Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Freedom of Religion - vs - Freedom of Speech

Last month the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted resolution 7/19, titled Combating Defamation of Religions. You can read the entire resolution by clicking on the link, if you're interested enough...and you should be, because it applies mainly to "defamation" of a single religion - Islam.

Most of you who are regular readers of this blog share similar general values, sometimes referred to as "Western Values," which include a general respect for individual rights, freedom of expression, and a generalized respect for the rule of law. Here in the US, one of our most cherished rights is Freedom of Speech, the defense of which is second only to the vigorous defense of our right to own the deadliest of weapons without restriction. However, we seem to be more willing to give in to restrictions on our freedom of speech than to restrictions on weapons. Some restrictions are obvious: incitement to violence and shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater should clearly be restricted; other restrictions are less obvious, but potentially more dangerous.

The resolution on combating defamation of religions was championed by the representatives of the Islamic world, which is famously spring-loaded to react negatively (and frequently violently) to the least perceived insult to their beliefs. The resolution, of course, doesn't apply in their minds to their ability to heap vitriol on other religions, which they tend to do with depressing regularity and volume. Hence, the danger.

The ability to challenge ideas and change our minds as a result of evidence is a hallmark of civilization. Freedom of speech allows us to do this. I have always believed strongly that people should be free to say pretty much whatever they want, however stupid, because it allows everyone else to listen, evaluate, and make their own decisions about the degree of stupidity that is revealed. The problem, of course, arises when people don't listen or think critically...when they believe what they believe so deeply and completely that each opening into their minds it shut, locked, welded, plastered over, hermetically sealed, and guarded 24/7/365 against any conflicting information. You see this in many racists, religious zealots, and ... yes ... the most radical of pro-gun advocates.

In an article recently posted to the Project website, Peter Singer wrote eloquently about the hidden dangers of the UN resolution. I recommend you read his article, which makes the points better than I probably could.

We are, as I have often said, guaranteed freedom of speech, not freedom of smart. Nor are we guaranteed freedom from insult. If the proponents of a particular religion object to negative characterization of their beliefs, is it not better for them to prove by persuasive word and demonstrable deed that those characterizations are wrong, than to insist on laws and resolutions that dim the light of legitimate criticism cast upon them?

I guess it depends on whose ox is being gored.

Read the UN resolution and the Singer article, and think hard about the implications. You can listen to the deeply-held and gently persuasive religious beliefs of someone like John, or you can have pressed upon you the harshly intolerant beliefs of those who would kill you for denying them. The choice is pretty clear to me.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

I think the problem is we have totally lost what Freedom of Religion was about in the first place. And I won't even start to rant about what happens when you try to take some idiots guns away from them

Anonymous said...

Bilbo, you really outdid yourself today. You found an article in which Peter Singer actually made sense, you were really reasonable in regard to gun nuts, and you calmly discussed a serious issue with dispassion and wisdom. It is sad that the German court essentially endorses the UN resolution logic--that's a one way road to ruin. On the plus side, you presented facts that could easily lead deep thinkers to conclude that if the UN logic were followed, a new Dark Age could soon envelop the entire world. That thought just might make people think about why gun nuts love their guns. I've always wondered what would have happened on Krystalnacht (sp?) if Germany had at the time a Second Amendment within a viable constitution.

You know who.

allenwoodhaven said...

I love this (original) quote:
"Never let a lack of facts get in the way of an opinion." The trick is to change your opinion as you gather facts! And one should always try to get more facts. Not enough people use this second step...

Another good phrase (a song title by Cheryl Wheeler): "Frequently wrong but never in doubt"

Mike said...

"shut, locked, welded, plastered"

I like to use the phrase 'tunnel vision granite heads'.

SusieQ said...

When Obama was running for president I had a brief exchange online with an Obama supporter who suggested it might be a good idea if we altered our Constitution somewhat and restricted freedom of speech in order to protect certain groups from "offensive" speech. A few of us were appalled by the woman's suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Since we leave the definition of "offensive" to the offended, the logical result is no free speech at all. Suzie Q's anecdote leaves no doubt as to where allowing the hearer of the speech to be the judge, jury, and executioner soon leads. Sadly, too many people in this country have no idea that in much of the world free speech can get you killed right then and there. I've been in some of those places, and let me tell you, you would hate being a subject of a a speech enquiry there. This includes Canada: read up on what happened to columnist Mark Steyn in our peaceful neighbor to the north.

Anonymous: and for you Shakespeare lovers and pun lovers, I will write more, anon!

Bilbo said...

Andrea - rant away!

Anonymous - the what-if question of heavily armed people resisting Kristallnacht is a standard talking point for the gun lobby. Noted and understood. Thanks.

Allenwoodhaven - great quote! You sum up my ideas exactly.

Mike - I just prefer the simple term "morons." It rolls off the tongue and can be expressed with varying degrees of feeling to express just the right degree of scorn.

SusieQ - I'm pleased that "a few" were appalled at the suggestion, but the fact that you imply some suppported it is really terrifying. If ideas can't be defended except by legislating against them, you'd think people would think twice. But you'd be wrong, sadly.

Anonymous - yep!