Mocking faiths is harder than you think
Author: Patrick Malone
I have recently been reflecting upon a 2011 blog post entitled, ‘Whom Should We Mock?’, by American writer Leah Libresco. In this post, the author, who was an atheist at the time, pondered as to what contexts made it not just permissible but profitable to mock religious belief. Her points, which can be applied to any conflict between views, are worth revisiting in light of the questions currently circulating about the appropriate use of the right to free speech.
To outline some of Libresco’s argument, the mockery of opposing views is profitable only if the mockery actually reaches its target audience. It is pointless onanism if it only reaps affirmation from the members of one’s in-group. As she notes on the blog Daylight Atheism, “Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc. gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.”
One must always be aware of how one’s habits and thinking are warped by a reliance on derision, as it blinds one to the reason of an opponent and to one’s own shortcomings. Because of this danger, Libresco warns prospective religion-mockers that “it’s worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference. If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent … making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.”
Libresco emphasises that mockery must be limited and seen within the context of a group working towards truth instead of scoring points and winning debate; as she says in her follow-up post ‘Adapt or Die’, “if you’re in it for the bloodsport, knock it off.” The problem, however, is that much mockery published using the defense of free speech seems to have no interest in truth; it is self-congratulatory head-hunting. People offend for the sake of offending. In an honest search for truth, one should not shy away from arguing a point with which others will disagree, even at the cost of causing offence, but there are few cases in which outright contempt is genuinely profitable for the parties involved.
I think that it is appropriate to refer to the Greek word ‘logos,’ which has various meanings, including both reason and speech. When we keep this relationship between the two meanings in mind, it becomes clear that speech, especially in the public sphere, is not mindless uttering, is not mere derision, and does not exist for its own sake. Rather, free speech is a means of finding truth, of advancing one’s knowledge and understanding of the world. The right to free speech cannot be seen as a mere end in itself that automatically justifies all offence, but as a sign of society’s honest commitment to bettering itself. This right is primarily essential not to protect a person’s autonomy, but to protect that person’s ability to seek truth.
I am troubled about the questions circulating about what type of offence is justified by this right because they only ask ’can we?’ instead of ‘will this work?’, ‘where does this lead?’ and ‘how does this affect me?’
In an article entitled ‘Europe and Nothingness’, published in the journal First Things, Catholic theologian and American intellectual George Weigel went so far as to call the belief that merely exercising the right of free speech automatically vindicates all mockery a type of “nihilism,” and if speakers refuse to use this right to rationally seek any deeper truth and to better themselves and society, it’s hard to disagree. To portray a void as the cornerstone of free society is absurd.