“Upon Common Sense”
An editorial column linking blasphemy, creative expression, and Charlie Hebdo.
Last month, Boston's local writing foundry Grub Street sent an message to local writers, inviting them to contribute to their blog feature "Writers React." The prompt had to do with Charlie Hebdo and the issue of free speech:
Recently, Teju Cole critiqued the decision to honor Charlie Hebdo with the PEN Award. In 250 words, we would like for writers to respond to one or both of these questions: What is your stance on Charlie Hebdo's treatment of Arabic and Muslim characters, in light of last year's terrorist attacks? Where do we draw the line on freedom of speech and satire, or is that line impossible to define? We'd also love your suggestions for related reading-be it novels, memoirs, essays, or short stories (optional).
These are the sorts of questions I think about constantly, in both my day job (as an academic administrator at Boston University, and small, independent publisher) and my secret life as a nontheist congregant, atheist organizer, and secular lobbyist. Those two strands of my day to day, the literary and the secular, are actually not that divergent; each concerns the meanings humans make for themselves out of the material of life, and the social and ethical role those meanings take on. This prose reply I wrote in response to the Grub Street invitation, then, is coming from those two sources in equal parts.
(It behooves me to mention that a literary magazine I advise at Boston University, Clarion, sponsors the Knott Poetry Prize, "awarded annually to a poet whose writing eschews piety in order to explore alternative responses to the claims of religion, including skepticism; dissent; celebratory humanism; philosophically serious mystery; and celebrations of scientific thinking." Submissions are now being read for the 2017 prize; submit here.)
May 11, 2016
I am not a believer in the truth-claims of theism. However: I believe all forms of religion are expressions of something honest in the human spirit: the desire to commune, the desire to understand, the desire to be elevated. These are not impulses I would wish to see snuffed down, either by honest skepticism (whose flag I confessedly fly) or by the suppression of a hegemony intolerant of any philosophy other than its own. At the same time, as both a freethinker and a writer, I find myself intolerant of kind of piety, whether religious or secular, that seeks to silence blasphemy. I blaspheme, probably once a day. I suspect I would soon be unrecognizable to myself if I ceased blaspheming; there are intellectual and aesthetic and ethical reaches I could not access without the path-finding power of blasphemy. For my own sake, then, I wish for blasphemy to be protected as a freedom not just adjacent to, but central to, the freedoms of speech, press, and religious expression that our corner of civilization is rightly proud of.
Note that this does not amount to an endorsement of every blasphemous utterance blasphemed. There are lots of blasphemies I'd call obtuse; uninformed; ugly; or inelegant. Even many of my own blasphemies turn out not to be persuasive-call me a flip-flopper in that regard, then. (But, look, I never claimed to be a homogeneous creature; which of us doesn't contain multitudes? The boring ones, I bet.)
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When Hebdo caricatures Muslims, or Islam, or immigrants, I find myself content to tolerate that expression of speech. In any given case of satire, there is a needle to be threaded between speaking truth to power, and helping to normalize the hideous prejudices that power has put and keeps in place. It's hard to thread a needle. Probably (no, certainly) some editorialists aren't as concerned with the thread as they are with sticking a needle in someone else's eye. Setting aside mere expressions of hate, mere calls to violence (and aren't they mere? and meager? and base?), I say we should be proud of giving wide latitude to satire. So wide, in fact, that we can tolerate failed satire, and stupid satire, and ugly satire. If we want better satire, let's reward those papers and blogs and pamphleteers that produce it; but we shoot ourselves in the expressive foot if we insist that only successful satire make it to market.
Creative writers know this from their lessons in craft: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don't wait for the poem to spring to mind, full-flung, before putting pencil to paper. Tolerate your mistakes, and freely experiment. Muck around a bit, as you figure out what you have to say and how to say it. If we grant that freedom to ourselves, let's extend the same license to satirists and blasphemers: for without that nutrient soup, compost heap, midden mess of experimentation, there's no ground of activity at all! Then where would we look for those lovely, well-sprigged expressions, of lyric intensity, and honest blasphemy, and lasting story, to spring from?
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William Cowper had it in for those that feel "scripture lies, and blasphemy is sense"; I wouldn't wish for him to be censored or deplatformed just because I think his poem is saying silly bigoted nonsense. Milton was a hideous blasphemer-thank goodness, right? Just this evening, I read of another university student in India being attacked-and killed-for being an atheist blogger. I know of no system, moral or artistic, that would allow me to celebrate Milton while ignoring that murder; nor do I know of any reason I can't call a bigot a bigot, just because I am thankful that Charlie Hebdo has the freedom to publish whatsoever they wish.
Those who choose violence as an answer to satire are themselves blaspheming, against humanity. In view of terrorism and pluralism and the desperate need for a more equal distribution of economic freedoms in this world, that's where I draw the line: no one shall be permitted to blaspheme against their own humanity. True political correctness recognizes and defends that line.
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This column has been very brief treatment of a topic deserving greater and more careful exploration. Lest you think that I believe what I have to write about all this should be the final say in the matter, allow me to suggest some timely recommended reading.
- Just today, Virginia Senator Dick Black was in the news for suggesting that Toni Morrison's Beloved is a "vile" book, "profoundly filthy." I recommend you read Beloved, and see if you can square your values as a reader and a world citizen with the blasphemies against decency that novel is chock-full of.
- Taslima Nasreen was targeted by acts of violence when she published her blasphemous novel Lajja in 1993, in which she depicts a conflict between a Hindu family and Muslims motivated by sharia. I recommend you read Lajja, and read her Twitter feed, too, where she reports on current events in the arena of blasphemy incarceration and anti-atheist violence: @taslimanasreen.
- Finally, Teju Cole's essay for The New Yorker, "Unmournable Bodies" (January 9). Cole makes the point more succinctly than I could:
"It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try."
"It is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech."
"It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism."
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"It is possible", Cole writes. "Possible" is, I think, the key word. And the key to this matter of whether satire and blasphemy should be put on a leash. Any time we find ourselves wondering how much control to exert over the speech or beliefs of others, we're asking how much possibility we should deny to others. We put a wall across the possible, designating some reach of it as out of bounds. Many of the writers I know got into their line of work specifically because writing creates paths to new possibilities. I'd be a foolish writer to want to build a wall across that territory. Truth be told, I think most wall-builders are unimaginative morons. Not the sort of people you want policing your freedoms.
Inshallah and Darwin willing, we'll stop asking whether satire and blasphemy are to blame for violence, and instead focus our attention upon the wall-builders in our midst. They have much to answer for.
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My title, incidentally, is more of an in-group reference than it is a caption. It comes from an utterance of Robert G. Ingersoll: "Blasphemy is an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense."
Zachary Bos was a founding co-chair of the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts and serves as a board member for Sunday Assembly Boston. He is Massachusetts State Director for American Atheists and a coordinator for the Boston Coalition for Reason. His poetry, translations, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Humanist Voices in Verse, and Literary Imagination. He is publisher of Secular Age.