Saturday, January 10, 2015

What if the free speech competition of ideas results in the better ideas losing?

It's completely understandable that pro free speech sentiment should be running sky high as a result of the bloodshed in Paris this week, but, perhaps once things have cooled down a bit, it will be time to consider some points that are not being much considered in the current atmosphere.

First, the almost trite, but nonetheless highly relevant, point that free speech is a two edged sword.  It allows bogus claims of current or historical fact, gossip, rumour and all sorts of poisonous attitudes and ideology to have an audience and influence.   The argument for free speech is that the good and true needs its own outlet to overcome the bad and false, and that, eventually at least, the better and true ideas will win.   But what guarantee do we have this process really works out for the best, or at least, is working fast enough in the modern world?

Surely, this is extremely relevant to the matter of the current state of Islam.

There has been some commentary from the pro-free speech side in the last couple of days that Western political correctness actually encourages radicals in Islam (and, perhaps, simple anti-Western sentiment in the Muslims more generally) by demanding self censorship from legitimate challenge to some of its ideas.

Well, in some limited respect I can see grounds for that complaint.  For example, I think some of the politically correct "hands off" approach to female genital "circumcision" is very ill considered; although, perhaps that's not the best example, as it is more of a cultural-regional thing that a particularly Muslim one.  Perhaps the case of actual laws forbidding insulting depictions of Mohammed is a good case, as is exampled by this story out of Ireland a couple of days ago.  But to be honest, I am not sure how many Western countries do have such a law anyway.  (Although, I did, by co-incidence, note just before the Paris events this week that British law has genuinely gone too far in making generic offensiveness a matter of criminality.)

But looking at the bigger picture, do the free speech advocates really think that if every bit of legal or (so called) self imposed "censorship" was removed that it would make any great practical difference to the state of Islam across the world?

It seems to me that there is a good argument to be made that the poisonous and false ideas which are distressingly highly influential in much of Islamic society (including those within the West) - the disbelief in the Holocaust; the beliefs that death for apostasy is a reasonable thing, that blasphemy should be punished by jail or worse, that the IS fighters are taking part in a great "end times" conflict - actually benefit from the fact that the internet and modern communications generally has given free speech a wider and more unfettered reach than it has ever had.  

This is why I think that the sort of reaction of "if only more in the West ridiculed Islam, the better things would be"  is shallow idealism.   What evidence is there that it would help win the competition of ideas?  Why should it?

 Let's be practical here:  if you are actually engaged in a life or death war time struggle with another nation (the West against Nazi Germany, for example) ridicule has a propaganda value but it is done with a clear, short term, end point in sight (the defeat of the other regime).     But no one in their right mind thinks the West is going to militarily wipe out all Islamic regimes with views we find quite medieval.  Modern trade relationships in fact mean that showing some respect to Islamic countries is in your economic self interest.

In any event, calling the desire to not cause offence on religious grounds "self censorship" is unjustified politicisation of matters relating to mere decency and respect.  Sure, the Right typically complains that the media feels a free hand to ridicule Catholicism or Christianity but won't treat Islam in the same way.   But if one feels that some attacks on one religion are in poor taste, I am not sure how insisting they attack another in the same way is meant to make amends for the former.  In the current situation, provided you accept that being religious and not being happy with ridicule of your religion does not of itself make you an extremist (as all people should), I think there are perfectly legitimate and well reasoned cases to be made on both sides of the question of whether mainstream media should re-print the French cartoons - and actually, I think either decision should be respected as a matter of editorial conscience and ethical arguments that led to no black and white conclusion.    

I also see that the argument has been put that Islam does not need "reformation", and that, if anything, the Wahhabi movement was its Reformation and was a regressive rather than progressive change.  What it needs is for the Enlightenment to reach it. 

This is a valid enough argument, and it is relevant to the theme of this post.   Unless you're talking about some of the really undeveloped Islam backwaters (rural Afghanistan) or countries which really do have effective free speech control over the internet and airwaves (Saudi Arabia, perhaps?) you surely can't argue that Enlightenment ideas are not already out there to be seen and understood by Muslims.

Isn't what's happening that in the marketplace for ideas, the ideas and values we want all Muslims to adopt are not winning out.  Or not winning out fast enough.   Not that there is a crisis in global free speech.

This is why I am not convinced by this column from Frank Furedi at Spiked, who notes that in education, both Britain and France has been accused of not challenging in the classroom Muslim student's disbelief of the Holocaust, or other ideologically driven views of history.   Well, OK, that may be true, but at the core of that problem is that the students have already come to school with set beliefs that they have inherited from their parents, mosque, and/or the internet, and such home bred beliefs and biases can be incredibly hard to dislodge.     And in the case of France, the free speech that allows Charlie Hebdo to draw rude cartoons of Mohammed has not made any difference to that problem.

Furedi seems to admit as much in his final paragraph:
The chain of events that led to the massacre in Paris may well have been sparked off by a classroom discussion in the banlieus of Paris or Marseilles. Some pupils were no doubt certain that the Holocaust was a myth. And the defensive way their teachers dealt with their points would only have strengthened their conviction, itself informed by their older peers at home. Throughout their teenage years, their alienation from French society would have gained in force. They then encountered radical Islam, a medium to express their alienation, and the rest is history.
He also adds as his final sentence:
But if Europe wakes up, this won’t necessarily be the future.

What he leaves unsaid is what Europe is meant to do, once it does "wake up", about the cultural segregation that he cites as being at the core of the problem.

I don't have clear suggestions either.  All I am arguing is that the true issue is what's happening in the competition of ideas and the dissemination of what is true historical fact, and that making a bit of a fetish out of freedom to ridicule is putting the emphasis in the wrong place.


On re-reading this post, I realised I had not emphasised enough the role of the internet in enabling radicalism, rumour and false claims of all types to spread quickly and have influence. It has sped up the process enormously compared to what was previously possible with books, pamphlets or even broadcast media, given its 24 hour availability, instantaneous publishing, and the echo chamber effect where people with the craziest ideas can find a support network of the likeminded agreeing with and supporting them.  

Its exact role is going to be inherently hard to study or prove, but I have mentioned before that I suspect  that the political success of the climate change denial movement is virtually a creation of internet.  It is hard to imagine it maintaining the grip it has for so long without it.

Whether or not this will prove true of Islamic radicalising material is hard to say.

The issue of free speech and the internet is therefore particularly vexed, with free speech advocates routinely deriding (with rare exception) any suggestion whatsoever of government interference with content.    I am also curious as to what they think about hack attacks if they are well motivated.   It will be interesting to see if anything comes of the threatened hacking of Islamic extremists.   I would find it hard to be concerned if renegade hackers achieved things of value which Western governments consider they cannot.

Oh - and just after typing this, I have found a post from the University of Pennsylvania which makes the exact same point.  It proposes using a deliberate public-private campaign of messaging on digital media to oppose extremism.   Sounds good - except for the question of how to get it to be viewed by the people who need to see such content.   (The example of climate change denialism is again relevant - the fact that there is a huge resource of good scientific material on the internet to rebut their specific claims has actually had little effect on those who are ideologically committed to their view.  They simply dismiss such sites and will not read them.)

With respect to the competition for ideas generally, I think Mohammed El-leissey made some good points in his recent article at the Drum.   He notes that Western media pays little attention to the idealogical war being fought within Islam itself, and I was surprised to learn that Iraq has a satirical "sitcom" on TV about Islamic State.  (You should go view the separate story about that which appeared in October 2014.) 

While accepting this, it doesn't really go to the larger point that people like Bill Maher have been making (although in his case, with some exaggeration) - that across the globe, there is much to be concerned about regarding the apparent attitudes of Muslims, and the question is how to get "Enlightenment values" more widespread.

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