Theos’s Ben Ryan: your attack on free speech is not the answer

Free speech is increasingly under attack. We in the West thought that the issue had long been settled, but it is being reopened by those arguing that free speech must be used “responsibly”, and that it must be tensioned against the feelings of anyone who might be offended.

Such notions would, of course, negate free speech. Anyone could censor anything by claiming they were offended. And who gets to decide what is “responsible” speech? Clearly Martin Luther was irresponsible in nailing ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, given that they attacked the Catholic Church which had provided leadership and stability through all of Christendom. And clearly William Wilberforce was highly irresponsible to start attacking the system of slavery which underpinned the whole economic system.

The fashion for denigrating free speech is typified by a blog article by Ben Ryan, a researcher for the Theos think tank. Headed “Your unfunny t-shirts are not the answer”, it starts:

A blog was recently drawn to my attention by one Dr Chris Moos that tries to paint the LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun as a “faith warrior”. By deigning to argue that religion ought to be taken more seriously in academia in a range of different subjects as an overlooked cause Calhoun is displaying some sort of scary Christian zeal (apparently).

Well that’s rather pompous writing. And the word “deigning” doesn’t mean what Ryan seems to think it does. And the grammar is wrong (the blog post was not drawn to his attention by Chris Moos, the post was written by Chris Moos). OK, maybe it’s bad form to attack the writer, rather than his ideas, but people who are so ready to give up principles of free speech rather annoy me, given how central the right to criticise is to the Western way of life.

Jesus and Mo T-shirt

Ben Ryan complains about a “series of stunts” that involved wearing t-shirts displaying Jesus and Mo cartoons at an LSE Fresher’s Fair. Ryan does not find the t-shirts funny (though the above one rather amuses me). But, his greater complaint is:

Every time these student societies decide to be provocative it is invariably Muslims who bear the brunt of the mockery. [. . .] Why is it that Judaism . . . are [sic] never the butt of the jokes or campaigns?

Well, first of all, Jesus and Mo cartoons ridicule Jesus just as much as Mo! And, yes, Moses also appears occasionally.

But, the bigger answer is: Because Jews and members of other religions largely accept free speech! If you hear on the news that gunmen have murdered cartoonists who depicted a religious figure, do you even need to ask which religion the gunmen were from? Christians might not like The Life of Brian, but they tolerate it, they don’t turn to violence (well, not nowadays, anyhow).

During the original Danish Cartoon controversy, an Iranian newspaper started a “Holocaust Cartoon Competition”. Two Israeli artists responded by announcing their own anti-semitic cartoon contest, saying: “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew-hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”. Responding with humour is rather different than responding with censorship or violence.

The Jesus and Mo cartoons are not there to target a minority group for the sake of it, they are there to support free speech and to criticise and ridicule religion. The reason why this might appear to be singling out Muslims is because they are the ones who — to a large extent — do not accept freedom of speech.

Of course many Muslims do support free speech, and think that Islam needs reform and can only gain from criticism. Thus Maajid Nawaz saw nothing wrong with such cartoons and re-tweeted one — to be met by abuse and threats from his fellow Muslims.

The cartoons do not target Muslims specifically, they critique religion itself, they satirise Christianity as much as Islam, and they particularly target those who are against free speech and who think that religions should be above criticism. If such people are more prevalent within the Islamic faith then that is a problem with the Islamic faith.

I ask you, can anyone who believes in free speech, pluralism, and the right to criticise ideas, really find the above cartoon so “offensive” that they want it banned?

I ask you further, had the LSE’s Freshers Fair featured a stall by the Socialist Worker Party that displayed material denouncing the “fascist government” and the “corrupt capitalist system”, would anyone have batted an eyelid, let alone gone running to security to demand that the offensive material be removed?


Or how about this t-shirt? Now, I agree with Ben Ryan that this one is not actually funny. But nor is it offensive. And yet this image is considered so heinous that Channel 4 News showed it only after blacking out the offending portions!

The biggest problem with Ryan’s article is that, in a post full of criticism of Chris Moos, and in a week of renewed Islamist violence in several different countries, not once does Ryan ask whether the problem might be with the Islamic religion and its ideology. Nowhere does he consider whether the Islamist desire to prohibit the depiction of Mohammed is at all reasonable. It is as though Ryan just assumes that, since the request is religious, it must be automatically respected.

Ryan should realise that by submitting to Islamist demands he undercuts the moderate Muslims who want to reform and modernise their faith. How can they do that if we in West tacitly side with those who want to prohibit scrutiny of Islam? Channel 4’s censorship just reinforces the meme that Muslims are intolerant and liable to react violently.

The way to defuse the whole issue would be for the mainstream Islamic authorities worldwide to copy the example of the Israeli artists and for them to start drawing Mohammed cartoons! Wouldn’t that be the best way to subvert the extremists and to disassociate themselves from violence? And if they can’t do that, then maybe the problem really is with Islam?

Ryan says that wearing such t-shirts is “a deliberately provocative gesture”, and he’s right. It is deliberately flaunting free speech as a means of upholding free speech, and of rejecting the idea that religions should be specially privileged and have the right to censor others. Ryan seems to be of the opinion that if Islamic rules prohibit the depiction of Mohammed — since they consider him and his ideas to be beyond human scrutiny — then the only “responsible” thing to do is to meekly subject ourselves to those rules to avoid offending anyone.

Those rules are there precisely to prevent any questioning of Islam and to place it off limits to criticism, yet Ryan thinks it reasonable to ask that we all impose those rules on ourselves as a way of taking “the responsibility to play an active role in building a cohesive plural society”.

A pluralistic society is founded on the principle that all idea systems are open to scrutiny and criticism. That includes the government, the opposition parties, the religions, the big corporations, the unions, and anyone else who tries to be influential in society.

Ben Ryan, being (I presume) a Christian, might like the idea of society giving special privileges and deference to religions. Maybe he hankers after the blasphemy laws that Christendom used to enforce. He certainly dislikes religions being treated with disrespect.

But the whole point of Jesus and Mo cartoons, backed by increasingly vocal secular campaigners, is to insist that religions should no more be immune from criticism than should the government’s economic policy. Ryan says that “Free speech should be a tool for building society, not dividing it”, and he’s right. The right to criticise the government, and indeed to vote it out, is a central pillar of a free society. Any government that tried to censor criticism of itself would be the one being divisive, and so is any religion that tries to do the same. Yet, in his blog post, Ryan utters not one word of criticism of the Islamic request to dictate what can or cannot be depicted.

Ben Ryan can’t see beyond his distaste for a religion being disrespected. The fault here is 100% on the part of those trying to impose Islamic mores on the rest of society. Jesus and Mo cartoons are a proper part of the response.

5 thoughts on “Theos’s Ben Ryan: your attack on free speech is not the answer

  1. Phil

    Hi again Coel,

    Here’s a proposed definition of “reasonable” free speech.

    REASONABLE FREE SPEECH: The kind of speech Coel would allow from commenters on his blog.

    You generously and graciously allow readers to challenge your positions in a thoughtful respectful manner that hopefully sheds at least a bit of useful light on the topics under discussion.

    If we started calling you and other commenters names, you would find that unreasonable, and our “free speech” would then be limited or canceled by you, as it should be.

    Where we agree is that an agency as powerful as government should not be in charge of defining “reasonable” speech. But the court of public opinion should surely be so empowered.

    Thoughtful critiques of religion are reasonable, even if they are adamant and ruthlessly challenging.

    Drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with his pants down are not reasonable. Such speech is just divisive name calling which generates heat without light. In a world that grows smaller by the day, we can’t really afford the luxury of that kind of speech.

    Um, uh, well, I am now required to disclaim that I’ve been banned from more forums than most people ever considered even visiting. 🙂 It would be unreasonable for me to make the above speech without noting this historical fact.

    1. Coel Post author

      However we define “reasonable” speech, I maintain that free speech includes the right of UNreasonable and IRresponsible speech. If it doesn’t we give way too much power to whoever gets to decide what is reasonable and responsible, and one can be sure that that power will be misused.

      The only limit on such speech should be where it incites violence or directly endangers people.

    2. Shawn the Humanist

      Fantastic article Coel. Well written and reasoned. Consider me your newest fan.

      Irresponsible speech?

      Would you consider yelling fire in a crowded theatre, when there is no fire, to be irresponsible? Because I agree with the laws that ban that. People could well be trampled to death in the chaos.

      Likewise, you can hold a rally against something (a race, an orientation, an ideology) and people will get all worked up and angry. But usually they will not attack people. However, depending on what and how you say it, you can sometimes incite hatred and violence. For example, by saying that INSERT GROUP HERE will harm your children, humiliate you, and deserve to be beaten up to keep society safe, to the right crowd and in the right way, can in fact make people more likely to attack them. Especially if you include an open appeal to the audience to specifically attack any member of the group you rail against that they come upon.

      Thus, incitement to hatred. I think there is a reasonable justification for some sort of law banning at least commands from people to listeners to attack any people of a specific group they find. Though, I admit that through the civilization process it’s hard and harder in contemporary society to push those buttons.

      I’m also against defamation, slander and libel.

      Would you classify those as irresponsible speech? Or is that something else?

      A part of me wishes I could be against saying something that ain’t true. (For example, ideology, religious, or political opinions or just plain being wrong.) But I’m too strong a free speech supporter to do that. Maybe these are irresponsible speech. I agree we shouldn’t ban these types of speech. Do you consider this different than the examples above?

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Shawn,
      Thanks for your remarks. Yes, I agree with you that putting people in danger (the crowded theatre example) and inciting violence should be prohibited. I also agree with you about slander and libel.

      Incitement to “hatred” is a tricky one, since “hatred” is a rather vague word (unlike “violence”). If you’re trying to incite hatred of *people*, then I can accept restrictions. If, though, the hatred is against bad ideas, then that is entirely legitimate, even if those ideas tend to be held by one group of people.

  2. Pingback: Do Objective Moral Values and Duties Exist? (Debate) Affirmative 2nd Post | Truth, Interrupted

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