Monday, January 5, 2009

Sacred, Profane, Inane: The Same?

Via Althouse, who highlights the same portion discussed here, a very interesting and good article from Christopher Hitchens. But then he gets the conclusion exactly wrong. He answers the question: "Is nothing sacred?" by saying that religions aren't, but speech is. I say that the only reason speech matters is because religion does. Valuing and emphasizing speech without reference to the reason and purpose of freedom of speech corrupts our society and our discourse. The value of speech is only in its value as tool for the conscience.

I can’t remember quite what I answered then, but I know what I would say now. “No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn’t be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one. Thus, the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well.” I also think that human life has its sacrosanct aspect, and though I can think of many circumstances in which I would take a life, the crime of writing a work of fiction is not a justification (even in the case of Ludlum) that I could ever entertain.
He uses the phrase sacred to describe things like books, idols, and cities. But then he says that free expression should be upheld "at all costs" even above human life, which is "sacrosanct," but only in part. So for Hitchens, speech is sacred. The Bible, Ganesh, and Mecca are not.

Freedom of conscience is the more sacred freedom; any value in the freedom of speech derives from the extent to which it serves freedom of conscience. (I'm not the only one who ties these together; both are protected by the same amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Freedom of conscience means the freedom to apply your reason, judgment, and morality to your life. In doing so, you may strive to become a better person. It happens on the individual level, with or without speech.

Freedom of speech is the tool that freedom of conscience uses at the society level. Only through speech can a society as a whole engage in the kind of self-questioning necessary to progress into something better. Speech allows society to evolve a conscience. Speech is the tool, but conscience is the goal.

I do respect speech. The value it serves is so important that I believe almost all limitations on speech are to be avoided so as not to hinder the progress of the underlying goal. But that's no reason to celebrate all speech whether harmful or valueless. We don't do that anyway. Obscenity, for example, is illegal in many jurisdictions. Lots of speech isn't considered by law to be as valuable as other speech. The highest protection goes to political speech, the very means by which society works out its morals and values, the public conscience. Other speech is protected for the sole reason that curtailing it would chill this most valuable type of speech. I can think of lots of occasions in which speech can and maybe should be curtailed (time, place, and manner restrictions are often held to be constitutional). I can think of few, if any, situations where the government or society can or should impose on the conscience. I think that the farther speech strays from its essential purpose as tool for the development of the social conscience, the less valuable it becomes.

Does anyone other than Hitchens believe that speech should be upheld "at all cost and without qualification"? Does he? This position glorifies speech that causes harm. I'm not talking about questioning the status quo, I'm talking about speech that causes real harm. The liberal intelligentsia would have us believe that obscenity prosecutions are bad. If we're talking James Joyce, or Salman Rushdie, who Hitchens' article discusses, then I agree. But do we all really think that we should tolerate or celebrate all speech that really is obscene? Fiction writers may be providing speech of value to society, but what about that Brazilian guy who got prosecuted for obscenity for the 2 Girls 1 Cup video a.k.a. "gonzo porn" (spoiler alert! 2 women poop and barf into each other's mouths).

Is Hitchens right that we should venerate speech because we can't have any certainty as to which religion is correct? If we can't, then how can mere primates determine that speech is always the correct value to celebrate? Answer: by exercising the faculty that separates us from rest of the primates - reason. People can use reason and evidence to determine what religion is correct. One piece of evidence of the rightness of Christianity that led me back to the fold was during a secular theology class at a public university, the texts for which tried to argue against the miraculous nature of Christ.

To debunk what some see as a miracle - the amazing spread and worldwide dominance of Christianity as a world religion in its first few centuries - the authors of the text argued that it was really just due to biological factors. The world population was being wiped out by disease, where Christians came to dominate through attrition. Christians tended to survive disease where heathens did not because the Christian doctrine of caring for one's neighbor led Christians to provide the basic hygeine and sustenance that led to dramatically greater survival rates. Patients who survived were either Christians cared for by their brethren or heathens eager to convert out of gratitude and awe to those who cared for them.

The authors took great pains to point out how foreign the concept of caring for one's neighbor was in the society at the time - the better to justify their theory of the disproportionate impact of Christianity on demographics. That's right - they tried to debunk a supposed miracle by arguing that the doctrine led to the better chance for survival of humanity and Christianity. We are to disbelieve Christianity because Jesus told us how to survive plague. Luckily, this primate is able to apply her faculty of reason to say that Jesus got the whole "love thy neighbor" thing right. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church - it's scary how right that thing is; Thank God he loves us. And what does it tell you right up front?

"Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason." Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created "in the image of God".

Reason, again. So yeah, I disagree with Hitchens as to whether we can know religion is sacred. Reason tells us. We are primates, but not merely so. But for him the speech faculty trumps. Why is that?

Why is he threatened by this:
"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
Why would Hitchens have us call this into question - why can't we apply this teaching to our lives, view the results, and decide for ourselves whether the evidence bears out that we must love each other, do what is good, and avoid evil? Evidence and reason won't tell us whether this is true?

But no, according to Hitchens, it is sacred to say the following, so long as we are not convinced of its rightness:
Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.
And the saying of this is equivalent to the creation of gonzo porn, or at least entitled to the same protection.

Hitchens' answer embodies the thesis of this guy, which is that the modern left believes that the evil in the world comes from the insistence of rightness. It's okay to say as long as you don't believe it, as long as you don't think you are right. Now that I think about it, Obama is their perfect candidate - he'll say anything, and no one thinks he believes it. The left defended his going to a radical church by arguing that he professed a faith he didn't believe for mere political reasons!

When you fetishize and overemphasize speech the way Hitchens does, unmooring it from the values it serves, you create a sick discourse and you hurt society. You end up with people like the guy at the porno link who assert that not only should poop videos be protected, but that people who watch them for sexual kicks are less threatening to society than people who only like missionary sex with the lights off.

Is that the society we want? Are those the values we intend to serve?

(Quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1776, 1777, 1778, 6)

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