Freedom of Silence

Today, the front pages of the newspapers are covered with the news about the yesterday’s terrorist attack in Paris.  Two thugs associating themselves with Islam have entered the office of a French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo and killed 11 people in the building.  Apparently, this was an act of “revenge” for a series of “blasphemous” cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad and Islamic leaders.  The attackers later killed a policeman a few blocks away who wasn’t even confronting them, stole a car, and robbed a gas station.  I’m not sure how those acts are upholding the values of Islam.

Response in society worldwide was immediate.  This act is considered to be an attack on the freedom of speech — the “holy cow” of democratic society.  In western democracies, one can criticize anything, except the freedom of speech itself.  I do believe that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a civilized society and needs to be protected as a basic human right.  People cannot be killed for expressing their opinions and beliefs.  But does it mean that we are free to say anything?

Rights come with responsibilities.  They are two ends of the same stick — you cannot have one without the other.  Words are powerful.  They can cause emotional reactions in other people and cause them to act.  The effect of public words is multiplied million times.  I think, in this age of Internet, freedom of speech is the right that is abused in the most irresponsible way.

After 19 years of marriage, I have learned that people may react to my words in most irrational ways.  However irrational, these reactions are often very predictable.  Certain words and certain images trigger very predictable responses.  Advertisers use this predictability.  Mass media and propaganda use this predictability.  Religions not only use this power, but also teach others, willing to learn, how to use it.

The book of James, my favorite book of the New Testament, says in chapter 3:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

This is a mere statement of the power of the word.  This implies that the words, like any other power — weapons or fire — must be used with great care and responsibility.  Otherwise, they may cause great evil.  The passage also points out how difficult it is to “tame one’s tongue”.

Christianity was liberal by the 1st century standards.  In 1 Corinthians 10, Apostle Paul reflects on the liberties that Christians can take:

23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.“I have the right to do anything”— but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

This is the case with all “freedoms”.  “Freedom” to do anything is not freedom from consequences of our actions.  When someone mocks Prophet Mohammad in a cartoon or a video, it causes an outrage in some part of the world.  This reaction is so very predictable.  If you step on a viper, it is very likely to bite you.  If you disturb a bear with a cub, it is very likely to attack you.  So, why step on a viper or disturb a bear?  When a viper bites me, it’s silly to scream “I have the right to step wherever I want!”  And, speaking of consequences.  How does mocking of Islam free the world from Islamic terrorism? How is it even supposed to free the world from Islamic terrorism?

On the same note, how is a terrorist attack supposed to protect Islam?  Isn’t it, again, predictable that immediate reaction in society will be an outcry and, likely, violence against Islam?  Somebody has bombed a mosque in Paris already and there has been a surge of those cartoons on the Internet.  Why do people do something that is guaranteed to produce results exactly opposite to intentions?  Well, that’s a silly question.  Why do people ask silly questions? I don’t know, but they predictably do.

Later in the same chapter, Paul continues:

31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

“Do not cause anyone to stumble.”  Do not drink wine in the presence of an alcoholic.  Do not show drugs to a drug addict.  Do not give a gun to a maniac in depression.  Do not publish cartoons mocking Islam.  Is it, really, such a great limitation of freedom?  Should we have censorship and legislation limiting such acts?  Definitely, not!  Who will judge what’s offensive to whom?

16 thoughts on “Freedom of Silence

  1. Thanks for following my blog! Nice to meet you…

    I just put down an article in the NYT and was going to retrieve the online version for someone else here in the blogosphere because we were just talking about freedom of speech. I saw you had followed my blog, so I got sidetracked to your blog, and saw this post. How very timely. So I’ll leave it for you too. It’s David Brooks, saying similar things:

    • Just read the article. Thanks. I used to like sarcasm. I still do. But I am a lot more careful using it. I completely agree that ridiculing others without admitting being ridiculous is hypocrisy. So is accusing others in fundamentalism without being ready to change one’s own view or even admit that other views are possible. That is, again, something one can read in the New Testament (plank in the eye metaphor).

  2. Words are powerful. They can cause emotional reactions in other people and cause them to act.” – Or rather, they can cause them to choose how they will react – when all is said and done, it’s always about choices. One choice might well be, ” “Maybe I shouldn’t be so sensitive –“

    • when all is said and done, it’s always about choices. One choice might well be, ” “Maybe I shouldn’t be so sensitive

      In reality, people have a lot less freedom of choice than you think. This year Elvis is 80. So, I heard this song just recently.

      Listen to it and think, how much “choice” did that boy had?

      Can schizzophrenics choose not to have hallucinations? Those hallucinations are often indistinguishable from reality. People can hear voices that appeal to their guilt or sense of duty and it is very hard for the people who have them not to obey those voices. Psychologist Julian Jaynes in his book “Bicameral Mind” makes a case that hallucinations used to be very common in early stages of human civilizations. He says that those “religious experiences” when “God tells” someone to do something are very much like schizzophrenic hallucinations – they have very similar mechanism in the brain. This is only one example.

      When you offer drugs to a drug addict, theoretically, he is “free to reject” your offer. It’s his choice. But is it, really? Some people can resist the temptation, some cannot. Will power is a weird thing. You either have it or not. You need will power to get will power — much like money.

      People tend to follow the familiar patterns, ways, and habits for safety and efficiency reasons.

      You also underestimate the power of propaganda and brainwashing. When mass media deliberately say the same thing to the people, however wrong or evil, people start to believe it. E.g., Russian propaganda was telling Russian people for quite a while that Crimea historically belongs to Russia. Now, 90% of people in Russia sincerely support annexation of Crimea by Russia ignoring the fact that Crimea belonged to Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey) for some 400 years. By this logic, Russia should also annex Finland and Alaska, Japan has the right to Russian Kuril Archipelago in the Far East, and China can claim vast territories in Siberia. By the same logic, France can denounce the Louisiana Purchase, Mexico can claim Texas, etc. It’s pretty easy to see how ridiculous and bogus those claims are, but still, 90% of Russian people, even educated and intelligent ones, sincerely support the annexation of Crimea.

      Consider the phenomenon of Internet bubbling Even without the Internet, although alternative information opposite to one’s beliefs is readily available and accessible, people tend to ignore and dismiss it.

      Americans are indoctrinated that “free speech” is good so much that they are reluctant to admit that in many cases, it’s better to shut someone up, for everyone’s good. Many people in Russia, by the way, are indoctrinated the other way — they support a ban on such cartoons because they breed extremism. They are equally reluctant to accept the value of free speech.

      When you publish a magazine read by millions of people, it is almost a certainty that some of these people are schizzophrenics or brainwashed by some ideology. They knew that their cartoons are sure to piss off certain people and they did it deliberately. One may say “how brave of them” or “how stupid of them”. It is also possible that they were well paid to risk their lives to stir up controversy and create fertile soil for extremism. There are always people who benefit from extremism.

      I admire investigative journalists who risk their life to expose corruption. But journalists who slap together a scandal story to gain publicity, present obviously biased views, or stir up unrest and controversy for a fistful of dollars are a disgrace to journalism. They are very much like Internet trolls. Don’t get me wrong, I do not justify those shooters by any means. I’m just reluctant to follow the crowd and wear “Je suis Charlie Hedbo” sign, like the guy from the NYT article quoted above.

      • Mexico can claim Texas – Many of us have been begging them to do exactly that! I would give ANYthing to see the look on Rick Perry’s face!

        There is a fellow blogger, “NeuroNotes,” who has devoted herself to researching the mind via neurology, and can link religious experiences to a number of neurological disorders. She is also on WordPress, in case you should ever like to look her up – feel free to tell her I sent you.

        • The difference between the hypothetical dispute between Mexico and the U.S. over Texas and the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea is that Russia had an overwhelming military presence in Crimea, whereas Mexico does not have any military bases in Texas and Mexican army is no match to U.S. army. Brute force is the only reason Russia has the “right” to annex Crimea. But Russia lead to believe people in Crimea and people inside Russia that it was annexed based on some historical crap and based on the “referendum” organized within 2 weeks with heavy presence of Russian military. People who voted in the referendum were convinced that there are trains of fighters on the way from western Ukraine to Crimea coming to start killing Russians there. There was nothing of the sort, but Russians in Crimea did believe that because Russian propaganda was telling this on TV 24/7. Even when they “try” to think critically, they draw conclusions based on false information. Do you think, Ukraine is justified shutting down Russian TV channels in Ukraine? (speaking of freedom of speech).

          As for neurological disorders, according to Julian Jaynes, those hallucinations and “voices in the head” were a stage in human brain evolution. Even to this day, it’s hard to diagnose many mental disorders. If you read the diagnostic manual, most of the symptoms of any disorder can be found in a normal person to a certain degree.

          My point is, even if you admit that religious fanatics have mental disorders, it means they cannot really control their reactions. So, consciously provoking them does not seem like a good idea.

  3. On one hand I agree with you but I think it is also very difficult to know where to draw the line. The alternative seems to be allowing oppression until it has reached a level of intolerable power – until it has reached a point wherein defiance now seems justified. Perhaps it is better to resist before it comes to this?

    How does mocking of Islam free the world from Islamic terrorism? How is it even supposed to free the world from Islamic terrorism?

    I suspect that those journalists were aware that they had placed themselves at some level of risk, albeit if they knew for a fact that they would give their lives then some, or all, would have acted differently. On the other hand, that perspective is somewhat short-sited. We cannot just look at the terrorist response, we must also look at the response to the terrorist response and the whole body of consequences. That effect, the global backlash against the extremism they were mocking, is precisely the type of outcome they desired. Unfortunately it came at a very high price.

    So we can criticize these journalists for exacerbating a problem, and you may be right, but how do we know where to draw the line? What are the conditions under which defiance is justified? Did Sony act wisely to scale back its release of “The Interview” and avoid further damage, or will their validation of a dictator’s power eventually serve to increase his oppression? Are the people in Thailand making a mistake when they display a mockingjay salute, or is it a necessary step in a preservation of freedom? Should the Sons of Liberty have canceled their tea party plans in 1771 for fear of repercussion? Perhaps Martin Luther King wouldn’t have been assassinated if he was more compliant with his enemies – but where would that have left us? Where is the line and how do we know when we’ve crossed it?

    • I thought about what you said. I think, there is a difference between an open protest provoking a violence towards yourself and an action (especially, anonymous action) provoking terrorism. The obvious difference is that terrorism is directed against random innocent people. Often a video mocking Islam released on Youtube in California causes death of innocent people somewhere across the globe. I totally respect and support a million people protesting against Islamic extremism, holding posters “Je suis Charlie”. The cartoons themselves, however, are semi-anonymous. If they held a poster with those cartoons somewhere in Syria – that would be a little different, don’t you agree? Provoking violence against innocent people in a supermarket which, in turn, provokes violence against innocent Muslims isn’t that courageous in my view.

      If you use this criteria, then Boston Tea Party – cool. Mockingjay salute in Thailand – cool. Sony release of “The Interview” – questionable. I think, they only did it because the threat was not credible. But what if it were and did cause people to die somwhere? If I were a Sony executive, I would not feel myself justified. If they canceled the release of the movie, I would not consider that “a validation of a dictator’s power”.

      • In nearly all cases, however, we’re talking about one population oppressing another population. The acts of defiance and oppression are inherently seen as occurring between populations, not individuals. Unfortunately, with terrorism the “other population” is largely indiscriminate. If nobody ever resists oppressive ideologies then that ideology is likely to grow in power simply because it forces its way into our lives without opposition. It is very much a “survival of the fittest” paradigm. If we don’t want an ideology to take hold then something needs to come along and change the environment so that the unwanted ideology is “less fit”. This means expressing some form of resistance before “resistance is futile”.

        So, as I see it, the issue comes down to how to best oppose aggressive ideologies before their power grows too great. I tend to agree that the distribution of mocking cartoons is probably not the best way, but I’m not convinced that it is worse than doing nothing, which is exactly what myself and most others are doing.

  4. If you mock people simply out of spite, that would be regrettable. But if you wish to bring attention to things that are profoundly wrong, then it is justified and necessary.

    “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter” is clearly aimed not at Muslims, but at governments that punish blasphemy in this way.

    “It’s hard being loved by jerks” is clearly aimed at Islamic extremists, not Muslims in general.

    • “It’s hard being loved by jerks” is clearly aimed at Islamic extremists, not Muslims in general.

      Sarcasm is often misunderstood. This message is very easy to interpret as calling all Muslims “jerks”. This is like saying “if you are a jerk, you will be offended by this statement”. In English, there is a good idiom for this “If the shoe fits”. It works with intelligent people, but it, certainly, goes wrong with jerks who do not appreciate the wit behind it. I, personally, do not like the attitude behind these sarcastic exercises. They do little to make the world better.

  5. Very sorry for MY stupidity and carelessness. (because I missed YOUR post and it was not activated – “where is the truth in …” – 3 Oct 2014). Only minimally excuse may be that using a smartphone man must show greater wisdom than such as I have. So I just missed this post. So it is with stupid Pole. Only now it came to me when I used another program. I hope YOU can forgive me?

  6. Where does the Enemies of the Five Year Plan poster come from ? Who is the artist? Who published it, where and when. I am a Professor at an English university working on imagery.This is a personal question to you, not a comment. I can do you a comment later

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