There are quite a number of ideas that I believe are quite good when practiced voluntarily, and become dangerous and destructive when backed by force. For example, let’s take “political correctness.” Much of what is labelled political correctness is, in my opinion, simple courtesy. Notice the bold text. I think it is courtesy, and thus I follow it as a courtesy. I advocate courteous speech to others. When force is placed behind one person’s (or a group’s) idea of courtesy, so that others are forced to be courteous, all kinds of trouble breaks out. First, and more minor, is the simple problem that if courtesy is to be enforced, then we must have rules for just about every circumstance. The rules will multiply. But second, though more important, the rules of courtesy can prevent criticism. (This is an excellent argument against speech codes on university campuses, places where criticism should be the norm, not the exception.)
I have commented on this many times with regard to individuals. A person should not become immune to criticism because he or she is too important or revered. In churches I see this with regard to pastors. Some will say “touch not the Lord’s anointed.” I say instead, “Check out the guy who claims God’s anointing very carefully.” In fact, if persons claiming God’s anointing try to exclude examination and accountability, I consider it a very good indication that there is something ungodly and unsavory going on.
Now I would strongly advocate—advocate, not enforce—courtesy in the process of criticism, both because I think courtesy is a value in itself and because I think your critique is more likely to have an impact if it is presented in a sensible way without extra baggage. But an enforced barrier to examination, including an enforced level of courtesy, such as questions that cannot even be asked, is an opening for scoundrels.
Freedom of speech is of great value in preventing errors and correcting problems. I advocate this not merely as a constitutional principal here in the United States, but on a personal basis. I would want any organization I support to favor free speech, and in this I include annoying and antagonistic speech, speech that I would call very discourteous. Whoever you are, whatever your position, however long you’ve held that place, I believe the world is better off if people can criticize you, even if some (or most) of those people do so unfairly, unjustly, and downright rudely.
But what about religious groups? Isn’t it unfair to criticize other people’s cultures or their beliefs? Don’t they have a right to their own beliefs? If you criticize their culture, aren’t you engaging in cultural imperialism?
First, of course, based on what I have already said I don’t believe it is right to ban even rude and unseemly speech. I don’t have to publish it (I am a publisher). I don’t have to read it or listen to it, but I would never ban it, even if it is totally unjustified. On the other hand, one way one discovers whether criticism was justified or not is by listening, evaluating, investigating, and then perhaps vigorously criticizing those who produced it. One way in which groups try to protect themselves from examination is by claiming that critiquing what they say somehow denies them free speech. I think this is a dangerous point of view. Critique is the proper response to ideas which I think are flawed. If you disagree, critique my ideas.
But let me follow up with something from my own experience. You may remember the Branch Davidians. There was quite a mess back in the 90s. Now the Branch Davidians are an offshoot of an offshoot of Seventh-day Adventism. I used to be a Seventh-day Adventist, so I took note of events. People were trying to figure out whether the Davidians were actually SDAs. They were trying to figure out who SDAs were. They were looking at the doctrinal beliefs of the Branch Davidians to see why they were behaving as they did. In the storm, the few voices that said one shouldn’t criticize religious beliefs were drowned out, but they did come up.
One of the problems I see with Christians in the United States is that very few have experience being a minority. While I would regard SDAs as simply another denomination of Christians with certain beliefs held in common with the broader community and others distinctive, SDAs are different enough from the majority that they tend to stand out as a minority. So there was some criticism that washed back from the Branch Davidians all the way back to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a connection which had not really existed since the 1930s. When people who knew my background asked me, I would explain, but there was also a great deal of misinformation.
But here’s the question: Was it valid to examine and critique the beliefs of the Branch Davidians? Absolutely! They carried certain beliefs to extremes that eventually resulted in death and destruction. It was not only valid, it was critical to examine these beliefs, both to see how they led to what had happened, and also to distinguish their beliefs from others. There are few ideas that cannot be taken to extremes by someone. There is the person who believes Jesus will return in glory at some point, but that we should live responsibly in the meantime, and then there is the person who believes that Jesus will soon return and that we therefore have no call to live responsibility. A bit further down that road, if it indeed is a connected road, there is the person who believes Jesus will return in two weeks, so he ought to sell all his stuff and stand out on a hill waiting for it to happen. The beliefs result in actions and it is perfectly valid to look at them.
Look at this two ways: 1) The examination looks at the beliefs and how they connect to action; and 2) the examination illuminates the difference between various groups who might otherwise be considered the same.
Probably most of the small number of readers who have followed me this far will connect what I’m saying with criticism of Islam and the use of terms such as “Islamic terrorism.” The use of labels needs its own discussion, and I’ve written about it in an earlier post on the Energion Discussion Network. Would you, for example, like to have the protests of Westboro Baptist Church be described as “Christian protests”? Yet that is a distinction we expect people, even non-Christians to make. Despite these people calling themselves Christians, others are supposed to figure out that they really aren’t—according to us. In fact, we expect people to distinguish them not only from Christian groups such as the Episcopal Church or United Church of Christ, which have a strongly inclusive position, we expect them to distinguish Westboro Baptist from Christians who believe homosexuality is sin, yet don’t accept their methods and the extremes. And I think it is good to make such distinctions. In fact, one element of my own definition of being a moderate is that one looks at the whole spectrum of ideas and one carefully distinguishes differences.
But making these distinctions requires that I carefully examine, analyze, and even critique the positions of all of these groups. I’m criticizing their religious beliefs. And because those religious beliefs impact the world around them, it is a valid thing to do.
I’ve heard religious beliefs compared to color preferences. People won’t criticize me for preferring the color blue, so they should criticize me for being a Christian. But my Christianity is not only different in intensity than my preference for the color blue (I also kind of like red, green, purple, and occasionally orange), it is also different in type. My color preference will cause me to paint walls some preferred color. Unless we’re co-owners of a building, or it’s a public building, this is unlikely to be a problem for you. My Christianity becomes the foundation for my actions, or I certainly hope it does. Thus you should be interested in my religious beliefs because they will influence my behavior, including my behavior toward you. You have a right to that concern.
So from this perspective I look at issues regarding terrorism and Islam. I do not believe that we should treat Muslims as terrorists. I’m appalled at the suggestion that they should be registered or forbidden to build mosques in this country. But I come to this position by examining Islam, looking at information about Muslims as people, and knowing some Muslims personally. My problem with the term “Islamic terrorist” is similar to my problem with calling the Westboro Baptists Christian protestors. It is not a matter of numbers. No matter how large the group of people who are misbehaving in the name of a religion, it doesn’t make the good citizens who are members of that religion magically into bad citizens.
It also doesn’t mean that we can’t take a look and see what is going on in that religion. But we need to do so accurately. I recently received a copy of a lawsuit in which one part alleged that Islam was a religion of violence. To make his case, the attorney cited many individual verses from the Qur’an. Interesting. He’s going to the source documents. But the fact is that Christianity and Judaism would both be very vulnerable to just that same approach. One could make a list of texts from the Bible, whether or not one includes the Christian New Testament, that would make our faiths seem to be quite horrible. Yet the vast majority of us, in either faith, do not behave in that fashion. So the critique that we make of a faith needs to be of the faith as it is understand and practiced by its adherents. That’s a little harder than prooftexting a holy book, but it is also more accurate.
So here’s another example: Sweden’s Foreign Minister Has Criticized Saudi Arabia. I find it interesting that while she has criticized both Saudi Arabia and Israel, I found much more discussion of her criticism of Israel. What is the key to her criticism? The sentence of a Saudi blogger to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for something he said. In another case, a Sri Lankan woman awaits death by stoning there for adultery. The man involved was sentenced to 100 lashes. Those who condemn this sort of thing are told that they are criticizing an ancient culture and imposing their values.
OK. I am. I believe both of those sentences are, in fact, barbaric. If your ancient cultural prejudices tell you that you can sentence someone to 1000 lashes for anything at all, or stone a woman to death for adultery, I’m quite willing to say it’s barbaric.
There are some who will think I’m feeding into anti-Muslim prejudice. Things are bad enough with various terrorist attacks. But I think the proper response and the best response is to acknowledge and where proper condemn the actions of those who commit those actions while at the same time maintaining that those who do not commit such actions are not to share the blame. Moderate and liberal Muslims, however many there are of them, are not responsible for the actions of the Islamic State or of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are plenty of Muslims who disapprove of the actions of both. I’m right with them.
I think the test of our sincerity—mostly of mine!—is whether I can also condemn those who look like me and claim to be like me when they also do barbaric things. And if we continue down the road of fear and anger in this country we’re going to have plenty of barbaric things to condemn.
As current barbarism might I mention our incarceration rate (we’re #2, and China, which we consider repressive, is #130, while the “barbaric” Saudis are just #91. The Seychelles are #1 on this list)? And most of that is due to the drug war. Barbarism anyone? (This site says we’re #1.)