Being an advocate of universal empathy and benevolent reciprocity, acts of sheer terror such as the Charlie Hebdo attack place me squarely on the horns of a dilemma, especially since I am opposed to the death penalty as well. So, since I do not shy away from cognitive dissonance, as I write this piece, I will attempt reconcile my seemingly opposing concepts. I turn to philosophy.
On one horn, I am a devotee of the John Stuart Mill School of Free Speech—a school of empathic thought that says, in Mill’s words:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. –John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 2 – Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.
Side note: It is clear to me that this mode of thought, in no small measure, influenced Jefferson and Madison when they crafted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the intent of which is laid out in Jefferson’s Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. And that intent is the very heart of a constitutionally limited, representative democracy (a republic). I no longer see our nation as such, however, but that is an argument for another time.
Indeed, as Mill wrote concerning the “tyranny of the majority”:
Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing (sic) are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices (sic) a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. —John Stuart Mill, On liberty, chapter 1
Thus I have to say that Charlie Hebdo has, in my opinion, every right to lampoon fundamentalist Islam, bearing in mind that their parodies of Mohammad is not the root cause of the terrorist attack, but was a contributing factor.
On the other horn of my dilemma is the root cause of the Charlie Hebdo attack—that of the right of fundamentalist religions to preach and believe as they do—a religious teaching that encourages murder as revenge for perceived insults to Islam. Too, it is for the most part a mindset with which one cannot reason. This last point, of course, is the same for peaceful but still dangerous fundamentalist, religious beliefs of Western nations. If one is convinced that he will burn in an everlasting Hell if he does not abide by the doctrines he was taught to believe, how can anyone change his mind? Cannonballs of logic and reason will not dent his walls of dogma. But, has he the right to teach and build those walls for others?
This brings me back to Mill, who wrote:
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience. —John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 2 – Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.
Therefore, fundamentalist Islam does, indeed, have a right to teach its opinions, although Mill would not condone—nor would any person possessing even a molecule of humanity and reason—allowing it to act out its nefarious teachings.
The solution? By allowing radical and harmful ideas to be spoken, society, perceiving the danger, knows who to watch and to whom contrary opinions, especially those of empathy, must be conveyed. Still, there must be constraints, especially in fundamentalist Islam, to prevent harmful acts. If the individuals of the group are beyond reason, then society must protect itself, by any means necessary—although capture should be our primary concern.
However, terrorists who are captured should not be put to death, but imprisoned and detoxed, if possible, of their harmful concepts. If they cannot be detoxed, then they must remain in prison and be treated humanly.
This episode highlights why I promote the view that every individual should rid himself of all religious dogma, saving only the single concept of benevolent reciprocity: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This goes for Western nations as well. Our primary goal, above all, should be the elimination of poverty and corporate/government greed–the ultimate medium for radicalism to grow.
I welcome your arguments and corrections if you find any.
Max T. Furr is author of The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical novel that takes a critical look at justice, love, and mercy, and written in the spirit of the BBC/WGBH Boston film production, God On Trial.