Why the worst offence means poor defence

Johann Hari wrote an article in The Independent three weeks ago, evaluating the right to criticize religion. Islamic countries are demanding that the definition be changed for the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights, so that offence to religions can be stifled. The Cairo Declaration seeks to enforce shariah law, whereby critiques of Islam will not be tolerated. Offended Muslims violently rioted for a week after The Statesman, a Kolkata-based newspaper, reprinted Hari’s article. The violence only subsided when the editor was arrested.

The editor, as well as the publisher, were charged in court for the deliberate act of outraging religious feelings. In India, and an increasing number of countries, offence is against the rules. Should this right be considered a right at all?

Hari asks some tough questions, as should be done when a moral system is employed that allows child marriage, the stoning of gays and promotes the torture of those who attempt to reform Islam. The rationale behind these beliefs is not forthcoming, besides the claim that they are divinely inspired. The fundamentalists find it offensive that the inspiration should be called into question, but that doesn’t mean we should stop questioning.

The foundation that Hari is building upon is the right to criticize. It is one of the fundamental values of free society and it involves trade-offs. Although people should have the right to free speech, everyone else has the right to counter the statement with another, perhaps better defended, one. As Hari notes, it is only in this way that ideas can be solidified; if someone is wrong, new evidence should change their mind. But if a better argument doesn’t exist, then the original claim is strengthened by a successful defence against the opposing views. The right to blaspheme is just as valid as the right to question politics, economics and ethics.

What if you have no evidence for your claim? According to the system above, you should change your view. Yes, but it is such a good idea, you say, and you really want it to be true. Wouldn’t it be easier just to silence the opposition?

Indeed it would, and the best tactic is to claim that your feelings have been hurt, that you’ve been offended. We are seeing around the world, from the intellectually bankrupt, exactly this tactic.

The same cowardice is being exhibited by those who oppose Campus Pro-Life’s right to demonstrate. People are offended when they see the images posted, which means they should be taken down. Of course it wasn’t reasoned discourse, but that should make it all the more easy to show why they’re wrong. In any case, I don’t need the spineless lot at the Students’ Union telling me right and wrong.

To the religious, offence is a one way street. As Rob Breakenridge points out, while Bishop Fred Henry correctly argues that CPL should be allowed to demonstrate, he immediately plays the hurt-feelings card when the issue changes to something he disagrees with (the atheist bus ads, for instance).

Atheists don’t want dialogue, Henry states, but debate. Well, it follows that when two opposing positions exist, one of them is wrong, and the quickest way to sort it out is to weigh the evidence. His pussyfooting demonstrates that he either knows the shallowness of his argument or he refuses to let his mind consider it at all. In either case, when he is ready for a confrontation I will happily oblige.

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