Thursday, September 20, 2012

On religion and free speech

Only if you've been asleep could you have failed to notice the international outrage at offences to the 'prophet' evoked by what everyone seems to agree is a tawdry and vulgar film on YouTube and now some cartoons to be published in a French magazine.  

Whenever I'm inclined to be all subtle and nuanced about this, which on occasion I am, I'm reminded of a passage in Peter Gay's history of the Enlightenment.  Towards the end of the book he remarks that while the modern secular reader might blanche at the extremity of the language Voltaire et al directed at established religion, it should be understood that this civilised and moderate position is a luxury that is possible only because these shock troops of the Enlightenment ultimately won.  (I'm paraphrasing because despite having a paper copy in front of me, can't find the exact wording for love nor money.)  

I've always been a little uneasy about drawing a comparison between this eighteenth century situation to the present day because attacks on religion then were quite clearly an assault on an establishment that sanctified ignorance from a position of power as opposed to something that can today look like having a go at a disadvantaged immigrant community.  

I'm increasingly of the view, however, that this is a feeling that should be resisted.  Nick Cohen in his latest and best book notes the globalisation of this process where offence has become first sanctified and then politicised.  What this means for CiF commentators trying to strike a reasonable and moderate tone is quite another for people elsewhere in this world of ours where those of urgent religious convictions exercise a temporal power unimagined by the commentators who have confined themselves to remarking on the production values of the 'Innocence of Muslims'.  The aesthetic qualities of the film have apparently exhausted any outrage these might otherwise feel for the fact that around fifty people around the world have lost their lives already.

One's concern is that the sheer cost of preserving the principle of free expression will fold under the weight of effort.  We saw this with the Salman Rushdie case, with various commentators with nothing better to do than complain about the expense.  They've put too cheap a price on something that the wisdom of ages and nations valued highly.  It's a conservative sentiment, I appreciate - these days, anyway - but the principle of free speech is something worth conserving.

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