Shall we tolerate intolerance?

The news this week has been about a set of manufactured riots across the Middle East that used, as a pretext, a YouTube video that insults Islam.  It is true that the video insults the Islamic prophet.  It is also true that it was online for a number of months before the riots erupted, and that the riots were timed to erupt on September 11th.  If that doesn’t strike you as “manufactured,” you aren’t paying attention.

I can tolerate the truly uninformed.  If a person has been misled, it is easy to see how they would riot about an insult that comes from the USA.  After all, in most Middle Eastern countries, their own governments have the power to prevent the creation of a movie, and imprison a film maker.  Those governments also have the power to tear it down and remove it from the Internet.  Those folks would find it incredible to believe that the US Government, a superpower with vast resources and wealth, does NOT have the power to compel a commercial company (Google) from taking down a video.

I, too, am intolerant… I am intolerant of intolerance.  We have a choice when dealing with uninformed people who riot when they are insulted.  We can choose to limit our own speech, and be cautious of our words.  We can choose to say less, and agree to never insult one another.  Or we can choose to respect free speech, even when it is offensive and sick.  We can choose to agree with Voltaire’s comment “I do not agree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it.”

Tolerance is tough.  It means standing back and letting people speak, even when they are being outright offensive and sometimes disgusting.  When the Westboro Baptist Church shows up at the funeral of a soldier with protest signs that indicate that your young men and women are dying because G-d hates Americas tolerance of homosexuals, I am disgusted.  When the Tea Party supporters come to a protest march with posters that depict the President of the United States as a modern Hitler or in the context of a racist epithet, I am offended, but I stand back.  More than stand back, I stand up for their right to say awful things.

Why?  Because the alternative is much worse.  The alternative is to outlaw some form of speech, and that is wrong.


Recently, a leading Islamic organization has renewed calls for a change to international law that would restrict free speech.  That change would mean that it becomes illegal for anyone to say something that offends someone else’s religion.

Consider that for a minute.  It becomes illegal to offend a Muslim by insulting Mohammed.  OK… but what else happens when you do this?

It means that a religious person has MORE freedom than a non-religious person.  A pastor can call you anything he wants, including a socialist, a fascist, a bigot, a demon, anything… but you can’t criticize him, because that could amount to insulting his religion.  The Muslims will claim that blasphemy would be strictly defined, and that works for religions that are large and well organized.  There are a few dozen of those in the USA.  But how many “small” religions are there?  How many denominations of Christianity?  How many brands of Islam?  How many branches of Judaism?  How many sects of Mormonism?  How many others?

I don’t have all the numbers, but this I do have:  According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990): “As of 1980 David B. Barrett identified 20,800 Christian denominations worldwide . . .” (“Denominationalism,” page 351).  Barrett “classified them into seven major blocs and 156 ecclesiastical traditions.” This is from the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia (1982) of which he is the editor. Also, according to the United Nations statistics there were over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations worldwide (World Census of Religious Activities [U.N. Information Center, NY, 1989]).

If there are 20,000 divisions of Christianity, most of them would be quite small… a single church.  A single congregation.  Would an insult to the leader of that church amount to an insult to his (self-created) religion?  How can a blasphemy law  be created that would NOT favor that pastor’s right to speak over yours or mine?

Passing a law against free speech, in any form, is insane.  It serves war, not peace.

The real solution is to provide tolerance education to everyone in the world as part of basic education.  The solution is not to tolerate intolerance.


Quick update.  Apparently, Reading University in the UK has banned their atheist society from campus because they behaved in an intolerant manner during a “Freshers Fair” by placing a post-it note with the word Mohammed on a pineapple (link).  After that got them kicked out of the fair, the student union passed a rule requiring all organizations to sign an agreement not to offend anyone.  The atheist society decided not to sign the agreement and they are no longer a recognized group.

Clearly the atheist society behaved in an intolerant way.  They intentionally insulted Muslims.  However, would they have been so quick to target Christians?  By way of comparison, if they had taken a carven statue of Christ on a cross, and dressed Christ as the devil, and then put a sign on the cross below his feet saying “The Romans Were Right,” would there be controversy?  Given that most grew up in a Christian society, would such a display have offended the society members themselves?  Did their choice to target Muslims represent a disagreement with all religious dogma, or was it outright hatred of Muslims?

The atheist society had every right to speak openly and freely about an important idea: that free speech can be infringed by religious people.  On the other hand, the organizers of the freshers fair had a different purpose: to make incoming freshmen feel welcome.  Who is right?

I would add this fact: There is a time and a place for controversial speech.  In a civilized society, controversial speech is a requirement, but it must be clearly delineated from hate speech, or one’s attempt at provoking intolerant behavior will simply succeed.  The students, in this case, were clumsy.  Their case could have easily been made by ensuring that they were clear about their intent, or that they simply invite students to have a discussion about tolerance before provoking violence.  They missed an opportunity, and continue to do so.  Let me repeat: controversial speech must have a time and a place.

I believe that a speakers corner is one such time and place.  If a person stood up, at a speaker’s corner, and held a pineapple aloft with the word Mohammed emblazoned upon it, they should be defended (possibly from outright violence).  On the other hand, in a classroom where a Physics professor is trying to explain the Special Theory of Relativity, jumping up on a desk and presenting the decorated crucifix I mentioned above would be clearly inappropriate.  Why?  In both cases, you have a gathering of people, right?  Answer: because the purpose of the gathering MATTERS.

I believe that the atheist society at Reading University is guilty of not understanding this simple concept: that there is a time and a place for every discussion.  I believe that the student union is also guilty of the same thing.  One wants the right to say outrageous things in inappropriate places.  The other wants to prevent them from saying anything outrageous at all.  No one considered the middle option: that discussion of an offensive and controversial thought should be specifically invited, in a particular time and place, and that folks unwilling or unable to listen to their message, could simply agree to stay away.

That is not what happened.  It’s a lost opportunity.

Why these two groups cannot compromise is an indication of the failure of our society to teach what it really means to be tolerant.

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