Censorious Desire

Offense taking is one of the motives behind a desire to censor opinions and images. There are people who find things people say offensive and want those who hurt their feelings held accountable and offensive opinions and images taken down.

A feminist, uncompromised by multiculturalism, criticizes the Muslim community for the expectation that women wear the hijab or the chador. According to the feminist standpoint, the hijab and the chador represent the modesty rules of a patriarchal religion designed to regulate sexuality on grounds that woman tempt men with their bodies and, seeing how each woman is meant for a particular man, women must be to some extent hidden (sometimes completely) from the male gaze. Feminists are correctly opposed to the notion that women should be subject to male control, so demand and expectation to cover are subject to criticism. An imam may describe the feminist attitude as “Islamophobic” and deem it offensive. In this case, what is offensive is criticism that challenges a system of sexual repression, and the desire to censor such criticism is motivated by a desire to perpetuate patriarchal arrangements.

I could provide many more examples, but it will suffice to note that expressions people find offensive are in theory infinite in number. In many of these cases, such as in the present case, the desire to censor is about protecting an unjust power – controlling what other people say and do because it challenges hierarchy and privilege. The underlying desire to prohibit speech critical of Islamic practice is a perceived need to prevent others from receiving ideas that may bring the legitimacy of that practice into question and, more broadly, shake their faith and undermine their traditions—which is what enlightenment is all about. The feminist challenges the patriarchy with her criticism. The claim that her words are offensive represent a tactic to silence her for the sake of the imam who believes others should not hear her words. This is no different than a desire to censor speech critical of white supremacy on the grounds that racists find such speech offensive.

The desire to control not only what people say, but also what others hear, to control what they think and believe, should compel each of us to become more fierce in our free speech advocacy. How could anybody who believes in freedom stand by silently while speech critical of oppressive practices is suppressed—or, worse, join with the offensive-takers and express their censorious desire? When people tell me that certain forms of speech should be restricted because they are offensive, I wonder when and how they acquired the authority to speak for other people. Who are they that they should control the thoughts and expressions of others or deny individuals the opportunity to hear the opinions of others or to receive their expressions? And who are you to stand idle while they attempt to do this? You invite your own oppression.

Restricting speech on the grounds that it may offend members of a group robs members of that group of the opportunity to hear speech they might find useful, enlightening, funny, liberating. Is speech critical of the Islamic prohibition on homosexuality offensive to homosexuals in Muslim communities? It doesn’t stand to reason that it would be. Might they find such speech useful in their struggle against stifling heterosexuality? Indeed, they might. As a supporter of gay rights, I have an obligation to stand with homosexuals everywhere. Who is your choice of comrades in that struggle? Gays and lesbians or Muslim clerics? Do all women in Muslim majority communities believe in Islamic modesty rules? Might there be women who do not want to wear the hijab but are scared or don’t know there is another opinion to hold on the matter? The latter is most certainly true. Might they welcome opinions that support their desire to exist uncovered or to at least have the conversation without being censored? I feel confident they do. And that is why I stand in solidarity with the victims of patriarchal oppression, not with the men who oppress them. Who is your choice of comrades in this struggle? Women or the imams? Are there no Muslims who find cartoons of Muhammad funny? I bet there are.

Why are the conservative and traditionalist voices of Islam allowed to set the terms of freedom for everybody? How could an atheist or a Christian ever accept being bound by the blasphemy rules of Islam? For that matter, why should a Muslim be bound by Islamic blasphemy rules? Would you tolerate this attitude coming from the Christians around you? I hope not. If an ideology doesn’t promote free thought, then of what use is it to a free people? I would have to think very lowly of people identified as Muslims to believe they were all incapable of seeing through the lies of their religion or that they were undeserving of the same rights I enjoy.

By falsely defending the sensibilities of a group which he assumes is monolithic in its sensibilities and for which he presumes to speak, the censor oppresses individuals by denying them access to information and knowledge. Censorship is not just about suppressing the speech or expression of the speaker or artist. It’s about withholding information and knowledge from people who need it or want it. They are not allowed to choose for themselves if the censor chooses for them. The censor claims to know the minds of other people and appoints himself defender of their interests. He robs people of their agency and their autonomy and their freedom by telling them that he and community leaders will think for them.

There is no human right that protects the desire to have one’s ideology held safe from criticism and ridicule or one’s harmful practices free of restriction. But there is a human right to be free to think and say what you will and to be free from harmful cultural and religious practices.

The censorious desire is the mark of the authoritarian mind. The human right to liberty is universal and unalienable.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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