The messy world of free speech

From Florida comes this report of a Christian evangelist who’s had his TV show yanked off a local station because he can’t resist talking smack about Islam.

Earlier this month, officials from the Council on American Islamic Relations wrote a letter to the TV station’s owners asking for an investigation of the show it broadcasts, “Live Prayer with Bill Keller.”

In a May 2 broadcast, the televangelist said Islam was a “1,400-year-old lie from the pits of hell” and called the Prophet Mohammed a “murdering pedophile.” He also called the Koran a “book of fables and a book of lies.”

Well, I for one utterly agree with the last statement, though I would add that Keller’s Bible also qualifies. I’d have to reserve judgment on the second statement and would agree with the first half of the first statement, too. Someone else who I’m sure would largely agree with Keller would be atheist bestseller Sam Harris, who’s written that Islam is nothing less than the “enemy of civilization”. It’s sweet when we can all see eye to eye on something, isn’t it?

So, were local Muslims understandably offended? Sure they were. Should they have been allowed to protest the show, even to the point of having it taken off the air? Yes again. But did Keller have a Constitutionally protected right to voice his opinions of Islam, however offensive they were? Why, we’re back to yes. Welcome to the conflicted and messy world of free speech.

There are actually many layers to a situation such as this. One valid criticism one might make of Keller is that while he has a Constitutional right to spew invective about a competing religion, he does not (nor does anyone else) have a Constitutional right to a TV show, and members of any community as well as a television station itself have every right to drop something that they find appalling. Readers will note a similarity here to the recent firing of celebrity radio clod Don Imus for making racist wisecracks. It’s a tossup as to which situation is more offensive: Imus made a joke, though an egregiously juvenile and thoughtless one, while Keller was really being deliberately confrontational and insulting.

Should Imus have been fired? I’d have to waffle and say definitely maybe (a long suspension would have served fine; after all, the man’s been offending people on the air for 30 years now, so it’s not as if he hasn’t got a rep). Imus’s bad joke served no purpose but to insult a group of people who’d done nothing to deserve it (quite the opposite, in fact), and was in fact not an insult over anything they’d done at all, but over who they were and the color of their skin. There wasn’t, nor could there have been, any valid programming context to justify its utterance.

Should Keller have been similarly canned, though? I don’t think so. In this case, there’s no bones made about who the man is and what kind of program he’s got. The station which carried him had to have known he was an evangelical Christian, and thus he’d be spouting barbarian opinions on any number of subjects. And since when should anyone be taken aback that a program promoting one religion would, every now and again, knock the competition?

When people express strong opinions, someone will be offended. Period. The Atheist Experience offends a lot of Christians simply by existing at all. Dawkins criticizes faith and is labeled a bully and an “atheist fundamentalist” and a thought-cop and a bigot, though everything I’ve read of his is delivered in a tone that, while certainly confrontational and blunt, never merely seeks to insult people on a personal level. Christians, on their TV networks, say personally insulting things about atheists, liberals, homosexuals, and basically anyone who isn’t in their club with such reliability that you can practically set your watch by the frequency of Pat Robertson’s latest idiotic remark.

In a culture that supports free speech, offensive statements should be allowed, but expressly so they can be aired and then subject to criticism and debate. This is why I think the bad guys in this scenario here are neither Keller nor the Islamic group who got his show pulled, but the TV station itself, for not allowing the Islamic group a chance to counter Keller’s remarks. We all cringe with disgust when filth like Fred Phelps or the KKK announce they’re coming to town. But the value there is that when they do come, hundreds of people whose minds are not poisoned by religious bigotry and ignorance find themselves rallying together in counter-protest.

So I say yeah, Keller should be allowed to have a show if he can find a station that’ll take him on. And the Islamic citizens whom he offends should be able to rebut him publicly and encourage viewers not to watch his show and boycott his sponsors. And there should also be a nice, family atheist show on Florida TV as well, pointing out that both these folks are full of shit and offering rationalism as a better alternative to both. If anything in this modern world is aggressively Darwinian, it’s the marketplace of ideas. Let the bad ideas have free rein, if only so that better ideas can be aired to challenge and ultimately conquer them.


Okay, having said all that, I will anticipate and respond to a criticism I can already see some of our Christian readers making. Isn’t it hypocritical of me, they might say, as an atheist, for you to support free speech and the exchange of ideas when it comes to something like religious broadcasting, but not when it comes to giving equal time to intelligent design alongside evolution in science classrooms?

In short, no. Religious television shows and similar entertainment venues are forums in which people express opinions, even when they’re deluded people who think their opinions are facts. Science classrooms are different, because they are educational (not entertainment) venues in which facts, and not opinions, are to be discussed. If certain facts in science are controversial, then that itself is a fact and is free to be taught there. The reason right now for opposition to ID in classrooms is that the side promoting it hasn’t shored up sufficient facts for their challenge to evolution to be accepted as legit. If the ID camp devoted a fraction of the attention they devote to media dog-and-pony-shows and indignant press releases to actual scientific research programs, then they wouldn’t be currently denied the respect of academia that they seem to feel is their birthright. There’s no appropriate comparison between censoring opinions in the media and refusing to teach students things that aren’t supported by facts in our schools.

Episode #512: Intolerance

I have gotten some requests for show notes on occasion. In response, I’m going to begin posting summary notes to the blog, so that when requests for notes come in, I can just point them here. Thanks, Martin.

The word “tolerance” has two very distinct meanings that can, but do not always, overlap. One is to respect others or their actions and beliefs. The other is to merely allow others to act and express their beliefs—regardless of whether or not I, personally, respect them, their beliefs or actions.

It is unreasonable to expect that no one will disagree with my opinions or ideas. In fact, there are many ideas that are so widely disrespected that they are almost universally disdained. The ideas expressed by Hitler or NAMBLA not only lack widespread acceptance; they are openly disparaged by the general population; and the actions they promote are legally prohibited. So, in either sense of the word, they are not “tolerated.” The ideas they espouse are not generally respected; and the actions they endorse are not allowed. No society exercises absolute tolerance by either definition. And expecting any belief, value or idea to be universally respected is simply unrealistic.

The goal in the United States—and I realize it’s not always achieved—is to allow the individual the right to believe and act freely insofar as his/her actions do not compromise the rights of fellow citizens. We value, in this country, the right of Freedom of Speech—aka Freedom of Expression. We all have the right to express our ideas and opinions to the extent we don’t violate someone else’s rights. Freedom of Speech can violate someone else’s rights when, for example, I seriously threaten to harm or kill someone for exercising a legal action or expressing an idea or opinion.

My right to say what’s on my mind is limited when it forcibly stops others from exercising legal actions or expressing ideas and opinions. In the public forum, I can disagree, disparage, ridicule, challenge, even insult; but I cannot try to silence the free expression of others. I must tolerate (allow) all expressions, in the sense that I must respect—not the expression itself, or even the person expressing it—but the right of other person to express. And that freedom extends to responses as well. In the real world, no idea, opinion or belief is universally respected or accepted. If I don’t want my ideas challenged, then I should carefully consider whether or not I want to express them in a public forum; because the public has a right to respond, and I need to respect that right, even if I disrespect the content of the responses I might receive.

In the show, I referenced the following:

http://www.powers-point.com/2006/10/intolerant-atheist.html
-Karen Powers

“I always like to point out to my many atheist friends that I have never tried to convert them or ridicule their beliefs, but have been on the receiving ends of dozens of rants against my belief system…something that feels a lot like the person is trying to “convert” me to their way of life (atheism) all the while accusing religious people of being intolerant.”

Here Karen equates attempts to convert with intolerance. First of all, an attempt at conversion does not impede Karen’s right to believe or act. No matter how badly someone wants Karen to do X or believe X, simply talking to her about X cannot force her to do either. She is correct, though, that it can show a level of disrespect for the beliefs she holds currently when someone tries to change her mind. Atheists understand this from dealing with apologists; just as Karen understands this from her atheist friends. But I’m free to respond that I disagree with them, as is Karen, and also to express why I disagree, as is Karen. I’m also free to not listen to them if I so choose, as is Karen. No harm, no foul.

Karen’s post was not the only one addressed, but it was representative of what is found when you look up “atheist intolerance” on the Internet. The main complaint is that atheists don’t publicly respect theists or theism. But, again, that’s the case with any belief—none are universally respected. I’m unsure, though, why that’s a problem. No one requires my stamp of approval in order to do or believe whatever they want. If I express that what someone else does or believes is silly or stupid, it has no impact whatsoever on their right or ability to continue to do or believe it. There is, in fact, no reason whatsoever for anyone to care what anyone else thinks about what they do or believe—if the assessment extends no further than a mere personal opinion.

Fortunately, with regard to atheists, most of the people I know in the community really don’t care what Christians “believe,” despite the fact we get weekly letters asking us why it bothers us so much that other people believe in god. It actually doesn’t bother most atheists that theists believe in god. What tends to bother atheists is when any particular religious group tries to impose it’s beliefs upon the rest of the population—either via legislation or via other means of policing public policy (legal or otherwise). When theists try to dictate my behavior so that it is in line with their theistic doctrines, this imposes on my individual rights and freedoms—granted to me by the Constitution. Constitutionally, I have as much right to choose my beliefs and actions as any other citizen in this country.

The show included numerous readings from theists who felt that atheists should not exercise their Freedom of Speech. Perhaps the best example was the transcript of a Paula Zahn Now! show:

http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0701/31/pzn.01.html

In this episode, real venom was aimed at atheists and atheism. I don’t mind people aiming venom. Again, so long as they let others live their lives, I don’t care what they think or how vehemently they think it or express it. But a line is crossed when they begin telling others to “shut up.” Attempting to demand that others stop expressing ideas, opinions, and beliefs—is the beginning of intolerance. Criticize ideas however you like—but don’t tell others they need to stop exercising their Constitutional right of Freedom of Speech. Each of us has as much right to express our ideas as anyone else has to criticize them. I’m happy to dialogue—but “shut up” isn’t a dialogue. It’s an expressed wish to monologue publicly, without public challenge or response. And that’s the way to shut down public debate—which is simply hypocritical, cowardly and not in the best interest of maintaining a free and open society.

One particularly interesting statement made on the program was when Karen Hunter said, “Don’t impose upon my right to want to have prayer in schools, to want to say the pledge of allegiance…”

First of all, nobody can impose on anyone else’s right to “want” something. But as far as her right to actually have it—nobody has imposed on that, either. Anyone is legally allowed to pray and say the Pledge of Allegiance in any nondisruptive way, and I have yet to meet any atheist who opposes this. However, theists are not Constitutionally allowed to impose prayers upon nonadherents, and they are out of line to add narrow religious statements into a pledge that is intended to be used by the entire nation. This imposes a pledge to monotheism/religion upon all citizens who would like to also be able to say the Pledge to their nation. There is no reason the Pledge should not be accessible to all citizens equally. It should not apply only to those citizens who adhere to the idea of a monotheistic deity. Again, Karen’s right to express her beliefs should end where the right of others to express themselves begins. According to Karen, it’s perfectly acceptable for me to have to choose
between pledging loyalty to her religious beliefs and pledging loyalty to my country. But if no mention of god was contained in the Pledge, there would be no imposition to either theistic or atheistic Americans. That’s the difference. The insertion of the monotheistic god into the Pledge was a move in the 1950s that continues to alienate some very patriotic citizens in the U.S. to this day. And it is logical that a national Pledge should as much as possible unite, and not divide the citizenry.

I ended with a reading of several articles, all published in the last month, that gave examples of Christians being intolerant by attempting to disallow others to exercise legal actions or express beliefs. Examples included death threats to J.K. Rowling, threats of harm to a library for a summer program that included workshops on astrology, a bomb planted at a women’s clinic, a man who murdered another man because his victim was gay, attempted book bannings at a school library by one mother, an attempted ban on Sunday liquor sales, and a disruptive protest during a Hindu prayer before the U.S. Senate. There were more articles, but we didn’t have time to address them all.

While I acknowledged on the show that this behavior is not representative of the vast majority of Christians; it is fair to ask why, when this sort of religious thought-control and behavior-control intolerance is covered in the U.S. media, it appears to be almost exclusively attempted by Christian adherents? And why, if that is the case, are atheists the ones consistently labeled as “intolerant”—most often merely for legally exercising their Freedom of Speech by criticizing ideas with which they disagree?

At least the neocon wingnuts can’t claim SCOTUS is too “liberal” now

Word is now getting around that the Supreme Court made the wrong decision regarding sudent free speech rights, when, this morning, they decided against a student who had sued his high school for suspending him over displaying a farcical banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”. Evidently even the hint that a student might be promoting drug use, even when the display is quite obviously a stupid joke, is enough that a principal can justifiably trample over that student’s expression.

“It was reasonable for (the principal) to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use — and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s majority.

Please. “Reasonable”? Only if you have two feet of a broom handle lodged up your colon. That the banner is an admittedly juvenile and stupid expression of humor ought to be obvious. There’s not even any context for the statement. To take it seriously prompts the question: is “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” advocating behavior to be enjoyed on general principles, or is it advertising a school club? No, it was just a teenager writing something dorky that other teenagers would find amusing on a banner, just to get a reaction. That may be immature, but should it be a forbidden form of expression?

One ought to be wary of slippery slope fallacies, but I can see this opening the door to other restrictions on student speech simply based on someone even thinking there may be the possibility that a student has just said something promoting an illegal act. Over the years there have been many attempts to ban certain books from school libraries, ban certain clubs (yes, I do happen to think those “pray around the flagpole” groups have a right to do their thing, as long as it isn’t sponsored by the school, and they only meet before or after school hours), and what have you. This decision will more than likely lead to more and more students having to watch what they say for fear of Big Brother. What kind of lesson is that to teach budding young citizens of a “free” country?

Lunatic Baptists shut down summer library program with threats of violence

Here’s a bit of “Christian Love” from South Carolina. A summer reading program geared towards young adults and children has been shut down following a number of threats, many of them violent, that have been traced to a local Baptist church. Now, here’s the thing: a lot of what was going to be covered in this program is stuff I would object to, on the grounds that it appears to have been in the interests of promoting lots of woo — astrology, Tarot, numerology, that kind of crap. I mean, damn it all, shouldn’t summer library programs be educational in nature, and all about such things as science, history, and literature, rather than promoting even more idiotic superstitions?

Now, the difference is that my way of objecting to the materials would have involved sending polite but strongly worded letters to the library directors, as well as to local newspapers. But that isn’t how these followers of the Lamb chose to go about it. And it isn’t that they object to teaching idiotic superstitions. It’s just that they only want theirs taught. Yoga programs were condemned as “teaching other religions” (whoa, can’t have that shit in a free and pluralistic society!), and a T-shirt making workshop was objected to — you’ll love this — as promoting “the hippie culture and drug use.”

Library Director Marguerite Keenan reports that at least one bomb threat has come in. What is it with religionists and blowing stuff up? Clearly, these brave Christian soldiers feel they’re doing what’s best for the sanctity of their beloved Christian community. Jesus loves you, remember that. And if you don’t, we’re coming after you!

Could the Bible be ruled “indecent” in Hong Kong?

This is hilarious. More than 800 Hong Kong citizens are pushing to have the Bible legally classified as indecent material. In actuality, this is all by way of making a point about freedom of speech and of the press. Recently a column in a university newspaper containing frank discussions of deviant sex practices like bestiality was deemed indecent by the ominously-named Obscene Articles Tribunal. In reaction, the complaints about the excessive sexual and violent content of the Bible were filed. I have to admit, the idea of two girls getting their father drunk and screwing him, and all on the orders of God, to boot, might not go over well with many of today’s proponents of Biblical “morality.” But that, I’m sure, will remain on the list of Bible stories they don’t read to you in Sunday School.

It’s still all up in the air — and probably not likely; as Christopher Hitchens and others have pointed out lately, you can get away with anything if you slap the label “religion” on it — whether or not the Tribunal will agree with the complaints and actually declare the Bible an indecent publication. But I have to admit the thought of this makes me giggle:

If the Bible is … classified as “indecent” by authorities, only those over 18 could buy the holy book and it would need to be sealed in a wrapper with a statutory warning notice.

I’m sure Larry Flynt is smiling.