is it?

  87. Sorry, Steve. I didn’t mean to imply anything. This idea of courtesy is one I respect. I even try to greet the Wal-Mart greeters before they get the chance to greet me. But I can’t get down with the notion of being courteous to folks who’s sacred texts demand violence and/or death on those who they deem to be acting in a manner they find insulting. When a people’s sacred beliefs begin to put that kind of ultimatum on everyone else around them, something needs to be done to change things, and courtesy seems like a naive answer.

    I think I understand that, from where you’re coming from, anything other than courtesy seems naive. And I respect this stance, and how it’s obviously shaped, at the very least, your discourse here.

    And maybe this is just me, but it seems like there are a great many horrible things in this world are “just are.” Like bears. And liars. And cheats. And murderers. And they will always be here to some extent. And maybe none of us can “really” control ourselves. But I don’t want to live in a society that is shackled to that idea. I don’t want to live in a society that responds to whatever it doesn’t like with violence, either.

    What I do think is this: Insults, against whatever, are just not as bad as physical violence or murder. I don’t know that I could ever see that any other way. And sacred beliefs are not magical and do not justify themselves.

    And it should be noted that not everyone who’s idea of the sacred was offended by the film committed an act of violence against someone because of it. And I have a feeling that over the years, that percentage will decrease even further, and has already from prior years. I leave it open to question that maybe this is because of all the different types of pressure applied against it. Maybe.

  88. “I can’t get down with the notion of being courteous to folks who’s sacred texts demand violence and/or death on those who they deem to be acting in a manner they find insulting.”

    I think you could be conflating two different (but related) things. Many religious Holy Books contain stuff that many present-day believers would like to set aside. Stoning people to death for the flimsiest of reasons, and so forth. It is not my intention to defend or explain such practices; I’ll leave that to those who belong to such religions. [I am not Christian or Moslem.]

    Then, there are “sacred values”, which need not be religious at all, although many of them are. From New Scientist dated 22 Sept 2012:

    ‘A deep commitment to defending group honour is an example of what psychologists call a sacred value. “These are values, usually shared across whole communities, that cannot be traded against material things like food or money,” […] Sacred values are absolute, non-negotiable, and brook no compromise, which is why they loom large in many contemporary conflicts […] we think about sacred values in a fundamentally different way to regular preferences. […] researchers used fMRI scans to see what happens in the brain as people consider rejecting trivial values and sacred ones. The idea of being bribed to disavow a statement such as “I am a Pepsi drinker” produced activity in brain regions involved in calculating costs and benefits. In contrast, the prospect of selling out on statements such as “I believe in God” or “I am not willing to kill an innocent human being” activated areas that play a role in retrieving rules. This supports the idea that sacred values are processed in the brain as absolute and binding moral commandments. Despite the connotations, sacred values need not be religious ones — freedom of speech, liberty, democracy and ecological stewardship of the planet are treated as sacred by some.’

    @Michael said ‘ Insults, against whatever, are just not as bad as physical violence or murder.’

    I don’t think this is the case at all. Those whose sacred values are treated with disrespect are prepared to kill, or to die, in response.

    I hope this makes clear the contrast between insulting a value to which one has little attachment or commitment, and insulting a sacred value. This is why, in this discussion, I have tried to say, over and over, that “insult” is not a big enough word to describe the perceived offence taken when a sacred value is demeaned.

    That said, there has been movement in recent centuries away from sacred values. I’m not at all sure this is a Good Thing, but it has happened, and it might well continue. As you say, this is about the only way that such reactions will happen less often. Until then, we’ll persevere with courtesy, because it’s the only tool we have at our disposal. [We all know it isn’t perfect.]

  89. I am a Catholic. I can tell you that people love to criticize the Catholic Church, sometimes very vehemently. Would that ever give me a right to harm someone because they spoke out, either out of ignorance or experience, against the church? Really? People are people and some of those people are not accepting of anything that is not exactly like them. I do not want any laws saying people can’t bash my church or any other church. Laws are to protect us so we can pursue our own dreams. Big brother really needs to take a back seat in this scenario. I truly find it rather childish of those that cannot turn the other cheek. It shows a lack of wisdom and maturity.

  90. emily isalwaysright

    Steve Merrick, you said: “Religion is a matter of choice, just like political beliefs, and unlike gender, skin colour, disability which are not choices, and as a choice religion deserves no more protection than political beliefs.”

    I think you are underestimating the power of social conditioning in structuring the individual. I think gender is more of a choice than you realise and that religion is less of a choice than you realise.

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