Freedom of Speech Is Everything

05/06/2015 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016


It is incumbent on all people living in the West to contribute in defending the liberties and freedoms that previous generations fought hard to garner (see my earlier Psychology Today article "Be Thankful for Your Liberties and Freedoms" as well as my YouTube clip "Don't Succumb to the Tragedy of the Commons, Fight for Liberty!"). People who have not lived in societies where such freedoms are lacking if not outright missing assume that their freedoms, which they otherwise take for granted, are part of the natural order of things. They are not. Every generation must fight hard to defeat ideological forces that repeatedly seek to quell these freedoms.

This brings me to the Garland shootings that took place a few days ago. Apologists and their enablers have repeatedly espoused positions that are perfectly antithetical to the First Amendment. Let me provide you with a few examples:

1. None other than Pope Francis justified violence against those who insult one's religious beliefs using the crude "if you insult my mother, expect that I'll punch you" defense. Variants of this grotesque victim-blaming argument include the "if the woman had not dressed provocatively, she would not have been raped;" and the "if the woman had not angered her husband, he would not have beaten her." The logical structure is identical. It is difficult to imagine a greater mockery of the concept of free speech than to argue along those lines. In his 2012 UN address, President Barack Obama stated: "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." It is extraordinary that a sitting president of the United States could utter such words. He is effectively arguing that there is a red line for free speech, and it is drawn at blasphemy (see my earlier Psychology Today article titled Blasphemy Laws Belong in the Dark Ages). No, Mr. President. The future must precisely belong to those who engage in speech that is offensive. Otherwise, freedom of speech is a meaningless concept.

2. Numerous apologists for the Garland shootings are using the "incitement to violence" argument as a valid curtailing of free speech. Astonishingly, they are confusing the incitement of violence contained within the contents of someone's speech (e.g., "Let's go out and kill some Jews") with the violence that ensues when someone's speech is deemed too offensive! In other words, they are arguing that if you make fun of someone's religion and they kill you, YOU have incited them to violence and hence you are guilty of incitement to violence. There are countries where the law of the land stipulates this exact viewpoint and they are not part of the West.

In a pluralistic society, people have to accept that others do not hold their religious views with any reverence (see my earlier Psychology Today articles titled "Masturbating with a Crucifix in a Film... No Riots?" and "Rabbi 'Informs' Me That Evolution Has Been Disproven!"). It is the most fundamental tenet that defines a secular and free society. If you are unable to fight ideas with ideas, you do not deserve to live in free societies. You despise Holocaust deniers. Ignore them or defeat them with arguments. You dislike the Catholic Church's position on abortion. Engage the doctrines from which this position stems. You detest Pamela Geller's views on Islam. Offer a contrary viewpoint that shatters her positions. Freedom of religion does not entitle your religion to have a privileged position within the public sphere. Everyone has the right to practice their religious beliefs in private but expect that people might publicly reject said beliefs. Failure to understand this tenet will very quickly sink us into an abyss from which escape might be impossible. Offending someone's religious sensibilities can never justify a violent response. There are no "but" qualifiers and the sooner that this lesson is internalized, the rosier our future will be.

Note: This article was also published on my Psychology Today blog on May 6, 2015.