Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fatwa Paladins

In regards to L'affaire Rushdie 2.0, Norman Geras argues that ''the left'' should afford no respect to religious fanatics who try to scare the rest of us into not saying things they disagree with. I didn't actually know the left did respect them. I certainly don't.

Does anyone remember when Christians were the paladins in the anti-speech crusade, and it was people like Donald Wildon who were trying to get everything from Playboy to Mighty Mouse banned? During the 80s it seemed like there was a Christian crusade against art every other week in the news. Does anybody remember the PMRC? Now, to be honest, I can't remember one liberal who said ''Well, maybe we should consider the fallout from films like Splash...'' I do remember feminist groups getting persnickety about heavy metal videos, for different reasons than the PMRC, but I don't remember people taking the attitude that artists have a certain responsibility not to offend people who hold absolutist beliefs. Could you imagine if liberals had said, ''I think artists need to be very careful not to offend the sensibilities of televangelists''?

I think back then it was realized that these ''religious'' groups were securing their right not to be offended on the back of our right to enjoy whatever art we want to. I think we suspected a certain petulant need to tell the rest of us what we could say, read, watch, and think. And I think we recognized how central free speech is to the liberal tradition going back to the eighteenth century. That was incidentally the same reason some of us opposed persnickety feminists against porn and PC speech codes, back when such things still existed.

But, in the end, the Politically Correct, and the Religiously Correct crowds bit the dust. I think that most people simply don't like to be bullied into a cowed ''respect'' for each other. And central to civil society is the need to provide leeway for other people's tastes and opinions. I think Top Gun is shit, but that doesn't mean that I can deny you the right to enjoy it, if it's actually possible to enjoy. And I think the reason that we said ''Look, okay you hate Mighty Mouse. Explain why and maybe we'll agree with you; but don't deny us the right to decide for ourselves,'' to these people was that, on some level, we realized that they are part of the same civil society as we are. They have to play by the same rules as we do. Nobody gets to play the 'blasphemy' card. Certainly, there are douche bags in this society who just outright hate Muslims, or gays, or Christians, or atheists. But, here's the thing- in civil society, we don't have to like each other, or even accept each other, but we have to get the hell off of each other's backs.

In some ways, I think that refusing to submit to the will of any group on the issue of free speech offers a measure of respect to those groups, because in requiring them to adhere to the rules of liberal democratic society, we're bringing them into that society. I'm not sure that the fatwa paladins, or those who seek not to ''offend'' them, understand the deeper cultural disrespect that exists in suggesting that certain people in our society just can't handle the requirements of civil society, and so should be very politely culturally isolated.

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