Wednesday, 27 May 2009

You Have the Right to be Offended

AtheistSuppose I call religion a waste of intellectual capacity.

Suppose I say the idea of an omniscient God is abhorrent to anyone who values true freedom.

Suppose I say dogmatic religion is a blight on society and does nothing but justify mindless obeisance and suppress genuine knowledge and progress.

You may be offended. You have the right to be offended.

What you do not have is the right not to be offended.

Argue with me. Tell me I’m wrong. Give me a reason to change my mind. Engage in meaningful debate.

But don’t try to silence me.

We must all have the right to freely call ideas dangerous, divisive and prejudicial. We must all have the right to freely call the people who hold those ideas foolish, small minded and moronic.

We must all have the right to free speech. And if our speech is not allowed to offend, then it is no longer free.

This is why UN draft resolution VI on “Combating Defamation of Religions” (document A/C.3/62/L.35) must be denounced as the blatant attack on free speech that it is.

The Assembly would emphasize that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which should be exercised with responsibility and may therefore be subject to limitations, according to law and necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others; protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals; and respect for religions and beliefs.

This is not only nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense.

Every major step forward in society has required the denouncement of one or more deeply held religious ideals.

To suppress the defamation of religion is to stop society in its tracks.

After all, any idea worth anything is bound to offend someone.


Quick Joe Smith said...

The section of the document you cited does raise one very good point: that freedom of speech (well, freedom of any kind) must be exercised with responsibility. Restrictions are an inevitable consequence if abused.

Hate speech and incitement to violence are two examples off the top of my head of speech that is rightly restricted.

If we value something, then we should treat it with respect.

Rob said...

"Every major step forward in society has required the denouncement of one or more deeply held religious ideals."

I think what QJS says is both true and an interesting topic in itself. Because freedom, by its very nature, is unrestricted. Once you start using terms like "with responsibility" then what you're asking for is not freedom at all.

This is possibly why we, in Australia at least, have no actual right to "free speech". Certainly not like the Americans have. It always amuses me when people talk about our right to free speech when it simply doesn't exist. There's an expectation, certainly, but no legal right.

I think society though, beyond its laws, dictates a right to mutual respect. And this is not something I see coming from either side of the theist/atheist debate. Certainly not beyond lip service (i.e. "with the greatest respect, you're a tosser").

If you consider your atheism as a religious belief then that last line could just as easily apply to you and your belief system as it does to a Christian's. And if it's there to stop hate crime, and to stop people being persecuted for their religious beliefs, or for their lack of them, then maybe its no bad thing.

Matt said...

I agree with both of you.

Where I draw a very clear distinction though, is between respect for people and respect for ideas.

People deserve respect and deserve to be protected. That's where, as you say Joe, protection against hate speech and incitement to violence are absolutely necessary.

Ideas, however, don't deserve that same protection.

Rob said...

"Jesus loves you, he just hates what you're doing." (A Richard Fidler response to a heckler at a DAAS show)

Respect the person but say that their beliefs are "abhorrent"?

This is the kind of lip service respect I was alluding to. Someone who truly believes something will no doubt align themselves and who they are with those beliefs. You can't say to someone that their religion is a blight on society and still claim to actually respect that person.

Well you can claim it all you want. Freedom of speech and all. But you can't seriously expect anyone to believe you.

Rob said...

Oh wait a minute. Here's me picking and choosing bits to quote to show that perhaps you don't respect these people, and missing the best one of all:
"We must all have the right to freely call the people who hold those ideas foolish, small minded and moronic."


Aretha would be proud. Take out the TCP

Rob said...

Isn't it funny how, after you quote something you think "that really doesn't sound right?"

Apparently it's "Take Care. TCB."
So there's my mondegreen for you.

Matt said...

Regarding the "foolish, small-minded and moronic" quote, what I meant was that people have the right to call me small-minded and moronic for holding my views. I'm not saying I would call them that.

It's an interesting point you raise about people aligning their sense of self with their beliefs, though. That actually gets to the heart of what I'm talking about. That is the very thing that I consider dangerous, because it leads to this logical progression:

Questioning my belief = attacking my belief = attacking me.
Therefore I must be protected.
Therefore my beliefs must be protected.
Therefore you are not allowed to question my beliefs.

Those beliefs can run the gamut from the harmless (little old ladies going to church on Sundays) to the incredibly harmful, examples of which are numerous and obvious.

Basically where I draw the line is when personal beliefs start impinging upon others who don't share those beliefs. I must be allowed to protest that sort of thing and that will necessarily involve defaming the underlying beliefs that have led to it.

This UN reslution is specifically designed to limit the ability to do that, and that's a big problem for me.

Paul Emerson Teusner said...

Hey Matt,

I know I have a right to be offended. But I'm not offended. I, like, totally get it.

I know I don't have a right to not be offended, but am I allowed to not be offended?


Rob said...

But what I'm saying, Matt, is that that does specifically NOT show respect.
You are actually attacking the believer, by calling their god abhorrent, and you can't expect them to think that you respect someone who has what you consider to be abhorrent views. So they are linked.

It's a fine line, I admit. And I agree that people should have the right to say what they want about a religious view.

But I also think that people have the right to be treated with some respect, or at least for the level of respect with which they are treated to be based on their actions, and not their beliefs.

On a side note I also think that people need to understand that insulting people, or their beliefs, will only get you so far. I think the biggest thing shooting the atheist movement in the foot (and it's certainly something that stops me from calling myself an atheist) is that they portray themselves as naughty school boys, saying tits at the back of the class and giggling about it. To be taken seriously they need to stop making the kinds of blanket statements that are designed to offend (your God is abhorrent), and designed to get a rise out of people (e.g. the bus advertising stunt), and actually appeal to people in a way that will change their minds.
All the stunts do is make the supporters cheer and the non-supporters say "typical!". It does nothing to convert or convince people that they have something useful to say.

Matt said...

They're only linked if the believer makes the link themselves. I don't take an attack on one my beliefs as a personal attack. If someone else chooses to do that then it's not really my problem.

I will call an idea abhorrent if I think it's abhorrent.

Take the Christian idea that I, personally, am guilty of an original sin committed 6,000 years before I was born, and that 2,000 years before I was born a man was bloodied, tortured and killed to pay for that sin. And now I owe that man my life.

I find that idea utterly abhorrent. It represents lack of freedom, lack of choice, lack of justice, in fact a lack of just about everything I personally value.

But I don't find Christians abhorrent for believing it themselves. I can be as tactful as you please, but if a Christian chooses to equate my view of their belief with a view of themselves, then that's their own lookout. I can't do anything about that.

And that gets us back to the original point. I understand that such statements are offensive. One has the right to be offended. But that right does not extend to silencing those who offend you. And that is what this resolution is really trying to achieve.

Rob said...

By asking for respect?
I think you're reading way too much into it.

Rob said...

And on your point about people taking responsibility for themselves. I agree with what you are saying. You can't be held responsible if I take an attack on my beliefs as an attack on myself, but it immediately brings two thoughts to mind.
1) It sounds like someone who says "look, if I want to stick naked pictures of women up in my workplace I should be allowed to. I can't help it if people feel offended" and again it comes back to rights and responsibilities. You may be given the right to say what you want but exercising a little bit of social responsibility in doing so may be useful.

2) It seems all too easy to make a slippery slope between attacking someone's beliefs and inciting hate crime. It's like it becomes a legitimate defence. Can the Klan say "we hate Judaism, but we don't hate people?" Or is it legitimate for someone to say "I don't hate gays, I just don't like homosexuality". Like I said, I admit it's a slippery slope, but your rationale provides a very thin, but nonetheless existent justification for some pretty nasty stuff that this UN resolution, which is only asking for respect - not restriction, is attempting to address.

Matt said...

I think it's just the opposite. I think this resolution provides cover for exactly the sort of hate crime you're describing.

Let's take your Klan example. I'll happily denounce the Klan as redneck idiots for hating Jews.

But suppose they turned around and said that hating Jews is part of their religion, and I'm defaming their religion by calling them rednecks.

Am I then supposed to respect that? Is it suddenly out of bounds just because it's a religious belief? Why should that be the case?

This may not be a realistic example, but replace "Klan" with "fundamentalist Muslim" and all of a sudden it's very real.

The people most protected by this resolution are not regular believers, but the people in charge of theocracies. Under this resolution they can justify all manner of atrocities in terms of retribution for disrespect of their religion.

It's no coincidence that Saudi Arabia were the ones pushing to have it included and every theocracy you can name is a signatory to it. Very few western democracies actually signed it.

curiousity said...

Yo Matt, just ran into this post from a random click while lost on the net. i like your realistic POVs. I notice that the post is old, so I'm curious what you up to these days. little bout myself. name is James, I have also been figuring out the secular/religious views of our world...trying to make head and tails of it in my head. you have been in this battle a lot longer than me so I would love to know the life you have developed in this mix. I also have a blog; give it a look, and drop my line if you wanna chat more email - i am a huge fan of emotional debates void of the sway of emotion.