Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

‘Good’ Blasphemy

When offending the religious is an act of self-defense

Ross Douthat says that liberal civilization does not require blasphemy, and may in fact morally (as distinct from legally) require criticizing offensive speech targeting religion and the religious. But when some within that civilization punish blasphemy with violence and murder, then, says Ross, we all had better defend that blasphemy to protect our own right to speak and to worship as our consciences dictate. Excerpt:

Mike Licht/Flickr
Mike Licht/Flickr

And similarly, in a cultural and political vacuum, it would be okay to think that some of the images (anti-Islamic and otherwise) that Charlie Hebdo regularly published, especially those chosen entirely for their shock value, contributed little enough to public discussion that the world would not suffer from their absence.

But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.

As a religious believer, I think blasphemy is evil. But I do not trust a pope, a patriarch, a rabbi or an imam to define it for the entire community.

UPDATE: Reader HP writes:

I am a francophone European, and I sometimes read Charlie Hebdo. I am shocked by these murders and I hope the assassins will be caught and will pay dearly for their crimes.

This being said, je ne “suis” pas Charlie et je ne l’ai jamais été: I am not Charlie and I never was. I’ve always thought that Charlie’s brand of “humour” was despicable and part of the problem, not a solution. I’m not going to change my mind about this because of the murders. The people who died have become martyrs of the freedom of expression, but they were hardly the best defenders of the freedom of expression. First because the freedom to express your opinions does not imply that these opinions are correct – and Charlie was a far left, violently anti-religious rag. It is not because you are free to be vulgar, unfair and insulting that all these things are good. Moreover Charlie was not very good when the freedom of expression of its adversaries was at stake: look at the “Dieudonné” affair for instance. What I am trying to say is not that they should have been censored: but their “values” weren’t mine and they will not become mine because they were murdered.

Moreover, and I would like my fellow conservatives on the other side of the big puddle to really understand this, the relentless and violently Islamophobic propaganda of Charlie should be seen for what it is: a continuation of the fight against Christianity. The reason they hated Muslims so violently is that at the very moment that, in their view, progress had finally swept Christianity away in Europe, they saw religion reappearing under a hijab. “Progress” thwarted makes progressives hysterical. And they did not care a whit that it is the religion of exactly the kind of deprived and despised minority which the left professes to love. And while they were laughing at one of the few things that gives this minority a sense of dignity, they never reflected on the curious fact that their own holy cows are protected by law and that you can go to jail for laughing at them.

The victims of this crime did not “have it coming”. They did not deserve their fate. But they died when a bunch of criminals lit the pyre which they have helped to build. And there are reasons to fear that this is only the beginning. A mosque has already been attacked in Villefranche-sur-Saône. These are going to be difficult days for decent people.

UPDATE.2: Reader Mohammad, who lives in Iran, writes:

Even though I completely understand the media’s outrage, I do not share it. Why? Because I see a clear double standard in this outrage. Is being an offensive journalist not enough an offense to be answered by murder, but, at the same time, being just a nuclear physicist in the wrong country (Iran) is enough of an offense to be answered by murder? We did not witness any outrage about murdering them in the western media. You may say it is about freedom and free expression in a liberal society, which is somehow true. But then, on the personal and emotional level, that doesn’t make much a distinction for me. You as a journalist (though not an offensive one) immediately identify with the murdered journalists, which is quite understandable. I, as a scientist (though not a nuclear one), immediately identify with the murdered scientists.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now