Sam Harris and free speech: a different opinion

I just listened to Sam Harris’ latest podcast with thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. He excoriates the media for self-censorship, that is, for not printing the offending cartoons en masse as a way of letting those who planned the attacks, (and who contemplate other attacks) know that the Western World will not back down from its stand on free speech. His position is that the content of the cartoons does not matter, that as soon as you even ask the question “what was in the cartoons?” you are in the wrong on this issue. Free speech should be absolute. Anyone can say anything.   It follows then, for him, that the laws of France and Germany that make it a crime to deny the Holocaust are immoral laws and should be repealed. If someone wants to stand up and deny the Holocaust, let him, and our response should be ridicule and our freedom to point out that this man is a fool.

I might go along with that as far as the Holocaust goes. That’s a question of historical fact and should be open to debate, as should anything in the realm of science. But free speech should not be absolute, and isn’t in any country I know of. Most countries in Europe outlaw “hate speech” which in Finland for example includes threatening, insulting or defaming people who are “different”—different in terms of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or belief, among other things. Germany forbids the press from printing things that could insult faiths and religions or even “Organizations dedicated to a philosophy of life” if it could disturb public peace. Satire and artforms must respect “human dignity.” Censorship has a place.   It’s the same reason we don’t want instructions on how to make bombs widely available: it creates dangers for us all beyond mere words or ideas when somebody feels like blowing up their high school. Some words are like bombs. Stopping those words from being thrown around prevents violence.

Harris derides the politically correct approach to this tragedy: that Charlie Hebdo should not be caricaturing Muslims or Mohammed. The Islamic world should get over it, and accept freedom of expression, as all of us must, he says. I think it’s important to make a distinction between language that is offensive, and language that is designed to ridicule. Anyone should be able to criticize another person, or a government, or a religion.   But no one should do so in a scurrilous, scatological, obscene way. That is an attack on “human dignity”, in the language of the German law. That is what Charlie Hebdo did.

Who would decide what is merely offensive and what is obscene? Here is where the argument always runs into trouble. I cover this ground in my book. There would of course be court cases, as there are now, defining the limits, and changing them over time.  There’s no way around it, unless we want the “anything goes” approach.

But why not foster self-censorship? Isn’t that what we teach our children anyway? Or should be teaching them? You don’t just hurl an obscenity at someone you disagree with– for one thing you’re liable to get punched, or these days, shot. So, yes, self-censorship, not in the sense of refraining from criticism, but in tempering your language, weeding out the mockery, the ridicule, that is so easy to slip into, especially in the age of the Internet.   Ridicule is fun of course, for those not on the receiving end, but getting laughs is not always the road to a better world.

The final thing to say on this subject (for now) is that in some corners of the world, ANY criticism of the faith or religion is deemed to be so offensive that the critic may be thrown in jail for years, or immediately put to death. Christians did that not so long ago.   That practice must end, but the way to end it is not through ridicule. The sea change that must occur will take time and require patience, persuasion, diplomacy, and pressure. Sam Harris is very good at catalyzing this kind of change in talks and debates he gives around the country.   He’s worth listening to. He makes people think, causing a shift in the zeitgeist and more tolerance for criticism everywhere in the world.

If you’d like to read more on this subject try

“Freedom of Speech in Germany?  Up to a Point”

“Sam Harris and the Seven Universal Sacraments”

“Sam Harris and the Perennial Philosophy”

 “Sam Harris to Muslims: Edit your Sacred Texts!”

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One thought on “Sam Harris and free speech: a different opinion

  1. […] Further reading: “Sam Harris and Free Speech“ […]

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