“The moment you declare a set of ideas be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible” – Salman Rushdie
“Freethought Lebanon” is an initiative that aims to empower freethinkers in Lebanon (both Lebanese and non-Lebanese) in order to promote humanism, encourage critical thinking, and disseminate secular values as a solution for corruption, intolerance and sectarian violence in Lebanon. Our vision is “Expanded Horizons with Minds Liberated from the Tyranny of Custom”.
In recent weeks, we have received criticism from some of our followers, conservatives and activists alike, as to what can and can’t be considered freethought. In the spirit of rational discourse, here is our response.
The hallmark of the philosophy of Hegel is his concept of “dialectics”. It’s a system of understanding the history of philosophy, and of the world itself, that can be defined as a “progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement”. To Hegel, the progress of history is nothing but the unfolding of ‘truth’ in time that emerges from the conflict and clash of opposing sides/ideas.
It is as if our human species is on an endless path to produce ever more comprehensive and evolving philosophies about humanity and the world.
We do not need to delve into the technical terminologies of Hegel to appreciate how essential freedom of thought and freedom of speech are to humanity. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly and collective action are perhaps the bedrocks to this dialectical process, which without progress would stop and human history would stagnate.
Every major leap forward in the long progress of our species could not have happened if people were not allowed to think, express, debate, unite, and act. Censorship, therefore, is extremely detrimental to the progress and well-being of humanity.
The Censoring Activists
That is why it is particularly dumbfounding when some activists call for censorship.
There is undoubtedly much oppression in our part of the world. Oppression gives rise to anger, and anger is an invaluable asset to motivate and mobilize the oppressed and those who support them to change the status quo. However, misguided anger, even if well-intentioned, can lead to harmful outcomes.
Common lines of attack against free speech go something like this:
- You are a male, therefore it’s mansplaining and patriarchal to give your opinion on any matter related to women.
- You cannot say that the hijab is sexist because then you would be against free choice.
- You cannot criticize one religion without criticizing the others.
- You shouldn’t criticize Islam because that’s Islamophobia and you would be supporting the neo-Nazis in the west.
Mansplaining is the act of a man condescendingly and patronizingly talking to a woman, in which he wrongfully assumes and acts as though he is right by virtue of having a penis. Mansplaining is a real and painful phenomenon that women face on a daily basis. It is not a secret that our societies are patriarchal and that many men annoyingly feel that they are naturally more endowed with strength and intelligence than women. Patriarchy should indeed be challenged and deconstructed both as a narrative and as a power structure.
However, it is wrong and counterproductive to yield out the mansplaining accusation every time there is a discussion and exchange of arguments happening between a man and a woman. Needless to say, not all men are condescending to women. Rational exchange is too important to dismiss because of unfair generalizations.
The matter does become tricky, however, when a man is discussing with a woman a topic related to women’s bodies and behavior. It is important here to make a distinction between two types of claims: descriptive vs. normative.
- Descriptive claims are claims that try to describe “what is”. For example, “The moon is 384,400 km far from the earth” is a descriptive claim of reality that can either be true or false.
- Normative claims are claims that speak of “what should be”. This is the realm of ethics, religions, political ideologies, etc. “Do not kill people” and “one should not milk the goats on Saturday” are both examples of normative claims.
There definitely is a major problem when men assign themselves as the authors of normative claims that women should then obey. This is exactly what patriarchy is: the subjugation of women by men. This power imbalance is the root cause of a great deal of misery and inequality in the world.
It is less problematic (but not completely unproblematic), however, when men and women have an equal say in matters that affect them both, and when they exchange thoughts and opinions freely about what laws should govern all citizens. This is not completely unproblematic because when we think of issues like abortion, men and women should not have an equal say in “what should” happen regarding an unwanted pregnancy: Women clearly ought to have the final say.
Descriptive claims are not as problematic. Here is a descriptive claim: “The religious teachings of Islam are biased against women”. Such descriptive claims are either true or false, and they can be discussed without panicking that this is an attack against freedom of choice of people. There is an important difference between expressing opinions about how we see the world and forcing people to live by our opinions.
Any person, male or female, or even any advanced thinking machine, can express/describe how they see reality. Personal perspectives matter of course; each viewer might see only one side of reality, and that is why it is important to have the ability to communicate and exchange perspectives so that we can see the bigger picture.
We, Freethought Lebanon, are very cautious about making normative claims that violate personal freedoms. Forcing people into our worldview goes against everything we stand for. We always make a clear distinction between people and ideas: People have rights; ideas don’t. People’s freedom of thought and freedom of speech are absolute rights, with the sole exception of hate speech. People’s ideas, however, don’t deserve any special treatment. We strongly believe that all ideas can be discussed, criticized, debated, attacked, and even ridiculed.
There is no contradiction when we say that we will fight, if need comes, for the right of veiled women to wear the veil if they so choose, while also maintaining that we have the absolute right to say that we think it is sexist.
Finally, it is important to note that our initiative is not all-male to begin with. And all of us, males and females, are fully committed to promoting equal rights for all.
Respect to Religions?
“Every religion must be tried at the bar of human justice, and stand or fall by the verdict there. It has no right to crouch behind the theory of “inspiration” and demand immunity from criticism.” – Helen H. Gardener
Similar to the point made in the above paragraph, we do not think that religious beliefs ought to be given any special treatment. Religious ideas have immense cultural power all around the world, and more often than not they contribute to oppression, injustice, and violation of rights. If anything, religious claims should be scrutinized more often because of the power they hold.
We respect religious people and we champion the freedom of conscience for all. But respecting a person’s right to believe is not the same as respecting their set of beliefs. “Respect” in this context means “to think highly of or to hold in esteem”. Should we all be obliged to hold in esteem beliefs about child marriage or spouse abuse? What about the belief that blasphemers should be killed or the belief that non-fasters should not eat in public in Ramadan?
Every time any of us has a burger for lunch, we are actively disrespecting the belief system of Hindus. It is simply impossible to respect every belief, for there are too many out there (many of them contradictory), and more importantly not all beliefs deserve respect.
We need to become comfortable with discussing uncomfortable issues. Otherwise, this whole charade of respect will eventually blow up in our faces. A not so distant example is the Lebanese civil war.
As for the claim that we must mention all religions every time we want to criticize any of them, we find that notion to be silly and insincere. We criticize all religions and ideologies, even atheistic ideologies and activist campaigns. We refuse to play along with this lame Lebanese tactic of political correctness where we must balance out our critiques equally to all sects at all moments.
The left-right polarization
There is a clear division in Western politics between the left and the right. There is indeed a worrying rise of nationalistic and fascistic sentiments in the USA and most European countries. The western right is mostly xenophobic, anti-refugees, anti-immigrants, and anti-Muslims. As a response, much of the Western left has polarized in the opposite direction. One nasty side effect of this polarization is that some of those on the left have chosen to blindly and regressively defend Islam, even when a critique is well due. As one American author put it, “the right doesn’t care about women rights and LGBT rights violations unless they’re committed by Muslims, while the left cares about women rights and LGBT rights violations unless they’re committed by Muslims.” In this context, every criticism of Islam is shot down as ‘Islamophobia’ from the left, while every refugee or Muslim is portrayed as a threat by the right.
The space for mature rational discourse is shrinking, and we find this problematic. We feel we must step away from this right-left polarization and fight to maintain this space of freethought.
Our initiative strongly supports refugees and is wholeheartedly opposed to racism, nationalism, fascism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim bigotry, stereotypical generalization, and all hate speech. We do not think that it is self-contradictory to hold these views and still criticize Islam (and other religions) when it is called for.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the site administration and/or other contributors to this site.