As a continuation of our unofficial John Stuart Mill appreciation week here on Rant and Reason, I thought I would reflect for a moment on a quote from On Liberty that I read this morning in the most recent edition of International Humanist News:
Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.
Ibn Warraq was quoting Mill to illustrate a point on free expression in his talk entitled Democracy vs. Theocracy, addressing the recent effort by many nations (most of them with predominantly Islamic governments) to curtail any criticism of religion by the newly formed UN Human Rights Council. I recommend following the link above and reading the entirety of his talk; the IHEU has been closely following this issue and speaking out in favor of freedom of speech and preserving human rights, including the right to speak out against abuses by religious and governmental authorities and the religious context within which those abuses take place.
But I am going to address the Mill quote in a different context, one that the American Humanist Association has been experiencing first hand recently here in the United States. As readers of this blog know, the AHA embarked on an advertising campaign in our nation’s capital, which is also where our offices are located. The advertisements, stating “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake” (see it here) appear on the exteriors and interiors of buses around Washington D.C. The ad campaign has received a lot of media coverage, and, predictably, a wide range of reactions. I wouldn’t expect anything less.
One consistent theme among many critics of the ad, though, has been that it is simply inappropriate or wrong to have it at all. For example, Deborah Simmons of the Washington Times wrote:
To even allow the specter of belief to be questioned on a public bus system that is heavily subsidized with public dollars is blasphemy.
That’s a really interesting connection she makes there. Apparently, in her view, public buses have an obligation to maintain religious correctness at all times. Indeed, allowing an expression of dissent to what she regards as the prevailing majority view is “blasphemy.”
Another comment, addressed to Metro and quoted by Human Events, illustrates my point even more directly:
Your city represents the United States, and to turn your system into a billboard for this organization is offensive to me and most American People. There is free speech but there is also responsibility to not offend a group of people in this country. Your acceptance of this advertisement is offensive to me as a Christian and I strong urge you to take them down.
That is exactly the attitude that Mill was addressing in his quote. To that commenter, free speech is all well and good, as long as it does not offend him or her. Again, he or she demands religious correctness and deference to the majority religion, simply because it is the majority and will not brook any dissent. This is a very flaccid definition of freedom of expression, essentially, “You are free to say anything you like, as long as you don’t offend me.” But it seems rather obvious that this is not the freedom of expression that Mill visualized. For what does free speech mean if it is to be regulated constantly by the will of the majority?
Of course, as I said, there has been a wide range of reactions, including the following:
A stay-at-home mother of four is poised to start a Metrobus ad campaign to counter ads from the American Humanist Association that question a belief in God.
JoEllen Murphy, a 39-year-old Catholic who lives in McLean, started a grassroots Internet campaign after hearing about the humanist ads that started appearing last month on Metrobuses.
Murphy’s ad shows an image from Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling with the slogan: “Why believe? I created you and I love you, for goodness’ sake. – God.”
She says that she was offended by the AHA ad campaign, and decided to counter it by organizing an ad campaign of her own. In other words, in response to speech that she disagreed with, she decided that the answer was more speech and more debate in the public forum. That is freedom of expression at work.
When you see or read something that you strongly disagree with, then your best redress is to respond. Demands to censor the cause of offense are misguided and ignore Mill’s admonition that free speech must stand even in extreme cases if it is to mean anything at all. Certainly, debate can get messy at times. And I feel that there is a legitimate concern about access, because not everyone would be able to start a bus ad campaign in order to make their thoughts or concerns public. But free and open public debate beats the alternative, which is to bow to the majority or some kind of governmental standard to ensure that no offense is caused. That would render the First Amendment meaningless.