Mocking and satirising are marks of respect
Far from being offensive, open criticism of deeply held beliefs is part and parcel of respect. Eve Hendrick writes – and you have the right to read.
The right to freedom of speech is one of the fundamental principles of democracy, and it is one which democratic societies are rightly very proud of. The right to freedom of speech includes the right, within limits, to say and write whatever we like about any subject. Putting aside the chances of being accused of slander, libel, or incitement to racial or religious hatred, the right to freedom of speech ensures that we are free to express ourselves and our opinions.
The right to free speech found its original justification in protecting people from authoritarian oppression because the concept enabled people to speak out against governments without fear of punishment. In addition to this and as a fundamental principle of liberalism, freedom of speech falls in line with other liberal rights as enabling the individual to do and say whatever they like as long as they don’t harm others. In other words, individual freedom is paramount. Furthermore, J. S. Mill thought that freedom of expression did not just ensure an individual’s freedom and happiness but that it might actually contribute to society by revealing better ways of living.
What is interesting about freedom of speech is that it is defended as being an important right of the person doing the speaking, writing or drawing (although Mill thought that free expression would eventually benefit society, this was arguably an added bonus and definitely came second to the idea of the right of the individual to be free). Is there another side to free speech? Can it be defended not only as a right of the speaker, but perhaps as a right of the listener also? If I have a right to say and write what I like, does it make sense to say I also have a right to hear and read what others say?
This sounds like a strange suggestion, but it may well turn out that free speech is important not only because of what it allows me to say and write, but because of what it forces me to hear and read as well. Consider the idea of religious offence.
Some religious believers find it incredibly offensive to hear criticisms of their beliefs, especially if these critiques take satirical or mocking forms. Perhaps the biggest example in recent history would be the Danish cartoon saga of 2005. Many Muslims, Christians and atheists found the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad deeply offensive, insulting and even racist. There was outcry; one side championed free speech and the other championed religious respect.
What was largely ignored in the debate however, was the possibility that satirical cartoons (and other forms of expression) of a religious figure or belief could be defended, not only on the principle of the individual’s right to express themselves, but because such ‘expressions’ demonstrate respect for the religious believer. This is not as bizarre as it sounds, although it does require a little more work than the simple free speech defence.
The case for this position can be made by understanding what “respect” means. There are many subtleties in the concept of respect but it can be stripped down to the fairly simple (and not so simple) idea that respecting something or someone means recognising what that object is, and recognising what characteristics make that object worthy of whatever we discern respectful treatment to be. So to respect a human being, I must recognise a ‘thing’ as belonging to the group ‘human being’, then I must acknowledge what aspect of being a ‘human being’ make such things worthy of being treated with respect. Then I must decide what respectful treatment actually entails. Crucially, the treatment we decide upon must make reference to the feature we found so respect-worthy. Phew.
So, what does that mean? Why do we think humans deserve this ‘respect’? Arguably, what marks humans out as beings worthy of the kind of respectful treatment we don’t think we owe to animals (few would claim it is equally disrespectful to mock a dog for example), is our rationality and our autonomy. This is the Kantian idea that what makes us worthy of certain treatment is our powers of reasoning and the ability to adopt and follow our own rules. It is true that many of our other features demand specific treatments or attitudes from others, for example our ability to feel pain means others are morally required to avoid (and protect us from) injury, but it is our features of rationality and autonomy that require others to treat us with what we call ‘respect’.
Deciding what respectful treatment of human beings actually entails must therefore recognise and refer to them as reasoning and autonomous beings. ‘Respectful treatment’ must therefore endorse and encourage the manifestation of reason and autonomy. Respectful treatment does therefore not entail backing quietly away from views which others might find offensive. In fact, exposing the potentially offended to these ‘offensive’ views is arguably the epitome of ‘respect’. A mocking, critical, offensive or challenging statement about religion requires the religious believer to use those powers of rationality and autonomy to either challenge in return, or assess and alter their own views. When we criticise anyone’s deeply held views in this way we are recognising that the believer has those rational powers and we are asking them to fulfil them. That is real respect.
Satirising religious views can therefore be defended not only because writers, artists, commentators and everyone else has the right to express themselves, but because the potentially offended have a right to have their powers of rationality and autonomy respected by those who disagree with them. The potentially offended have a right to see and hear material which simply by existing, recognises and respects the very features that qualify them as human beings.
Eve Hendrick is a Campaigns Volunteer at the British Humanist Association.