Thursday, April 2, 2009

Constrained talk on free speech

I went to a public lecture last night on the question 'How do we balance freedom of speech and religious sensitivity?'. It featured four distinguished academics 'exploring legal, philosophical and cultural perspectives'. I was interested to go because I couldn't think of any reason the 'balance' should be a jot away from free speech on this one, and I thought if smart people thought it worth discussing, there might be arguments I haven't heard.

The most interesting thing I discovered in the evening was that something pretty mysterious to me is going on. The speakers implicitly assumed there was some middle of the road 'balance', without addressing why there should be at all. So they talked about how to assign literary merit to The Satanic Verses, how globalization might mean that we could offend more people by accident, whether it is consistent with other rights to give rights to groups, what the law can do about it now, etc. That these are the pertinent issues in answering the question wasn't questioned. Jeremy Shearmur looked like he might at one point, but his argument was basically 'I think I'd find Piss Christ pretty offensive if I were a Christian - it's disgusting to me that anyone would make it anyway - and so ignorant of Christianity'. More interesting discussion of the question could be found in any bar (some of it was interesting, it just wasn't about the question).

What am I missing here? Is it seriously the consensus (in Australia?) that censorship is in order for items especially offensive to religious people? Is there some argument for this I'm missing? What makes the situation special compared to other free speech issues? The offense? Then why not ban other things offensive to some observers? Ugly houses, swearing, public displays of homosexual affection.. The religion? Is there some reason especially unlikely beliefs are to be protected, or just any beliefs that claim their own sacredness? Are these academics afraid of something I don't know about? Is it much more controversial than I thought to support free speech in general? Or is the question just a matter of balancing the political correctness of saying 'yay free speech' and of 'yay religious tolerance'?


denis bider said...

There is no consensus but among people who self-selected themselves to attend.

You attended for very unusual reasons - the desire to self-improve - that most people don't share. Therefore it was you, and a bunch of people who all consider it self-evident that there is something to discuss in the first place.

I do agree with you that the 'balance' shouldn't be a jot away from free spech, and I find it likely that if this issue was raised in a random setting rather than a self-selected one, this point of view would be better represented.

shagbark said...

I think the causal links go something like this:

- Muslims killed at least 38 people in response to publication of "The Satanic Verses"

- People want to change their behavior in ways that will lessen their chances of being killed by Muslims

- But they don't want to feel that they're caving in to violence, so they rationalize something up to make it look like it was their own idea, and done for moral reasons