Saturday, January 9, 2010

Free Speech Warning: The Rules Do Apply

Eve Garrard sees shortcomings and potential dangers in the combination of some views of free expression and some views of religious freedom:

If we value free speech purely as a means to defend truth against falsehood then we're effectively saying that beliefs which we're sure are false don't need the protection of freedom of speech – we don't need to allow anyone to voice them.
I am not sure which we Garrard has in mind here, but inasmuch as this is someone's sole defense of free speech, it is indeed too limiting; she comes close to acknowledging this when she says that
[w]e often, perhaps generally, don't know for certain which views are the true ones and which are the false ones. Part of the point of having free speech is to help us find out which are which. [emphasis mine]
Part -- yes. Whole? No.

I would say that free expression is a human right, and this means those exercising it need not justify its exercise. It is not -- or I should say, should not be -- incumbent on anyone to explain why he wishes to say, hear, read, write, or otherwise engage in expression -- expression in general or any particular expression -- and without regard for the truth or falseness of the expression. We have a right to express true things, and no less a right to express false things. Period.

Practically speaking, it so happens that determinations of "X is true" versus "X is false" successfully emerge from the open, unrestricted airing of viewpoints. John Stuart Mill developed this argument rather thoroughly in On Liberty, and countless others have expanded it and furnished supporting examples, so I will not further belabor it except to repeat that yes, part of a thoroughgoing defense of free speech is the insight that it helps highlight truths and expose falsehoods.

Garrard continues the criticism of a form of vociferous irreligion:
Is it really the case that religious beliefs are all crude and stupid and primitive falsehoods? No doubt in some cases they are, but to suppose that all religious beliefs are like the worst ones is to ignore the immense variety and complexity of views which people can hold about God and the supernatural. Philosophers of religion have developed defences of religious belief of an incomparable sophistication and intellectual elegance; and the assumption that all such religious thinkers, from Plato through Aquinas to (for example) Alvin Plantinga and Robert Adams today, are more stupid and unsophisticated than your average atheist, is a crude and primitive supposition which a moment's glance at the evidence would dismiss.
This elides very different strands of argument. Even the harshest of atheistic critics -- Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Russell Blackford, lesser known cranks (speaking!) -- acknowledge that religious thinkers and believers, past and present, have enriched human culture and learning immeasurably. To say otherwise would be wildly, embarrassingly ignorant.

The argument is not that the falseness of religion justifies the abolition of religious expression. The argument is that the truth or falseness of religion's factual, testable propositions -- this or that person was born of a virgin, this or that person took dictation from an angel, this or that ancient book depicts historical events as they actually happened, etc. -- are subject to all the same standards that winnow truth from falsehood, and these standards include the often rough-and-tumble terms under which contending claims are fought out in public. Hold on, Garrard says:
The falsehood of religion isn't a good basis for demanding the right to criticize it - if that's the only basis we've got, then the demand will simply be rejected by those who think that religion (or at least their version of it) is true.
Sure, they will reject it, as they routinely do, but this does not make it go away, nor should it. They still face the demand to answer the criticisms according to the usual rules and standards of reason and evidence, and to do so in public, unforgiving and crude though its conversational norms sometimes are. The consequence of not doing so, or of doing so ineptly, is to let the criticisms stand.

Sooner or later, the consequence can get ugly and hurtful: no one enjoys criticism or ridicule. This is, by the way, an instance of the larger truth that ideas matter, which explains why some ideas arouse such bitter denunciation and controversy in the first place. This is true of religious ideas and anti-religious ideas alike, and to ideas far afield of religion.

Sooner or later, a person clinging to long-refuted arguments in the teeth of the evidence will be labeled with terms such as unsophisticated, stupid, dull, hidebound, knuckle-dragging, and so on. This is how we roll in free societies. We can say and believe as we wish, but the demand that others agree with us is a demand too far. The demand to that others remain quiet, generous, decorous, and respectful in the face of ideas they detest is a demand too far.

Under conditions of free expression, the way to get rid of an idea one hates -- pro-slavery arguments, racism, sexism, hurtful depictions of gods, anti-science conspiratorial twaddle, numerous accusations of institutionally-condoned child rape, ridicule of cherished taboos, whatever -- is to refute the idea. Expose its flaws and bring others to see those flaws. Subject it to wild-eyed ridicule, or crush it with coolest analytical dispassion, or do some of both.

There is no getting around it, though: the rules of reason, logic, evidence will apply; and the rough norms of public discourse will be in effect.

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