Freedom of speech

Updated: 21 May 2008, 23:22

Originally written: 12 February 2006

In the “debate” over the cartoons of Mohammad, which were published by Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, and subsequently by others, there are several general perspectives.

  1. Free Speech must not be censored.
  2. Certain ideas are off limits to free speech.
  3. Free Speech is extremely important but must be tempered by respect for people’s feelings.
Perspective 3 is not really different from Perspective 2. It excludes certain topics from discussion and investigation.

Perspective 2 means that certain ideas — chosen by those who believe them — are put beyond the scope of criticism. These ideas could be completely false and completely vile, and extremely dangerous, but cannot be criticized. In the current conflict of ideas, about images of Mohammad, fear is obviously being used to stifle criticism of Islam. Islam is not the first religion to use fear to protect itself from criticism, and as long as we are afraid, it is likely that it will not be the last.

In the United States today, there is a powerful attack on those who criticize the war in Iraq. Opponents who object to sending young men and women to their deaths in Iraq, are accused of “disrespect” to those young men and women. That “disrespect” is tantamount to treason in the eyes of many United States citizens. That stifles debate by frightening opponents of the war. It is the same basic technique used by Muslims to silence criticism of their religion. The level is different — there may have been no killings of American opponents of the war by American proponents — but the ability to frighten is identical. The fear is real.

Free speech is a horrible thing. It permits our most cherished beliefs to be challenged. Sometimes the challenge will be reasoned. Sometimes it will be sarcastic. Sometimes it will be vicious. Without the freedom to challenge, we will quickly, or slowly, permit the most brutal ideas with the most brutal followers to control our consciousness.

Political cartoons are very often quite nasty and insulting. To others those same cartoons make a valid criticism. That Jyllands Posten may have intended to insult Islam is not the point. Even if the Danish press and political climate is anti-Islam, that is not the point. The issue is that freedom demands that we learn to live with being insulted. It is unpleasant, but the alternative is unacceptable.

None of the 12 cartoons published by Jyllands Posten is even close to as vicious as cartoons about Israelis, published by widely read newspapers of the Islamic mid-east. Those cartoons may not directly refer to the Jewish god or prophets, but must surely be deeply insulting to real, living human beings who are Israelis. By and large the Israeli response has been muted. The state of Israel is not exactly a bastion of freedom, but non-stop war — a plague of pre-cooperative society — has a tendency to suppress freedoms. That is especially evident in any country involved in a shooting war. It is disgusting, but until people choose to end war forever, it will be reality.

It has been reported that Jyllands Posten refused an anti-Christian series of cartoons or something similar. If true it suggests that Jyllands Posten was less interested in freedom of the press, and more in selling newspapers and promoting a perspective. That is the real business of newspapers. But even if the intent was to attack Islam, the response from Muslims shows that there is reason to fear any negative statement about Islam. And that fear is a knife in the face of freedom.

Freedom, such as it is under capitalism, means that vile ideas will be promoted by misdirected people. Vile is in the eye of the beholder. Capitalism is vile, but socialists (as defined by Capitalism’s Gravediggers) do not go about burning down embassies, or trying to legislate against Nazis.

Religion is a reaction to the reality which currently cannot meet our needs. Religion is also opposed to social changes which would allow us to meet our needs and therefore eliminate our “need” for religion. Socialists do not burn down churches — which represent an anti-human and frequently murderous perversion of reality — or kill religionists. Opposing something, and saying so, is not the same as attempting to frighten.

When the working class establishes a world of freedom — socialism — and religion and other vile beliefs fade into obscurity, there will be less to be insulted about. There will be much less to fear. Freedom of speech will not be an issue of who will be offended or frightened, but of analyzing differences of opinion and stating facts. It will not even be “freedom of speech.” It will be people saying what they think.

One fact today is that religion has consistently allied itself with the ruling class at the expense of the rest of us. Religion has consistently supported war. Religion has consistently promoted itself over the interests of its followers. Religion is a brake on progress and when it attempts to silence (as opposed to disagreeing with) its critics, it reverses social progress.

This is not the sole domain of religion. Secular organizations from Right to Left (including the state) are guilty as well. They use violence, explicit or implied threat of violence, and their economic power, to promote their ideas and to stifle or restrict access to opposing ideas.

Capitalism’s Gravediggers is as opposed to Islam as it is to every other religion. No religion is, in itself, the real problem facing humanity today. Religion is, however, a powerful tool which is used, consciously and otherwise, to keep us in our place at the bottom. The immediate and obvious self interest of the imams is tied to the maintenance of their power over their followers. This is true of every religion and every organization with leaders. Followers are not free, and will never be free as long as they remain followers.

None of us will ever be free if we are afraid to say what we believe, even if we are wrong. It is not expressing ideas which is dangerous. It is dangerous actions which are dangerous. People who decide to follow their imam’s exhortations to kill, must take responsibility for their actions. People who believe their god has appointed them to kill abortion doctors must take responsibility for their actions. Religion is irresponsible. It permits people to excuse their actions by reference to their “higher power.” Secular society may punish after the fact, but that does not undo whatever murder and mayhem the religionist has committed.

If gods want to kill people, or prevent insulting cartoons, that is their prerogative. The rest of us will be unable to prevent their divine intervention. Gods have the power to do anything. They do not need us to intervene on their behalf. They do not need us unless they are figments of our imaginations, and it is our imaginations which are their only existence. If those gods, real or imagined, or their worldly emissaries, promote hatred and murder, those gods and emissaries are guilty of hate and murder and deserving of criticism for their actions.

To end their reign of terror, and the reign of terror of capitalism, there is one solution: socialism.
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