September 21, 2007

Responsible Provocations

Oxford Center for Islamic StudiesAs a Scandinavian, I feel like I almost have a duty to start a webcomic dealing with religion. Of course, it is pretty hard to beat Jesus and Mo.

The ongoing Lars Vilks Muhammad drawings controversy has led the former foreign minister Pierre Schori to argue that Vilks is not extending freedom of thought (link in Swedish). Duh. He thinks Vilks ought to have shown some respect for the heartfelt views of others, since in a globalised world even a local statement can be heard far and cause reactions. Duh again.

Freedom of speech, thought and religion are much more profound than Schori seems to think. He seems to think such things are mainly relevant in the battle against tyrants and fanatics in remote countries, not at home. That provocations like these caricatures make it harder for moderates work in the Middle East is not enough to limit the right or even desirability of provocation. If one wants to promote peace it might be rational to avoid provocation, but Vilks entire career has been about producing provocations that occasionally had repercussions beyond the artwork itself (like the waste of bureaucracy caused by Ladonia). In fact, we should be deeply concerned about what he will have to do next time, since clearly he has to escalate.

Schori's problem is that he is thinking in terms of social responsibility, not moral responsibility. If freedom of speech is viewed as a moral matter, then we have a moral obligation not to interfere with the speech of others, yet we may praise or blame them morally for what they said and morally criticise people interfering in their speech. Moral responsibility is close to absolute. If freedom of speech is instead merely a social matter, then interfering with speech may be socially justified. This is problematic, and the same issue of the newspaper gives a good example.

It reports that the Thai government now demands that YouTube stops clips that can cause "general confusion and threaten national security", that is, they accuse the former premier Prem Tinsulanonda to have been the brains behind the military coup last year. This is a valid example of socially justified interference with free speech. It is just that most outsiders would regard the justification as terribly weak and that Thailand would likely be better off having an open discussion about the issue.

But assume the government was right about the claims hurting social order. Might they not still be relevant? Sometimes truths that hurt both the feeling of people and the stability of a society must be heard. Revealing corruption, tyrrany or just hidden biases has produced a significant amount of unrest. If the suffragettes and later the students in Prague 1968 had just stayed home a lot of trouble could have been avoided. Extremely unpopular views, whether about the orbits of the planets, human evolution or the subconscious, have transformed our civilization for the better. Should we have demanded of Darwin and Freud that they ought to have revealed their ideas responsibly, in order to not upset anybody?

The reason we need freedom of speech defended as a moral right and not just as a social right is that 1) social rights are based on the current social situation, and 2) we have problems distinguishing provocations with real content from those without. Upsetting the social order is sometimes worthwhile, making acting in a "socially responsible way" irresponsible in a larger scheme of things where possible future states of society are factored in. But the only way of finding out is to have a broad epistemic process - many people thinking and debating - analyse the ideas. That requires the freedom in the first place.

The second reason is the classic Locke argument and hardly needs any comment. Except that Vilk might be a good example: most of his work has been IMHO rather empty provocations. Yet the current controversy does bring out a lot of interesting responses and might actually be a relevant provocation: how little do you have to do to get a price on your head? Showing that in the global village everybody will hear you when you insult their favorite holy cow, that is actually a relevant use of free speech.

Clearly, if we are to be "responsible" in the social sense we should avoid upsetting anybody (Except those it is socially allowed to attack: saying something nasty about George W Bush is a guaranteed crowd pleaser at european scientific conferences, especially when said by an American - yet saying the exact same things about other people would be regarded as embarrasing and irresponsible). This form of responsibility has enormous chilling effects. No jokes about religion or politics, and for heaven's sake don't mention the War! The emperor's clothing would remain unassailed.

If we are responsible in the moral sense instead, we will try to tell the truths we think are important. Not because we wish to upset people, but because we think the ideas are important for others to hear. We might be wrong about that (thousands of conspiracy theorists and creationists blather endlessly all the time). But it is better than self-censorship, and we are free to call bullshit bullshit. We might do it politely, we might do it bluntly - the better communicators will win.

Posted by Anders3 at September 21, 2007 07:08 PM