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When I co-founded the International Society for Heresy Studies in 2013, I did so because I wanted to create a space for thinking and debating about religious matters without being bound by spoken or unspoken pieties, and I wanted to provide a forum where both religious and irreligious ideas could be expressed freely without the pressure to conform to any religious or secular agenda.
I was therefore deeply disturbed to listen to Anshuman Mondal’s recent keynote address at the ISHS conference in London, where he voiced subtle apologetics for censorship and advocated a linguistically-grounded mind control.
I consider such ideas not only philosophically repellent but quite frontally opposed to the core principles of our association. Accordingly, I voiced my dissent clearly and strongly. Here, I want to present a principled refutation of Mondal’s central arguments, hoping that it will resonate with my colleagues in the ISHS. At the least, I want to provoke a debate about what is at stake here and spark awareness about what we stand for as an organization dedicated to the unfettered study of blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege, apostasy, and other forms of dissent. For if Mondal’s dream of establishing a strict social justice hegemony came true, then the ensuing Stalinism of the mind would no longer permit any dissent, let alone heresy.
For the benefit of those who did not attend Mondal’s keynote, I here summarize some key points of his talk “Hate Speech, Free Speech, and Religious Freedom”:
- Deplatforming certain speakers can be justified if what the speaker is spreading is hate and disinformation. Thus, censorship can be justified in certain circumstances. (Although a questionable proposition, I will not comment on this point.)
- Blasphemy needs to be treated as an “act” not merely a verbal statement. If the blasphemous statement results in denigrating and demeaning the core of a person’s or a group’s inherent (i.e. non-voluntaristic) sense of identity and belonging, then blasphemy delivers an injury that is on a par with a physical injury. Blasphemy should not be judged based on whether or not it gives offense (because that would be too subjective) but on whether or not blasphemy assaults people’s sense of identity-based self-definition. If that is the case, then the act of blasphemy should have legal consequences if committed.
- Hegemonic mind-control is desirable. Mondal wants to eradicate injurious, inequality-based phenomena like racism by deleting the underlying concepts from people’s mental repertoire. Specifically, he said “we should institute an anti-racist hegemony that makes it impossible to think the concept of race.” Or, more broadly speaking, “you have to make that which you oppose unthinkable.”
I could not help myself after listening to the last point to exclaim “But this is Orwellian! This is newspeak! You want to delete from people’s minds what you find objectionable, thereby making dissent impossible.”
Of course, I’m not arguing that racism or misogyny should be defended or that there’s anything commendable about bias and prejudice. On the contrary! But I think Mondal’s ideas are fundamentally misguided for a number of reasons, only one of them being that they are Orwellian. Specifically, there are several unexamined premises in his suggestion to strike specific ideas from our repertoire of mental concepts, and I mention only a few here:
1984, by George Orwell (Source: )
- Are racist sentiments, i.e. the drawing of lines between one’s own group and others based on physical markers or behavior patterns, really dependent on the linguistic concept of “race”? I.e. even if we succeeded in Orwellian fashion to remove a basic word from common parlance and strike “race” from our conceptual repertoire, would the sentiments of supremacy, xenophobia, and tribalism automatically go away? It would be very naïve to believe so.
- What happens to all that great literature dealing meaningfully and humanistically with aspects of race and racial tension? Would future readers without the concept of race no longer be able to understand Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz, etc.? Would works by these authors also have to be banned because they problematize race?
- The slippery slope: where do we stop in the march of making that which we oppose unthinkable? I understand that Mondal “only” wants to eradicate concepts that have the power to do serious harm to people and communities. Following Mondal’s recommendation to make “race” unthinkable so as to stop racism, does that mean we have to make “gender” unthinkable in order to stop misogyny? Do we make “foreign” unthinkable to stop xenophobia? Surely, one can argue that capitalism kills people just as racism does—so, does that mean we have to make the concept “capital” unthinkable? You see where this absurd line of thinking leads.
Mondal’s dreams of hegemony would lead to a nightmare of moral infantilism, where instead of grappling with the problems and inequalities in our world, we simply erase altogether the offending concepts from our minds to become docile, compliant “nice” moral automatons. I’m not sure if this outlook is more Orwellian or Huxleyan.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (Source: )
To me free speech trumps pretty much all other rights. It is a “master-freedom” from which the other freedoms proceed and derive their legitimacy. If we can no longer speak out freely about all aspects of our society, including critiquing its government, or joking about flawed politicians, pathetic celebrities, and incongruous gods, then enlightenment ideals of informed skepticism and measured irreverence are doomed.
I also reject Mondal’s central argument that one should consider banning verbal “injuries” in light of the utter quagmire to which it would lead. Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that there is a member of the Arsenal Football Club fan community who has grown up in a family loyal to Arsenal going back three generations. That Arsenal fan would surely consider belonging to the football community as part of his inherent (i.e. not voluntarily chosen) identity, much like a religion. Indeed, members of football fan clubs are ready to go to war against members of opposing teams just like members of different religious communities sometimes are. Now, suppose this Arsenal fan receives a direct verbal insult from a Manchester United fan which deeply wounds his sense of pride as an Arsenal fan. Would he be able to legally prosecute the Manchester United fan based on a Mondal-like censorship law? If not, what makes it legitimate for a Muslim to prosecute somebody who had insulted his Prophet but not for an Arsenal fan to prosecute somebody who had insulted his club manager? Who gets to have legal protection against verbal insult and who does not? Does the community protesting the loudest get the protection? Do the blondes and Polish people not get the protection against injurious jokes but Catholics do because they have a lobby?
In response to my criticism, Mondal mentioned the idea of applying the censorship laws “forensically,” a word that did not alleviate the specter of Orwellian dystopia but seemed to go down well with the rest of the audience. May I remind everybody that attempts at “forensic” censorship have not been able to stand legal scrutiny. For instance, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a law applied just such a “forensic” approach to hate speech, outlawing expressions that would “arouse anger, alarm, or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender.” Why was this law struck down unanimously by the Supreme Court in 1992? Because it violated the principle of equal protection. By outlawing offensive statements on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender, the law implicitly sanctioned offensive language on a range of other identity markers such as age, disability, national origin, or hair color. Of course, we can endlessly extend the list of topics that must not be mentioned in a disparaging way, but now we end up with the other problem besetting hate speech regulation: overbroadness. If we include every single topic that it is illegal to make disparaging comments on, we might as well shut up altogether. The only grounds on which speech can be regulated (in the US) is when it is expected to cause specific, imminent, and serious harm, but that is not what Mondal is after.
In sum, I think Mondal not only attacked the spirit of our Society’s commitment to dissent, non-conformism, and unfettered speech, but he also violated the letter of our association. In 2014, ISHS adopted the following definition of the key term “blasphemy,” after a considered and prolonged debate:
Blasphemy shall not be understood as a punishable offence or a form of hate speech directed against a specific group of believers. Instead, blasphemy denotes the insult and attack against a deity or deities. Although it may give offence to followers of a deity, blasphemy needs to be considered under the aspect of freedom of speech.
If we agree as a society that Mondal is justified in calling for censorship and legal action against blasphemers, then we better amend this definition to reflect our new consensus regarding blasphemy. However, I will then respectfully make my exit from this organization. There are few things I consider sacred in this world. The ISHS free-speech definition of blasphemy as well as the freedom to make irreverent jokes are some of them.