Archive for May, 2010

On Blasphemy. Sort of.

May 26, 2010

I’ve come about five years late to the party on this one, but anyway: I recently listened to a recording of The Blasphemy Debate, between Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens. It’s thought-provoking stuff that’s well worth a listen: they are both learned men and entertaining speakers whose ideas it would be the height of injustice to disregard lightly. The event was called a debate, but its moderator acknowledges at the start that it owes little to the formal structure or even the disputational nature the word usually implies, and as a result the speakers show a simultaneously diverting and maddening tendency to digress.

The event took place in 2005, and the notional topic under discussion was the Racial and Religious Hatred then-Bill which was due for a Parliamentary vote shortly afterwards, and, sad to say, has since become law, despite being an affront to the dignity of a free people and grossly contradictory of the Human Rights Act. A question which Joan Bakewell, the moderator, repeatedly urged on Messrs. Fry and Hitchens was along the lines of the following: how should a tolerant society cope with the presence of intolerant elements within it whilst still remaining tolerant, even of the aforementioned elements?

This question does not, I’m sad to say, really receive a satisfactory answer from either participant. Hitchens comes close when he references the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but a change of subject ensues shortly after he is asked whether Britain therefore needs a written constitution on the American model.

Here is the answer that I would like to have heard to the repeated question, the answer that I like to think I would have given, if my name were worthy of mention in the same breath as those of Mr. Fry and Mr. Hitchens (in this spirit, I shall try to “write off the cuff”, with minimal editing and few pauses to think or reword):

My values, the values which I hold, of which I am convinced and which I believe to be universal—I am not invoking any subjectivity when I say “my”, I believe these values to be objectively true and empirically justifiable as having the best consequences for personal and public virtue—are historically prior to and follow different first principles from those which call tolerance and diversity virtues or desiderata in themselves. This should not be taken, however, to mean that my values are incompatible with tolerance and diversity. Rather, they call on me to expect tolerance and diversity, quite cheerfully, as the result of their correct implementation, but as consequences rather than goals.

Very well, you may say, if your ideals of virtue do not include tolerance and diversity, what are they? I would begin my answer by saying “Thank you for not ending that question with the words ‘you Fascist’, you are a commendably open-minded hypothetical questioner!” and to be more serious I would go on to say that I am a libertarian, and as such my idea of the greatest virtue is being the last to start a fight: I believe that violence is only legitimate when it is used to prevent coercion, be it by more violence or by dishonesty and manipulation.

I hope it’s obvious at this point that tolerance and diversity, as those terms are popularly understood, will be the inevitable consequences of a thoroughgoing implementation of this central value. If it is not, it is probably because I have not made it clear that when I say “violence”, I include violence done with the sanction and on the behalf of the State and the government. It is another mineral in the bedrock of libertarian thought that the police carting you off and locking you in prison requires every bit as much justification as your next-door neighbour carting you off and locking you up in his potting shed. With these pillars in place, if you’ll pardon the mixing of metaphors, I hope I can demonstrate that tolerance and diversity are inevitably going to result from the stable construction of the whole edifice.

Speech, the honest and forthright assertion of truth claims, can never constitute coercion. Dishonest speech, such as the gentleman from Nigeria’s claim to be a dispossessed princess in need of assistance with a banking transaction, or the now-proverbial claim that a crowded theatre is on fire, can constitute coercion, and rightly justify the forcible retrieval of the ill-gotten gains of fraud. That limited exception aside, the sincere expression of honestly-held opinions, or the open statement of demonstrable truth, can never be coercive, and must not be abridged or restricted even by those who find the sentiments abhorrent. A society that accepts this value, and shares the sentiment of Voltaire and Thomas Paine: “I do not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, and “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself” will perforce be tolerant, since it will permit the expression of all manner of beliefs, including, of course, the belief that I’m talking a load of rubbish. I defend, absolutely, the right of individuals to claim that sincere speech can be harmful: if a convinced Christian wants to say in public that Stephen Fry should not be allowed to respond to the question “Is there a god?” with “No, darling”, since it imperils the immortal souls of anyone who believes him if he does that, then my values require me to defend her right to do that against violent infringement, be it by rampaging atheists with samurai swords or arrest and charge by the police. In other words, I am ethically required to be tolerant of this hypothetical person, and stand (perhaps literally) between her and anyone who would violently silence her.

I believe that diversity is equally entailed as a consequence of this belief, among others: a society that embraces and properly implements the values I hold dear will, I hope it is obvious, quickly become a haven for those who hold beliefs that they fear to express in their less enlightened homelands. Furthermore, I maintain that a society that is in this sense enlightened will outperform its competitors economically, and so be able to offer a standard of living that will attract a diverse selection of immigrants who are not immediately motivated by the need to escape persecution for their beliefs.

I have taken such pains to explain that, while the values I advocate do require me to be tolerant and to welcome diversity, they do not include tolerance and diversity as ends in themselves, because it allows me to escape the paradox that the question I’m addressing implies. Part of the reason why I don’t seek tolerance for itself is the existence of the reductio ad absurdum we’re confronting: if I must always be tolerant, surely I must tolerate intolerance to the extent that I socialise it, for if I do not allow the intolerant to act on their beliefs, am I not being intolerant of them? Common sense, I think, revolts at the idea of tolerating intolerance. Carrying diversity to extremes as an end-in-itself also reaches the point of absurdity: if, for example, my close friends are found to be all of a certain ethnic background, am I failing in my duty to embrace diversity, and if so, what should be done with me?

Fortunate, then, that I can sidestep these conundrums and still be, to my mind, sufficiently tolerant and encouraging of diversity, by adopting values that have tolerance and diversity as emergent properties. This leaves me free to condemn and if necessary forcibly restrain narrow readers of the book of Leviticus, who physically assault gay men, but not men who wear garments woven of two kinds of cloth, or the misguided youths who consider themselves martyrs, expanding the Dar al-Islam into the Dar al-Harb by means of a Semtex waistcoat, even as I give them free rein to picket the funerals of AIDS victims with signs reading “God Hates Fags” or decry the decadence and corruption of the West, much though I may have to put a clothespin on my nose to do it.

It is here that the point I made earlier comes back into play, the point that I make no distinction between, as it were, private and public violence. To me, the actions of the suicide bomber whose stated goal is to bring the infidels into the House of Islam, and the enforcement of the provisions of shari’a law with respect to “People of the Book”, let alone the grimmer prescriptions for non-Abrahamic infidels, are equally repugnant and evil. I am under no obligation to be tolerant of the man who insists that I convert to his religion on pain of death; in fact, my obligation in confronting such a man may well be to end the threat he poses, whether by persuasion or by violence, insofar as the next person he subjects to his demands may be less capable than I to resist, and in the name of freedom of conscience, without which freedom of expression is meaningless.

In the same sense, my values confer upon me a duty to resist this odious and absurd law; to that end I pledge the following:

I will never censor myself for fear of flouting its provisions.

I will never vote for any candidate who voted for it.

I will never vote to convict anyone for violating it, in the now unlikely event that I ever serve on a jury that decides a case brought pursuant to it.

And since the law has now passed, I must now depart from theory and offer a practical answer to the question “how do we, as tolerant people, prevent the intolerant from making their intolerance law?”

To do so, I will go explicitly where Christopher Hitchens only ventured by indirection: we need a document not unlike the U.S. Constitution, one that is above and prior to the law, one which circumscribes the power of the government within strict limits, and enumerates some of our fundamental rights, including but not limited to those I have already articulated.

You will notice that, as well as circumscribing the power of government, this would also circumscribe the power of democracy, in that laws abridging the freedom of speech would be just as forbidden by this constitution if they were called for by the majority of people, not just a majority of MPs. I have, as the Founders of the United States had, no problem with this. Intolerance of diversity of belief, and of the freedom to hold and express beliefs, is and remains evil, no matter how many people vote for it.

Thank you.