Supporting Freedom of Expression But...

Luxembourg supports Charlie Hebdo

Like many of you, I have been thinking lately about Charlie Hebdo, Garland, and the many other incidents involving Muslims using violence to punish those who dare to depict Muhammad. And like many of you, I've become increasingly frustrated with the chorus on the left saying, "I'm all for freedom of expression, but..." Anyone who wants to draw Muhammad should be free to do so. Anyone who advocates violence to intimidate or punish those who do is to be condemned. It really is that simple. Offending someone's religious sensibilities does not warrant murder.

So why is it that some on the left seem to be unwilling to discuss incidents in which Muslims respond violently to those who draw Muhammad without placing at least some of the blame on the cartoonists? Why is it that some on the left, many of the very same people who are quick to decry "victim blaming" in other contexts, are so willing to blame the victims for having provoked the wrath of Muslims? I'm not entirely sure, but I'd like to speculate about a few possible explanations in this post.

I Wouldn't Like It If My Beliefs Were Mocked

First up, it occurs to me that some on the left who are religious believers (most likely Christians) might feel the need to express their disapproval of mocking religion in a general sense. They would not like it if someone were to mock aspects of their religion. They do not believe that drawing cartoons of Muhammad warrants violence, but they can relate to the feelings of outrage experienced by some Muslims. They would feel upset if someone were to mock Jesus. And while most would not resort to violence, some might. Many others can relate to the strong emotional reactions they imagine some Muslims experiencing. Thus, these left-leaning Christians condemn the religiously-motivated violence and the criticism of religion. They support free speech, but...

Given that most of my readers are atheists, I expect that many of you will be thinking, "Yeah, but some of the criticism of those drawing Muhammad is coming from atheists." Sadly, you are right. What I just said above doesn't seem to apply to atheists, does it? After all, we don't have any religious beliefs for someone to mock. We don't have any prophets or "holy" books. There isn't anyone, real or fictional, that we revere to the point where we cannot tweet about him without adding PBUH afterward. So what gives? Why do some left-leaning atheists join in the chorus of "I support free speech, but...?"

Maybe we shouldn't be so hasty to dismiss the possibility that some atheists might have similar motives for reserving some of the blame for those who mock Muhammad. Atheists might not hold any religious figures sacred, but that doesn't mean that some atheists don't have various symbols or ideologies they do regard that way. I've certainly heard some atheists expressing outrage at persons who criticize their preferred form of radical feminism, patriotism, political candidates they favor, and various social issues. I've heard some atheists say that anyone who defaces an American flag should be harshly punished. They don't generally go so far as to support violence, but some certainly seem willing to join with left-leaning Christians in suggesting that some things should be beyond mockery (or even skepticism). Almost none would go so far as to suggest that mockery warrants violent responses, but...well...those doing the mocking should have known better.


The second possibility I'd like to mention is the blind allegiance to multiculturalism one finds among some on the left. Many of us have been indoctrinated (some more successfully than others) to believe that all human cultures are equally valid. It makes us uncomfortable to do or say anything that makes it look as if we are judging another culture from our skewed vantage point. We have had phrases like "colonial imperialism," "American exceptionalism," and "cultural myopia" imprinted on our psyches. Don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting this has all been a mistake. In fact, I've been a fairly consistent critic of American exceptionalism and the like. But we must not let our fear of appearing culturally biased or insensitive lead us to ignore blatant atrocities.

If you doubt the power of the sort of indoctrination to which I am referring, I ask you to consider how many liberals are willing to ignore female genital mutilation and honor killings. If we can ignore these things, violence in response to cartoons seems like a trivial matter. While I continue to believe that multiculturalism and diversity are good things that are highly conducive to social harmony, I recognize that blind unquestioning allegiance to this or any other ideology is problematic. And this appears to be a pervasive problem that afflicts left-leaning atheists as well as left-leaning Christians in the U.S.

Like you, I have watched many on the left make the mistake of equating criticism of Islam with racism. Every atheist blogger I can think of has addressed this ad nauseam, and there have been countless memes all over social media. The fact that it continues to happen reveals the power of our indoctrination into multiculturalism and, somewhat ironically, our own cultural myopia. When many left-leaning persons in the U.S. think of Muslims, we automatically think of the Middle East and Arabs. We forget all about nations like Indonesia. Hell, we forget about much of Africa (as usual). Maybe if we were aware of the racial and ethnic diversity among Muslims, we could understand that Islam is not a race.

Goddamn Conservatives!

A third possibility is that the hatred some on the left feel for political conservatives seems to lead to some terribly irrational places. In some mind-numbing conversations, I have encountered left-leaning atheists who argue that it has to be wrong to mock Muhammad because conservatives mock Muhammad. Even though they are perfectly willing to admit that they do not care for Islam and think that the world would be far better without it, they refuse to openly criticize it because they do not want to be mistaken for a conservative. Yeah, I thought I'd heard everything too.

The most fascinating strain of this argument seems to go something like this:

Premise 1. Conservatives are racist.
Premise 2. Conservatives criticize Islam.
Conclusion. Therefore, criticizing Islam is racist.

I don't think one needs to be a student of philosophy to spot the problems here. Premise 1 is a gross overgeneralization, typically offered without evidence in much the same way Christians might begin with the assumption that their particular god exists. Premise 2 could be true if we added the word "some" at the beginning, but that would seem to undermine its impact a bit. And of course, the conclusion does not follow from the premises and would do so not even if both were unassailable.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that I disagree with conservatives about all manner of things. I'll also be the first to admit that this does not necessarily mean that they are always wrong about the things on which we disagree! They certainly aren't my enemy, and I'm not about to refrain from speaking my mind for fear that some might try to lump me in with them.

Just World Theory

The last possibility I'll consider here has to do with what psychologists refer to as the just world theory. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that we are inclined to blame victims of violent acts as a way of shielding ourselves from the anxiety that awareness of random violence would provoke. We desperately want to be safe in a world that is often unsafe in disturbingly random ways. We believe that people are at least somewhat deserving of the bad things that happen to them because this prevents us from having to acknowledge the often random and unpredictable nature of violence.

Support for this theory has been found in a number of studies, and we see countless examples from Christians following every natural disaster, plane crash, or other tragedy. I wouldn't doubt that it might have something to do with the willingness some have to allocate at least partial blame to the cartoonists. If only they had had more sense than to exercise their right to free expression!

Of course, this is just a partial list of possible explanations for why some on the left seem so willing to blame those who draw Muhammad for violence committed by enraged Muslims. I'm sure there are plenty of others. But in the end, none I've yet heard lead me to believe that the correct response is anything other than the unequivocal condemnation of this sort of violence. There is no excuse for it. We must support the free expression of ideas with no buts.