Free Speech Crisis? Really???

Although I recently posted a blog about free speech a new line of thinking has crystallized my thoughts a little better on the subject.  There are numerous prominent intellectuals, like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt, who are expressing concerns about free speech.  This is a cause that many liberals are now concerned about.  To the point that they say it is fascism on the left chilling people’s free speech.  I am not fan of disinviting speakers who have views we disagree with, and I think it’s important to hear well researched and thought out points of view.  If we are unable to do that on a widespread basis, then I do agree we have a problem.  But are we are we really at that point and are we, at this current moment, experiencing a free speech crisis in countries like the U.S?  Is the PC crowd really destroying freedom of expression in our society?    Here is the view of one such person who disagreed with my assertion that I don’t think we have to worry about the first amendment being abolished.  Apparently I’ve missed the point:

perhaps through firings for ‘insensitivity’, public shaming based on accusations, grovelling apologies if offence is claimed, speakers being deplatformed and disinvited, ongoing vilification of those who break the ideological group taboo and dare to criticize a protected group, not being politically correct enough, daring to use facts and evidence contrary to an ideological assertion about victimhood and oppression, professional and personal sanctions for not being sensitive enough and so on, encountering a new ‘tree’ each and every time, so to speak, and not addressing the larger issue of the free speech principle. The sentiment raised by Swarn is wrong because this is in fact the rising danger… not because a totalitarian government is on the brink of being elected and canceling free speech by edict but because people by and large are self censoring now, not attending now, not supporting the right of those with whom we may disagree now, cancelling subscriptions now, showing up and disrupting events now, being dismissive free speech for those with whom we disagree now. It is already of such common practice that individuals are curtailing their right to free speech willingly and right now in response to the totalitarian ideology of those who champion social justice through GroupThink and PC, those who stand ready to vilify those blasphemers with the handy labels of bigotry, racism, sexism, ever-ready group smears to be liberally applied as alt Right, fake news, alternative facts, deplorables, and so on. We self censor because of this toxic atmosphere in which we live and the ubiquitous punishments implemented all around us when some people dare to defy it

Besides the fact that obviously any of the people who we are concerned about being “de-platformed” or abused on twitter, or have lost their job still have plenty of platforms to air their views, I’d like to approach the narrative from a different direction.  In a recent interview with Sam Harris, journalist Rebecca Traister addressed the following concern by Sam Harris of what he felt were innocuous comments by Matt Damon on Twitter about the #metoo movement.  She said that every day in this country people are fired from jobs with no explanation given.  It could be their race, their sexuality, their gender, it could be legitimate.  The point is, why do we only get concerned when powerful people seem to be unfairly treated given they really don’t lose much of their wealth or their status.  Matt Damon seems just fine despite getting yelled at on Twitter.  When she said this, it resonated with me because I had thought something very similar in regards to this response to my blog comment above with regards to all of us having to self-censor in this PC culture.  And I thought about  how often women have had to self-censor when they experience sexual harassment?  How often have black people had to self-censor when they experienced discrimination? For those who are the bottom end of societal hierarchies, life is a constant stream of self-censoring.

Now that social media has helped give many people a voice should we be surprised that many are using it say, “you know what, we just aren’t buying what you’re selling”?  Now it’s not to say that there aren’t overreactions, but I would argue that saying “being homosexual isn’t natural” is a far larger overreaction that persisted for quite some time in society.  In an episode of the Guilty Feminist host Deborah Frances-White said that whenever she hears that the #MeToo movement has gone too far she just thinks “yeah but the previous Women-Have-To-Put-Up-With-Any-Shit movement really had a good run.  That went long.  For millennia”.  She goes on to say, in regards to the #MeToo movement, maybe all this PC culture is doing is giving all of us an opportunity (or at least should be) to increase our public empathy.  We are at the very least thinking about the fact that what we do and say could be hurtful to other people, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You may think that I am making a two wrongs make it right sort of argument, and I guess in a way I am, but let me clarify.  It’s interesting to me how when power structures are questioned the reaction is always far more knee-jerk.  And why does it largely seemed to be white males concerned about this? I mean has anybody who is worried about threats to free speech even presented data that this is an increasing problem, that there are more concerns today than ever before?  When you approach the narrative from the other side, at the lower end of the hierarchy, the fact that more secular people are free to express doubts about religion, more black people are allowed to express their equality to whites, more homosexuals are able to be openly gay, more women are allowed to be in jobs previously only held by men…I’d say that things are actually far more open.  Again is it possible that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction at times? Sure. But to say that we are in some sort of free speech crisis, I think, is a ludicrous claim.  Even Jonathan Haidt who was the first to take note of this issue of de-platforming speakers on campus has done a lot of nice work in really trying to understand what’s going on here and by no means think that college students are more against free speech today than in the past.  In an article by Jeffrey Adam Sachs in the Washington Post, he argues:

“In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.”

Just because I don’t think we are in a free speech crisis doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with silencing people who have disagreeable views.  I think that we have to always be careful to think whether our actions will enhance or diminish the number of people who hold such views.  Not engaging with people we disagree with can run counter to our goals towards social justice.  That doesn’t mean we should be publicly debating a racist every week either.  Just like I don’t think I need to invite a ‘Flat Earther’ to my class to hash it out in a physics debate, I think a white supremacist is just as fundamentally wrong about the nature of humanity as a ‘Flat Earther’ is about the nature of the universe and I think it’s okay to be somewhat dismissive to such views.  But perhaps punching them isn’t exactly the most helpful thing to do either.   They are all still human, and just like the ‘Flat Earther’ somehow they’ve become misguided and it’s possible to both oppose their views with strength and recognize their humanity.  As writer and journalist Johann Hari said in an interview:

 “It is right to challenge racism, but it has to be challenged in an intelligent way that doesn’t produce more racism, and that’s a fine balance. And I understand why a lot of people say, why should I have to pussyfoot around this?”

And one of my favorite moments in listening to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast was in interview with Fareed Zakaria, when Harris was going on about the dangers of Islamic ideology, Fareed coolly said, “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”

And I think those few words are extremely important to remember.  We need to better at the helping part than being right.  I think it’s possible to do both, but it’s not always the easiest way.  This is a topic perhaps for another post, but let’s not send people into alarmist mindsets about crises of free speech, when so many other problems are still widespread and harmful in the western world.  Let’s try to understand what’s underlying people’s fears and worries and see what we can do to help.  Let’s try to keep some perspective here.  The privilege of the powerful is still far greater than those in the society who have no voice.

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Some Thoughts On Free Speech

I’ve become pretty much a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, but this is not to say that I don’t question this belief and wonder if it should always universally apply, even when it’s not a direct incitement to violence.  Things get quite murky when it comes to hate speech because, I think there are going to be disagreements of what hate speech is.  For instance if I said:

“All Jews are scum and should be eradicated.”

I think we would all agree that this was hate speech and incites violence.  But what I just said:

“All Jews are scum.”

Image result for Free speechSome might say there is no incitement to violence.  But this is a hate speech no question.  And I would argue that it dehumanizes a group of people (which increases the odds that violence will perpetrated against them) and also simply has no merit in any intellectual fashion.  I think even most would agree that both should not fall under the purview of free speech, but what if the message, like the second one, is not so overt?  Hate groups tend to be a little cleverer about their message these days, yet there are still groups that get away from some pretty blatant hate speech.  Consider the Westboro Baptist church.  Their message about homosexuals is certainly dehumanizing them, they certainly talk about torture being done to them (at least on some other plane of existence) even if they aren’t the ones to do the torturing.  Religious posturing, particular using fear-based tactics to gain followers certainly makes out those who do not follow the religion to be less than human, possessed by evil, worthy only of eternal torture, they are the enemy, etc.  But I am not trying to bash religion, but only to point out that when freedom of religion mixes with free speech the murkiness increases and we tend to be even less punitive despite the harm that might result from those words spoken publicly.

Which brings us to the topic of punishment.  If we aren’t going to punish hate groups for advocating for things like white nationalism by the law, is it reasonably to have groups like Antifa do the punishment for us?

Image result for free speechIf we want to live in a society where the government isn’t going to interfere with what people say publicly, we are left with a sort of vigilante style justice system. When I was on social media there were quite a few people that felt Antifa’s actions were justified.  Some of those people were quite well educated also.  Their argument, which I tend to agree with, is that any group that advocates the superiority of their own group over others, purports a worldview that only their group has certain rights while others do not.  And this tends to include a lack of protection from violence for those groups that they feel are unworthy due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  Such a worldview is not compatible with a free society and thus if we must have free speech, then punching a Nazi is completely acceptable as a consequence to somebody expressing their racist worldview.  Answering hate speech with violence is the part I struggle with.  I tend to think that anybody who advocates a worldview does not support equal rights for all humans is simply sowing seeds of hate which will lead to violence and this is therefore harmful speech that should be punished.  If we say the law should punish them, then this becomes a slippery slope. Once we start limiting free speech this also presents dangers to a free society.

Image result for free speechI am sure there many people who have thought more deeply about this societal right than I have, but I tried to think about what the purpose is for free speech.  I think I would boil it down to two important aspects 1) The ability to have an unbridled free market of ideas that allow people to challenge ideas and choose the ones that have the most merit and 2) The freedom to voice dissent about existing paradigms, culture, governments, etc.  Both these things are good for a society and not being punished by those in power for this speech is important.  History is full of bad ideas that have taken hold of societies and without dissent, things would simply not have gotten better.

Image result for colin kaepernickOf course the problem is that people are punished for dissenting ideas all the time.  Certainly those who disagreed with slavery, segregation, and other oppressive policies and cultural attitudes towards African-Americans has paid prices in this country (and still are).  The fact that those in power can advocate for policies that cause real harm to particular groups of people, makes the importance of being able to express dissent freely even more obvious, even if this hasn’t happened in practice.  We know how hard it is to have progress in affording all people basic human rights when free speech is chilled.  And even though I can bring many more examples of consequences that people face when exercising their first amendment rights (even if that punishment isn’t be federal law) we know that speech is rarely 100% free.  And if this is the case, do want mob style justice for that speech or do we want thoughtfully put together laws, and judges and juries making decisions about whether possible violators are innocent or guilty?

Of course freedom of expression shouldn’t imply freedom from consequences.  And it is those consequences that we have to be mindful of.  When does vigilante violence become the solution to dealing with groups pushing the limits of what is considered hate or harmful or speech?  Is violence ever a good idea, even against groups whose worldview would advocate violence against others?  I don’t think that it is morally wrong to do so, but since the action of punching a Nazi doesn’t exist in isolation, one also has to wonder about the bigger picture.  When people see violence enacted against somebody and others cheering it on how does this play into the psychology of individuals?  Even if that person, could arguably deserve it because they advocate a worldview that would inflict violence on others does such an action actually change people’s point of view? If we avoid violence we might turn to shaming. Social media is pretty good at shaming.  Is shaming effective?  It can be, but this is a court that makes mistakes too.  Shaming can also have deep psychology impacts which don’t necessarily lead to positive change.

Image result for free speechIt’s not obvious to me that violence is the right action, nor is it obvious to me that such speech shouldn’t be met with sharp reprisal given the level of danger that such ideas represent.  Maybe the question really boils down to “Is it okay to dehumanize people who dehumanize others?” There might be obvious actors that we would answer yes to this question. But certainly we know that people also reform, and that many people who are part of hate groups realize the errors of their ways and turn their lives around.  I know there are times when violence is the only answer left to confront people who mean to do serious harm.  It’s just not obvious to me that we’ve reached that point and worry that organizations like Antifa do more harm than good, when other options might still be on the table.

Perhaps it’s my own frustration that leaves me wondering, “Why do we still have to still talk about whether one race is superior to others or not?”  Hell if you had asked me if that flat Earth theorists would be making a comeback, I’d have laughed my ass off.  I don’t know why we have to convince people that vaccines are in their and society’s best interest.  Yet here we are.  My commitment to free speech waivers it seems when confronted with revisiting conversations we’ve already have and should be over.  There are real problems to solve, and while speech should be free, wasting time on speech that is factually incorrect and in many cases can cause real harm, affects me on an emotional level and there is a part of me that says “Yeah, shut that idiot up, even if you have to punch him, his shit is ridiculous.”  Ultimately though the best argument for free speech is to look what happens in societies without it.  A society committed to freedom of speech, I don’t think is likely to spin into totalitarianism.  I guess the best thing to do is just be vigilant and to make sure that bad ideas are always exposed as such, and fortunately we have the freedom to do so.

Progress and the Monsters that Hinder Us

There is an idea, or perhaps several that I’ve been struggling with for the past few years.  The election of Trump has certainly elevated my thoughts on this matter.  It started as the issue of political correctness became controversial.  There were starting to be more and more rumblings that things had gone too far.  Not just from conservative pundits who complain about every ounce of liberal criticism, but from liberals as well.  Often from satirists and comedians whose life’s work comes from criticizing conservatism and extreme right wing values.

It seems, in my own experience, I start to see more and more people on the left become abusive of the people on the right.  It doesn’t even seem like it’s because they’ve been offended first, but are being offended for other people, and thus feel justified in shaming others.  Now perhaps we have always had a group of people who have been quick to take offense, and that this age of social media has simply brought such people to the fore.  Just as social media has been quick to enhance a culture of shaming which probably already existed.  Perhaps the allure of being able to shame people anonymously and with greater volume is too great for many of us to resist.  Keep in mind,I am not just making a criticism of people on the left here. Because for all their talk about “liberal snowflakes”, if the right was just this “let it slide” group of people who just kept their nose to the grindstone, I think social media would look much different.

The idea that has been bouncing, increasingly more violently in my head, is to what degree we create the monsters we despise, and to what degree to we become them ourselves.  Many of us have listened to or read analyses by various pundits and scholars about how right wing movements are on the rise and there are some who would blame this on the left.  Part of this could be in support of neo-liberalism, but some have suggested that this is due to a more aggressive liberalism that is trying to force a certain viewpoint on others.  An example of that is written in a critique of a New York Magazine piece in Salon.   Look I don’t want to make this another self-examination piece where I am going to blame the left for the ills of today.  I am not going to let off the hook harmful ideologies on the right which have no place in civil societies either. It’s well documented that the right has used fear and misinformation to exploit people and for the most part I feel like the left is simply trying to react to increased levels of irrationality, but not necessarily in a rational way.  Politicians are of course not the only ones to use fear to persuade people.  Corporations and the media all do it as well, and so to a certain degree all of us live at a certain level of fear most who are my age or older didn’t grow up with.

I worry about universities becoming places that disinvite speakers due to social media pressure and protests from students.  Such things are certainly a function of the corporate model that universities are being run as also, but it is a concern that students would be so upset to hear what someone they disagree with has to say to actually prevent that person from speaking.  This article is from 2016 and only in the U.S. but it is happening in the UK as well.  This year we had protests turn violent at Berkeley because of professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and a twice this year a pro-police speaker, Heather MacDonald had talks canceled or dangerously disrupted and was unable to give her talk.  I believe bad ideas fester in the dark.  I would rather have bad ideas challenged in an open forum.  Allowing people to speak at universities doesn’t legitimize their claims, it tells young people that in the real world you are going to face a diversity of views and people that hold them and that you must be able to absorb them and answer them with rational and evidentiary arguments.  

Today, I listened to a podcast, and heard yet another critique of Merkel (from a liberal) for letting in so many refugees and that this is the fuel the right-wing parties need to take over many European nations and possibly lead to the collapse of the EU.  Even if Islamic terrorists acts are small in comparison to the amount of good that helps the refugees opening borders so freely is dangerous.  The overarching argument being that so much compassion leads to a blind spot, where political moderation would be more prudent for long term stability.  From a political standpoint, I find it hard to disagree perhaps, but as an individual who also recognizes the cost of not helping people who are suffering it leaves me feeling helpless.  If compassion leads to the rise of nationalism and racism, and I believe in the value of compassion as one of our most valuable human traits, then I must at least ask the question, “Is it enough if our heart is in the right place?”

Since I believe we can live in a more compassionate society, and that human society has trended towards greater compassion, I want to be able to see that movement continually.  Maybe in the long arch of history it is our fate to take two steps forward and one step back.  And these back steps may be half a human lifetime.  Furthermore, perhaps in some places things go back for longer, while other countries that were back start to move forward.  So globally we may still be moving forward, but all moving at different rates.  The fact remains, that as an individual, while I can be pleased that the average moves forward, I still am not content to let the society that I most directly live in fall back.  What can I do?  How must I behave?  And how can I promote positive behavior in others?

An important part of my journey in life was to understand the brain.  My inspiration for doing so occurred when I met with people who had diametrically different world views, and where no amount of evidence would sway them.  That journey was a great one and it gave me a greater understanding of how people come to believe the things they do.  But I still find that in the everyday things we generally want the same things, and that we are all quite similar, so I find myself wondering how common ground is to be found.  I guess, it is just who I am that I can’t give up on the idea that we are all human and that we have more reasons to work together than to work apart.  And so it is this lens that I find myself wondering, “Even if some minds can’t be changed, how do we make sure that the problem doesn’t get worse?”  It seems to me that 20 years ago, someone like Trump would have been laughed at to the point of just being a lopped off as to one of those crazy eccentrics who runs for president but nobody takes seriously.  Many of us were of that very mindset in the primaries, myself included.  But it also seems to me that the left has changed as well.  I don’t remember a group of people on the left that behaved the way we have seen either.  I don’t remember universities preventing speakers they disagreed with from speaking.  I certainly don’t remember riots over it.  I don’t remember the name calling and the shaming, and the dehumanization of people we disagree with.

It’s perhaps a chicken and the egg, but it seems like as the divide has grown such that the fringes grow too.  In my mind I see this being plausible as a normal statistical distribution morphs into a bimodal one.  Have the terrorists been winning?  Sending the west into a spiral of fear, where the existence of one extreme, requires that we oppose it with another?  Is the “alt-right” a response to an “alt-left”?  Or vice-versa? Are most of us just living in such a state of fear that we, on average, feel a greater need to be part of a certain camp, where it’s “us” against “them”?

There was an excellent little article by George Orwell I read a few months ago, that he wrote in a London newspaper on fascism.  A word we’ve seen a lot lately and reading this article made me realize how easily the word was thrown around then too.  In trying to define the word, the most common definition that he thinks people could agree with is bullying. I think if we’re honest with ourselves we can think people who fit the description of a bully, and they aren’t all on the right.  I’ve heard the political spectrum described as a horseshoe and that there is a place that the left and right meet, and that’s at fascism.  Communist Russia and Nazi Germany might have come from different political philosophies, but I think we can agree that the style of governance was very similar in its oppressiveness and cruelty.  The fact remains that no matter how right someone might be the way in which we deliver that truth matters.  If I say it is better for you to be kind.  That statement is true.  But if I, in convincing you, try to shame you, push you around, call you names, surround you with a bunch of my friends and make threats, I think the importance of kindness would be lost.  Yet this is the kind of behavior we see every day: people on both sides being jeered at and dehumanized for being wrong about something.  There are too few attempts to educated and reason.  Plenty of getting angry and ridiculing others.  I maintain the belief that rightness divorced from empathy is ultimately unhealthy, even poisonous at times.  We’ve all been wrong about things, and at times we’ve been ignorant or misinformed about some pretty basic information.  We’ve also been guilty of letting our emotion override our rationality.  This is part of being human.  So even when you believe that someone is wrong about something, even dangerously wrong, it doesn’t make them any less human.   We have easily duped and plastic brains that are subject to the influences in our lives.

As I quoted recently in a post about Sam Harris’ thoughts on Trump, we have two choices in influencing others: conversation or violence.   Is shaming and ridicule conversation?  Or is it more of a violence of the mind?  Even if we can say it is still not violence, it feels like unproductive discourse that will make violence more a necessity.  I am not a pacifists to the point of saying violence is never the answer, but I am constantly going to be looking at how we can avoid it.  Free speech, provided it is not inciting violence, is one of our most important values.  It is the one value that allows us to self-correct peacefully, and challenge ideas that cause harm.

I am not sure how this post will be perceived.  Whether it appears balanced in its criticism.  I guess, it seems to me, that fascism is growing in both political directions and that somehow they are a reaction to each other.   A reaction to fear perhaps, and as fascism grows the fear gets worse.  Can we find a way out of the positive feedback loop?  Maybe the other guy started it, but as the divide grows that origin seems to matter less than trying to figure out how to end it.  As a liberal rooted in all people enjoying basic human rights, I wonder how we defend those values while loving those who attack such values at the same time so that they know those values can improve the quality of life for all.  But one thing is sure to me, if we can’t live by the values we claim to embrace, then a progressive liberal society doesn’t seem achievable.

More than Words

The discussion of free speech has once again risen up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  For some interesting reads please take a look at this article on the Ethics of Free Speech and this article that presents a Muslim’s perspective on the situation.  Many of the ideas in these articles are important and so I wanted to throw them out first so that I don’t repeat their points too much.  If you’re too lazy to read them (I barely had time to write blog posts anymore so I understand)though I’ll list some important points that are guiding my thoughts right now:

  • How do we decide what freedom actually means?

    From http://bearingdrift.com
  • The argument for freedom of speech often gets turned into a “Those who want that freedom” and “those that don’t”. This is a false dichotomy because generally the disagreement lies where along a spectrum of “Freedom” we must draw the line on free speech.
  • Is freedom of speech always a good thing?
  • Words have power

When the news broke about what happened in France on January 7th, I have to say my reaction was not one of surprise.  Muslim extremists are nothing new, and given the anger that was sparked when Danish cartoonists depicted the prophet Mohammed in their publication, I just wasn’t surprised.

Now this not to say that I didn’t think it was a terrible tragedy.  Of course it is.  I don’t want anyone to think that my position is that those at Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to them. There is a difference between not being surprised and thinking such an act of violence against them was deserved.  There is no question that these Islamic extremists have got it wrong.  They don’t understand their faith, they will fail in achieving whatever dream world they want to live in, and they will simply cause more harm to others and themselves with time.   I can say that with certainty, in the long run, they will fail to get what they want and it is clear that all good people should and do oppose their aims.

Before looking at Charlie Hebdo let’s take a closer look at this whole cartoon depiction of Mohammed stuff.   Perhaps by putting things into context you will understand why I was not shocked to find that this happened.  First, we can agree that killing somebody over such a thing as a cartoon, no matter how offensive,

From the South Park Wiki. The picture of Mohamed was available, but I chose to show Buddha instead. I’m okay with that. 🙂

is ridiculous.  That being said it is not unreasonable for someone to be offended when their religion is ridiculed.  People do it all the time, they just don’t go all the way to killing somebody.  I am sure there are many other moderate and peaceful Muslims who were offended by Charlie Hebdo or the Danish cartoons previously.  And of course some number close to 100% of them never killed anybody over it.  Satire, comedy and comic depictions of religious figures is not new, but it is relatively new.  Such things quickly got you killed in Europe not so long ago if you tried to ridicule Christianity or religious leaders.  And while I believe the world as a whole, on average, progresses forward in terms of morality and reason, there are pockets of people going in reverse. As an example, I find it interesting that prior to 9/11 there was no outcry about a South Park season 5 episode in which various deities from other religions banded together to save the day.  I guess Mohammed was not ridiculed but still a cartoon is a cartoon.  This episode was even available after 9/11 for a number of years and has only recently been pulled.  I guess it was off the radar for awhile and perhaps South Park Studios didn’t want to take the chance anymore.  The point is that the backlash against Islam post 9/11 seems to have had a more polarizing impact on Islam and the west, such that those who wish to do us harm have looked for more reasons to do so.  Therefore, it seems to me, those who perpetrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo would have likely found another target had they not been drawing cartoons, but their doing so simply added them to a list of possible targets.  Crazy people generally don’t have good reasons to cause such harm, so should we be surprised that in a country with a lot of Islam vs French tension, where a magazine is ridiculing Islam that this simply puts them on the radar of the crazy people?  Personally I don’t think so.

Now let’s get back to freedom of speech.  We can also agree that it’s important, but just because you have the freedom to say something that doesn’t mean you should.  If you’re wife asked you if she looked fat in something, then you would have the freedom to tell her the honest truth, but I think you know how well that will work out for you.  Also having freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t consequences for exercising that freedom, and law may have very little to do with it.  In truth, I have the freedom to go and kill somebody.  But there are consequences to that action.  Those consequences may simply be a fear of getting caught, more often than not though it is our own moral center that prevents us from doing such a thing.  We may even have a good reason to do so, but I also think about what my friends and family would think about me, how I would provide for my child, the times I would miss with my family, etc.  We are free to do a lot of things when you think about it, but our choice to act on those freedoms must be weighed against the consequences of our actions.

One of the Charlie Hebdo satirists said “We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat” in regards to whether he was

From http://www.beheadingboredom.com

worried about angering Muslim extremists.  While I can feel a certain amount of respect for someone who lives by their convictions, I do wonder about the value of that conviction.  Of course, the chance of dying from a terrorist attack in the west is extremely small, and perhaps if he knew that there was even a 10% chance of being a target of Muslim extremists, he might not have been so sure of himself.  I am also opposed to religious extremism (or really any kind of extremism) but if I am going to have convictions on the matter that are worth dying for, satirical cartoons seem like a strange way for me to take a stand.  If we want to defeat extremism, are satirical cartoons helping the situation?  I doubt if any extremist has looked at one of their cartoons and said to his fellow crazy Jihadists “Hey guys…you know what…I didn’t get it before but this cartoon has really shown me we’re being ridiculous.  Let’s just relax and maybe talk to some more moderate imams about interpreting the scripture in the Koran more carefully”.  Furthermore it seems one of the best way to quash Islamic extremists is actually by having most of the Muslims who are more moderate on your side.  Doing something that most Muslims find offensive, might not anger them into attacking you, but it doesn’t exactly win their hearts.  Therefore if anybody thinks that drawing satirical cartoons of Mohammed is in any way taking a stand against Islamic extremists then you are quite simply wrong.  It does nothing but divide people.  At best, those who appreciate the cartoons are a group of secular intellectuals who appreciate the wit and who already agree with the points you are making.  At worst, those who appreciate the cartoons are bigots wishing to eradicate all Muslims from their country.  The point is, such cartoons aren’t helping and are most likely making things worse.

What people seem to forget is that 1) being right isn’t always the most important thing, and that 2) even if you want to be right there are multiple ways to make your point.  Richard Dawkins is right about a lot of things, and yet many people, even humanists, atheists, and agnostics think he’s an asshole.  In thinking about these cartoons, I was reminded about my confrontation with the gay bashing fundamentalist Christians who came to our campus.  I asked the main guy point blank “Even if you are absolutely 100% right do you think that your offending and insulting them is going to convince them to your point of view?”  He was sure that they were going to hell and so he felt that what he was doing was the strongest most direct way to get them to change their sinful ways.  Anybody else of course can see that such anger and unkindness would never win the hearts of those they intend to save.  The only people who are supporting them are those who already agree with them.  So even though Islamic extremists are crazy, they don’t understand their faith, they cause harm, and their actions will ultimately cause them to fail to achieve their over arching aim, how we expose the extremists for what they are is just as important.  Being martyrs is one of those possibilities, but the freedom to draw cartoons of the prophet Mohamed just seems like a silly way to make that stand.

From http://thebilzerianreport.com

Freedom of speech is an extremely important one to a free society.  Speech has the power to sway.  As it sways it can raise the consciousness, inspire, and lift men and women to more.  However, speech also has the power to divide, misinform, offend, anger, and mislead.  To quote Uncle Ben Parker “With great power, comes great responsibility”.   I don’t wish for any government to censor publications like Charlie Hebdo.  Taking away freedoms doesn’t help the situation either, and is never an answer to terrorism (i.e. The Patriot Act). Nevertheless, no matter how “in the right” we think we might be, let us also think about how we communicate our message.  Freedom of speech is an important one to fight for, but there are many other good things to fight for and so it’s important to not get so lost in one fight that we start to lose the others.