February 19, 2015

Mob Justice Should Make Atheists Nervous

Zola sortie
By Henry de Groux (http://expositions.bnf.fr/zola/grand/z264.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Every individual has a right to express his or her opinion. I would assume that we can all agree with this statement. It seems rather uncontroversial, doesn't it? We can recognize one's right to express an opinion without having to like the opinion he or she expresses. In fact, most of us probably recognize that the point of having a right to free expression is to protect the expression of unpopular ideas.

Those of us who are atheists living in thoroughly religious cultures generally seem to recognize that if any group of people would be denied the right to express unpopular opinions, we would be among the first to be denied this right. If anybody is going to have their right to free expression limited, it is likely to be us. Thus, it makes sense that those of us who identify as atheists, humanists, secularists, and/or freethinkers might be a bit more sensitive to the importance of free expression than some others. One could even argue, as I have, that we are in a good position to take the lead on defending free expression.

And yet, we live in - and sometimes willingly participate in - an outrage culture in which encounters with opinions we do not like lead some of us to take to social media to demand that person who expressed the opinion we do not like to lose his or her job. Reflect on that for a moment. Someone says something with which we disagree, and we believe this should cost this person his or her job.

Is this sort of mob justice really what we want to encourage? As atheists living in religious cultures, should we be comfortable facilitating and even participating in these efforts? Do we not complain when the religious majority that surrounds us seeks to silence us in this manner?

I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here and suggest that we should not be comfortable with mob justice of this sort. Seeing hordes of outraged people taking to social media to demand the firing of someone for saying something that hurt their feelings or offended them in some way should make us nervous. And it should make us nervous not simply because we are atheists living in thoroughly religious cultures; it should make us nervous because we are familiar with the high costs of efforts to suppress dissenting views.

I cannot anticipate every possible scenario, and so I cannot reasonably argue that there are no possible circumstances where demanding someone be fired (or otherwise punished) via social media could not be justified. But I do think that this is a prospect that should make us nervous and one which should be used sparingly, if at all. Calling for someone to be fired for incompetence, corruption, or some other legitimate cause is one thing; calling for someone to be fired simply because he or she said something we don't like is another matter.

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