These questions are now at the center of an international debate. President Obama himself touched on the issue in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, in which he directly addressed the violent reaction in the Muslim world to the "crude and disgusting video." But does philosophy have anything to say to the view that many people have that there is something about this kind of speech itself - not just its harm to public order or its adding of insult to the injury of imperialism and war - that should not be uttered or produced?
Obviously, we think this about many other kinds of speech. Most of us think that it is wrong for white people to use the "n-word." (Use it? I can't even bring myself to mention it.) Personally, I would feel a shiver of guilt and shame if that word crossed my mind as a thought about another person. And it's not hard to account for that feeling. It is a word that is intimately associated with a chain of some of humanity's greatest historical evils - the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the practice of chattel slavery and countless legal, social and psychological practices aiming at the effective dehumanization of persons of black African origin. To perpetuate it publicly is to harm other persons, and this matters objectively even if I don't personally, subjectively care about the persons in question. But my feelings about this word are even deeper than this: I don't even want to participate in the history that produced it and its meanings by letting it grow roots in my own mind.
This word is just an archetype to fix our thoughts. I feel that way about a lot of other words, even if nothing can quite rise to the level of emotion as that one. I can account in a very similar way for my disgust at similar epithets that seek to target for exclusion, suffering and disrespect gays, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, women and others. The suffering and disadvantage of humans matters, and I am doing nothing important in the world when I use such an epithet without considering the well-being of other humans. Even when it should be legal to so, I have good - often decisive - reasons for not using such speech.
Can the same be said not about epithets but about speech that mocks, insults or tells lies about things that others hold sacred, whether they be texts, human prophets or physical objects? What reasons do we have to censor ourselves (something we do all the time, and often for very good reasons) in how we speak about things other people hold sacred?
Most secular philosophical approaches to the morality of speech about the sacred are going to begin with three starting-points:
- Human beings have very strong interests in being free to express themselves.
- The "sacred" is an object of human construction and thus the fact that something is called "sacred" is insufficient itself to explain why all humans ought to respect it.
- Respect is owed to persons but not everything they value or venerate, even if other persons themselves do not uphold such a difference between their selves and their attachments.
These three premises make it hard for some common arguments about speech and the sacred to fully persuade. Here are six I find to be common.
1. Blasphemy transgresses a boundary and violates the sacred.
From the perspective of the religious, this is greatest harm in blasphemy. In Islamic law, for example, both God and the Prophet Muhammad not only have value for the believers, but also have interests and rights themselves. But what reason does this give others not to violate the sacred if they do not agree that x or y is sacred or has such awesome value? No reason at all.
2. We should respect whatever people regard as "sacred" or treat as religious.
I have no objection to this as one principle of the morality of speech. Certainly, the fact that X is called "sacred" by someone else should give me some reason to rethink what I am about to say. But there are two obvious problems here: (a) this gives other persons wide latitude to claim a veto over my speech by calling "sacred" things I find anything but: the American flag, David Miscavige, Mormon underpants; (b) and it is so easy to think of examples where I am doing valuable and important things in speaking that outweigh the otherwise regrettable fact that others are injured or pained as an unintended consequence of my speech.
3. People are deeply hurt and injured by violations of the sacred or objects of love.
This matters. The pain of others always matters. But pain alone cannot explain the totality of our moral relationships. People are pained by all kinds of things. People attach themselves to all kinds of histories, symbols and institutions. Pain is sometimes deserved. At the very least, it is sometimes a reasonable cost to bear for other things we value. The religious know this better than most of us.
4. Blasphemy is dangerous.
The great Thomas Hobbes went so far as to declare insults to be a violation of natural law, even before we enter the social contract. He would not have been surprised at the reaction to the Danish cartoons, the "Innocence of Muslims" film or any bar fight: "Any sign of hatred and contempt is more provocative of quarrels and fighting than anything else, so that most men prefer to lose their peace and even lives rather than suffer insult." So, yes, the fact that an offensive word will contribute to an outbreak of violence is a very good reason not to utter it, often a decisive and sufficient reason. The problem is: what kind of reason? If we think that our words were reasonable and not meant to provoke, and we still censor ourselves, we are acting out of prudence or fear, and in a way treating the other as irrational. Aren't humans capable of more inspiring terms of association than mutual fear?
5. Blasphemy is hate speech.
There is no question that many in the West today use speech about Muhammad and "Islam" as cover for expressing hatred toward Muslims. They know that if they are talking about "religion" they can deny they are talking about persons. Many people doing this - from Geert Wilders to those behind "Innocence of Muslims" - are indeed hate-mongers. But we should avoid the all-too-common conclusion that because much speech about Muhammad is de facto barely coded hate speech about Muslims (and much of it is), all such speech is. Many believers will in good faith testify that no one who expresses hatred for Islam's doctrines and prophet can respect them as persons. I believe them. But from a secular moral perspective, there is no way to completely eliminate the gap between whatever qualities or value we imagine all humans to have and the many valuable attachments and beliefs actual humans are made of. After all, many religious thinkers will say that they despise secular materialism or atheism and yet still respect the misguided humans enslaved to those doctrines. I believe them then, too.
6. Blasphemy disrupts social harmony.
This is a different argument from the one that blasphemy is dangerous. Let us return to the "N-word." A plausible case can be made that the widespread public use of this word does more than offend, harm or intimidate African-Americans. It harms a certain kind of public good that many Americans are striving hard to attain - the public good of a society where people feel safe, valued and at home in their social home. There is a way in which all Americans are the victims of such speech; for I as a white American have an interest in an America where my sense of belonging is not achieved at the expense of others. In Europe and North America today, lots of public blasphemy about Islam (especially in visual form) performs this function. It serves to tell Muslims: "We don't trust you, we don't like you, and it's your job to change." All we have to do is remember speech about Catholicism in this country until quite recently. Cartoons of Catholic bishops as crocodiles coming to devour potentially Protestant children were much worse than an assault on the institution of the Bishopric or a theological disputation about where Christ's ecclesia is embodied. It was Protestant nativism directed at Catholics as persons, not only as believers.
For all the instinctive talk about the need for "respect for religion" or "sensitivity toward the sacred," this I think is what most people find most troubling about everything from the "Innocence of Muslims" to the (much worse) "Muslim Rage" Newsweek cover of last week. And I agree. But there are at least two caveats: (a) it leaves us with the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the blasphemous content of such speech per se (nothing about Catholics bishops or the Prophet Muhammad that should never be maligned) and (b) we have to explain what kinds of social relationships we are obligated to care for in this way. Yes, I have an obligation not to make my Scientologist neighbor feel unwelcome but Tom Cruise? Bombs away.
What I have tried to argue is that none of these common arguments alone gives us sufficient reason to refrain from blasphemous speech, merely because it is blasphemous, the way that I do feel I have more than sufficient reason to never use (and to try to never think) the n-word. But that doesn't mean that none of the above were reasons not to violate what others hold sacred. They were reasons, just ones that might be outweighed by the value of the things I want to say.
So are we left with some crude felicific arithmetic: (amount of emotional pain) - (value of blasphemous speech uttered) = net morality of this or that utterance? I think there is something more to be said here.
We all too often speak about the harms of speech either in abstract terms (the speech is wrong) or in attribute-sensitive terms (one should not be mocked for this). But what is missing here is the sense of relational duties that so many of us feel. The view that one just says whatever one wishes regardless of the company one is keeping is not virtuous honesty or moral heroism, but a kind of moral autism. The content of speech is just one element of its morality; the recipient is another.
While certain aspects of morality ought to apply without regard for the identity of other persons and any relationships I may have with them, many other aspects of morality are precisely relational. I care about specific persons and my relationship with them. This increases the costs to my own conscience, moral costs, in saying things that I otherwise think are worth saying. There are lots of things I would normally say that I do not say to or around specific people. This is sometimes because I am scared of them, or scared of experiencing social awkwardness. Other times it is because I care about them and our relationship. They matter to me, and our relationship is a good worth sacrificing for. This is why we don't tell lies, or do tell lies, to certain people.
Could the morality of blasphemy be something like this? No - there is no abstract, relation-independent wrong in mocking someone else's prophet, even to the extent that I think there is wrong in using speech like the N-word. Instead, given the awareness of the impact such speech on others whom you might care about (even if you think it is wrong or silly for such speech to impact them in this way), the value you place on this relationships alters your moral judgment about such speech. The emotional world of someone about whom you care, or with whom you have a social relationship about which you care, matters to you when you speak.
Now, this is not a short-cut to merely condemning blasphemy. I may continue to judge my friends to be over-sensitive, or my speech to be so important, as to outweigh their emotional pain. And, of course, fellow citizens do not usually matter as much to me as people in my day-to-day life. And distant strangers matter still less. But, nonetheless, I think there is something for philosophy to encourage us to think about beyond the recycled clichés that emerge on all sides each time some new utterance creates an international crisis. At the very least, it encourages us to see conflicts over such speech not only as a conflict between the value of free speech and the value of sensitivity, but also in terms of social and political relationships that we have some obligation to care for.
Andrew F. March is an associate professor of political science at Yale University. He is the author of the book "Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus" and a recent paper on free speech and religion in Political Theory.
Andrew F. March is an associate professor of political science at Yale University. He is the author of the book “Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus” and a recent paper on free speech and religion in Political Theory.