We have to challenge the thrall

The thoughts in the previous were prompted partly by reading Caroline Wyatt’s summing up of the Charlie Hebdo discussions at the BBC.

The deaths at the magazine prompted waves of soul-searching about free speech, and whether cartoons that deliberately set out to offend are worth defending – especially when they sought to mock and satirize a religion and a figure that so many hold dear.

That kind of claim prompts such thoughts. Yes, many hold their religion dear; yes, many hold particular figures – however long-dead – in their religion dear. Is that a reason to treat the religions and the figures as taboo? It can’t be, because that very holding dear is one of the mechanisms that keeps people in thrall to the religions and the figures. The thrall is a bad thrall. It could be a good thrall, in a different world – it could be one that motivates people to be more kind and generous and loving, and nothing else ever. But it isn’t. The thrall motivates people to feel rage at people who aren’t in thrall, for a start. It even motivates people to feel rage at people who are in thrall to a slightly different version of the figure, or a “wrong” descendant of the figure, or a different way of paying homage to the figure. We have to challenge the thrall.

Even the Pope weighed in that month, as he flew from Sri Lanka to the Philippines.

On the plane travelling with him, we watched transfixed as he responded to a journalist’s question about whether there were any limits to free speech.

Despite stating clearly and at some length that nobody should be murdered over what they thought or drew or wrote, Pope Francis had no doubt that there were limits.

Swinging his arm to demonstrate, he made clear that if his friend insulted what was most dear to him – his mother, for example – that friend could expect a punch.

It was not what many liberal fans of the Pontiff had expected.

Well that was silly of them, because the institution the pontiff is at the top of is in no way a liberal institution. Someone who climbs to the top of an illiberal institution is not very likely to be liberal, because the institution doesn’t reward liberality.

[T]his has been a testing week for those who care passionately about that debate, creating strange bedfellows in defence of free speech – or rather, the right to offend.

It even united the initiator of the controversial “draw the Prophet Mohammed” cartoon contest in Texas, where two gunmen were shot dead after opening fire on a security guard, with the rather more left-wing supporters of PEN, an organization that campaigns for freedom of speech for authors, writers and cartoonists wherever they may live and work.

No, it didn’t, really. We’re not united. Pamela Geller is what the addled protesters think Charlie Hebdo is. The protesters are wrong.

Before the 9/11 attacks, it is hard to imagine Texas having a “draw the Prophet Mohammed” contest.

And while few in the US will have much sympathy with the would-be killers, many ordinary people – religious or not – will be looking on in despair.

Because what is becoming clear is that the fundamentalism of this new generation of radical Islamists risks provoking an extreme reaction from some of those espousing the cause of unlimited freedom and liberty.

The danger is that tolerance and respect for our differences – and for each other – could be the loser; the very principles that many came to America and Europe to enjoy and uphold.

There are differences and then there are differences. Not all differences should be respected. The Texas shooters – and the Paris ones – were different; we don’t have to respect that difference.


  1. says

    If a soccer fan killed a rival fan for mocking his team, we wouldn’t blame the victim for provoking it, for “offending deeply held beliefs” about his team. We would call the killer what he is: a fanatic who overreacted to a bunch of words. If a Justin Bieber fan shot and killed another for calling his music crap, the shooter would never walk free again. The same goes someone who mocks and criticizes a rival political party. We would never excuse violence there, even if the political speech were insulting or made a false accusatioon. Soccer teams, pop groups and political parties exist, gods don’t.

    So why do people want to extend special privilege to religion? Why do they want to blame the victim for the violence perpetrated against him for no valid reason? Why do they want to silence free speech instead of telling religious types, “Get over it,” the same way we would tell a soccer fan, music fan or political party member who doesn’t like what he hears? I can just imagine Chris Crocker whining, “Leave mohammed alone!”

    The most likely answer I can think of is that those who want to silence criticism against one religion want to silence criticism against their own. They defend violence against one group of critics so they can commit violence themselves against those who criticize and oppose their religion.

  2. says

    The most likely answer I can think of is that those who want to silence criticism against one religion want to silence criticism against their own.

    Yup. The most successful cons are ones where there are multiple actors involved; people seem to be able to do a good job of interpreting individuals’ motivations but aren’t so good at figuring out when a collective is ganged up on them.

  3. Emily Vicendese says

    “The most likely answer I can think of is that those who want to silence criticism against one religion want to silence criticism against their own.”

    I don’t think so. Many people who have never been religious still feel as though there is something special about religious beliefs. That’s the trick that religion does: it sets itself up as special, it labels itself sacred, it claims for itself the ground of meaning and goodness. Many people therefore think that to criticise someone’s religion is to criticise the basis for all that is meaningful and good in their lives. It seems like a nasty, bullying thing to do. In fact I think people who have never dealt with religion firsthand are even more likely to romanticise religion in this way.

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