Ralph Douthat of The New York Times raises a question worth considering. Can we defend free speech without weakening it by carving out exceptions? (“Je Suis Charlie! Testing the limits of free speech, The Week, January 21,2015 pg. 16.) Some prominent universities that purport to encourage free thought backed down from the principle when a number of students complained about Condoleezza Rice and anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali appearing as commencement speakers. Likewise, The New York Times and other media organizations refused to reprint the Hedbo cartoons that mocked Islam. Self-censorship may be prudent when dealing with terrorists, but some have argued that silence emboldens rather an appeases them. (Ibid pg. 16)
I admit, hearing a rant by Anne Coulter or Rush Limbaugh often sets my teeth on edge. But it would never occur to me to object to their right to air their views. Unless I defend the free speech of others, no matter how offensive, I can’t ensure my own right.
“Irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom,” historian Simon Schama once wrote. The majority of people in the western world would agree, though where God and religions are concerned, opinions waiver. “Why insult someone’s faith?” is the cautious equivocation most often uttered. “Why expose yourself to retaliation?” is another. David Brooks is one of these equivocators. In his New York Times column, he writes, “I am not Charlie Hebdo… we don’t ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.” (Ibid pg. 16.)
I’m inclined to ask Brooks if he knows his history. Martin Luther attacked the Catholic Church. Thomas Edison insulted faith. So did a sharp penned Mark Twain. Over time, the list has grown long and varied. Most recently, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and comedian George Carlin have joined the list.
Is there ever a time when the standard of correctness should stifle the right to speak freely? Silence born from fear does make sense to me. No one relishes having one’s head severed from the one’s body. But when fear is applied like a tourniquet to speech, those who do dare to rise up and protest should be applauded. To remain silent when threatened not only rewards the oppressor, but it also dishonors centuries of dissidents, men and women, who died defending that right.
Insults are a poor way to communicate and a poor way to establish dialogue with those who oppose our views, I agree. But I’ll take insults over a gag any day. Besides, does anyone really believe a man is great enough to insult God? If they do, they are guilty of hubris as well as blasphemy.