Criticism Is Not Censorship
This is one of those posts I just have to write because the issue keeps coming up over and over and over. I’m going to lead with a few examples.
A couple of years ago, Westboro Baptist came to my town to protest a funeral at a local Baptist Church (incidentally, one which also preaches that a fiery hell awaits unrepentant gays). Various groups came out to demonstrate against WBC, and I was among those who did. My sign read “God Hates Figs” and was intended to convey the idea that I find it laughable for people to rely on an ancient text to tell them whom they should hate. This was the third or fourth time I had been to a WBC counterprotest, and no one there was trying to send the message that WBC should be jailed or fined for saying hateful things. That said, some of my most progressive friends have argued that WBC promotes hate speech and should be forcibly restrained from doing so. Whenever this subject comes up, I invariably argue against the encroachment of political litmus tests on free expression, my position is that the best remedy for poor speech is more speech.
On the other side of the political spectrum, we have political conservatives who wish to limit free expression when it is directed against the nation and flag that they love. Two decades ago, when I was still young enough to engage in all-night bull sessions with my fellow undergraduates, we used to argue about the limits of free speech and especially symbolic speech. Because the particular institution that I attended was relatively politically conservative, the idea of amending the Constitution to criminalize flag-burning had a surprisingly high level of support. At the time, I found flag desecration fairly off-putting, but I argued that it should be legally protected as symbolic speech. If you want to protest it, go buy your own flag and get out there and demonstrate your patriotism in whatever manner you like. Again, the best remedy for poor speech is more speech.
Back in 2002, I joined with three other atheists across the street from a National Day of Prayer event, holding up a banner which read “Nothing Fails Like Prayer,” which was quite predictably met with very stern responses from those in attendance at the rally. When they came over to talk, the only thing that we could come to agree upon was that we live in a nation where religious and irreligious people are allowed to freely express their views in public, however offensive they might be to each other. We each saw the other side as poor speech, and our own side as more speech, but the end result is the same.
I’d like to make something abundantly clear. While I fully support the right of the WBC to express their homophobic hatred, the right of the flag-burner to burn the flag, and the right of the old white protestants to rally for Christian prayer, I also support the rights of those who wish to protest and criticize them, and even to try talk them out of what they are doing. If I somehow managed to convince one of the WBC protesters that the universe was not designed and created by a benevolent immaterial transcendent cosmic homophobe, that would not be anything remotely like censorship, even if it did lead that person to put down their hateful placards forever. Criticism and persuasion are not forms of censorship, they are forms of free speech.
I am going to continue to criticize religious people and irreligious people alike when they say and do hateful and stupid things. If they cry out “censorship!” in reply to such criticism, I’m just going to give them a link to this post and try to remind them that the best remedy for poor speech is still more speech.