Another victory for the hypersensitive? – one of the largest online South African communities – seem to be following the terrible precedent set by some of the responses to Sax Appeal, and will henceforth not allow religious discussion on their forums. The decision to do so is reported to follow “getting many complaints of intolerance, blasphemy and the like”. This serves as another example of hypersensitivity winning the day, and of special treatment being afforded to the complaints of the religious. There is cause to doubt that this censoring move is premised on a desire to simply eliminate controversy on the forums in question, as that would require limiting discussion of topics that offend people like me: intelligent design, moral argument based on metaphysical premises, or philosophically illiterate discussion of materialism, to mention but a few threads that can also be found on those forums. We’ll wait to see whether topics such as those are moderated or banned. If so, I have no complaints – there are more than enough places that do allow robust debate on matters metaphysical.

It is, however, more likely to be the case that it’s only posts that offend the religious that will attract censorship, as they apparently have special needs – or are at least deserving of extra-ordinary protection. One would have thought that having a heavyweight such as “god” on your side is protection enough, but apparently she chooses to not intervene in these matters, nor to guide her flock in terms of learning ways to deal with offense. This is a case in which the religious may do well to remember that they are also regular folk, leaving aside the issue of their bizzare beliefs. As a “regular folk”, I have the option of responding to idiotic or inflammatory comments posted in forums such as these. The religious have this option also. A second option that we both have is to draw a line somewhere, and to decide that we have nothing to learn from reading posts that we disagree with. But by making it impossible to have such conversations, the possibility of either side learning anything is eliminated.

Note that this learning can be in one of two forms – first, one can learn that you’re wrong. It is possible to encounter an argument that you hadn’t previously considered, causing you to change your mind. Second, one can learn better arguments for one’s position, through exposure to the best case that can be made for the opposite point of view. Making these conversations impossible displays a commitment to nothing more than burying one’s head in the sand, and perhaps even suggests that you are in fact aware that your case cannot be won through reasoned discourse.

Certainly, there are cases in which individuals – on both sides – are interested in insult rather than reasoned discourse. We have the option of ignoring those people. It is, however, a different matter to ignore the entire debate – and that is exactly what is accomplished by actions such as making certain topics out of bounds for conversation. The fundamentalists on both sides are allowed to remain just as closed-minded as when they started, and an opportunity for this stupid species to become just a little more clever is eliminated.

These opportunities to learn – in both senses described above – are why we cherish and protect free speech. The principle of free speech itself rests on the belief that each person should have access to the ideas in circulation, so that he/she is able to exercise their right to moral independence by considering the ideas themselves, as well as the arguments for and against those ideas. Unrestricted trade in this “marketplace of ideas” is believed to provide us with the best chance of eventually arriving at the truth regarding any particular matter, and of weeding out false and pernicious beliefs.

Any speech is potentially offensive to somebody, and a restriction on offensive speech would therefore result in there being no freedom of speech at all. We also cannot be sure of the long-term consequences of any particular speech-act, and therefore, such an act’s potential for causing harm cannot be used as justification for censoring it. A speech-act has to present a clear and present danger of causing harm before it can be restricted. This means that we must have good reasons to suspect that it will cause harm, and that we must furthermore have good reasons to expect that harm to be caused immediately, or in the near future. A commitment to free speech implies that we have the right to offend others, so long as that offence is not grave enough to constitute harms that cannot be avoided simply by ignoring the speech act, or in some cases, simply growing up.

Naturally, the terms “offence” and “harm” are open to a number of interpretations. It has been the task of the courts to determine whether particular speech acts do cause such harm or not. But in the case of religious insult, if we are to be committed to free speech, it is clearly not enough reason to censor it that a religious minority (or even a religious majority) be offended. A rational adult may find that certain utterances offend his or her moral standards – but that person is then free to avoid reading those utterances. Taking away that freedom (or in this case, willingly sacrificing that freedom) evidences a commitment to simply running away, and people who make choices such as these deserve more, rather than less, mockery. And if you cannot defend your beliefs in the open marketplace of ideas, it is perhaps time to consider just how worthwhile the beliefs in question are?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.