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Blasphemy and Public Reason

October 19th, 2012 · 11 Comments

I’ve noticed something interesting about Western press reports on the protests over the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube trailer. Typically, but perhaps surprisingly when you think about it, the protesters quoted in these articles do not simply, as one might expect, say that insults to Islam or its prophet are an outrage against the one true faith and must be forbidden because that is God’s will. They instead make a familiar—and in one sense secular—type of argument grounded in the (supposed) rights of individuals, the psychological harms purportedly caused by exposure to mockery of one’s deepest beliefs, and the ideal of respect for the equal dignity of others. In principle, this kind of argument does not depend upon the truth of Islam, and indeed, is not usually framed explicitly as being limited to that faith.

While any argument for squelching speech in deference to religious taboos is obviously “illiberal” in its content, there’s a narrow sense in which this kind of argument is formally liberal, in that it strives to meet the requirements of liberal public reason. It is not, in other words, an argument that depends on one’s sharing any particular comprehensive religious or metaphysical doctrine, but aims to present reasons that could be accepted by persons of any faith (or none).

There are, to be sure, many reasons these reports may not really reflect the attitude of most protesters. The people eager to speak with Western reporters may not be representative of the larger pool of protesters. The quotes chosen by reporters for inclusion in an article may not be representative of the pool of what they hear in interviews—precisely because they know arguments predicated on the truth of Islam will be wholly unconvincing to non-Muslim readers and want to present the “best” argument for that side of the debate. And, for the same reason, interviewees may be crafting responses that reflect what they think will resonate Western readers rather than their true beliefs.  Certainly, there’s not a lot of evidence that governments in majority-Muslim countries are terribly concerned about limiting offensive and derogatory speech about other faiths. All that said, it seems like it’s got to be a healthy development that even many proponents censoring blasphemous speech so naturally adopt the language of liberal public reason for the purposes of public justification, whether sincerely or not. It’s so deeply embedded that we don’t even notice it in cases where it ought to be a little remarkable.

The problem for those proponents, of course, is that this argument fares pretty badly if we actually take the constraints of public reason seriously. Once you make your anti-blasphemy principle truly general, abandoning any reliance on the truth of the faith insulted, you’re pretty much forced to grant a veto on speech to anyone (any group?) claiming offense. That seems certain to make such claims more frequent, and to risk burdens on the speech of the faithful that far outweigh the benefit of having the offensive speech of others silenced—especially given the alternative, if the issue is offense to people rather than god, of not looking at online videos that offend you. The million dollar question is whether those who embrace the terms of public reason when attacking blasphemy will internalize its norms enough to actually accept a loss on those terms.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · Religion



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 royal // Oct 19, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    This also works if you replace the word “blasphemy” with “bullying”.

  • 2 Kevin Lawrence // Oct 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    @royal – in your ‘blasphemy/bullying’ substitution, what is the equivalent of ‘truth of the faith’?

  • 3 The Butthurt Veto § Unqualified Offerings // Oct 19, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez makes an interesting point about protests against that awful movie trailer: Many (not to be confused with all) of the Muslims protesting are arguing (at least in the interviews and reports that he’s read) that the relevant principle here is not divine authority but rather the wrongness of offending people so grievously.  Julian has some remarks on what that means and what it says about attitudes in the Muslim world.  I’d like to point out that a similar idea can be found in other quarters. […]

  • 4 Julian // Oct 19, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Yeah I’m not sure I think that really works.

  • 5 MFarmer // Oct 19, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    It’s the responsibility of individuals to grow up.

  • 6 Adrian Ratnapala // Oct 20, 2012 at 1:35 am

    The million dollar question is whether those who embrace the terms of public reason when attacking blasphemy will internalize its norms enough to actually accept a loss on those terms.

    Another question is whether westerners will actually be rigorous enough in defending free speech. The US is probably safe for now, but “free speech isn’t the freedom to offend” type arguments do resonate in other western countries, many of which routinely ban speech such as holocaust denial.

  • 7 DavidT // Oct 20, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    “especially given the alternative, if the issue is offense to people rather than god, of not looking at online videos that offend you. ”

    Reminds me of the old joke:

    “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”

    “So don’t do that!”

    Seriously, Americans should realize how unusual the First Amendment–as currently interpreted– is, *even among democratic countries* most of which allow more leeway for the suppression of “offensive” speech than the US does. Come to think of it, even in the US *Beauharnais v. Illinois* upheld “group libel” laws during the 1950’s.

    This doesn’t mean we should change our constitutional law to please other countries. It’s just a reminder of how unusual that law is.

  • 8 Michael Maiello // Oct 21, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Where on Earth did people get the notion that they have some sort of right not to be offended or caused psychological distress by what other people are saying? That doesn’t seem like classical liberalism to me at all.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Oct 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    It isn’t, and I agree–though for REALLY extreme cases even the U.S. recognizes a tort of “intentional infliction of emotional distress”. (Sending a malocious false report to an enemy claiming their child has been killed, e.g., would probably be actionable.) This is “liberal” only in the very weak sense that it rests on a claim about harms to individuals, rather than violation of divine command as such.

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