Do I Have Your Permission to Think Things?

freedom of speech cartoonIn the past week, the question seems to have come up, indirectly, as to what I’m allowed to say as a writer.

I say “indirectly” because the direct discussion in the past week, following the terrorist frenzy in Paris, has been about what people are allowed to draw cartoons of. But of course what we are allowed to say with words is only one breath behind the cartoons. If you can kill cartoonists, why not kill writers? Remember Salman Rushdie, the writer who had to hide for years when Iran wanted to kill him for writing about Mohammed?

Part of the answer to what I can say was given by Pope Francis: “you cannot make fun of the faith of others”. I think he was deeply, dangerously wrong. I might make an argument from the basic concept of allowing people to believe as they will and to speak freely about it, in the spirit of Voltaire.

But even for people who believe that human freedom must be suppressed—and a lot of people do believe that—when the question is about religion, of “making fun of the faith of others”, there is a practical problem that even the fanatics would not have an easy answer to.

You probably heard that there was an enormous march in Paris in which many world leaders participated, marching down the street arm in arm. As it happens, some of those leaders, three, to be exact, were women. Following this event, a religiously fanatical newspaper in Israel airbrushed a photograph of the march to remove the women.

This reprehensibly stupid move was because it is against the religious beliefs of this group (men, obviouly, as if we need to be told) that women should not appear in photos. And how fucking weird is it that a group of Israeli Jews would imitate the behavior of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany?

But these fanatics say they’re offended by photos of women. So if we respect all religious beliefs, should everyone else on the planet earth never show photos of women? Won’t it be offensive if we do? Or if it’s OK to ignore religious feelings in this case, who decides which religion we should tiptoe around? The Pope? The leader of the Islamic State?

There is another point that will not matter to screaming fanatics, but in the long run it should matter to other people. When we are told not to offend Muslims with images of Mohammed, we are being told two things:

(1) Hysterical fanatics speak for all Muslims. This is not true. There are many intelligent, rational Muslims, and they are not screaming that “Islam” has been insulted by a cartoon, even if the cartoon is offensive.

(2) By arguing that we should not offend “Muslims” (as if they are all the same), we are being told to treat 1.6 billion people as if they are small children who must not be offended, to avoid an emotional outburst. Such infantilization is offensive to mature people.

Yet another possible question in this discussion is why should we be so meticulous not to offend with religion, but not other issues? If I’m told to carefully never offend a religion I don’t belive in, should I also be hypersensitive about other cultural differences? Perhaps we could have a rule that everyone on earth should never offend anyone else on earth for any possible reason. Maybe we should treat one another as if we are all emotionally five-years-old—and if anyone offends us, we get to kill them.

I do not respect all religious beliefs. In terms of what is believed, I probably do not respect any religious beliefs. Some are absurd, some are obnoxious, some are oppressive, and I have a right to ridicule any that I choose. I do respect the human beings who have these beliefs, but I will not be told what I’m allowed to say.George Washington


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Filed under Language, Writing While Living

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