… apparently.

Ed Brayton references Michael Moynihan and Christopher Hitchens (who in turn borrows from such luminaries as Mill) on the censorious instinct.

View Hitchens, especially*. A lot of ground is covered therein, a lot of standard ground. But, yeah, still: reminders are always good.

Hitchens giving the context of ‘fire in a crowded theatre’, if it’s not a reminder, let me recommend especially.

I’ll add, generally, re hate speech laws, I’d say my view is they’re a bad idea. Well-intentioned, laudably so, even, but still a bad idea, but the pitfalls are well-enough hashed out at Brayton’s and Hitchens’ thing, so, well, y’know: what they said and what who they quoted said.

I’d add as a qualifier I have much sympathy, all the same, with this thing at Technosociology (as quoted by PZ today), which builds a better context for that Innocence of Muslims mess of some weeks back, now, along with discussing other issues around anonymity and the internet.

I think I’d put it generally as: blasphemy has to be a civil right, under freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in general. But there’s a certain obligation to explain why that’s so vital, when and if people do take offense, given the current environment. Hell, probably always will be, to some degree, given any environment. Just saying ‘shut up and take it’ doesn’t really help a whole hell of a lot. And with the current post-colonial mess that exists between a lot of prominent Western powers and many predominantly Muslim countries, especially, that gets pressing.

On a more personal level, I sometimes think—perhaps without a lot of evidence, as I guess it’s not anything I can prove about why, exactly—that there’s a certain craven cringe reflex persisting among unbelievers, probably partly because of a whole complex of assumptions religions like to erect around themselves. Sure, they maybe kind of agree with stuff like what Hitchens says about religions in general and the larger monotheisms especially, see the sense of it intellectually, buuut…

… but they still feel like it’s some kind of selfish egotism to insist upon that right too loudly.

Which, on the one hand, might seem laudable enough. And not all bad, exactly, either, at least so far as it’s of a piece, in an intuitive sense, with critical parts of what’s supposed to be the bedrock of empiricism, skepticism, rationalism, et al. That is: a certain irreducible tentativeness in all things is supposed to be a virtue. Certainty is generally thought to be the province of folk who don’t think too hard, zealots in general, and folk who argue for ‘other ways of knowing’, revealed truths, so on. Anyone who got to unbelief the hard way is likely to know this, have a pretty solid sense of the complexities around epistemology and the difference between high levels of confidence and transcendent certainty—they’ll generally have a good dose of this awareness in their brain, and it’s generally a good thing.

So when you ask them ‘should this be an absolute right’, you naturally get the philosophers’ answers: you know, sure, mostly, yeah, with the following complicated caveats, yes; oh, but remember also that fire in a crowded theatre thing, and cultural sensitivity this and cryptoracism that and how do I know how much my own opinion is deflected by that and so on, and so on.

The trouble is, it seems to me, anyway, there’s a danger of this becoming very quickly a case of the best lacking all conviction, the worst full of passionate intensity. As at least some of the folk trying to press for ‘respect for all prophets’ are unlikely to be so beset by qualifications and reasonable doubts and cautions. Because they’re not philosophers. They’re theocrats, and they’re very, very happy to rule out whatever criticism of their faith and their government (if they’ve managed to get one of those of the theocratic variety going) they can possibly get away with. They’ll keep it simple, keep just saying ‘thou shalt not’, and even, sometimes, ‘thou shalt not or we’ll riot’, or ‘thou shalt not or we’ll kill you’, and it does, I think, make for a very odd balance in the argument.

So you’re likely to get this ratcheting effect: freedoms pushed back a little, rights abrogated a little, at each turn, sometimes just with the well-intentioned trying to avoid undue immediate harm, sometimes just from people not thinking things through far enough, and no one with the forthrightness and confidence to say: this won’t do; this was going too far; we have to reverse this bit.

The balance, I think, is: you have to learn to be politely firm, but profoundly firm, all the same, think hard through the ramifications, whenever you see pressure in that direction. Freedom of conscience dying a death of a thousand cuts is a very real possibility if you’re not.

I’d add, finally, re ‘egotism’:

It’s a general feint made by a lot of systems—the religious and theocratic ones aren’t the only ones—reducing independence to ‘egotism’. A lot of people are brought up to believe that to shuck off the creed they were taught within as a child is somehow to make themselves a god. Terribly selfish of you, you see, to call anything actually how you see it. And, yes, you’ll note a lot of people chastising apostates in such fashion. You’re so full of yourself, you see, that you don’t think we have the revealed truth, and you’re telling us to stuff it. Never mind how little sense we’re making, never mind how absurd and contradictory are our claims, how tendentious are our arguments, how thin is our evidence: you’re just full of yourself for thinking yourself wiser than all these (apparently) great spirits who went before you.

It’s a pretty good trick, that. A kind of jiu jitsu, turning reasonable directness about calling out frequently hopelessly—and sometimes dangerously—chauvinistic hogwash into ‘you’re such an egotist for calling our ugly babble what it is’. Probably has some resonance, with a lot of people…

Anyway, I’d suggest, generally, to the unbelievers of the world, if that’s the case, if you do still have that anxiety floating around, do try to get over this.

… for, quite frankly, if that’s egotism, I’m in favour of everyone being raging narcissists of the worst kind.

*Yes, okay, honestly, quoting Moynihan will always make me uneasy, too.

Addendum: watching that (now typically overheated comment thread, and thinking a bit about it, I find myself thinking re Moynihan, that whether or not the empirical case is demonstrated that controlling speech hasn’t made a difference, I’d be surprised, actually, if it didn’t.

Quite the contrary: I’d expect controlling speech would control thought. And in several ways. We’re very much a speech-oriented species, and what we can’t say is very difficult to think. And what we’re coaxed to say, we often begin to believe, and so on.

And that, of course, is part of the problem: not that it doesn’t work, but that it does. But it’s probably a thing, again, for another day.