Respect My Authoritaay!
March 05, 2007
I received some email in response to the Clerical Umbrage piece. Apparently, I’m being terribly disrespectful towards the Dean of Southwark, the Bishop of London and believers more generally. All of whom should, I’m told, be held in high regard “because of their sincerity” and irrespective of what they say or how little sense it makes. The offending passage – well, one of many offending passages – was my statement that, “If the Bishop of London feels relegated to the margins of intellectual credibility, perhaps he should consider his own role in getting there.” I won’t rehash the reasons for that particular comment. I do, however, want to address the notion that claims of religious sincerity should be taken at face value and afforded great weight, regardless of their content and political implications.
"If a person writes an article claiming that Muhammad was the final prophet of Allah and a yardstick of human virtue, they are expressing a preposterous idea. If that person then demands that I refrain from saying this, and refrain from explaining why, they are making an equally preposterous demand."
With depressing regularity we hear of the “sincerity” and “deep feeling” with which certain beliefs are held, as if sincerity and vehemence were testament to the veracity of those beliefs and a marker of their immunity from critical scrutiny. But an argument stands on its merits, not on the vehemence with which it’s held or the volume at which it’s shouted. And not, as the Bishop of London seems to imply, because of veiled threats of public disorder if those beliefs are challenged. Nor is a belief made admirable or true by the number of people who can be said to share it. When Iqbal Sacranie claimed that “millions of Muslims” were “deeply offended” by unflattering statements of the obvious, then those “millions of Muslims” may well be mistaken or dishonest and perhaps a little prideful.
Being offended by criticism, or claiming such, doesn’t by default entitle one to anything. Assuming otherwise is hubris. This is because there are a great many reasons why a person may claim to be offended, including vanity, vindictiveness and dishonesty, or a desire to exert political leverage, or to prevent exposure as a fraud. If a person holds beliefs that are patently absurd, even disgusting, that person cannot seriously expect others to pretend otherwise, especially when those beliefs are asserted in the political realm. Broadly speaking, I’m not overly interested in a person’s religious affiliations or their metaphysical outlook. Ideas about God and His alleged preferences are, I think, a private matter. If consenting adults wish to commune with the numinous by sticking pins in their eyes, that's their business rather than mine. However, when religious ideas are asserted publicly with political intent, then those ideas become fair game, much as any other political assertion does.
When representatives of various religious movements demand that their ideas be respected on an a priori basis, it’s hard not to register the creaking pomposity and its surreal implications. What is being demanded here is not respect per se, which, given the nature of many beliefs, would very often be bizarre. More often than not, what's actually being demanded is deference and double standards, and, in some cases, fear. And despite the endless talk of ‘feelings’ and ‘sensitivities’, what we’re really dealing with is a struggle for territory and authority. Of course, ‘authority’ is a much less fluffy concept than ‘sensitivity’ and less likely to meet with sympathy.
When future historians look back on 2006, they may well regard it as the year when many people forgot the difference between tolerance and respect. Or pretended to forget the difference, and then got shirty with anyone who dared to point it out. Respect generally implies some appreciation for the intellectual, moral or aesthetic qualities of a thing; some recognition of its worth - of the fact that it is deserving of consideration. One could, for instance, respect the Sistine Chapel as a work of devotional art and the result of almost superhuman effort. And one could do so without a particularly high regard for the theological ideas it depicts.
One might likewise respect the right of believers to practice their religion, provided it complies with the law and matters of routine decency. But one is under no obligation to respect the particulars of those beliefs, or to acquiesce to any political demands made in their name. Those who protest most loudly against any perceived affront to their beliefs will probably know that most of us don’t in fact respect many particulars of those beliefs, whether in terms of basic philosophy or sexual politics, or in some cases sheer jaw-dropping bonkersdom. Nor do those indignant believers have any right to such respect. If a person writes an article claiming that Muhammad was the final prophet of Allah and a yardstick of human virtue, they are expressing a preposterous idea. If that person then demands that I refrain from saying this, and refrain from explaining why, they are making an equally preposterous demand.
In October, in the wake of the Muhammad cartoons hysteria, Oliver Kamm commented on the Channel 4 Dispatches debate on freedom of speech and neatly summarised a central issue: “One of the Danish Imams who led the initial protests against the Jyllands-Posten cartoons declared under cross-examination… that he was entitled to respect. He was, and is, entitled to no such thing. He is entitled in a democratic society to no more and no less than religious and political liberty. Whether he enjoys respect as well is entirely up to him; it is not up to our political and juridical system. The notion that in suffering offence he is done an injustice is false and pernicious. It's also dangerous, because it places no limit on how far the state should regulate people's lives.”
Amen to that.