Friday, 21 September 2012

The concept of 'Religious Defamation' has no foundation in liberal principle. Only liberal fear

One of the reasons we still 'debate' the limits of freedom of speech about religion is that it has been quite skillfully framed as a debate within liberalism, for example by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which has pursued a decades-long public relations and diplomatic effort to create an international norm against the 'defamation of religion' - i.e. blasphemy - such as annual resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council (eg). Indeed, several of the standard arguments for banning blasphemy look as if they are founded on universal liberal principles, such as freedom from harm, anti-discrimination, state neutrality, and tolerance. 

Perhaps liberals should be flattered that even our opponents in this debate are casting their arguments in terms of liberal principles. Yet since the very governments and other organisations deploying them are themselves guilty of heinous crimes against the rights and freedoms (including the religious freedoms) of those under their power, it is clearly merely rhetorical. Indeed, the main function of such liberal rhetoric is not to convince liberals of the principled arguments for censorship. Rather, what it provides is a figleaf of respectability to rationalise away the shame liberals should feel as we back down from our moral principles out of simple fear of physical violence.

Protecting People from Harm

The defamation of a religion is characterised in liberal terms as an assault on the dignity of its followers: a direct harm. Liberalism is committed to the principle of reciprocal respect for everyone else's rights, i.e. no one has the right, simply as an exercise of their own freedom, to harm anyone else. Restrictions on harming others are not illiberal, but follow from core liberal principles. Since insulting someone's religion harms them, liberalism itself requires restricting everyone's freedom to insult other people's gods. 

Yet it is scarcely possible to act in this complicated crowded world without bumping into other people and inflicting unintended negative effects on them (one person's privacy hedge is another person's gloom). Mill's 'no harm' principle does not provide adequate guidance about how to decide such conflicts. Societies need a principled system for managing them, which lays out what people can and cannot legitimately do in terms of general rules objectively applied. But such a system should not be based directly on assessments of the degree of harm people suffer. Harm, especially offense, is a subjective matter that depends on the persons involved and what is important to them. Avoiding ever harming others is therefore not a principle that one can use in governing one's actions and plans - you wouldn't be able to do or say anything for fear that someone might find it harmful. Such laws are illiberal because they are inherently arbitrary and thus permit the exercise of unconstrained power upon individuals (as demonstrated by Britain's routine jailing of individuals for offensive speech such as posting a picture of burning poppies on Facebook).

There are very good practical reasons to develop an objective framework of rules for adjudicating the conflicts that come with social living. But in a liberal society this rights framework cannot be designed to protect religions from defamation. Rather, it must reflect the core commitment of liberalism: not the avoidance of harm but the promotion of individual autonomy.

First, it should aim to maximise freedom (rather than minimise harms) - the greatest number of people having the greatest freedom possible - in the sense that individuals rights are as expansive as is compatible with everyone else having the same rights. As Kant would have it, others can give themselves ends (goals and values) just like you, and therefore that somewhat transcendental capacity should be respected in others too.

Second, these rights should be evaluated in terms of their fundamental purpose. Specific rights associated with liberalism - of conscience, property, speech, association, equality before the law, and so on - all follow from a foundational commitment to respect the individual autonomy of all, which is our ability to govern our lives, including our moral and religious lives, by rules we set ourselves. When there appears to be a conflict between rights, as in this case between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, it is to this core liberal commitment that we should refer.

Once we do so we can see that not all harms are equal. Harms to your autonomy, your ability to govern your own life, are more significant than harms to your happiness or self-esteem. For instance, it may be true that the existence of gay marriage (or even gay people) is deeply hurtful and insulting for very large numbers of people. Yet gay marriage doesn't undermine the autonomy of those who hate it in any meaningful way. Rather, it is banning gay marriage that clearly undermines individual autonomy, since it prevents many people from living the kind of lives they have reason to value (surprisingly enough, in radically conventional domestic arrangements - previously). Liberalism argues that how gay people manage their personal relationships is no one else's proper business. If you think it is your business and get upset about it, that is your problem and not their fault.

Likewise, on the face of it, autonomy is not threatened by blasphemy. No one is being prevented from being a practising Muslim/Christian/whatever by the fact that somewhere on the internet someone disagrees with their religion, or that Salman Rushdie wrote a novel that some think is rude. The only infringement of autonomy in play is the demand to censor those found insulting.

Third, even if one sets aside the conflict between some interpretations of freedom of religion and liberalism's foundational commitment to individual autonomy and only considers freedom of religion, one will still be unable to justify a ban on religious defamation. To be understood as a liberal right, freedom of religion must be construed as requiring freedom of religion for everyone, i.e. reciprocal respect for the freedom of religion of other people. Yet unlike the right to practise one's own religion, the 'right not to be offended' is not a right that everyone can have at the same time.

This is because religious defamation basically means blasphemy, but blasphemy is defined relative to a particular religious group. In a society with freedom of religion, there will be a diversity of religious groups with contradictory beliefs. There will also be internal diversity within each official group. Because individuals are free to take up any of these, freedom of religion automatically produces believers with contradictory beliefs, i.e. heretics. Since the public affirmation of one's religious beliefs is an intimate part of what it means to be free to follow the religion you consider true, heresy produces blasphemy. Consider for example the Muslim protests about Pope Ratzinger's Regensburg Lecture, or, at the inter-sect level, Sunnis' condemnation of blasphemous Shiite beliefs or Protestants' condemnation of Mormonism.

In other words, one sect's orthodoxy is another sect's blasphemy. One cannot say what constitutes religious defamation without deciding which religion deserves the most respect, which is a political decision. The other side of that coin is disrespect for the freedom of religion of heretics, and their oppression in the name of the religious sensitivities of the politically dominant sect. And this is in fact how blasphemy laws are always used.

Religious Defamation as Hate Speech

There is however a more nuanced liberal argument for restricting freedom of expression about religions and it concerns the need to protect individuals from persecution: systematic attack on non-relevant aspects of their identity intended to undermine their essential equal status as citizens (or human beings). This is the standard argument against hate speech.

There are differences in how a liberal society should treat (in law and social opprobrium) such different expressions of ideas about the holocaust as Nazi cartoons posted through the letterbox of a Jewish family (or their neighbours); the same cartoons published in a mainstream newspaper; political speeches questioning the holocaust; and academic papers doing the same in reputable history journals. Some of these may be clearly intended to undermine the equal status of a whole group by striking deliberately and viciously at features that make them different from other citizens. Since citizens require social standing as well as formal legal equality to exercise their rights properly - for example to have their interests and opinions fairly heard by the political system or just to go about their normal business in public without discrimination and humiliation - there is indeed a strong argument that such 'hate speech' is in conflict with liberalism.

But notice that even here the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove that the social standing of some group of people has been deliberately attacked in some significant way. Merely having your beliefs criticised (what do headscarves have to do with the Koran?) or even ridiculed on South Park doesn't cut it. Nor can it include other people merely practising their own beliefs, like the evangelical atheists going around saying 'You're deluded. God doesn't exist'.

Hate speech legislation is about protecting people from persecution, not protecting people's beliefs about the sacred from challenge or 'pollution'. That would seem to apply to cases of politically directed hate-mongering, such as by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, or the Republican Tea Partiers who defined the 'Ground-zero' mosque as a "command center for terrorism", and also 'newspapers' like the British Daily Mail, that pander to and evangelise for Islamophobia. The publication in Western newspapers of cartoons about Muslims and Islam that have caused such a fuss recently are arguably also examples of hate speech, intended to publicly humiliate and delegitimise ethnic Muslim citizens under the banner of an unconvincing commitment to freedom of expression.

There are however particular difficulties applying this hate speech model to material published on the internet and accessed around the world from where it was produced, as in the case of the Innocence of Muslims filmlet or the cartoons published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten. The self-publishing character of the internet, combined with efficient search engines like google, produces the novel effect that nearly anything one puts there can be found, stripped of its context, by the very person you would least like to have see it. Preventing the possibility of such offence would require either making search engines dumber or dramatically constraining the freedom of expression of all 7 billion of us to only say things that what will not offend anyone else.

Anyone who wishes to can easily find something that offends them to the very core of their being on the internet. The corollary of this is that such offensive self-expression cannot really function as hate speech in the traditional sense. People are not confronted with it in inescapable ways, such as on their televisions or through their letter boxes. Instead they must deliberately and consciously search for it. Nor is it clearly linked to the political or social persecution of a minority. Indeed, if we take the violence of protests as an indicator of the level of popular outrage, as we are encouraged by the media (with their typical conflation of spectacle and significance) then the world map of outrage has little overlap with the world map of vulnerable Muslim minorities. I find it difficult to sympathise with the outrage that some people make themselves feel about stuff on the internet, or to see how a youtube video that offends you is necessarily an attack on your equality.

The Liberal State Should Respect People's Beliefs Equally

Those who want to ban blasphemy claim that the liberal state is supposed to ensure equal protection and equal opportunity to all in living according to their conceptions of the good. In other words, liberals are supposed to eschew judgement about the content of people's beliefs: liberalism is supposed to take no position about which values are right or wrong, good or bad. It follows that a state that permits people to insult others' most foundational beliefs is acting unfairly, because it is not neutral between the interests of insulters and believers. It is like supplying weapons to your favourite side in a war: clearly a breach of neutrality.

This argument is confused about the character of liberal neutrality. To be precise, it confuses principle neutrality with operational neutrality (Alex de Waal's distinction). Principle neutrality means assessing all sides in a dispute objectively and neutrally according to the same principle. Operational neutrality means refusing to take sides in any dispute. Clearly these are quite different and one cannot have both. To make this clearer, consider the TV show, The Newsroom. The central theme is whether journalism is about objectivity (informing people about important facts) or balance (providing 'both sides' of every story). The Newsroom takes an ethical stand: real journalism is about objectivity not balance.

Likewise, liberalism is not about balance. It does not consist either in abstaining from moral judgement or judging that all beliefs or value-systems are equally good. To the contrary, liberals believe that liberalism - respecting and supporting individual autonomy - is best.

The perception that liberalism is about balance may have something to do with liberalism's expansive toleration of strange and even obnoxious behaviour and values. You are free to practise Satanism, for example, or that one that involves covering yourself in sacrificial chicken blood. Yet the freedom to be strange is actually quite consistent with liberalism's principled neutrality about upholding individual autonomy.

On other subjects, liberalism is far from silent. Negatively, if your religion requires cutting off bits of your children's genitalia or forcing girls into arranged marriages, liberalism condemns you and liberal states have a duty to intervene. Positively, liberal states should guarantee a generally valuable set of opportunities and rights equally to all citizens (such as education and legal rights), with which we can each construct an approach to life that we believe is a good one.

Those seeking to ban religious defamation argue that the liberal state should not only positively guarantee everyone the freedom to practice their religion but be operationally neutral about the content of their beliefs. They therefore demand tailored packages of rights and freedoms for people who believe their religious beliefs have special requirements. For example, supposedly all 1 billion Muslims believe that pictures of Mohammed are sacrilegious. Therefore the state, in order to respect the equal right of Muslims to practise their religion, should ban depictions of Mohammed.

But while the liberal state has extensive responsibilities for respecting and supporting individual autonomy, that does not extend to respecting the autonomy of religious/moral beliefs themselves (e.g. that Mohammed's face never be shown, or that cows not be eaten). People have dignity, ideas do not. Frankly, it's a bit like expecting parents to take their children's beliefs in the autonomous existence and needs of their favourite Disney characters seriously. Needless to say, the liberal state is not your mother. The liberal state is a product of the Enlightenment. It is supposed to treat us like grown ups, not children who need humouring.

But even if one were to accept that different religions have different requirements that the state has a responsibility to accommodate, as if they had physical disabilities requiring special assistance, it is not clear that this picks out and supports the case against blasphemy. As I pointed out already, there is a diversity of religious beliefs about the sacred and they cannot all be protected at the same time because they conflict. Aside from anything else, some religions consider proselytising a sacred duty - members are prohibited by their faith from keeping quiet about why their faith is the true one and all others are wrong. (I would even include some atheist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins in that category [previously].)

So it seems to me that the demand to ban blasphemy is not really a demand for neutrality in either sense, but for special treatment of some particular religion(s). The justification seems based on mysterious claims by people whose authority is equally mysterious, first about what that religion considers sacred, and second about the special significance of this in the lives of all its adherents.

Tolerance Requires Mutual Respect and Recognition

A standard use of the word 'tolerance' conflates the personal virtue of accommodation with the political virtue of toleration. They are quite distinct: only political toleration is a direct requirement of liberalism that may be legally enforced.

I would hope and expect that a liberal society would display a great deal more positive respect, friendliness, and generosity to people who are different than most past or present social systems. Yet I disagree that this tolerance-as-accommodation is really a political commandment in the naive sense often supposed. A liberal society will naturally be dominated by norms of niceness and friendliness just because the circumstances of such a society allow people to grow up to be less hawkish and suspicious, and more open, cosmopolitan, empathetic, and sensitive to others. 

At the inter-personal level, accommodating aspects of other people that you don't particularly like is part of the virtue of civility. Between strangers, like fellow commuters, its requirements are somewhat minimal and reciprocal. Between friends and acquaintances it may require careful kindness in respecting each others' idiosyncrasies, and not for example serving bacon at a dinner party to a vegan (or an orthodox Muslim or Jew).

But such attentive politeness (niceness) is not the business of the state to prescribe and enforce! Tolerance as niceness is not acceptable as a political principle, not only because niceness is superficial and nebulous, but also because it is insidious and totalitarian. One cannot be commanded to 'love thy neighbour' in a society of free people.

A properly liberal polity is not a community modelled on the family. It is not concerned with managing the intimate relationships between people in order to keep everyone feeling happy and loved. It is not permitted to define, ban and punish 'assholish' behaviour merely on the grounds that it upsets some members, no matter whether it involves burning poppies or copies of the Koran. Rather, it should be concerned with providing a structure that allows individuals to live their own lives, including deciding for themselves who to relate to and how. It follows that in a liberal society people must be free to be assholes - like Socrates - and its citizens we must seek other mechanisms than the law to maintain civility (such as boycotts and protests).

It is because liberal societies have a foundational commitment to individual autonomy, and thus to justice and equality, that they generally produce nicer friendlier individuals and societies. Tolerance-as-accommodation is a biproduct of living in a multicultural liberal society - the kind of society where difference is tolerated, not made to conform.

The liberal concept of toleration is not a first order moral principle in its own right, but a second order regulatory principle in the service of liberalism. It is incorporated into the basic structure of a liberal society and is concerned with restraining government, or anyone else with power, from regulating the disagreeable views and beliefs of individuals (cf. Furedi on Tariq Ramadan). Liberalism gives us the right and freedom to judge what other people say for for ourselves; toleration stops us from acting on our judgements to summarily silence those we disapprove of. In other words the liberal concept of toleration cannot be drawn on to justify censorship of what some people find offensive, whether that has to do with religious impiety or posting revolting jokes on Facebook. It commands, um, toleration.

Liberal Fear not Liberal Principle

Liberalism is quite clear that your religious piety is your own concern and no one else's. It has no more claim to moral significance or public policy action than other people's vegetarianism, birdwatching, or fascination with abstract art. (The way mainstream economics reduces all such concerns to individual 'preferences', and then refuses to express any interest in evaluating their content, is only an extreme version of this liberal view.) That's why democracy gives everyone one vote, not extra votes to special people or in proportion to how passionately you feel.

Religious zealots - whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Buddhist - do not accept this. They do not accept the principle of secularism which declares that their cherished beliefs have no special importance in the public sphere. That is because they do not really respect other people's freedom. If something is important to them then it must be important to the world. If something seems offensive to them then it is an offence! They therefore take it upon themselves to censor and punish their fellow citizens with terror, no matter what rights to freedom of expression their constitutions declare.

The reason Muslim zealots seem special here is just the grandiosity of their ambitions. Starting in 1989 with the international terror campaign against Salman Rushdie (by people who hadn't read his book, of course) they have asserted a global jurisdiction over the definition and punishment of blasphemy and have had great success in terrorising liberal Westerners into submission. (To the extent that I can hardly tell whether my own decision not to include any example cartoons of Mohammed in this post is motivated by prudence in the face of terrorism or a distaste for being gratuitously offensive.)

At the same time though, in the eyes of everyone else, this successful exploitation of 'Muslim rage' dehumanises the entire community from which the zealots come and whom they claim to represent. We are told that 'the Muslims' are different. They - all 1 billion - are supposedly trapped in a stimulus-response loop and simply cannot help reacting violently to certain words and images. Unlike we 'civilised' westerners, they are not true moral agents, able to exercise moral autonomy and self-control, able to consider and act on reasons. Hence, the violence of the protestors is the fault of the speaker who offended them, and he is responsible for the innocent blood they spill. This dehumanising view of Muslims has become common even among professed liberals. I believe it is one of the consequences of a debate about principles that is distorted by fear of physical violence.

And perhaps that is the zealots' primary purpose (cf Kenan Malik on The Myths of Muslim Rage). First, they achieve the isolation of 'their people' from mainstream society, a captive political base with no one else to turn to but them. Second, they are acknowledged by everyone else as the authentic voice of this scary and perplexing group of angry people, and so become the representatives through which all dealings 'between civilisations' must go.


The liberal rhetoric the defamation protesters deploy is superficial and hypocritical. It doesn't stand up to any scrutiny. But it's not supposed to. The basic dynamic is a programme of focussed intimidation and extortion by religious special interest groups to get their way and achieve power over 'their people'. Liberal talk about how much we care about individuals' religious freedom and feel a duty to accommodate its demands - and didn't Salman Rushdie rather bring it on himself? - is for our benefit only. Its function is to provide us with a figleaf of self-respect. As if we didn't really give in to the enemies of liberalism out of fear or, at best, an unwillingness to put much effort at all into defending the principles we claim are so important.


  1. Great stuff!

    The very concept of blasphemy,"heresy" and "apostasy" should be abolished all over the world.

    What is now promoted as religion with all of its half-imaginary fake/false "prophets" or mind created idols in this time and place is the now archaic remnants of ancien tribalistic, ethnic and natrionalistic power-and-control-seeking cults.

    Which in the case of Islam-ism and Christian-ism are now engaged in a "final" battle for totalitarian control over all of humankind. Both of which are using the resources of various powerful nation states to pursue their objective of self-appointed political control.

    To hell with all of them!

  2. Nice article that your wrote. It was a interesting and fantastic writing. I appreciate your skills.

  3. articles like these further alienate the religious and prevent genuine public debate. Throwing in dismissive comments and writing in a style that is a cross between jocularly condescending pedantry and jeering sophomorism tangential to the actual argument will earn one brownie points and sycophantic one-liners from one's acolytes. One hopes that isn't one's goal in writing such articles, and that the true object is to make the religious actually understand. Or is it?

    1. OK, so enlighten me. What is the 'actual argument' here?

    2. The content you outlined above. My objection was with tone.

    3. and attitude

    4. I'm glad that despite your condescending insults you actually agree with the content of my argument.

      It is a call to liberals to stand firm on our principles. 'Religious' people may read it to discover what those principles are.

    5. Ignore the criticisms above. Excellent article.

  4. The article stirred a new thought; most monotheistic religions tend to bully non-believers, especially the Muslim's by adding fear of physical violence (in this life) to the mix of normal reprehension. Assertion that a belief is erroneous stabs the hearts of believers, especially as neither party can produce rational proof. Have you seen the expression of a child abandoning Santa? I, myself, worship Prometheus, Bringer of Liberality, hence progress.

  5. Why not consider religious defamation under the same terms as obscenity? i.e. public communication that is gratuitously offensive (i.e. not offset by some higher purpose like art or theological critique)

    Many societies that think of themselves as liberal have laws against 'obscene communications' expressing yourself publicly in a way that is grossly offensive. Just the other day, a British court sentenced someone to prison for 3 months for making some offensive jokes about a kidnapped girl. Link

    This is clearly censorship based on understanding offense as a harm, the same grounds on which many religious people justify their claim for banning religious defamation. What is it about the offense suffered by Muslims that disqualifies their harm from consideration under the same framework? There is something suspicious (even racist) about the double standards here.

    1. You're right. Such laws and legal reasoning against free speech show that Britain isn't really a liberal country. (Mill would be turning in his grave!)

      The contrast between the liberal rhetoric of the British government and its actual practices is rather glaring. For example, Foreign Secretary William Hague a few days ago: "...democratic governments must resist the calls to censor a wide range of content just because they or others find it offensive or objectionable. If we go down that path, we begin to erode the hard won rights of freedom of expression. We will always argue that is its necessary to err on the side of freedom."

      Clearly religious zealots don't have a monopoloy on hypocrisy! But that doesn't invalidate my argument for a properly liberal treatment of free speech. It just means that Britain has a long way to go.

  6. The US Constitution's protection of free speech applies to many things but not to screaming fire in a crowded theater; might anti Muslim speech fall under this category?
    This is not necessarily 'my' argument just 'an' argument that occurred to me and I'd like your response

    1. The problem with that analogy is that people are not like fire. They are morally accountable for their own actions.

      If we allow people's threats to react violently to hearing things they don't like to determine what may be said, then we provide a veto to anyone prepared to be violent i.e. a terrorist's veto on free speech.

      We also provide a clear incentive for violence instead of talk. If you don't like what is being said, then you can shut it down with threats rather than bothering to try to refute it with counterspeech.

      In US constitutional law this is termed 'the heckler's veto' and is considered an unconstitutional justification for limiting speech.

    2. Thanks. That's a reasonable reply

  7. ProhibitedGrounds12 February 2013 at 17:23

    Religion should not in any way be prohibited grounds for discrimination. It does not belong on the same list as race and gender, which are both nearly impossible to hide and nearly impossible to change.

    If someone mocks your religion or treats you differently because of it, you have two clear options:
    1. Stop OVERTLY practising the religion.
    2. Stop practising the religion.

    If you choose not to avail yourself of those options, you are now in the same category as someone whose shirt is being made fun of but who refuses to change the shirt.

    You are now implicated in the discrimination and cannot hold others (solely) responsible for it.

    1. I disagree. Discriminating aginst people because of their religion - for example refusing to give jobs to Jews or Jehovah's Witnesses - is as odious and irrational as racism.

      On the same grounds, I accept that there is a principled argument for banning hate speech - it just isn't relevant to the case of speech that is merely offensive.

      To respond to your specific example, if someone mocks your religion in the way South Park mocks people's religion, then your options are
      1. Ignore it, or
      2. Counterspeech.

      The option you shouldn't have access to is banning it as 'defamation of religion'.

  8. Excellent article, I couldn't agree with you more. Although I'm not sure that its correct to say that .geert .wilders, who is a Dutch mp should not be able to criticise the ideology of Islam, surely that debate is legitimate he is after all a politician.

    1. Thanks!

      I was concerned to show that the Hate Speech argument was an inadequate justification for laws against religious defamation, not to evaluate the Hate Speech case itself. My point was that the Hate Speech argument could apply to political speech intended to undermine the equal standing of some group of citizens, but not to religious defamation per se.

      Regarding Wilders and others like him, while all of us have the right to express our opinions, I think politicians have greater responsibilities that come with their role. When a member of parliament and leader of a major party says Islam is evil, Dutch citizens with roots in the Muslim world have reason to fear. An elected representative of the people is supposed to be loyal to the constitution and principles of democracy, not only to winning power. The equal rights and social standing of all a country's citizens are not supposed to be at stake in liberal democratic politics, to be kicked around as a political football.

      Still, I wouldn't really like to see this move from a moral condemnation to a legal restriction. You're right that politicians need to be free to say things that make some people uncomfortable, and it's hard to see how one could police this without undermining essential competitive aspects of democratic politics. I just wish other politicians would step up to defend liberalism with as much rhetorical force as Wilders puts into undermining it.


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