I wrote an article last year for the journal Index on Censorship on "The Tyranny of Moderation: Respect and Civility are the Enemies of Free Speech". My argument was that having concern for the feelings of others - such as the sensibilities of Muslims offended by the Danish cartoons - should be no part of public policy. One aspect of the debate on free speech that I found particularly worrying was this:
The debate has not been aided – it has indeed been severely clouded – by an imprecise use of the term ‘respect’. If this is merely a metaphor for the free exercise of religious and political liberty, then it is an unexceptionable principle, but also an unclear and redundant usage. Respect for ideas and those who hold them is a different matter altogether. Ideas have no claim on our respect; they earn respect to the extent that they are able to withstand criticism.
The usage I'm criticising is a common part of the debate on free speech. Among innumerable examples, consider this well intentioned remark by a Danish Muslim, as reported by the BBC after the recent republication in Denmark of one of the offending cartoons:
"I am hurt, as I was the first time," says Feisal, who works in marketing and was also born in Denmark. He believes the problem is not Danish society but the media. "The Danish press should have learned from their previous mistakes and the only thing the Muslims are asking for is respect, nothing else".
It's not just that I believe Feisal's requirement should be ignored by policy makers lest it lead to illiberal outcomes such as censorship of the press. I consider his position inherently unreasonable - as if "respect, nothing else" were some minimal demand. The other day I came across an example of the same sort of thing, which I hope will illustrate my point effectively to those who consider my position an extreme one.
Dr Bob Bloomfield, head of special projects at the [Natural History] museum and a key figure in the "Darwin200" project, said he was concerned by the prevalence of creationist ideas. "The statistics in this country are quite frightening. If you add up the percentages that either believe in creationism or intelligent design, it is approaching 40 per cent," he said.
Now consider this response from the Creation Science Movement, an organisation maintaining that "the account of origins presented in Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the question of the origin and history of life". (For avoidance of doubt, the CSM makes clear that the six days recounted in Genesis are six consecutive periods of 24 hours: the organisation advocates what is known as "Young Earth Creationism", as it accepts the whole Scriptural account as literal truth.) The author is one Andrew Sibley, who is a meteorologist working as a weather forecaster. He states (emphasis added):
The Natural History Museum is under the mistaken impression that they are sole guardians, or gatekeepers of scientific knowledge in society when 40 percent of society rejects Darwinism. That is a substantial minority whose voice is worthy of a more respectful hearing in scientific society.
I find Sibley's proposition preposterous, but I don't find it remarkable. It is a widespread notion that deeply held convictions are at least entitled to respect - when in reality there is no "at least" about it, and no entitlement either. The challenging of beliefs is an often brutal business, but the ensuing and almost inevitable hurt is emotional and not physical. There is nothing wrong in this; it is how knowledge advances.