…If you ask most atheists in the United States today where the primary threat to free expression comes from, you will be pointed in the direction of socially conservative Christians. We have seen them try to ban books they do not like, interfere with the teaching of evolution and reality-based sex education in public schools, burn piles of heavy metal records, suggest anti-blasphemy laws, and engage in many other efforts aimed at denying others access to material which they perceive as undermining their fragile faith. The goal is clear: they have decided to deny others access to material of which they do not approve. They have appointed themselves the morality police and are willing to impose their will on the rest of us. They don’t want you to be able to decide these things for yourself.
As toxic as these socially conservative Christians can be, there is a problem with focusing only on them. In doing so, we may overlook what has become an equally important source of restrictions to free expression: the left-leaning forces of political correctness, trigger warnings, and “safe spaces.” The pressure to refrain from criticizing Islam comes largely from the left, and there appears to be a surprising willingness to shut down the exchange of unpopular ideas. Some of the efforts coming from the left appear to be every bit as puritanical as those on the right. Even though the rationale they provide is different, the results may be the same. “Other people should not have to see or hear things I find offensive!” Much like the socially conservative Christians, some of these forces on the left have decided that they know better than you and are willing to make these decisions for you. It seems that their opinions are the only ones that count.
It is noteworthy that much of the controversy around free expression and efforts to restrict it in the atheist community have come from the left. Some subjects, we have been told, are simply not up for debate. Some subjects are even beyond questioning. And this is happening within a community that prides itself on skepticism and freethought! Codes of conduct are needed to create “safe spaces” whenever atheists gather, and they often seem to have the effect of restricting sexual expression.
I certainly understand the pull to focus on the Christian right and their quest to restrict the free expression of ideas they find offensive. I will likely continue to do so because this seems to be the primary threat to free expression where I live. And yet, I think it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that there are some serious threats to freethought and free expression coming from the left as well. Perhaps these deserve greater attention…
What do you think about Vance’s contention that atheists and liberals can be just as guilty as right-wing Christians of trying to restrict the free speech of those they disagree with? And on a similar note, what should our response be the patently racist comments by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers? Does Sterling have the right to be a bigot and racist and still own a business that makes most of its money from the work of blacks? Just an hour ago, the commissioner of the NBA banned Sterling for life from any association with the NBA. He also fined him $2.5 million dollars and is recommending that Sterling be forced to sell the franchise. Should Sterling face these penalties for what it arguably his First Amendment right to be a racist? And here’s another. Recently, Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, was forced to step down over a $1,000 donation he made in 2008 to support California Proposition 8. Should Eich have been forced out of office due to his personal political views? One more. Just yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry faced a huge backlash over his use of the word apartheid in describing Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate a peace treaty with the Palestinians. He faced a huge backlash over his use of the word apartheid and has since apologized. Should Kerry be forced to apologize for using a word that, in my opinion, accurately describes the state of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians?
Like Vance, I find the political correctness found in certain corners of the atheist/liberal world to be quite troubling. How are we any different from the right-wing Christian if we can not tolerate, accept, and engage those who might have a differing view? Should we go out of our way to savage and punish those who hold views that we disagree with? What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.