In light of the recently proposed anti-blasphemy laws in the UN (which I think is bullshit), and the (misrepresented) furor of the Middle East in regards to that stupid film, Innocence of Muslims, I recently watched a debate on Freedoms of Speech with the late Christopher Hitchens and Shashi Tharoor. Their respective points summarized go something like this:
Shashi Tharoor – Against an anti-blasphemy law, thinks that statements should be said in retrospect to the opposing party, being unable to effectively envision their reaction, not that that condones the sporadic violent outbursts. As such, a censor of public opinion is unavoidable.
Christopher Hitchens – Speak your mind, first and foremost, always. Censorship is all or nothing. Exceptions here or there only serve to convolute and are divisive in nature, nor could any person, one or many, objectively do such a job of fair censorship even if it was to be required. Censorship of public opinion should always be ignored
At one point, Shashi, tells Christopher that he projects his own societal values (from the USA and Britain) where we have become accustomed to criticism, both in the giving and receiving of it, and applying it to places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where they are culturally immature, lambasting him in assuming they should be where he wishes them to be in their cultural evolution. At this juncture, the moderator, Joan Bakewell Vigorous, asks Christopher how an immature culture could in essence, evolve to where civil discourse is allowed without the threat of retaliatory violence. For a renowned intellectual as Christopher, and while still correct, his response is immature and borders on irrelevance, stating that he has the right to such things and that nobody can or should stop him. While this is true, there are surely better ways to say it without sounding so self-centered, but that is not my problem with his response. Since it applies only to him, it is less relevant and only distills a small portion of the true answer. Though to be fair to Chris, he had gone back and forth for an hour, so mental fatigue (plus the cigarettes and whiskey he was partaking in may have slightly diluted his cognition).
Here’s what he (I think) should have said. In order for a society to culturally evolve, on civil discourse, is to say everything, again and again and again. Yes, in the short run, the threat of violence is great, but with repeated usage, repetition, hearing, familiarity etc., the impact of the overall direction, (and of each individual comment) becomes less emotional and more rational. When it comes to new things, whatever form they may take, our gut human reaction is to act, or react emotionally, and since we are predisposed to negativity (an evolutionary defensive measure), it is far more likely that we elicit a shocked response. The more one is exposed to new and perhaps incendiary information, the more our rational tendencies become involved and the less our reactionary tendencies spike (I suppose you can call this the law of diminishing returns).
I liken it to areas where bush-fires are frequent and happen naturally. In one city (I cannot remember which), they were so sick of the bush-fires that they cleared the underbrush every year in certain areas and were quick to respond to such fires by putting them out immediately. For years, they went without a major bush-fire, though, the dry undergrowth grew everywhere else. Several years later, a fire began in a region where the undergrowth was not managed, and the fire raged far bigger and far worse than ever before, being completely unmanageable as well as taking the community by surprise. By allowing the finicky, flammable undergrowth to accumulate, the risk of a bigger fire and disaster is increased. All it takes is a stray cigarette, a lightning bolt, or accidental spark by a camper.
Something similar occurs in economics. Every time a recession occurs, usually, the government or central bank will decrease interest rates, or increase bond-buying in order to stave off the recession. Yet all the while, increasing the economic undergrowth, that eventually, requires an even bigger recession to consolidate and reset so the economic distortions of the cheap money and governmental intervention can be washed away. For example, Milton Friedman, one of the greatest 20th century economists, lays the blame of the Great Depression solely on governmental intervention (after the fact) as well as the Federal Reserve distortions (before the fact), not as the result of inherently free-markets. The government prolonged the Great Depression by years as a result of meddling instead of just letting the economy run its natural course, and the Federal Reserve kept removing the underbrush improperly allowing a future risk flammable kindling from which to spring forth.
Much the same goes for our culture. We went through a lot of pain as a result of such economic policies (which we still haven’t learnt our lessons from but will soon). We also went through a lot of pain as a result of bush-fire management, but we learnt from that and it is now normal policy to burn off the underbrush in small, manageable quantities, as nature itself does, instead of allowing it to accumulate, and we should be doing the same in regards to cultural sensitivity, but we are not. Instead of we get into silly debates about freedoms of speech and causing unavoidable offense.
That which needs saying, needs to be said. Brushing it under the carpet, in the false hope of not offending someone, only insures that when somebody eventually does say something similar, all but inevitable, then the impact is all the worse. It creates an entitlement on behalf of the offended to not be offended, as if any other person could control their subjective reaction to a statement. The more they are offended, the more they learn to cope with it, in the process overcoming their emotional tendencies (which all people have), and instead using their reasoning skills to respond civilly. In the short-term, will this create riots? Yes. Injuries? Yes. Deaths? Perhaps. Should these be celebrated, no! But they happen regardless of whatever moralistic attitude is prevalent of the time and always has. Pretending to ignore them does not mean it won’t happen, and is in point-of-fact, immoral. The all-to-common liberal response in the aftermath of Innocence of Muslims (as well as many other western offenses), was to apologize to the Islamic world, in effect, taking responsibility for that which they did not do, but more importantly, rewarding the tragic and immoral behaviour of a small percentage of muslims who rioted, caused damage and injured innocent people and made it all the more likely that it will occur again the next time, and that next time that somebody says anything cannot be stopped short of total worldwide censorship, which nobody advocates, so it’s far better to deal with the reality of where we are instead of burying our heads in the sand.
Keeping anything stagnant, be it culture, morality, technology, or law, is a recipe for disaster. It allows the rot of internal decay to fester. It allows the human race to become too accustomed to certain norms that must eventually be overturned as a result of moral, ethical, technological, scientific, or cultural progress, and if we know anything, it’s that there will always be progress, so the very notion of not dealing with important issues is tantamount to creating the necessary conditions by which future conflicts and suffering might arise. By not talking about that which is pertinent, we only delay the inevitable, and increase the potential for violence in allowing the emotion and agendas of power that all too commonly suppress the power of critical thought, especially as it happens now in the Middle East with the outrage industry that governments and certain religious demagogues use to their advantage (I’m looking at you Ayatollah of Iran.)
Let’s compare blasphemy to slavery. The forceful imposition on one group of people by another (supposedly superior) group of people, on the freedom of the former. Imagine the debate 150 years ago. An anti-slavery video comes out on WildWestTube lambasting slavery (this is not to completely equate religious belief with slavery. All across the south, uproar goes up at the audacity and offense that this video giveth them. The left apologize for hurting the cultural morality of the south, saying that it should be respected, as a form of cultural relativism. Who would agree with this sentiment? Nobody in their right mind would. There are right and wrong answers, and at the very least, in the absence of universal acceptance, discourse should be encouraged.
Now, again, slavery is not the moral equivalent of religion in terms of physical and mental cost, though it is not so much dissimilar, being more subtle in its behavioral reworking of the individual’s mind. Religion is generally foisted onto children of religious parents before they are taught critical thinking, thus accepting it as true for the remainder of their life’s, but I digress.
“Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man.” – Jesuit Maxim
Be that as it may, that does not give anyone else the right to unilaterally pull them out of it forcefully, though that does not preclude anyone from discussing it and from throwing our opinions up against the cultural wall in the hoping of evolving it (or not for some), through participating in a general discourse. However, as if often the course throughout human history, at the beginning of such discourses, or cultural progressions, one side or the other (or both) react emotionally instead of rationality. This is the human condition, our brains are more emotional than rational, since we are after all, caveman seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The only way around it, is to go directly through it! Not avoiding it, going round it, or underneath, or above it, as that just causes greater problems later. Each individual should stick to their guns and go through it. Individual points can be evaluated based on their merit, or lack thereof, before moving onto the next. Each parent, and I imagine, adult will react similarly to a child wanting a chocolate and crying when they don’t get one. We know they are acting emotionally, that they lack of the ability of properly thinking in a long-term perspective, yet we (seemingly) lack the ability to see this in full-grown adults. The only difference being, that adults should know better.
That is what Christopher Hitchens should have said. Only by discussing that which can give offense, can we understand, discard or accept any specific subject, and then move on to the next issue of relevance. This is especially important today, yet so often overlooked. You don’t see christians in America or Europe rioting or hurting others as the tide turns against them, though they used too, for a 1,000 years stifling, torturing, and killing those it deemed heretics, but the tide turned in the renaissance as information become more widespread with the Gutenberg printing press, and discourse became more rational, and though there were pockets here and there, big and small at times, the overall trend has been towards civility even though a lot of knowledge remains to be discussed and agreed upon. Now in the Middle East, with several forms of information control, an outrage industry looking for issues to exploit, autocratic governments justifying their existence, and abuses of power in provoking the ignorant to riot for political or religious gain, has resulted in much the same immaturity. There is only way forward. In the process, everyone talking hopefully civilly, respectfully, and understanding each others perspective, though that won’t always be the case, and there will be pain at the beginning, whether the discourse is civil or not. That old maxim seemingly rings true, No pain, no gain.
Civilization has never prospered for long with one group of people foisting upon others their own morality, subjectivity, and beliefs. Be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Atheistic in nature, or any other such philosophy. It’s time we be civilized again, especially if that includes offending each other. Progress comes only with change. Only in ignorance can one think that standing still gets you anywhere. And the UN should worry about the billion hungry people they’ve made it their mission to help, instead of worrying about needless bullshit, and restricting free speech. Human nature cannot be legislated, only learned from and advanced through culture and education. This is immensely important if we wish to advance towards a global civilization, instead of a clash of civilizations.