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Art and Philosophy

Sociology is not philosophy. And social criticism is quite easily criticism of straw scarecrows, lifeless creations of bigotry, a caricature of religion in this case, as strident speech often is.

Foreword to Events of 2006 (2015)

My reverence for free speech is unreserved, both the freedom to express offensive ideas and the freedom to criticise offensive ideas. (Libel is a civil, not a criminal offense, in a civil world.) Every alternative sets up an authoritarian censorship, but speech that does not give offense is not free (because it has no need to be: no law is needed to protect speech that no one finds offensive), and it is precisely what is judged to be offensive that will be prohibited. Free communities do not censor speech; censoring speech is what unfree communities do. Solzhenitsyn tells the story of a little boy who said, "Everyone should be free to say anything." And that is what philosophy says. The little boy's companions beat him up, and this too sometimes happens to philosophers.

Tolerance of freedom of conscience was not generally accepted before the Enlightenment (Locke's Letter on Tolerance is a beginning), although freedom of speech is our inheritance from the ancient Athenians (Plato, Gorgias 461e). And religious tolerance came as a very bloody lesson for European Civilization to learn.

Judged from a Christian point of view, insulting what your neighbor holds sacred clearly is not being faithful to the commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22.39). It clearly is also not an act of religious tolerance.

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Art and Philosophy

I find this in the Western press (February 2006): "cartoons satirising" (BBC), "negative caricatures" (CNN), "blasphemous" (New Zealand Herald). The press as art critic. Who is to decide what is negative, what is caricature, what is blasphemous?

Art should, if the artist wishes, be provocative: it should make you think -- it should make you think for yourself. And it should never apologize for that.

Dogmatic religious critics are right: freedom of speech and freedom of expression are secular values. They are not religious values; they exist despite the historical opposition of religions. If they had never been exercised with courage, they would not now exist in Europe (or in its Enlightenment child in America, where speech and expression are most free), would not now be classified as human rights (as they are by Article 19 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)).

In art freedom of expression does the same work as freedom of speech in philosophy: it makes you think. That is a connection between art and philosophy.

"What is tolerance?"

It was impossible not to respond to this situation (Denmark, February 2006) -- because in it philosophy itself is under attack.

"What is tolerance?" That form of expression sounds as if we were asking about some "thing in itself". Whereas all that is being -- and all that can be -- asked for is a definition of the word 'tolerance'.

It is 'tolerance' to allow others to practice their religion. It is not tolerance to also participate in their practices; that is instead indulgence, something shown to a child. And to insist on it is 'religious intolerance'.

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten should not have apologized either for posting the drawings or for the offense the drawings caused, because it had nothing to apologize for -- because it had done nothing wrong. The cartoons had been drawn as a protest against the fact that the author of a children's book about the life of Islam's prophet Mohammed could not find an artist who was not afraid to illustrate it for her.

The rioters were for the most part poor people who have very little except their religion to cling to as the source of meaning and dignity in their lives. (It is the demagogues who brought the images from a Danish publication -- published in the West for Western readers -- to the attention of poor and uneducated people who didn't even know where Denmark is on the map or what the Danish flag looks like, who must apologize for the riots.) And everyone should be sensitive and considerate of that. And, indeed, it is at the very heart of religious tolerance, which was the lesson Europe had learned from its long and bloody wars of religious intolerance, to avoid causing offense. But only if that is voluntary.

Understanding versus Agreement

You don't want me to understand you; you want me to agree with you -- and by 'agree' you mean 'obey' you. But I don't agree with you. I am not willing to surrender my freedom of speech and expression in order to placate dogmatic people who want to control other people. And you, on the other hand, will not agree to stop demanding that I do.

Islam, as it is practiced in most places (and where it does not even allow a Moslem to abjure Islam), has never learned to distinguish dogma from truth, authority from free inquiry (or thinking about things for yourself). It has never accepted freedom of conscience as the post-Enlightenment West has (or at least the educated part of it has). As things stand at present, this makes for a parting of the ways.

When two principles [-- in this case, obedience (submission) versus freedom --] really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and heretic. (OC § 611)

Reason can only reconcile the reasonable, not those who believe there is something higher than reason. If Islam, as it is practiced in most places, cannot agree to tolerate the secular -- i.e. the philosophical -- West, and if the people of the West remain true to the hard-won freedom values of their own civilization, not losing their confidence in reason, then the consequence will be something that only fools can desire: war (and if the result is not the same as at Marathon and Lepanto, Western humanity will enter another dark age).

Philosophy, however, is not at war with Islam -- or with any other religion (for the Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and Christians of backward societies can be just as intolerant) -- but only with the intolerance that poverty and lack of education, often infused with nationalism, foster. If the level of education rises in the Islamic world of the East, then, as it did in the formerly (at least nominal) Christian world of the West, so too may tolerance and freedom of conscience.

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 19 August 2014 : 2014-08-19

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