Monday, 6 August 2007

Freedom of Speech versus Prejudice

Karen Armstrong in Saturday's Guardian wrote an article about howAn inability to tolerate Islam contradicts western values. Deep in the details is an assumption that I think is false.
...since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others. Islamophobia should be as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice.
Well there are two points in the quote and the second does not follow from the first. No, it is not the case that freedom of speech implies respect for the opinions of others. Not at all. Indeed freedom of speech should and does allow the criticism of unwarranted respect for others opinions. Indeed it is this presumption and special pleading of religious beliefs that is often challenged both by freedom of speech - from considered and justified argument through to ridicule - and, on a meta-level, by viewing this presumption and expected legal backup, such as blasphemy laws and equivalent, as an impediment to freedom of speech itself.

Now prejudice, lets take it here, is about what people do and not what they believe or feel. In these politically correct times people might often hide their beliefs through self-censorship, yet it is their actions determines their prejudice - at least as far is the law is concerned. Indeed if they keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves and don't act on them in a prejudicial fashion well then is there any harm? (Subject for another blog post, but lets assume so here). Regarding entitlement to services, transport, employment, education, political voice, tax burdens and so on, it is unequal barriers to any of these that is where prejudice is dealt with and that is not about freedom of speech.

The second point does not follow from the first. If anyone wants to criticise a religion or any other belief, whether we do it well or badly, with reason or rhetoric, with evidence or sophistry, impartially or biased, this is not prejudice if it is applied in words to beliefs. It is also not prejudice if the outcome is applied, in words through condemnation - and if they ignore this, through ridicule - to the specific people who explicitly endorse those particular beliefs. Whoever makes the claim is exercising their freedom of speech, regardless of whether they are using it well or not. Can people get upset over this? Yes. It is almost inevitable that someone will not like what someone else says. There simply cannot be freedom from being upset that can co-exists with freedom of speech. It is even worse to selectively say these specific beliefs must be protected so that its believers are not upset.

Why? Well I am specifically against belief, beliefs systems and the people who endorse or identify with them, that restrict freedom of speech by applying any sort of double standard - which usually means preferential treatment for their specific beliefs, since there is no independent standard to justify this and not one that is not itself immune to criticism. And I am particularly against those believers who act beyond words, beyond complaining about verbal or pictorial affronts to their beliefs. Indeed these are the ones who turn belief into action - the domain where harm occurs and prejudice is dealt with itself. I don't care where this comes from and whether there are any other associated beliefs such as in fictional entities or not. It is everyone's freedom of speech that needs to be defended in these cases.

In short, freedom of speech means that anyone can criticise any belief, with or without argument, with condemnation or ridicule and these beliefs can have no special status nor immunity claim from this freedom. When it comes to religion either none of this is Christianphobia, Judaicaphobia or Islamaphobia or it all is (and then such terms are inert in terms of prejudice). It is a "Western" value that no belief is above criticism as it is that no-one is above the law. It is any current imbalances in these that need to be ironed out and not exacerbated.

This leads Karen Amstrong's conclusion:
When Gallup asked what the west could do to improve relations, most Muslims replied unhesitatingly that western countries must show greater respect for Islam, placing this ahead of economic aid and non-interference in their domestic affairs. Our inability to tolerate Islam not only contradicts our western values; it could also become a major security risk.[My italics]
Well there is an explicit equivocation here since respect has a different meaning to toleration. I want to live in a world where people do tolerate difference, as much so that I am tolerated, as I tolerate others who I think have ridiculous and absurd beliefs and, they might think the same of me. Behind this toleration is the idea of a single standard - each to tolerate everyone else. However respect is, or should be, earned. No-one can demand our respect for something that we think is absurd and if they threaten us violence, then it deserves disrepect and condemnation. And that is part of what it means to have "Western" values.