Blasphemy and racism are not moral equivalents

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In blog posts, Facebook comments, conversations, and so on, I've noticed a false equivalency popping up, in the form of the following questions: would people be defending Charlie Hebdo as strongly, or insisting that newspapers should reprint its illustrations, if the magazine had published anti-Semitic caricatures?

After all, isn't anti-Islamic blasphemy just as offensive to Moslems as anti-Semitism is to others? And how can we defend the magazine for publishing blasphemy when it also fired a cartoonist for refusing to apologize after drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon? Doesn't this show it was just "anti-Moslem?"

Let me start by emphasizing that I believe that in a free country, magazines should be able to publish whatever non-libelous opinions they want.

Beyond that, I don't, and we shouldn't, judge speech by how offensive it is to those who choose to be offended, but by whether its content is logically and morally sound. And when it comes to content, expressions of racism (of which anti-Semitism is a variant) is not morally or logically equivalent to blasphemy.

Expressing hatred for members of a group because of the ethnic group they were born into is evil; we (in the U.S., at least) tolerate it because we think it's better than trusting the government decide what to censor and what not to censor as "racist", not because we think it has inherent value.

It's therefore perfectly reasonable and non-hypocritical for Charlie Hebdo to have a policy that allows for expressions of blasphemy, but not of racism. For that matter, it's perfectly reasonable and non-hypocritical for countries to ban expressions of racism but not expressions of blasphemy, though I'd ban neither.

The reason for distinguishing between (inherently bad) racist speech and blasphemy and other kinds of speech satirizing or criticizing religious belief that is that satirizing religious belief is not only not inherently evil, it's often a worthy endeavor, because it's criticizing an idea. There's no way to test the merit of ideas unless someone is willing to criticize them, sometimes harshly.

And, in fact, I'd venture to say that many religious doctrines, including those of my own religion, are objectively very silly. Some religious beliefs are dangerous, either to the believers themselves (consider, e.g., Christian scientists who refuse medical treatment) or to others. They deserve to be criticized, and if that criticism takes the form of satire, so be it.

Plus there's no fine line between religious and secular belief; the implicit basis for political correctness, as I understand it, is that certain left-wing beliefs are so sacred to their adherents that questioning, criticizing, or mocking them is basically analogous to blasphemy (and indeed I got a death threat or two in college for mocking some of the PC crowd's sacred beliefs).

That doesn't mean that one need, or should, go around gratuitously offending religious people. In fact, good manners, not to mention societal harmony, may often require being at least publicly respectful of religious doctrines one finds silly or repugnant. But nor does it mean that offending religious people while pursuing a sincere effort to seek or expound the truth should be banned or even discouraged.

One might still ask whether people would be as eager to defend Charlie Hebdo if it satirized Jewish or Christian religious beliefs as well as Muslim beliefs. And the answer is, it did indeed satirize all three religions' beliefs. It's not terribly surprising that Islamist beliefs came in for some extra attention, given that the magazine had been threatened by radical Islamists after it published the Mohammed cartoons, and that radical Islamists are the only relevant group that currently desires to impose its religious views on everyone else.

One subtlety is that prejudice against an ethnic group can be the cause of prejudice against their religion. For example, an anti-Semite might criticize the Jewish religion not because he knows anything about or cares about the religion, but because he hates Jews. Similarly, some have argued that Islam was targeted by Charlie Hebdo because it was a politically correct way to beat up on France's large North African-descended population. That's not inherently implausible; for example, one doesn't need to be a great detective to find evidence that some of the hostility to religious circumcision in Europe is a more subtle way of expressing hostility to Muslims and/or Jews.

Two counterpoints: first, one can't simply assume that because someone is critical of a religion that such criticism is motivated by hostility to those who practice it. Like I said, many religious beliefs are incredibly silly and sometimes dangerous, and they tend to get more so as one deals with the more radical fringe of each religion. I don't, for example, assume that one needs to be anti-Semitic to find that airbrushing women out of photographs to meet a particularly stringent standard of religious modesty is worthy of criticism and even ridicule.

Second, the case of Charlie Hebdo, everyone who is actually familiar with the magazine, as opposed to those who just reprinted its cartoons out of context without investigating further (cough.. Glenn Greenwald … cough), seems to agree that the magazine took a consistent, strong stand against anti-immigrant racism in France. So in this particular case, we have actual evidence that the magazine's satires of Islam were motivated by hostility to certain religious beliefs, and not by hostility to France's minority of North African descent.

In short, while ridiculing or expressing hostility to religious belief and ridiculing or expressing hostility to an ethnic group should both be legally protected, it's wrong to treat them as morally equivalent, or even analogous. In a liberal society, criticizing people's ideas is not only tolerable but necessary; liberal society, on the other hand, could get along quite well without expressions of racist hostility toward various groups.

I expect that some readers will accuse me of adopting this position just so I can endorse "Islam-bashing." So I've reprinted part of a post from 2003 (!) in which I defended the "Darwin Fish" (a satire of the Christian fish people put on their cars) against its critics:

I've received quite a few emails about the Darwin Fish, mostly to the effect that it takes a sacred Christian symbol and profanes it, and how would I like it if someone took a sacred Jewish symbol and profaned it. I don't quite see it that way. The way I understand it, putting a Jesus fish on one's car is a public expression of religious faith. I emphasize the word public, because I think such public expressions, by there very nature, are meant to admonish non-believers that they should be believers-otherwise, what's the point of putting one's faith out there in the public domain?

The Darwin fish, by contrast, is a public expression that the bearer chooses to rely on reason and science and not faith in understanding the world, while also being a brilliant satire of the Jesus fish. I hardly think that Christians who choose to publicly declare their faith in an inherently missionizing manner should get all prickly when non-believers respond in the marketplace of ideas by satirizing them.

And as for Jewish symbols, if believing Jews start putting little Ten Commandments tablets, or torahs, or succahs, or matzahs, or mezzuzot, or whatever, on the backs of their cars in a wave of sudden evangelizing fervor, I won't object to secular satirization….

Even if someone did mock Judaism as a religion, that's a far cry from "anti-Semitism," the analogy that is drawn by some correspondents to the Darwin fish. Someone can satirize, or even mock Christian beliefs without hating Christians, and someone can satirize or even mock Jewish beliefs (it's actually tough to get through 12 years of Jewish day school without doing this oneself, believe me) without hating Jews ….

Substituting dollar signs for the Hebrew text on the mezuzah, a hypothetical "satire" proposed by one correspondent, would not be satirizing Jewish beliefs, but using a Jewish symbol to promote the traditional anti-Semitic canard that Jews are only concerned about money. If there were some traditional anti-Christian canard that involved feet on fish, I could see the analogy. BTW, I've seen rabbis quoted as suggesting that tragedies befell this or that family because the text of the their mezuzot was not "kosher" (did not abide by relevant religious standards), a view that I think is almost self-satirizing.