December 13, 2014

Political Correctness and the Tyranny of Silence

I am sure you remember how enraged Muslims became violent after a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons they did not like in 2005. It was a big story for some time and probably one that was hard to miss. In fact, the it has been in the news periodically ever since. Here is an example from 2013.

Notice that I did not say that the cartoons caused Muslims to be violent. Some have made that claim, but it is one I reject. Seeing cartoons one does not like does not cause one to be violent; one chooses to be violent because one clings to ridiculous beliefs and unrealistically expects others to conform to them. The Muslims who resorted to violence are responsible for their behavior.

In a recent article for The New Republic, Elizabeth Winkler profiled Flemming Rose, the man who commissioned the cartoons of Mohammed to which many Muslims objected. Rose has a book out, The Tyranny of Silence, and it sounds to me like it will be worth reading for anyone who is interested in the tenuous relationship between multiculturalism and free expression in democratic societies.

Not surprisingly, Rose is a staunch defender of free expression, including the importance of criticizing bad ideas. Of Rose, Winkler writes:
He sees the democratic state in crisis, unable to contain the internal disparities of a multicultural society. Instead of increasing the diversity of expression, diversity of culture is constraining speech.
And he believes the problem as getting worse. I'm inclined to agree. We seem to be going down a dangerous path toward the prohibition of criticism of bad ideas.

My favorite quote from the New Republic article would have to be this one:
Rose attributes the rising tide of political correctness to people’s seemingly benign desire to live in a harmonious society. Rose is sympathetic to the idea that ethnic groups, especially minorities, want to protect themselves from criticism—but criticism is part and parcel of living in a democratic society. Without it, he argues, we risk regressing to a pre-Enlightenment mindset: “Before the Enlightenment, the Church perceived verbal attacks on doctrine as physical attacks on the Church. The achievement of the Enlightenment was to separate words and actions. And to me, that is a very important distinction between a civilized and an uncivilized country.”
What a great summary of the situation in which we find ourselves! Most of us are sympathetic to the goal of learning how to get along with one another in a multicultural society. At the same time, some of us realize that nobody can be exempt from criticism in a democratic society. Stifling criticism in the interest of harmony is toxic and does seem reminiscent of how religious institutions operated when they had the power to inflict their will on the rest of us.

According to Winkler, Rose sees free expression as a human rights issue and censorship as a crime against humanity. She suggests that this is an important part of why he continues to speak out despite all he has had to endure. He is unwilling to bow to the tyranny of silence.
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