On Free Speech and Religion, Pope Francis’s Views are Part of the Problem

by Benjamin Studebaker

Pope Francis recently made some comments about the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Unfortunately, the view he expresses is precisely the view I took issue with a few days ago, blaming the attack on the proximal cause (the cartoons) instead of on the wider socioeconomic inequities that drive alienated people into the arms of violent extremism. But that’s not even the end of it–there’s quite a bit wrong with what the pope said, when we examine it closely.

Let’s dig in. Here’s what the pope said:

Here’s the relevant bit:

You have an obligation to speak openly. We have that freedom. But without causing offense. It is true we cannot react violently. But if Dr. Gasbarri here, a great friend, were to say something insulting against my mother, a punch awaits him. But it’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot make provocations. You cannot insult people’s faith.

There are many problems with this. To start, as we discussed the other day, there’s a big difference between saying “I disagree with what you say but I maintain that you have the right to say it” and “You technically have the right to say whatever you want, but what you’ve said is offensive and shouldn’t be said.” The former provides space for constructive disagreement, while the latter is an attempt to silence those who disagree with us using social taboos and public pressure in lieu of state coercion. The former conception of free speech is robust, de facto as well as de jure, while the latter is merely nominal. Increasingly people in western countries have adopted this nominal notion of free speech, using the free speech principle to limit government intervention but not as a personal ethic in their private lives. If we really believe in free speech, we have to practice that belief everyday by embracing constructive dialogue, even with people who say utterly revolting, repugnant things (e.g. hate speech). The pope is contributing to a public climate in which it is impossible for many people to feel they can safely express the views they hold without being individually targeted. Regardless of whether the government itself participates in this, it goes against the purpose of the free speech principle, which is meant to foster a free public deliberation among people of diverse, even diametrically opposite views.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with this. The pope also appears to blatantly contradict himself. He claims that “it is true we cannot act violently” but then claims that he would punch someone for insulting his mother and that this is “normal”. We cannot act violently, but I totally would, and it’s normal? The pope’s claim to be against violence rings hollow when immediately after making that claim, he attempts to justify violence. Perhaps the pope is merely claiming that while responding violently is wrong, it is human nature to do so. But this argument also doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Historically, people used to respond to perceived slights by challenging one another to potentially lethal duels. States criminalized this behavior and it’s no longer common. Some groups of people are more likely to approve of violence than others, depending on their socioeconomic background, level of alienation, and so on. This suggests that the violent response is socially learned and can be unlearned if the environment is changed. Why would we want to normalize the violent response rather than try to stamp it out? Wouldn’t our society be a better place if insults to people’s mothers were never met with violence, if we could just shrug them off, or respond to them with words instead? Shouldn’t the pope, as a moral and religious leader, be in the business of encouraging us to be better people instead of justifying appeal to our base impulses? This is a pope who frequently tells people to resist their sexual impulses, which actually are genetic and cannot be learned differently. If people can be expected not to have premarital sex, why can’t they be expected to refrain from punching people?

The implication is that on some level the pope thinks it’s a good or just thing that people respond to insults with violence. Why would a religious leader think this? It reads like something a 12 year old would say to excuse a fight he got into with another student. It’s not a mature or wise position. We certainly couldn’t imagine the Dalai Lama saying something like this. Indeed, the Dalai Llama did make a statement about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and said something very different:

All this wrongdoing…awful sort of wrongdoing…we cannot blame the person, we should blame it on their short-sightedness, anger and ignorance.

This reads much more like my piece from a few days ago (this makes sense–while I have some disagreements with certain aspects of the Buddhist tradition, Buddhism has traditionally been very good at seeing the larger structural and systemic causes of human behavior, avoiding targeting individuals).

So why is the pope different? Perhaps there is a clue in the last thing he says–“you cannot insult people’s faith”. Christianity, like Islam, sees itself as under threat from an encroaching secular moral tradition. Secular moral and political theory is rife with internecine strife. Moral and political theorists subject one another’s ideas to very rigorous scrutiny, lobbing serious criticisms back and forth. Sometimes, this criticism can be very strongly worded, verging on insulting. Take for instance what Bertrand Russell once said about Friedrich Nietzsche and those who follow him:

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear…It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.

It’s a very strongly worded critique, and Nietzsche’s supporters disdain Russell’s reading of Nietzsche and continually try to fight against Russell’s view. But I can find no record of any angry Nietzsche students attempting to physically harm Russell or Russell’s students for “insulting Nietzsche”. It’s just understood that these are important moral and political issues and that in the quest for truth, we must not hold back. If we think that Nietzsche is a dangerous precursor to fascism (as Russell did), then we are obliged to make the case for this as strongly as we can. And if we disagree, we are obliged to disagree just as strongly.

The pope seems to believe that religions need to be protected from this. This is odd, because religions claim to answer the same kinds of questions that secular moral and political theorists argue about. Religion is not merely an identity or some feature of one’s culture, it is meant to be a guide to living well, to show people what it is to be good. That means it must have moral and political content. If we can argue about politics, surely we can argue about value of different belief systems that people use to reach political conclusions. Surely Christianity and Islam are every bit as much belief systems of this kind as utilitarianism or Kantianism. It’s certainly true that many Muslims and Christians disagree about morality to varying degrees and in various contexts, but so do various utilitarians and various Kantians. It nevertheless remains the truth that every competent utilitarian can give an a serious argument for being a utilitarian rather than a Kantian, and vice versa, and that while these arguments may be very strongly worded, no one feels the need to punch anybody. If the pope is a genuine Christian, surely he believes that Christianity would acquit itself well in that kind of discursive context. The only reason Christianity and Islam would need to be protected is that on some level, religious leaders like the pope believe that their positions will not withstand serious scrutiny and are concerned with further loss of influence. The Dali Lama clearly isn’t worried about this, so why is the pope? The implication is that the pope is more interested in preserving the influence of his faith than he is in participating in the larger quest for truth, a remarkably reactionary position from a pope who is so often portrayed in the media as a reform figure.

Indeed, in the context of this discussion, the pope’s quote almost sounds like a veiled threat. “You cannot make provocations. You cannot insult people’s faith.” Or what? Someone is going to “punch” us? For the pope to say this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks implies that the “punch”–which this pope called “normal”–takes the form of terrorism. As I said the other day, normal people living comfortable, happy lives, don’t think of punching people or committing terrorism as a “normal” response to anything. The only people who feel that way are people who feel marginalized, who feel that they are the victims of inequities and must protect themselves from the rest of society. In many cases those feelings are legitimate, but the violent response is not constructive. All it serves to do is show that one’s beliefs are intellectually vacuous, that one has nothing to offer in their defense aside from violence. Surely most Christians don’t think of their religion that way, so why is the pope debasing his faith like this?

Many Muslims have figured this out. There’s a great hashtag floating around on Twitter called #WhoisMuhammad. Those who use it are arguing that Muhammad is not who the radicals and the Islamophobes think that he is. They’re not punching people in the face, or justifying punching people in the face. They’re just making the case for what they believe in, answering hate with compassion and discourse. It’s ironic, given the media narrative of the last few weeks, that there are millions of Muslims who are more ready and more willing to engage in free discourse with those who lob insults at their faith than the pope is.