Much has been said as of late regarding offensive speech, with various calls to shut down speakers or fine places that engage in ‘hate speech’, and blame those who are victims of people who act upon their anger at being offended. Recent examples range from Bill Maher, All Coulter, Ayaan Hirsi Ali who each have had calls by protesters to prevent speeches that were arranged at various schools, to the murders of Theo Van Gogh and the staff at Charlie Hebdo. In each case, the aggrieved party’s status of being offended by the authors’ words was sufficient base in the [self-created] victim’s eyes as well as others who want to seen as doing something positive in the community.
What is advanced by them is that there are some things of which one should not discuss, not talk about in any critical evaluation. This is especially the case with anything that is based upon religion; however, the essence of not being able to criticize religion is based upon the belief that there is something so sacred, so beloved, that to criticize it is to assail the highest in life, and one so lowly as a person, in particular a person who is not a member of and ‘doesn’t properly understand’ the true beauty of one’s religion.
Though speaking authoritatively from a point of ignorance is not good, for by definition it is making a positive assertion about what one doesn’t know, there is also the point where one knows enough to be able to review what they do know, make inquiries about it and from what they learn, make judgments about it. With this, there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be reviewed and properly criticized. Denying criticism negates our rational faculties to make our own judgments, robbing us of the freedom to learn the truth about a thing of contention. If we don’t properly understand, how are we to come to understand? In such a case what is to replace understanding is obedience.
Denying this review is intellectual robbery on multiple levels: 1) it robs the one seeking inquiry (or offering an opposing viewpoint) for they are denied the ability to pursue that which they are curious; 2) it denies the audience who may be curious about the issue to be reviewed; 3) it denies the authoritarian a reasoned base of defense of his own beliefs. In denying each party a review to truth, what is taken for truth is nothing but a dogmatic stamp to be imprinted upon everyone’s forehead. It matters not whether this is at a personal-relationship level, or at a philosophical-religious level.
At a personal level, if I were to use the pejorative ‘bitch’ about your mother, you may feel insulted and come to your mother’s defense (or not depending on your relationship with her, for you could also say ‘you are so correct’, though your sibling may disagree). You may be angry, berate me and defend your mother. But through this defense, you are using words: giving examples as to why my statement is incorrect and if not try to convince me to change my mind, to convince others that my statement is incorrect. If, however, you simply responded by proceeding to physically attack me then words are not used and the attack is an attempt to stamp a dogmatic belief into my head, and be a threat for those who watch. Lost in the physical attack is the possibility of explanation that justified (rightly or wrongly) my judgment as to why your mother is a bitch. When we were children, she may have been an angel to you, but to me she broke my toys, had her dog chase me and routinely berated me. All of the past happening to me would be lost – denied to me my own experience, denied to others as to what her real past included so they do not form a proper image as to who she was… possibly still is. Or, I could be entirely incorrect and who I thought was your mother was actually your aunt, who we both agree was a bitch, while who I thought was your aunt but was actually your mother, was good. Not reviewing that, we’d never learn that it was a faulty understanding.
At a philosophical-religious level, if I was to say your God (Yahweh, Allah, etc.) was an evil entity, and I was attacked for blasphemy to get me to stop talking, then the same issues remain. My understanding of the text and base for the religion is being denied, as is the ability of others to come to a greater understanding, and yourself for you are not coming to a better understanding of the belief – to verify you actually believe what you purport to believe. Lost will be the review of why I said your God was evil. Instead of a review to look at contextual understanding or just to verify that I was not misinterpreting the text, so that each person could come to a better understanding, we are denied and are just to obey the dogmatic teachings. (there is no contextual way of literally understanding Moses’ treatment of the Midianites as ‘good’; metaphoric understanding is by its nature up to review). In a similar vein, if I say one’s religious texts are foolish in their interpretation of the nature of the universe, denying my criticism doesn’t take away the reasoning for the criticism: moon splitting, stars falling from skies, sun stopping in the sky at noon. It all could be that I misunderstood; it could be that you do. Maybe you are the one who focusing on certain verses, forgetting some others… or do not consider the context that the words were used. For example, the original law given to the ‘chosen people’ was not ‘thou shalt not kill’, but thou shalt not murder’… was it referring to all, or just to other members of the chosen people?
Without reviewing anything that is held sacred or beloved, we hold that cherished item as a truth that overrides reality. However, reality is not outdone by our wishes. If your mother was a bitch – if not to you, at least to me – then denying that will not change her treatment to me, or others. Similarly, just saying God is good, and not taking the time to review the reasons why I say God is evil, doesn’t take away the reasoning why I made my assertion: e.g. Moses’ treatment of the Midianites (Moses being a prominent figure in the three main monotheistic faiths), or foolish, e.g. sun stopping in the middle of the sky.
As John Stuart Mill advised, let the competing ideas clash, for the truer of the two will win out and the beneficiaries will be all those who learn the truth. This can only be done when we can critically review any and all beliefs. After all, your mother may be a bitch and your God may be evil, or they may not… but they just might.
Let us review.