Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The right to blaspheme

It's time to quote Voltaire again:

"I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

This is a concept that is apparently new to musician and religious activist Pat Boone, who last week called for criminal charges to be filed against Saturday Night Live over a skit ridiculing the Religious Right's insane persecution complex.

In an interview with Alan Colmes, Boone said:
There is a vitriol, I would say there is almost a hatred, of people who dare to take the old-fashioned truisms, the old traditional stands about moral right and wrong.  They absolutely, they do not want any restriction on what they might do...  There have been restrictions, as you know, the movies, there used to be a censor board in the movies that declared what should be appropriate for family audiences and not.  Then they went to a rating system, which is in a way a regulation...  I think the majority of American citizens, and they ought to be the arbiters, not a few people in robes, it ought to be the American people who determine what they want coming into their homes...  There's an FCC, you know that, don't you?  The FCC does make regulations, it's just a question of what they'll declare off limits...  You cannot do blasphemy, yes...  I think 90% of the American public would say, "Yes, I agree."  And if the public doesn't have anything to say about it -- it's the public airwaves...  [A proper punishment for allowing blasphemy on the air would be to] lose license.  Just like any other law, if you disobey the law, you're punished for it, and you lose the ability to keep doing it...  The network, or whoever's responsible for the shows -- there should be regulations, yes, that prohibit blasphemy.  Now of course it's hard to determine what obscenity, what profanity, what blasphemy is.  But to call God by some profane name -- I think anybody with a rational mind would agree that that's blasphemy.  
This is twisting together so many different threads that it's going to take some thought to tease them apart.  But let's give it a try, shall we?

First, there's the conflation of what's on the air and what is approved for family viewing.  Saturday Night Live is clearly not a child-friendly show; no one claims that it is, and it's on at an hour when most younger people are long asleep.  So talking about "family friendly programming" is irrelevant here, unless you want all programming to be appropriate for five-year-olds (and honestly, this sounds kind of like what Pat Boone wants).

Pat Boone [image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

Second, there's the issue that if people object to what's on television, they have an incredibly powerful recourse: turn the fucking thing off.  My wife and I don't have regular television -- we own a TV and use it to watch Netflix and the like, but we made a conscious decision not to get satellite (we're too far out in the middle of nowhere for cable).  This decision is reinforced every time we're in a hotel and we flip the TV on, do the round of the channels (all hundred-some-odd of them) and discover that amazingly enough, all that's on is garbage.  With lots of commercials.  So if Boone et al. don't like what's on Saturday Night Live, they shouldn't watch it.  No one has them tied to a chair with the television on.

Third, though, there's the deeper issue of free speech.  Let's say the tables were turned, and Pat Boone and his evangelical pals were to make a nasty film ridiculing atheists.  (Some would say that's what Harold Cronk's God's Not Dead actually is, in fact -- portraying atheists as ugly-minded people who set out deliberately to destroy the faith of Christians, and who furthermore have thought processes approximately as deep as a kiddie pool.)  I might not like it.  I pretty certainly wouldn't watch it.  After all, I get enough hate mail here, there's no reason why I would want to subject myself to what is basically an hour and a half long screed sneering in the direction of my particular worldview.

But you know what?  My not liking something is not equivalent to my saying that no one can say it.  If you're religious, you have every right to say that atheism is every awful thing you can think of.  You can do anything up to what would amount in the eyes of the law as slander or libel.  (Those are fairly narrowly defined, and shouldn't be hard to avoid.)  I wouldn't be happy about it, but the First Amendment protects your right to say it.

But the last problem is something that Boone himself touches on -- it's impossible to define obscenity, profanity, and blasphemy, because those are (1) based on personal lines that are different for each individual, and (2) often contextual.  A sex scene in a movie, where it contributes to the plot, is (in my opinion) not obscene.  (In fact, I've written sex scenes in a couple of my novels -- in ways, I hope, that are neither obscene nor gratuitous, but genuinely contribute something to the story other than titillation.)  When it comes to profanity, it is entirely situation-dependent, something I explain every year to my students.  The whole thing about swearing, and the real reason why teachers object to it for the most part, is not because it's inherently wrong, but because you have to learn when it's appropriate.  Saying "fuck you" to a buddy in a funny situation, with a smile, could be entirely reasonable and result in no ill feelings.  Saying the same thing to your boss could get you fired.

Best to learn the distinction early, and err on the side of caution when using strong language.

The hardest one of all is blasphemy.  Some people -- apparently, Boone included -- think that any criticism, any ridicule of religion, is blasphemous.  The Saudis agree; people in Saudi Arabia are routinely whipped, jailed, or beheaded for speaking ill of Islam.

I'm not sure we should be following their example, however.

But that's the difficulty, isn't it?  When does criticism of a religion cross the line into hate speech?  The law as it stands is pretty clear; it's hate speech if it implies "immediate danger or an imminent breach of the peace."  Beyond that, you're free to be as critical as you like.

I may or may not like what you say.  But as long as you don't threaten my person, that is completely irrelevant.

Because that's what "free speech" means.

So Boone, as one might expect, is proposing something that contravenes not only the First Amendment, but any standard we have for separation of church and state.  Because face it; he wouldn't be saying this if it were Islam being ridiculed, would he?

Yeah, thought not.

In our current offense-sensitive culture, you have to wonder if we're moving that way.  Boone and his friends have demonstrated over and over that they have a persecution complex, and want Christianity to receive protections from the law that are offered to no other worldview.

It's to be hoped that our leaders will recognize right from the outset what a slippery slope that is.


  1. I’m so glad you pointed out that our sensitivities are most often limited to our own self-interest, with your question about his outrage being because it is about “Christians” and would he be going after changes if it was only about Muslims, or Buddhists, etc. I don’t think he can dispute this, because, “But to call God by some profane name -- I think anybody with a rational mind would agree that that's blasphemy” clearly does not include very many of the world’s religions.
    On the other hand, I think making negative jokes and comments about things and people different than ourselves is one side of human nature. "Dark humor" and sarcasm have been around since the beginning of recorded history. I do think that the rise in going after shock value has ended up requiring more and more to accomplish that goal, which to me is kind of sad.
    One interesting opposite example (lowering the shock and offensive value) is the evolution of terminology for “Intellectually Disabled.” It began with “feebleminded” and changed over time to “moron, imbecile, idiot,” to “Mental Retardation.” As that term became commonly used in slurs and epithets, the DSM-5 officially changed the diagnostic terminology to "Intellectually Disabled" in 2013. The U. S. government also officially changed it in 2013. The same is true for other terms: "old" became "elderly" and is now "senior."
    Although I do think some changes are appropriate, I also believe you nailed it when you suggested that if people don’t like certain shows, they should turn them off. SNL is so obviously NOT a family oriented show, I wonder why he was watching it anyway? And as to blasphemy being against the law – the Puritans brought that very law with them, and it was eventually removed by – oh my goodness – the separation of church and state a rather long time ago.
    And while I’m indulging in my own little rant about THAT, although I like some of the things Bernie Sanders has been saying, I sure as heck do NOT want a president who thinks giving little religious sermons and admonitions is appropriate as part of a POLITICAL rally!!!! Separation of church and state keeps people from imposing THEIR brand of religion into governmental laws for crying out loud!

  2. I meant John Kasich!!! Not Sanders