Challenging the sacred

Author Salman Rushdie recently reflected on an aspect of his own education, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds.”

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie thinks this is a good thing and he has the courage of his convictions, writing things in his novel The Satanic Verses that led to him receiving a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for blaspheming Islam. But it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. Some will enjoy the verbal swordplay, the cut and thrust and parry of ideas that the debating societies of Cambridge and Oxford are famous for, and which provide the training for future leaders of England who must excel at the parliamentary debating style. But such an approach is not for everyone since not everyone is comfortable exploring ideas in the context of a ferocious battle of wits.

I agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. But how one closely scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation. In a classroom, I think treating other people’s ideas with derision or contempt is not appropriate and is likely to shut down thought rather than encourage it. People’s ideas and their identities may be too closely intertwined to enable the neat separation between ideas and people that Rushdie envisages. I don’t think you can be “savagely rude” about someone’s ideas without also being seen as being savagely rude to that person. Perhaps it is possible with very carefully chosen words, but difficult to carry out in spontaneous conversation. If I say that an idea is stupid, am I not implying that the speaker must be stupid to have held that belief in the first place?

This is particularly the case where religion is involved. In my seminar class on the Evolution of Scientific Ideas, we discussed the Rushdie quote in the context of the science-religion conflict that we were discussing. If someone thought (as some in the class did) that all religious faith, or any specific religious faith, was irrational, could they say that without religious believers feeling that they were being labeled as irrational people? On the other hand, believing that religion is irrational is a perfectly legitimate point of view, so if the speaker feels constrained not to say such things because of the conventions of politeness, then he is effectively being censored. The range of views in the discussion become artificially narrowed, depriving all the participants of a growth opportunity.

In my class, we decided that the way out of this dilemma is to first establish a good atmosphere in the class so that people felt respected as individuals and think of the whole groups as their friends. In that situation, people are likely to word their ideas in ways that do not gratuitously offend (such as saying things like “that idea is stupid”) while people did their best not to feel offended if their cherished ideas were critiqued and found wanting. In other words, we would try not to offend others or to be easily offended, while at the same time not avoid expressing unpopular or unpalatable ideas.

Achieving this requires that people assume good intentions on the part of others in the conversation. But establishing such a cordial atmosphere where people can speak frankly without causing offense is only possible in small groups where personal relationships can be established.

Things are different in public life and it is in this situation that I think Rushdie’s position is wholly justified and even admirable. In addition, in public discourse there is necessarily a distance between ideas and people that can act as a kind of protective shield. If, for example, someone on TV ridicules Mormons and says that they are stupid, then although all Mormons are being attacked, any individual Mormon watching does not have the sense of being personally targeted as being stupid. They can console themselves with the notion that the speaker is mistaken because he has not met non-stupid Mormons like themselves.

Public figures like politicians and televangelists, of course, have put their own ideas out for public view and cannot separate themselves from them. Thus when their ideas and actions are directly criticized, they can justifiably feel that they are being personally attacked. But having their ideas and actions held up for public derision and scorn is part of the price they pay for entering the public arena and they go there willingly. It may be unpleasant but they are not forced into that position and they have to take their lumps.

For example, professional comedians depend on parody and satire and even ridicule and derision for their humor. (See comedian Craig Ferguson on TV evangelists like Pat Robertson.) One has to grant them this license, because humor is a powerful weapon for cutting though the fog of ideas and making points effectively. The humor of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report would be far less sharp and effective if they had to worry about the feelings of the public figures they skewer.

I have mixed feelings about Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G. and Borat) when he is working with ordinary people. Although he is obviously a gifted comic and I find him to be very funny, my amusement is mixed with some discomfort. However much I might dislike the views of the people who are ambushed by him, tricking ordinary people into looking foolish in front of a mass audience does not seem quite right somehow.

Again, Rushdie is perfectly right is saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism. But it seems to me that when doing so in the private sphere, one should be circumspect about how one says things. The more one is challenging someone’s core beliefs, the more one should try to spare that person’s feelings. There just seems to be no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration, while not avoiding the issues.

Next: Rudeness on the web.


  1. says

    This entry reminded me of a quote from H.L. Mencken: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the same sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

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