Blasphemy Is not Bigotry


The President has spoken (at the United Nations). People are praising what they think he got right and what he got not so right. (We ignore here today the people who think he gets most everything wrong. They get too much attention anyway.) On the issue of free speech stemming from the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the paroxysms of (I use the word mindfully ) mindless violence that have followed from it, some people – when they think that President Obama got it right – are, along with the President, wrong. Oh, the basic message about freedom of expression is rightfully stated in the usual way, but a crucial point is mangled and will remain the source of misunderstanding.

It all begins with a categorical misunderstanding. Most problems begin with categorical misunderstandings. (You heard it here.) It is the point I make in my most recent commentary at the Algemeiner, “‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the Faith Fallacy.” Faith doctrines are owed no special respect, and the continuing obeisance to the notion that they are deserving of special regard is, in reality, a source of ongoing conflict over them. This is not a claim derived from atheistic thought. It is an intellectual argument, which is the whole point: faith doctrines are intellectual claims, no matter the desire of adherents to sanctify them. They are due no greater respect than any other intellectual claim, and they are due respect only on their merits.

David Frum, no Obama partisan, cited in complement this passage from the President’s speech to the U.N.

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support.

Here is the President’s categorical error:

Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.

Criticizing – even ridiculing – a religion, in argument or symbolically (desecrating an image of Jesus Christ) is not the same as denying the Holocaust. I am not privileging anything Jewish here. The Holocaust was an historical occurrence: it is a historical fact. Religious doctrines (and the symbols and figures that represent those doctrines) are not facts. They are sets of ideas. Disagreeing with, and even disdaining, an idea is not the same as denying a historical fact. This is simply a fundamental intellectual error, a categorical confusion, that President Obama has perpetuated in the desire to represent himself and the U.S. in a balanced, ecumenical manner. It would actually have been very easy to achieve coherently the balance the President sought, merely by choosing a symbolic representation (a Jewish Star?) of the Jewish faith rather than a historic calamity that befell the Jewish people.

Of course, the contextual incoherence of that intellectual coherence would have been the reality that unpleasant attacks against Jews are not made on the basis of their faith, but their being, as Jews. Holocaust denial is not a manifestation of intellectual dispute – it is a product of racial prejudice. Christianity and Islam and all the rest of the religions are doctrines and traditions, but not ethnic identities. Disagreement with or even dislike of Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, however intellectually sound or unsound, is an adverse judgment against someone’s beliefs, not a bigotry against someone’s person.

Jeffrey Goldberg also responded to the President’s speech with some praise and some reservation. I know he fully agrees with me on the absoluteness of the principle. He even cites Hussien Ibish, who is very much to the point:

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

You see the point? Blasphemy is not the blemish on free speech with which we must live. (You want that face? The pimples come with it.) It is the very essence of free speech. Goldberg demurred in a merely personal way:

Blasphemy, as Hussein Ibish argues, is an indispensable human right. I’m not much into blasphemy myself — I generally find it offensive. But as Americans, we are compelled to defend the right of any blasphemer to be an asshole.

This only half gets the point. The blasphemer may be an asshole. Manifestly, many non-blasphemers are assholes. But the blasphemer is not an asshole because a blasphemer. Blaspheming is the very root of disagreement. It is the original “no”: “no” spoken, no shouted, no painted on one’s forehead, no as even the way one lives one’s life. Every great mind is a blaspheming mind.   In the notion of blasphemy, the authoritarian dressed in priestly garb attempts to sanctify the secular (the idea become a faith), close the mind and crush the personality. Every dissenting mind, presuming to disagree, first, before the argument is even articulated, says, “No.” And freedom flourishes.

Blasphemy is not the bastard, the black sheep, the bad seed of freedom. Blasphemy is freedom.


23 thoughts on “Blasphemy Is not Bigotry

    1. Snoop, always pleased to please. I presume you refer to Netanyahu’s speech? I think his speeches to the international community are always superb articulations of liberal democratic princples and values. Any negative response to him on such occasions is a product of a complex set of predispositions against him, rarely if ever of the substance of his remarks. And say what you will, the subject of the red line is indelibly marked on the historical record.

  1. hmm… Jay I wonder if we are in part simply not understanding each other. For example, you say “In which case, I would agree, of course, we should do or say nothing gratuitous to endanger them – as we try to extract them from those circumstances” in response to my presenting a scenario where there is a very real risk to people remote from here (USA). That risk would simply and precisely consist of living in any part of the world where there would be a reasonably predictable chance of violent reaction to what can very persuasively (in my view) be argued is an incitement. That we don’t consider what incites others to be grounds for incitement is something one can debate intellectually but that really does not have much practical value on the ground.
    We may be at odds over what we consider “clear and present danger” though I don’t think it much advances our discussion to debate which one of us would feel safer in, say, the streets of Cairo or Karachi. I happen to think that any American or “Westerner” would potentially be in immediate danger after one of these “religiously based upheavals.” It may be, since you say “In which case, I would agree, of course, we should do or say nothing gratuitous to endanger them – as we try to extract them from those circumstances,” that our real disagreement is on what level of threat exists in various parts of the globe. I’ve counted a few bodies including an ambassador. Am I getting prematurely alarmed at the level of threat? Maybe there is less threat than I perceive. Maybe what happened in Libya was a fluke. Maybe people in other areas have things more under control. So where you say “I hardly see THAT as applicable to recent events” (upper case added by me) and by THAT I believe you refer in part to a condition of “clear and present danger” (which would, you agree, warrant a more moderate approach…i.e., greater exercise of prudence). May i take this as demonstrating a kind of agreement between us that sometimes it is wise to draw a line. If only temporarily. Are we disagreeing on where a line may be drawn?
    If I may, I would like to clarify a point I made in two separate posts by expressing some agreement with your final two sentences. I am not up for accepting proscription on what we can say. I would prefer to cut ties completely with any country which will not vigorously suppress the kind of violent reactions which have prompted this discussion. On the other hand, I think one way to deal with barbarians is to outsmart them. I think that is not to much to expect from an enlightened society.

    1. Robert, if not misunderstanding each other, it appears talking past one another a bit, but I think you have clarified that fact.

      You ask, “Are we disagreeing on where a line may be drawn?” I think so, which I think, too, we’ve known from the start.

      You further state that perhaps “our real disagreement is on what level of threat exists in various parts of the globe.” I don’t think we disagree about this, but about what the appropriate mode of conduct should be in consideration of that level of threat.

      You identify the threat thus: “That risk would simply and precisely consist of living in any part of the world where there would be a reasonably predictable chance of violent reaction to what can very persuasively (in my view) be argued is an incitement.”

      First, if I regularly assault people for looking at me crosswise, I have persuasively established what will incite me to “a reasonably predictable chance of violent reaction.” We cannot permit belligerant, intolerant, and irrational people to set the terms of our social intercourse and civilizational expression.

      Second, in that last quote above, you characterize precisely the state I address in the final paragraph of my last reply: the condition of “a persistent demand from religious precincts that others live in obesiance to the sanctified sensitities of the faithful….[and] accept as a persitemt condition of our lives lives proscribed by the bullying (that’s what it is) demands of others.” This is what I say we cannot accomodate. If an American, let’s say, chooses to travel, do work, or live in Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, or Yemen, he does so in a position to know the current nature of those societies and the risk inherent in being in those countries. There have always been risks inherent to engaging truly alien cultures. If the American runs into trouble, we do everything we can to help and even rescue him. But we do not alter our values or the daily expression of them. I know you agree that we should not proscribe any behavior, and I would be in favor in some instances, of cutting off relations with some countries, too. However, neither should we inhibit in the least the liberal, entlightened flowering of our cultural discourse. To do so is already to lose to forces I consider to be, actually in the nature of their intolerant devotional passions, truly barbaric.

  2. You make what to me seems to be a somewhat complicated argument. It seems to me to be fairly tight; you certainly don’t need me to confirm that. I think something is being left out however. It is something I perceive as very simple, and I can see how, on purely intellectual grounds it can be ignored. It is the issue of the emotional content of statements or perhaps more to the point the emotional impact. I am not suggesting we temper everything we say based on this consideration, nor am I suggesting we pass laws limiting speech because of these considerations. Yet I don’t believe we should ignore the potential response to statements we make simply because we have the right to speak. There is an issue of intent inherent in certain “blasphemous” statements. It is not merely questioning beliefs or presenting alternative explanations (this might be more accurately defined as “heresy”) to advance understanding or smash icons, such as Galileo did, but intentional mocking of symbols or “sacred” figures. I think we accept this as part of free speech but personally don’t support or encourage such exercise. I see no reason to go out of my way to insult people. But this isn’t about me or what I would do. It is about general principles. I would just address a part of this issue of principles. It has to do with the potential harm, the risk to others who are elsewhere. Let’s say you circa 1962 walked into a place like Michael’s Candy Store and said in the presence of some young tough kids hanging out “Jesus sucks.” You’d have gotten at least your ass kicked ( maybe even by Freddie and Seymour, who themselves had some responsibility for maintaining tranquility). So, really, I don’t think you would have risked it. I could be wrong. But let’s say you and most other rational people would not have done that, out of simple self-preservation. Can you justify someone doing something comparable, from a perch of safety, knowing they would be endangering others not similarly perched?

    1. Robert, you offer what has become a not infrequently articulated perspective ( on this issue, which, you are right, I did not include in this consideration. I have been planning another post specifically addressing the argument ever since this one went up. Probably, it will appear at the Algemeiner before it does here. Because of that planned post, I won’t offer much of a response here, except to say that the matter of decorum, propriety, human sensitivity, good manners – which is what I think this argument comes to – is a crucial social structure. Part of my argument will say that good manners imposed through intimidation are a self-refuting fraud, as is a right in principle that cannot be excercised in effect. There are also several ways to consider your Michael’s Candy Store example. One of them is that in that context, we have what I think might legally be found a “fighting words” exception to free speech (which is not so much an exception to the freedom of the speech but to reasonable complaint about the consequences of it). A video made half a world a way and playing automtatically on the internet does not create a fighting words context.

      1. Jay…I appreciate your reply and look forward to reading the more detailed response you plan to write regarding one of the elements of my post. I am thinking that there are many ways to approach analysis of this subject matter. I’m not sure how important it is to nail down the definition of blasphemy vs heresy. I think in one of the examples you cite (Jefferey Goldberg) in your 9/25/12 post he confuses or at least blends the two. The distinction may, however, be irrelevant when we consider that those taking offense at one or the other category of what they perceive as an attack on their belief system will not be concerned with being careful to make any distinction based on word definitions.
        Returning for a moment to my candy store scenario: what I was getting at was not how the provocative action (in the form of “inciting” words) would be viewed in a court of law. I was raising the issue I think of what I would like to call “prudence.” What I was trying to bring out for examination is the notion that the same considerations we might bring into play to avoid a “candy store” confrontation when our own self-preservation is at stake should enter the equation when our statements/actions/expressions might imperil others. By “from a perch of safety” I of course meant e.g. back in the relative safety of the USA, as compared to “others not similarly perched” which of course include our folks stationed on battlefields and in embassies around the world.
        I think the practical sometimes trumps the letter of the law. Your point is well taken that “a right in principle that cannot be exercised in effect” is fraudulent. Yet consider the following scenario:
        When I lived in Berkeley CA circa 1970 some neighbors had their apartment raided by the police for fraudulently using telephone credit cards. Amongst the graffiti-like designs on the walls were references to “The Pigs” meaning of course “the police” and one of the guys living there reiterated this equation to one of the cops right to his face leading to a physical confrontation which the kid lost. Another neighbor of mine who claimed to have witnessed this episode excitedly related it to me and made the probably accurate legal point that the guy had a right to say what he said while the cop had no right to do what he did. My response was I agreed with him as to the legal point but asked why would you get in the face of a large armed man whose adrenaline is way up there and go out of your way to insult him? Now let’s change the scenario a tad. Let’s say everything is the same, except the guy in the apartment is not being confrontational. A carload of locals drives by and yells “fuck the pigs.” This raises the temperature of all concerned, cops and occupants of raided apartment. I liken the actions of the guys driving by to someone insisting on their right, from “safe perch” to hurl insults which may predictably bring harm to others “not safely perched.” I think there is a large difference between the ivory tower discussion (which has it’s own validity and purpose in fine tuning issues of principle) and what happens on the ground. I mean, where “it” (along with it’s famous rhyme) actually happens.
        We might further consider that the new world we find ourselves in has created twists. Do you honestly believe that “fighting words,” to be considered as such, need be delivered face to face? I say not so. Internet, cell phone, television will do.

        1. Robert, I do not think the distinction between blasphemy and heresy matters in this discussion. Blasphemy (depicting or insulting Muhammed, for instance) is a symbolic shorthand for heretical rejection of the doctrine that proclaims the holiness that establishes those blasphemies to begin. Heresey in itself is only disagreement with a fundamental doctrine. Blashphemy rises to the level of assertive lack of reverence for the doctrine. But freedom of speech must mean the right to declare an idea not merely wrong, but wrongheaded, and to mock it in expression of one’s own sense of offense.

          Moderating one’s behavior as a matter of prudence, in consideration of one’s own or others’ safety, is not likely to be subjected to critcism by third parties, but I think the context of protection against harm from the violence of others excludes this kind of example as an argument of principle regarding rights or responsibilities. In such cases, we are in no place greater than the kingdom of might makes right, and there will come a time and a person who will, indeed, say what he damn pleases and be strong enough to put the intimidating party down. And that will have given us no principle either.

          I absolutely do believe that fighting words must be delivered fact to face, and I think the law supports me in that belief. There need be immediate incitement to violence. Call a man’s wife a whore to his face, and some men (not all) will smash your face, and most people will not be unsympathetic to the smasher. Let him discover the insult was made yesterday and have to drive across town to deliver the smash, and the situaton is drastically altered. Let it be a week and he has to fly across country, still more. Let him pull some random person out of a car and beat or even kill him in order to express his outrage because of what you said last week in another country, or – to return us to the moment – not smash your face but kill you on the spot, and we are far beyond the range of what should receive sympathetic imagination. The fighting words exception is an acknwowledgment of the rule of passion in the very limited circumstance in which it may immediately arise in the face of present provocation. It is not an excuse from self-control, which is why police are generally held to a higher standard in the face of even immmediate verbal provocation. Extend the notion of fighting words any more broadly and we will be ruled by anyone with passionate intensity willing to intimidate us with the extremity of his threat.

          1. Jay, I did divert a bit to gather some more background from discussions you make reference to in your last post. I’ll address your last post specifically first. The “fighting words” exception is I assume a legal principle and I’ll bet it gets interpreted differently in different jurisdictions as well as by individual judges. I think we can envision scenarios where the immediacy of electronic devices might allow for remote activation of that legal principle. But I don’t want to use a “gimmick” to make my point. I prefer to consider real life situations which are obvious in part because they have happened already or are so similar to previous events that no stretch of imagination be required to conjure them up.
            And please recall if you will that in my original post of 9/28/12 I said in reference to the emotional impact of (insulting) statements: “I am not suggesting we temper everything we say based on this consideration, nor am I suggesting we pass laws limiting speech because of these considerations.”
            I would ask everyone, yourself included, who holds fast to principle in this case to imagine they have a son or daughter or friend or lover “in harm’s way” somewhere in the world where violent, perhaps deadly response of the sort we are discussing is not just possible but close to downright certain. Maybe you stick to your guns on this. Maybe principle trumps human life.
            Lots of blood has been spilled over principle. Someone mentioned the spilling of blood to advance us to the principles of what he called “The Enlightenment.” I have heard mention of insisting on principle if we are to move towards an enlightened world. I just don’t see how people who are enlightened (I assume this means an intellectual enlightenment)
            can ignore the real life consequences to real people. It is a fact that there are people who act mindlessly and violently in response to provocation. We agree that such responses are unacceptable. We may call those who respond in such a way irrational. Yet I say, if A causes B, insisting that A should not cause B is itself irrational. It is ivory tower reasoning. As I posted previously, I think such reasoning has it’s place. But it can be dangerous to implement in the real world. And we have ample evidence and real human blood to prove it.

          2. “Fighting words” is a legal principle and it surely receives varying interpretations and applications, but I do know that since it was first ennunciated, succesive legal decisions have progressively narrowed its scope. However, I’m not a lawyer, the kinds of people we’re concerned with don’t much care about American legal principles, and I argue from such a concept precisely conceptually, not legally.

            It seems, as you reiterate your original focus, that you are arguing from the standpoint of a very narrowly construed exigent circumstance: people in some kind of “harm’s way,” though not specifically military: let’s say a kind of “clear and present danger” to life and limb. In which case, I would agree, of course, we should do or say nothing gratuitous to endanger them – as we try to extract them from those circumstances.

            I hardly see that as applicable to recent events or to a persistent demand from religious precincts that others live in obesiance to the sanctified sensitities of the faithful – or else. To accept as a persitemt condition of our lives lives proscribed by the bullying (that’s what it is) demands of others is the kind of timidity that loses civililaton. We have only to recall Afghanistan under the Taliban to be reminded that the forces of true barbarism still live in the world.

  3. By citing Holocaust denial as an example of blasphemy, Obama attempted to circumvent calling to account the vicious Antisemitism in all its variations (anti-Jews/Judaism/Israel) broadcast in too many of the countries represented in his UN audience today.

    1. I completely agree, Bella. The very great reluctance to recognize and publicly acknowledge this truth has disabled liberal Mideast thinking and is hobbling aspects of Obama’s Mideast policy, particularly, of course, Israel-Palestine.

      1. Between what Bella said and what Jay said, there must be a very pithy and revealing one-liner about the problem with Obama’s Mideast policy. If anyone can put it together, it would be great to see it.

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