Constrained talk on free speech

I went to a public lecture last night on the question ‘How do we balance freedom of speech and religious sensitivity?’. It featured four distinguished academics ‘exploring legal, philosophical and cultural perspectives’. I was interested to go because I couldn’t think of any reason the ‘balance’ should be a jot away from free speech on this one, and I thought if smart people thought it worth discussing, there might be arguments I haven’t heard.

The most interesting thing I discovered in the evening was that something pretty mysterious to me is going on. The speakers implicitly assumed there was some middle of the road ‘balance’, without addressing why there should be at all. So they talked about how to assign literary merit to The Satanic Verses, how globalization might mean that we could offend more people by accident, whether it is consistent with other rights to give rights to groups, what the law can do about it now, etc. That these are the pertinent issues in answering the question wasn’t questioned. Jeremy Shearmur looked like he might at one point, but his argument was basically ‘I think I’d find Piss Christ pretty offensive if I were a Christian – it’s disgusting to me that anyone would make it anyway – and so ignorant of Christianity’. More interesting discussion of the question could be found in any bar (some of it was interesting, it just wasn’t about the question).

What am I missing here? Is it seriously the consensus (in Australia?) that censorship is in order for items especially offensive to religious people? Is there some argument for this I’m missing? What makes the situation special compared to other free speech issues? The offense? Then why not ban other things offensive to some observers? Ugly houses, swearing, public displays of homosexual affection.. The religion? Is there some reason especially unlikely beliefs are to be protected, or just any beliefs that claim their own sacredness? Are these academics afraid of something I don’t know about? Is it much more controversial than I thought to support free speech in general? Or is the question just a matter of balancing the political correctness of saying ‘yay free speech’ and of ‘yay religious tolerance’?

5 responses to “Constrained talk on free speech

  1. There is no consensus but among people who self-selected themselves to attend.You attended for very unusual reasons – the desire to self-improve – that most people don’t share. Therefore it was you, and a bunch of people who all consider it self-evident that there is something to discuss in the first place.I do agree with you that the ‘balance’ shouldn’t be a jot away from free spech, and I find it likely that if this issue was raised in a random setting rather than a self-selected one, this point of view would be better represented.

  2. I think the causal links go something like this:- Muslims killed at least 38 people in response to publication of “The Satanic Verses”- People want to change their behavior in ways that will lessen their chances of being killed by Muslims- But they don’t want to feel that they’re caving in to violence, so they rationalize something up to make it look like it was their own idea, and done for moral reasons

  3. I consider myself pretty in favour of free speech. Good luck to Fred Phelps and his God Hates Fags pickets, laws on political funding should consider expression first and corruption second, etc.

    Nonetheless, I don’t consider it an absolute, unrestrained right, even when the case against it is “merely” that speech will offend some people. Indeed to me it seems obvious that there must of course be some jot – some epsilon greater than zero – away from free speech that is ethically or socially optimal, although it sounds like I think it is much smaller than the people (other than yourself) who went to this forum.

    If I make giant placards of people being killed, raped, maimed and so forth in incredibly graphic ways, and go and carry them around in a school playground to make some political point about say a development approval to make the school slightly bigger that I disagree with, should my freedom of speech be protected? If you want to argue the genuine psychological harm I’m inflicting on the kids makes the act unacceptable, my response is that there seems to be a pretty smooth continuum from irritating through offensive to upsetting and eventually traumatising. If you can see a clear line on that spectrum, I’d like to know what it is. If you think free speech must be protected even for this kind of case, I’d like to know your reasoning….

    Religious sensitivities aren’t special in any abstract sense (assuming of course you’re starting in a secular framework…); they just happen in reality to be a rather vexed and interesting case, because some people find mocking (certain) religions to lie very deeply in the offensive end of things, while others think religious beliefs are self-evidently absurd and that it’s ridiculous to get upset over something like Piss Christ or Dutch cartoons of Muhammad.

    If you start from the assumption that there is always some jot away from unconditional free speech – essentially, if you are a free speech utilitarian, not a free speech deontologist – then of course it makes sense to bring up in such a discussion the usual suspect arguments about literary value, legal arguments, cultural relativism, as well as what sounds like maybe one or two more novel talking points regarding globalisation, etc.

    To be honest, I think only Libertarian-to-the-point-of-mild-delusion types wouldn’t take this all for granted… ;-) Certainly, I suspect the “consensus in Australia” would be if anything much less sympathetic to unrestrained free speech than I’ve been. See, for instance, the reaction of every major politician except Malcolm Turnbull to the Bill Henson affair.

    I can’t tell from what you’ve said if there was any secular case made (or more likely, implicit) that religious beliefs need special consideration for abstract rather than merely pragmatic reasons – in that case I’d be more inclined to agree that the whole premise of the discussion was flawed. My suggestion in this scenario is that what you’re “missing here” is simply that everyone’s beliefs about most non-everyday things – far mode ideas if you will – tend to be somewhat confused. In particular its very easy for people to reach a “right answer” (its worth giving special consideration to religious issues when weighing up the pros and cons of free speech) using rough and ready cognition, learning through experience and so forth, and then subsequently tack on faulty abstract reasoning that justifies their [correct] belief (religious values have some special mysterious abstract quality that affects their relationship to free speech rights.)

  4. P.S. If you’re wondering why I replied to a more-than-year-old post, the blame lies with Google Reader.

    Apologies for the double post.

  5. Like Jordan, I’m responding because Google Reader fed me this as a new post.

    I think Australia is a special case. I don’t think freedom is seen as relevant by most Australian residents. People don’t really have any rights, and many see that having explicit rights is a Bad Thing. There is no free speech, and very few people complain about its absence.

    Religion is also interesting. Look at the recent St. James Ethics centre efforts to have ethics taught as an alternative to religion in schools. The difficultly of getting those classes into schools (or getting religion out) just seems insane to me.

    Being different in Australia is a problem. Once the “normal” path is defined people are expected to comply. I suspect the discussion you saw was an attempt to define “normal” to adjust to the changing world in the absence of real free speech.

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