Social Criticism not Identical with the Urge to Provoke

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 3: Freethought II: Freedom of Expression

Social Criticism not Identical with the Urge to Provoke

That brings me to a fourth and last point of criticism against freethought. This final point is a variant of the third, but it has a slightly different dimension and therefore I want to treat it separately. It is that freethinkers are not sincere critics, but are motivated by the sole aim of being provocative. They may not be motivated solely by a wish to insult other people, but freethinkers voice their criticism in such a way that they know (or may suppose) that it will call forth a tumultuous reaction.

Those who follow this line of reasoning may claim that religious criticism is not the problem; it is the way in which this criticism is voiced. This is an old controversy. Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner (1858–1943) wrote:

The history of the common law of blasphemy, even as inadequately outlined in these pages, shows that it varies with the temper of the age in which it is administered and the Judge who has to administer it. Lord Hale, in 1676, said it was the opinion which was criminal; so did Mr. Justice North in 1883. Lord Coleridge said it was not the opinion; it was the manner in which it was expressed.[157]

An important case in this regard is that of the Danish cartoonists who drew pictures of Mohammed. The cartoonists (or the newspaper that published the cartoons) surely expected tumult to arise, did they not? A possible claim that the row was unexpected and unintended would not be credible. Was provocation here not the precise aim of the publication?

This indictment has been voiced by many people, including the Dutch Princess Mabel of Orange (1968– ). In an interview she confided that she considered it inappropriate to publish cartoons simply “to teach the Muslims a lesson.” She continued: “the intention is very important” and “deliberately publishing something simply to insult, hurt, and humiliate” is wrong.[158]

It is true, of course, that someone who publishes something with no other aim than to insult, hurt, and humiliate another person perpetrates a despicable act. But the underlying suggestion of the Princess’s remark is that there really are people who do such things. And against the backdrop of the discussion about the Danish cartoons it is hard to see how this could be interpreted as anything other than an allusion to the Danish cartoonists and the paper that published their drawings. Why does the Princess think that the publications aimed to insult?

Of course, the case of the Danish cartoonists is different from that of Rushdie and Kaur Bhatti (the Sikh playwright who had to hide after the theater in Birmingham was stormed by angry Sikhs). Nevertheless there are important similarities as well. Taking the chance that people might be provoked does not necessarily make the publication of something morally objectionable.

Flemming Rose on Why He Published the Danish Cartoons

Perhaps nobody has been more maligned in the recent history of free speech than the Danish journalist Flemming Rose (1958– ), best known for commissioning the drawings of Mohammed in the Jyllands Posten. In an article in The Washington Post he disclosed his motives for publishing those cartoons.[159] From that article it appears that Rose is no “free-speech junkie.”[160] He makes clear that he certainly would not publish any thing and everything. He would not publish pornographic images or graphic details of dead bodies. Likewise, swear words rarely make it into the pages of his newspaper, he contends: “So we are not fundamentalists in our support for freedom of expression.”

Why then did he publish the cartoons?

He commissioned the cartoons “in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” The idea was not to provoke gratuitously, Rose writes. And he certainly had no intention of triggering violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. “Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.”

The whole affair started when a Danish writer of children’s books had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Mohammed. Nobody wanted to accept the job for fear of the consequences. When finally someone was found who accepted the commission this was on the precondition of anonymity. Not only were cartoonists who would tackle sensitive issues hard to find, it appeared also to be difficult to find translators for books relating to Islam. The translators did not want their names on the cover of the book.

This implied that there was an unequal treatment of religions, Rose contends. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions. The message of the cartoons on Mohammed was the complete opposite of what the critics contended: “By treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are inclusive, rather than exclusive, of Muslims.”

From Rose’s article it also appears that he does not have an exceptionally negative view of Islam. The cartoon that drew the harshest criticism (the one depicting the prophet with a bomb for a turban) can also be read as: “Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name.”

Rose also makes an interesting point about the notion of respect in relation to the public sphere. When he visits a mosque, Rose tells us, he shows his respect by taking off his shoes. He follows the customs, just as he does in a church, a synagogue, or any other holy place. “But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking my respect, but my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.” This is an important point that brings us to the heart of the matter.

Rose also discloses something about his motives that is rarely revealed in the popular comments on the cartoons affair. His attitude towards free speech was deeply influenced by his work as a correspondent in totalitarian countries. He is a former correspondent in the Soviet Union and he is aware of the popular trick used by totalitarian governments. They labeled every critique or call for debate an “insult” and punished the offenders. That is what happened to Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989), Vladimir Bukowsky (1942– ), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), Nathan Sharansky (1948– ) and Boris Pasternak (1890–1960). The lesson from the Cold War is: “If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants.”

In the case of the publication of the cartoons in Jyllands Posten, the editor of the newspaper and all those involved in its publication wanted to make a point about free speech. They considered it to be outrageous that it appeared to be impossible to make cartoons on holy figures from the Islamic tradition. That kind of self-censure was pernicious and should ignite protest. The makers of the cartoons and those who solicited them did not aim at giving offence, but the fact that people might feel insulted was considered to be of less importance than making an important point about free speech.

One of the problems with the debate on free speech (Mill) and the moral and social duty to criticize (Clifford) is that commentators seldom picture the intents and purposes of other writers in the right context. This is true with regard to all the three theistic faiths but particularly with Islam nowadays, so it seems. Let me illustrate this by referring to a passage in Christopher Catherwood’s book A Brief History of the Middle East (2006).[161]

Catherwood (1955– ) rightly notes in his in many ways excellent book that discussion on Islam has become embroiled in the culture wars in the USA. This is “particularly unhelpful,” he continues, “since civilized discussion is highly desirable in a era in which religious terrorism has become a major issue of our time. Mutual understanding is surely preferable to trading insults.”[162]

So far, so good. But then Catherwood continues with an illustration of what he has written:

A classic example of this is the success of a recent book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam [and the Crusades], whose title reveals a great deal. Such polemics only increase heat between Muslims and the rest of the world, with the unfortunate consequences that are all around us.[163]

In this passage there are many hidden presuppositions. Apparently Catherwood does not consider The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades (2005) by Robert Spencer (1962– )[164] “civilized discussion.” It does not help “mutual understanding” and is therefore “particularly unhelpful.” Another contention that is being insinuated is that the title of this book, “politically incorrect,” already “reveals a great deal.” Catherwood interprets this as a “polemic” with the “unfortunate consequences that are all around us.”

The last statement is important because it contains nothing less than a theory to explain “religious terrorism.” Religious terrorism is explained by “polemics.” Therefore books like the one written by Spencer are not seen as the result of the threat of “religious terrorism” (a term used by Catherwood, by the way, although considered “politically incorrect” in some circles) but as the cause of it (or at least as a contributing factor). This theory is widely accepted, but we should ask ourselves whether it is true.

What our final judgment on this undoubtedly complex question will be partly depends on how we interpret the aims and purposes of the writers of the “politically incorrect guides” series. There are two opinions.

The first is that this is a provocative series that, for no other reason than provocation or fun, depicts the subjects it discusses in a most unfavorable light. The aim is fun, not the disclosure of unwelcome truths that are being neglected for political reasons or out of religious piety.

The second is different, however. It holds that what the writers in this series try to do, is to shed light on uncomfortable truths. What guides them is an attempt to reveal objective information, even if that information is unwelcome to specific groups or vested interests.

If we follow the first interpretation we may ask what the consequences of Catherwood’s criticism of Spencer’s book might be. Ought we not to abolish the whole series then? If we take the first interpretation of the aims of the series, then The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam is not alone in being not “particularly helpful” (because not a contribution to “civilized discussion”). The same can be said about the politically incorrect guide to Western civilization,[165] or the American constitution,[166] or the Bible,[167] or Darwinism,[168] or any other title in the series.

The central question seems to be this: is there a good reason to write and publish “politically incorrect guides” about Christianity, the Jewish religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Capitalism, Socialism, etc., and exclude one religion (Islam) because publishing such a book would be “particularly unhelpful,” “trading insults,” and not a contribution to “civilized discussion”?

It may be the case that there is such a reason, but, again, then we have also to take into account that it is not unthinkable that we might make exactly the wrong choice in saving one religion from criticism while encouraging criticism of others. This might help the most conservative, violent, and fanatical leaders within the religion that is considered to be exempt from criticism to disseminate their views. We at least have to ask ourselves whether such preferential treatment is indeed “helpful” in attaining a result that probably Catherwood, Spencer, and most other writers share: a world where people live together peacefully, each revering his own god (or no god), while respecting the choices of others. The contention that some participants in this discussion have dishonorable motives is often voiced, but should require more evidence, I am inclined to think.

That element of balancing two evils against each other (the chance that people might get hurt; the chance that free speech might be eroded) is characteristic of the new situation we are living in. This situation is not dissimilar from the considerations of the great scientists when they were pondering the question of whether they should publish their ideas in full cognizance that this would cause massive upheaval.

We find a similar balancing in the tradition of science, where free inquiry often clashed with religious orthodoxy, sometimes with dramatic consequences for the innovators of scientific ideas.[169]

The Theory of Evolution: Too Controversial to Defend?

A classic example of this is the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859.[170] Darwin was well aware that once he published his material an outcry would be the result, not only in the scholarly world, but also in the world of religious people. The reason is clear. If the Darwinian thesis of evolution held, the story about the origin of man as told in Genesis could not be literally true. And this would upset the whole history of Christianity that had lasted almost two thousand years. “I have read your book with more pain than pleasure,” the Reverend Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873) wrote to Darwin on November 24, 1859, after having read his Origin.[171] Sedgwick had read parts of the book “with absolute sorrow” and he confessed: “I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous.” Nobody would, however, defend the idea that Darwin should not have published the Origin because it is wrong to cause “sorrow” or “pain” or “hurt the feelings” of other people. We all think – at least most of us – that Darwin had to publish his book in spite of the sorrow it caused to the poor reverend.

Perhaps it is difficult for us, now, living in the twenty-first century, to gauge exactly how provocative, saddening, and insulting the theory of evolution was to the pride of the Victorians. The theory of evolution really had to fight its way into the scientific world. The evolutionist who had a character perfectly matched to the task was “Darwin’s bulldog”: T.H. Huxley. Huxley, whom we have already encountered in Chapter 1 as the coiner of the concept of “agnosticism,” made no concessions to the religious feelings of the orthodox. On the contrary, Man’s Place in Nature (1862) was considered to be a bombshell.[172] It was, so Darwin’s biographers White and Gribbin wrote, “the first and the most confrontational of the books by British Darwinians.”[173]

To estimate the intense and heartfelt feelings of the British Victorians who opposed Darwin, we have to take into account that Darwin’s contemporaries had only just gotten a glimpse of the gorilla that had been caught in the jungles of Africa and brought to England. Everybody was now in a position to look the gorilla right in the eyes and monitor the similarities between ape and man. Huxley reveled in making this clear. Darwin, though, felt reluctant to do this and lived as a recluse. He had to spell out some of the more unpopular conclusions drawn on the basis of the theory of evolution, of course, but he never enjoyed it. Huxley, however, wrote to Darwin with great enthusiasm: “By next Friday evening they will all be convinced that they are monkeys.”[174]

In the meantime the theologians cried “blasphemy.” It is against this background that the wife of the Bishop of Worcester commented: “Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”[175]

It is clear that those who have no high opinion of the theory of evolution will experience the publications of Huxley and other Darwinians as “needless provocations.” How can you advocate disseminating views that are so manifestly untrue, they must have thought.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[157] Bradlaugh Bonner, Hypatia, Penalties upon Opinion: Some Records of the Laws of Heresy and Blasphemy, third edition, revised and enlarged by F.W. Read, Watts & Co., London 1934, p. 138.

[158] Albrecht, Yoeri, and Broertjes, Pieter, “Ik kan niet tegen onrecht. Het veelkoppige monster van de onvrije democratie” [I Cannot Accept Injustice. The Many-Headed Monster of Unfree Democracy], De Volkskrant, March 10, 2007.

[159] Rose, Flemming, “Why I Published Those Cartoons,” at: Washingtonpost.com, Sunday, February 19, 2006. See also: Khader, Naser, and Rose, Flemming, “Reflections on the Danish Cartoon Controversy,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2007, pp. 59–66; Ammitzboll, Pernille, and Vidono, Lorenzo, “After the Danish Cartoon Controversy,” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2007, pp. 3–11.

[160] See on this: Jacoby, “A First Amendment Junkie” and Barnet and Bedau, Current Issues and Enduring Questions.

[161] Catherwood, Christopher, A Brief History of the Middle East: From Abraham to Arafat, Robinson, London 2006.

[162] Ibid., p. 79.

[163] Ibid.

[164] Spencer, Robert, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington 2005.

[165] Esolen, Anthony, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington DC 2008.

[166] Gutzman, Kevin R.C., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington DC 2007.

[167] Hutchinson, Robert J., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington DC 2007.

[168] Wells, Jonathan, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington DC 2006.

[169] See the classical study by: White, A.D., A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Dover Publications, New York 1960 (1896).

[170] Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1981 (1959).

[171] White, Michael, and Gribbin, John, Darwin. A Life in Science, Simon & Schuster, London 1995, p. 219.

[172] Huxley, Thomas H., Man’s Place in Nature, Introduction by Ashley Montagu, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1959 (1862).

[173] White and Gribbin, Darwin: A Life in Science, p. 227.

[174] Ibid.

[175] Quoted in: Montagu, Ashley “Introduction,” in: Huxley, Man’s Place in Nature, p.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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