The Fallacy of Limiting the freedom of speech based on the risk of violent response

Posted: January 18, 2015 in My moral code, Politics
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Recently I’ve heard clergy of various religions trying to explain the Pope’s statement that there are limits to free speech and that insulting someone’s religion should be one of them. One argument goes like this…

“…he didn’t mean the state should put laws in place to limit free-speech; he meant that we should take personal responsibility for our speech and limit it as appropriate.” I agree with that even though I don’t believe that is what he meant.

The other argument equivocates insulting a religion with causing tangible danger to a group of people. That one goes like this…

…Just like it’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, speech should be restricted (by law or personal morality) when it is likely to cause a violent response.

On the surface that seem like a reasonable, tenable, position. But, here’s the rub.

A substantial percentage of the worlds population is Muslim. While a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims’s pervert the teaching of their prophet into a violent, extremist, ideology, that ideology does exist. At the opposite extreme there is Jainism. There are a small number of worldwide Jains and there is no room whatsoever for violence in their ideology. So, the likelihood that a “Charlie Hebdo” cover that insults the Jains would incite them to murder the author and his co-workers is infinitely small. Conversely, we all know that one cartoon can incite those same murders when Islamists (note that I did not say “Muslims”) are offended.

IF the likelihood that some piece of writing will incite a violent response is the criteria upon which we define the legality or morality of a response, then we should never insult Islam but Jainism is fair game. That makes no sense at all. It is unequal, irrational, and insulting in and of itself. WORSE YET, if we consider that to be a tenable criterion, then we just let the small pre-modern faction of our world ideological diversity WIN!

My position, therefore, is that a cartoon of Muhammad is only morally similar to “yelling fire in a crowded room” if we also acknowledge that the violent response is a morally viable one. To Islamic extremists it evidentially is. To the rest of the community of Islam, to Jews, Buddhists, Jains, the vast majority of Christians, atheists and most other belief systems, it is not. I propose that any criteria which treats Islamists as more worthy of sensitivity than the rest of us is not appropriate criteria.

We should care about, and respect, every belief system equally. If it’s ok for a fringe group of Christians to praise God for letting Christopher Hitchens “burn in hell” for his atheism; if it’s ok to let the KKK march against the strides that the African-American community still needs to make; if it’s ok for people to deny the Holocaust on American college campuses; if it’s ok to satirize homosexual marriage, then the only choice is that it be ok to satirize the Prophet Muhammad.

Do I like it? NO. I sometimes wish we had a law against Holocaust denial. I often wish Klan rallies were illegal. But in the US they are not. Whether or not I like these things we really have no choice but to allow them; once you start regulating speech based on who you insult, the slope becomes very slippery.

I say this: No laws regulating freedom of speech. No equating insulting religion with causing imminent danger to people. No letting radical Islam win their war against rationality and modern society. Let’s do what I doubt the pope was saying but which I pray he was:

Let’s just respect our diversity by making individual decisions that lead to kindness, peace, and love. Let’s not give radical Islam any more respect than it deserves. Make up you mind as an individual human being about what you think that is. You can guess where I stand.


  1. Nice piece. I would just temper this with the temperament attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” We don’t have to approve of what others say. Anything we do that limits their freedom to say it, however, is evil.

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