February 2, 2015

Taking the Lead on Defending Freedom of Speech

English: Free Speech. Luis Ricardo cartoon Esp...
Free Speech. Luis Ricardo cartoon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote in a previous post that I thought those of us who are secularists, freethinkers, skeptics, and/or atheists need to take the lead on defending free speech from those who attack it, regardless of where along the political spectrum they may be found. I noted that we have been good in doing this when the threats come from the political right and poor when they come from the political left. In this post, I'll try to unpack what I meant a bit and offer some speculation about what it might look like to take the lead on defending the freedom of speech.

Before doing so, it is necessary to address a minor error in this previous post. I realize it may not strike some readers as worth addressing, but I think it has some important implications, and I'd like to be as accurate as I can. In the previous post, I wrote:
I believe that we secularists, freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists need to take the lead on defending free speech from those who attack it from both the right and left ends of the political spectrum.
That last "and" really should have been an "or" or "and/or." Otherwise, I would have been talking about a very small group of people. There are plenty of atheists who are not skeptics or freethinkers, plenty of secularists who are not atheists, and so on. I think that any of us who truly value secularism, freethought, skepticism, and/or atheism should be interested in defending the many threats to free speech. This is so important that we need all hands on deck.

Our Long History as Dissenters Gives Us Perspective

With that out out the way, why did I say that I'd like to see those of us who are secularists, freethinkers, skeptics, and/or atheists take the lead on defending the freedom of speech from all who attack it? As people who have been subjected to oppression at the hands of the religious majority on the basis of our ideas, I think we are in a good position to understand the importance of free speech. In the past, we were branded heretics and subjected to legal penalties and cruel treatment simply for expressing doubts about faith. This sometimes resulted in assault, torture, and even death. But even when it did not lead to such extreme penalties, our ideas were actively suppressed through a combination of legal and social sanctions. Many of the legal sanctions and extreme penalties gradually fell away, at least in Western democracies, but some can still be found today (e.g., Ireland's blasphemy law). And I think most of us would agree that the social sanctions for expressing our opinions on matters of religion are still present in many areas.

Today, secularism, freethought, skepticism, and atheism are poorly understood. Myths and misconceptions abound. Conservative politicians and pundits in the U.S. regularly score points with their base by publicly expressing bigotry against atheists and blaming social problems on secularism. Atheists are still widely assumed to be immoral. People on both the political left and right are quick to deride skeptics as serving no purpose besides ruining others' fun, and attacks on both skepticism and science can easily be found from both the right and left. Freethought is widely misconstrued as something akin to questioning others' views but never one's own. Those of us who identify ourselves as freethinkers tend to be tolerated right up until the point where we question someone's beloved traditions, faith, or anything else people tend to accept without much thought.

Again and again, we have been told to keep our opinions to ourselves. We are often branded "militant" just for expressing ourselves. While most of us in Western democracies no longer face death for expressing our doubts about faith, atheists in some Muslim nations are not so fortunate. Violating blasphemy laws or criticizing one's government can still carry extreme punishment. And it seems that atheists, freethinkers, secularists, and/or skeptics in many nations are discouraged in various ways from speaking our minds. What could be more relevant to us than the free expression of ideas?

With our history as dissenters who have often been on the receiving end of cruel treatment aimed at silencing us, we have perspective on the importance of free speech. We have seen - and we continue to see - why this right is so vital to humanity. While our treatment has improved considerably over the years, enough bias, bigotry, hate, and discrimination remain that I believe we still have some useful perspective and motivation here.

What Does It Mean To Take the Lead?

I don't expect many secularists, freethinkers, skeptics, and/or atheists will disagree that free speech is important or that our treatment by the religious informs our perspective. But the suggestion that we should take the lead on defending the freedom of speech from all who attack it is likely a much harder sell. What does it mean to take the lead on defending free speech? What would taking the lead here look like? I'm still working out my thoughts on these important questions, so this will be tentative.

When I look at how secularists, freethinkers, skeptics, and/or atheists have responded to threats to free speech from the political right and/or religious fundamentalists, I find reason for encouragement. Consider how atheists in the U.S. tend to respond when evangelical fundamentalist Christians threaten our free speech or how atheists in Canada respond when Muslim leaders push for blasphemy laws. We seem to have little difficulty calling attention to what they want to do, pushing back against them, and condemning their efforts as dangerous to democracy. Not only are we not afraid to speak out against them, but we often manage to do so with a strong and reasonably unified voice. When they try to ban books, interfere with the teaching of reality-based sex education, or burn records, we are quick to speak out in defense of free speech. When they try to hide behind claims of offense taking or accusations of intolerance, we don't buy it. "You being offended," we exclaim, "cannot inhibit my right to express myself." And we mean it.

The first thing I'd suggest we need to do in order to take the lead on defending freedom of speech would be to apply all the good things we've been doing in response to threats from the right to threats coming from the left. We need to recognize that free speech must be protected from the authoritarian left too and that we cannot allow political allegiances or sympathies get in our way. Political correctness, trigger warnings, and social justice warriorsm are threats to free speech. Those behind them cannot be allowed to hide behind claims of offense taking any more than those on the right are allowed to do so. I am not calling for free speech absolutism here; I am calling for consistency in our defense of free speech.

What else might it look like to take the lead on defending free speech? Personally, I'd like to see us do a more deliberate and thoughtful job of modeling the reasonable exercise of this freedom. If you want to film a video of you wiping your ass with a Christian bible and then upload it to YouTube, I'll support your right to do so. Just don't expect me to promote it for you. And know that my recognition that you have the right to make such a video doesn't necessarily mean that I think you should do so. We do not need to exercise every right we have in the most extreme form we can dream up, particularly when what we have planned serves no real purpose. We can exercise our rights in extreme ways, and this is certainly what freedom entails. At the same time, I think that any discussion of freedom should include some recognition of our responsibility in how we use our freedom. We will always need provocateurs who push the bounds of free speech, but I'd like to see more of us using free speech to expose and criticize bad ideas rather than merely trying to offend or provoke others for the sake of doing so.

Last, I think that taking a lead on free speech requires us to get serious about protecting the types of speech with which we are most likely to disagree. If we want to take the lead on defending free speech, we are going to need to come to terms with speech we consider hateful, bigoted, or worse. I see far too many atheists who are willing to defend the right of other atheists to criticize religion but unwilling to defend religious criticism of atheism or political speech with which they disagree. I see too many atheists who argue that atheists picketing a fundamentalist church would be an exercise of free expression but that what the Westboro Baptist Church does should be legally prohibited. If we are going to take the lead on defending free speech, we must be willing to defend the speech of those whose views we despise.
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