Why Suppressing Free Speech to Protect Religion Is a Bad Idea

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, much of Europe and now the U.S. it seems is edging towards censorship of anything that could be construed as offensive to a religion. This includes a report compiled by the NYPD on Islamic terrorism, which some Muslim organizations apparently want taken down from the police department's website and pretty much shredded.

While the Muslim community may be justified in criticizing the NYPD for religious profiling, that is not the same as the compiling of data on the very real trend of radicalization in America. That is information that every American has a right to have and the NYPD should not allow themselves to be bullied into pulling the report.

Here's why.

While the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo lampooning the Islamic faith were, in my opinion, tasteless and sensationalist, nobody deserved to get killed over them. It's fine to question the judgment and even personal biases of the editors, but not to suppress their right to express their opinion. Muslims in Paris always had the right to picket Charlie Hebdo's offices, write their own scathing editorials and point out that the cartoons weren't really thought-provoking but merely insulting. Where was there a need or justification for violence?

There wasn't, but the new laws being contemplated in Europe and the United Nations now implicitly provide such a justification by tying the notion of "incitement" to violence. In other words, they want to ban any form of expression that could lead to an attack. Conceptually that's not a bad thing but the problem lies in the definition of incitement. As a normal person, I can take quite a lot of insult without being provoked to do anything but yell back. If I was a psychopath, on the other hand, I might be incited to violence by the smallest thing.

What this means is that instead of holding criminals responsible for their actions, we are criminalizing the words those criminals find offensive. That's crazy in itself but what's even more absurd is that if we take this to its logical conclusion, then the only surefire way to ever prevent violence is to make sure that no one says anything that could possibly, theoretically, incite anyone at any time.

That's political correctness run amok, and once we go down that path, all we will accomplish is an environment where prejudice and hatred fester and grow in the shadows, and where extremists use incitement as an excuse for their atrocities (at least in their propaganda). It shouldn't be hard to see why this is a bad idea.

Let's also talk about where this is coming from. The most famous religious symbol in the world - the Cross - has been lampooned for centuries and in ways that are frankly much more offensive than anything Charlie Hebdo ever did. From authors and painters to filmmakers, there has been a virtual assault on Christianity these past few decades, and yet it is mostly shrugged off, or at worst criticized.

But when it comes to Islam, there is a double standard. Whether it's cartoons or even simple discourse, it's almost impossible to have a rational conversation without being accused of bigotry -- or the more popular term for it -- Islamophobia. That's a big problem for some of the same reasons outlined above. Suppressing people's opinions only drives them underground and does not permit constructive discussion.

Moreover, just as all Muslims are not automatically extremists because they criticize U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East, all non-Muslims are not bigots because they dare to criticize Islam.

And in the same vein, the NYPD's report is not Islamophobic but a bonafide examination of an important topic. If stating facts is considered bias, then we have moved far beyond the suppression of free speech to the suppression of history itself - and that is a very frightening prospect, indeed. The fear that some people might read that report and develop a negative image of Muslims is certainly a valid one, but that simply isn't reason enough to not publish it.

Should we, for example, bury scientific studies that identify a predominance of a disease in a particular racial group because we think it will stigmatize the entire race? Of course not, because doing so will also prevent scientists from finding a cure for the disease. Again, political correctness must not be allowed to kill discussion and debate of important topics - especially when such discussions are clearly linked to actual life and death for thousands or even millions of people all over the world.

That's not equality, that's insanity.

Here is some more food for thought: If we accept the idea of banning speech because it provokes someone, then the protests over police brutality should never have been allowed to happen. After all, those protests did eventually "incite" the cold-blooded murder of two NYPD officers by a madman. Similarly, if we really want to protect everyone's feelings, we should immediately stop discussing race in America altogether, since it must certainly be hurtful to white people, or stop staying "Oh, God!" since that's got to be blasphemous for an atheist.

If that sounds silly, it's because the more thin-skinned we become as a society, and the deeper we sink into the safe and noncontroversial arms of political correctness, the further away we will get from the truth and common sense.

Of course, we should still try to exercise restraint and respect other's beliefs - it is a prerequisite to civilized discourse, but that is part of a social contract, not a legal one.