The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.
I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:
1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?
The responses were overwhelmingly uniform across age groups: 80 to 90% of students in the courses I teach gave almost identical answers. Question number one received a resounding yes. Number two received an almost resounding no with just one born-again Christian saying yes. Number three received a resounding no. When it came to number four, in spite of the obvious contradictions; it received an almost resounding no too.
I avoid telling students what to think. What I did do this time round though was lead students forward in the discussion to try to highlight the contradictions in their responses. The discussion was fruitful and most of the students, including those who were more religious (a minority even in Catholic Italy these days), understood the significance of being able to offend people, even if they didn’t like it. The discussion was interesting in great part because it seemed to show how people, especially white middle-class Europeans, find offending others to be almost taboo.
It seems to me that people take their ideas about how the world should be and confuse it with how the world is and in doing so fail to see how disallowing the act of offence would undermine the foundations of secular society that are fundamental to pluralism and the relative degree of freedom we currently enjoy here in the West. In discussing free speech, we have to be very clear that we are talking about a politically and legally sanctioned right: the fundamental basis for the successful functioning of democracy in a secular society in which pluralism is made possible and defended by law. The significance of free speech is usually under-appreciated perhaps because we so often take it as matter-of-fact in the West.
The desire to avoid offending or harming others confuses and muddies the issue. The inability to rationally think through the consequences of stifling criticism or satirical humour that offends is rightly considered dangerous by many journalists and free thinkers. It seems that for many well-meaning folks, there is an inability to separate the ideal from the real. In the actual world we inhabit, free speech is a safeguard against censorship and the domination of religious or political ideologies. It has very little to do at all with being nice to people and avoiding conflict.
Censorship driven by religion is rife and it’s not only in Muslim countries that we see it. A modern supposedly democratic state like Russia shows what happens when blasphemy laws exist and criticism is condemned and punished by the state.
It is amazing how easily people fail to understand that criticism and offence are driving forces for democratic activism, as well as a source of creativity, social change and renewal. The universal declaration of human rights states that freedom of expression is a fundamental right and yet half of the world’s countries have laws suppressing free speech and freedom of expression with dire consequences for the average citizen. Even in democratic countries, politicians are too often troubled by the degree to which the general public are allowed to express themselves, which is to say that there is a constant tension between those in power wishing to determine the limits of behaviour and criticism, and the need to defend and secure this basic human right to allow all discussion to take place, however unsavoury, however offensive.
Half of the world’s countries penalise critique of religion with horrendous consequences. Blasphemy, defamation and apostasy can be punished by serious jail time and in a number of countries by torture and death. In thirteen of the world’s countries, being an atheist means you can be killed by the state: I repeat, murdered by the state for not accepting religious orthodoxy. See more on the work of the Freedom of Thought report here. A video of the Rubin report discusses the issue further here.
The religious often forget that free speech allows for pluralism of faiths: the fact that we in the West can convert to Buddhism and Islam or become Hindus or Scientologists is due to this pluralism. Despite the fact that Christianity is still fighting hard in many Western countries, it no longer gets to shut down political discourse and change when taking offence at the possibility of gay civil partnerships. Lest we not forget how it fought against freely accessible contraception, divorce, and so on, tooth and nail, with all its doctrinal powers. So many of the freedoms we enjoy are due to the fact that secular society has beaten back the obfuscating dominance of Christian ideology through hundreds of years of struggles and offence to religious orthodoxy. On a more light hearted note, if offending Christianity were illegal, there would have never been Father Ted, George Carlin and all the other wonderful comedians and shows that have highlighted the madness of blind faith and archaic Christian beliefs. This stuff is so obvious, but people do not seem to join the dots, especially if they are well meaning folk who want everybody to just get along.
Islam is obviously the most famous of the world’s religions for the suppression of freedom of expression at present but there are also a number of Buddhist countries that actively suppress it too. Burma is perhaps the most famous as the state actively suppresses religious freedom and even attempts to force conversion to Buddhism, with Muslims getting the worst of it. In Thailand, another Buddhist country, it is illegal to insult the Royal family and the state religion of Buddhism with punishment there including jail time. In Sri Lanka, a Buddhist majority country, suppression of Muslims and other faiths is commonplace. Famously, a British backpacker was arrested there in 2014 and then expelled for having a Buddhist tattoo. She was accused of ‘offending religious sensibilities’. Vietnam, an-ex-Communist country, has a majority Buddhist populace and freedom of expression is heavily clamped down on. The relationship between states and religion and the use of religious morality in suppressing free expression is an ongoing disaster for the cultivation of open societies but censorship seeps into even unlikely places.
A number of contemporary Buddhist teachers cannot help but jump in on the debate presumably holding that if we were all to practice right speech, everything would be more peaceful and we would all be happier. Joan Halifax recently spoke against unrestrained free speech at the Huffington Post following the Paris murders and I think she is guilty of failing to make a distinction between politics and benevolent practice, not quite understanding the significance of undermining this pillar of modern-day democracy. She also appears guilty of good old utopian new age thinking.
“I hope a warmer approach to discussing matters of faith can develop across news platforms around the globe.”
Really Joan? Really? When religion globally is too often complicit in the suppression of free expression, it is rather difficult to have a ‘warm’ rational conversation on the topic. There are way too many cases where faith equals conservatism, orthodoxy, and fanatical adherence to literal readings of religious texts or reliance on highly disturbed, manipulative religious leaders. Being all nice and warm about rampant homophobia and the suppression of gays by almost all conservative expressions of religion, including Buddhism, is kind of hard to swallow. Being all nice and warm about religious backed state terrorism and torture and even the murder of citizens for alternative beliefs is kind of tough Joan. Let’s not forget the support Putin receives for his anti-democratic dictatorship from the Orthodox Russian Church where blasphemy can lead to time spent in the prison, most famously the Gulags of Siberia for the anarchist punk group Pussy Riot. Then there are the fatwa issued on journalists and writers (with Salman Rushdie being the most famous back in 1989 and in case you didn’t know, that little gem has not gone away. Read on). The list is long and cruel and very, very violent. Unfortunately, she continues with this gem of wishful thinking:
“We have engaged in — globally — a kind of global disrespect of religious traditions, of political, of governments, of nations and views…How do we create the conditions where a critique — a really profound critique — can unfold in the conversation that we’re having globally, but where people don’t feel disempowered, disrespected?”
The answer is you can’t love. If black and white moralities lead to state suppression, notions of right or holy speech seem too often to lead directly to self-censorship. As Karma Yeshe Rabgye, a Western convert to Tibetan Buddhism, states at his website in an article on speech:
“…obviously, freedom of speech is a human right, but if you’re written words are going to harm others or stir up trouble, that should not be written.”
Really? Who decides what is or is not trouble? What if trouble actually needs stirring up? The problem is that such a vague statement as ‘harm others’ or ‘stir up trouble’ can be interpreted in endless ways. Such statements seem to assume that people will naturally arrive at the same benevolent conclusions and that they will be able to easily distinguish between right and wrong. Good people have been doing the wrong thing, supporting the wrong ideology, and ignoring suffering to avoid upsetting the apple cart since forever. Just think if Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had not had the courage to stir up trouble in the States in the 1950s? What about the suffragettes in England in the early 1900s? Perhaps they should have remained in their place and avoided upsetting the sensibilities of a male-centred society based around discriminative Christian values? These are two obvious examples. The list of freedoms and justice earned by upsetting the status-quo is very, very long.
It goes on. The Buddhist Channel just recently published an article on the Charlie Hebdo attack and suggested that:
“It is for countries that believe in the Right to Free Speech to balance this right with some censorship.”
Who gets to censor? What is censored? Why would censorship be good? Have these people read Orwell? Very scary stuff!
We have another representative of Buddhism, this time Venerable Doboom Tulku who is director of Tibet House. He stated back in 2012 during another clash of cultures with Islam due to a video that was made that portrayed Islam in a bad light that “…freedom of expression or intellectual exercise must never be used to hurt the sentiments of any section” and also commented that a film which had “some content” that “showed Islam in a bad light and should have been prevented.”
He, like many other Buddhists, seem to be of the opinion that freedom of speech is good, but only if it adheres to strict controls, which is a rather funny notion of freedom. This is exactly why religion needs to be kept out of politics: all religion. Bucket loads of religious ideas need to be undermined and deconstructed for their inaccuracies and barbarism and when it comes to religion there really is no legislating against disrespecting cherry picked ideas. Once you decide to avoid upsetting feelings, the door opens to all manner of claims from all quarters. As Bill Maher pointed out, the bullying starts. We need to be pulling apart religious ideas that are incompatible with the facts of the world, not pussyfooting around them so as not to offend.
The intention behind the spoken word is of course important and when you look at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, you see a magazine that comes out of a long history of critiquing the powerful and the religious through satire and humour. Satire does this in great part to destabilise what we consider as normal, as ‘just the way it is’; which is to say, it attacks assumptions and norms, reminding us of the folly of ideas, political certainties and religious dogma. Satire is supposed to upset or offend, not because it has the purpose of doing so, but because in destabilising the status quo, inevitably people’s cherished ideas and identities are upset, are turned over and displayed under a less adulating light. The fact is that religion has a speciality for producing dumb ideas, as old George Carlin never failed to remind us, and dumb ideas need not be protected and shielded from examination, but opened up, looked at without fear, and explored without suppression.
This whole affair seems to point again to the ignorance liberal religious and spiritual people have regarding the fundamental importance of political engagement. It also seems to reflect complacency regarding our history and what it is that has created a society within which choice is possible: choices available to Muslims and Christians too. Add to these constraints on freedom of expression adherence to right speech, the avoidance of anger and other so-called harmful emotions, and we have a wonderful kit for suppression and self-censorship provided by Buddhism that perhaps accounts for the words of someone like Halifax.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who obviously has a lot of first-hand experience with dictatorships, suppression and the removal of free expression, has made sharp comments in defence of free speech in her native Burma. As a political activist and Buddhist she advocates full free speech. She speaks not of ‘right speech’ but of ‘intelligent speech’ over at the Index on Censorship. For those of us with some form of ongoing connection to Buddhism, intelligent speech could form a code of conduct that is conducive to managing life more successfully. As well as suggestions on how to manage inter-personal communication more successfully, it would necessarily include a commitment to truth, honesty, transparency and intelligent critique. Intelligent speech should never seek to oppress, shout out criticism and silence dissent in order to avoid upsetting the fragile beliefs of others, however angry. How a voluntary ethical approach to speech can be formulated in the 21st century is a conversation that we can certainly have. Well-meaning Buddhists though would do well to read up on the history of Democracy and Secularism before joining in on it.
Follow Up: Dave Watson made some interesting comments below that highlight a situation that is widespread amongst those who have managed to view the Paris attacks as being solely a result of Western foreign policy. They are often guilty of inverting the situation so that the French journalists, artists and their families are almost dismissed and the bigger story is brought to the fore as a means for justifying the terrorists acts. Free speech is seen as a cover, a means for the privileged West to ignore the ‘real’ issues. I wonder if this view from the far-left in the States is due to their own fairly solid free speech where a European law against denying the Holocaust does not exist and Muslims are generally better integrated and less ghettoised than here in Europe? I am personally concerned about protecting free speech and the continuous and ongoing push from religions for blasphemy laws to be introduced. Islam, far from being the religion of some poor minority that needs our protection is a world religion with powerful men in powerful places. The latest horror story concerning its protectors shocking fear of critique can be seen at the following link where Saudi Arabia is trying to motion the UN for the enactment of a motion against ‘contempt’ of religion. This is there second attempt. They are accompanied by Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey. Read on if you wish.
I shall post here two articles I included in a response below.
“Wherever religion controls politics it drives out tolerance and basic human rights.”
Polly Toynbee from 2004. Worth a read. She articulates why defence of free speech is perhaps more of an issue here in the UK and Europe than in the States. I was thinking that if you’re American Dave, you’re missing some of the context for why I might write write what I did.
There’s an article from Douglas Murray here that may boil your blood.