My morning started early with a cup of coffee and great intentions of adding a few paragraphs to my book project. As the rain fell soothingly outside, and just as I was getting the old writing wheels warmed up, I stole a quick skim of my twitter timeline. One of my favorite accounts is that of famous biologist Richard Dawkins and this morning, Dr. Dawkins was tweeting about British politics. In particular, about a Labour Party desire, expressed in no uncertain terms by Ed Millband, to outlaw the “scourge” of Islamophobia by making it a crime.
Islamophobia a crime? Absurd. How can criticism of anything be considered criminal in a free society? Writing, speaking, blogging, and drawing, all methods of critique, none of which do any real harm to anyone save challenging them to examine their own beliefs, and in so doing perhaps hurting their feelings. I replied to Dr. Dawkins’ tweet with one of my own:
“I suppose by attaching the suffix “ophobia” to the end of a set of beliefs, they expect immunity from criticism.”
Judging by the response to Dr. Dawkin’s re-tweet, this assessment resonated positively with a great many of his reasonable followers (and incidentally, quite negatively with a few of his less rational).
It would seem that the trick to ensure that one’s feelings remain unhurt, is to simply affix “ophobia” to the end of the label that captures whatever “deeply held beliefs” they hold, and then charge any critics with this new and wholly fictional affront. Of course this is a gimmick. A cop-out. It’s impossible to but a boundary around what ideas fit within the protection of the “ophobia” and what ideas must make their case on the open market. There’s no limit to the “ophobias” that the holders of ridiculous or dangerous ideas can cower behind.
What’s this? You think L. Ron Hubbard’s book is silly? You’re just exhibiting Scientolophobia.
Did I hear you scoff at the doctrine of transubstantiation? You must be a Catholophobe.
What do you mean you don’t believe in Santa Clause? You are guilty of Santophobia.
Critical of religious doctrines that encourage death to apostates? Careful if you live in England, for if Milliband has his way, you may just end up breaking laws prohibiting Islamophobia.
We in the Western world have been down this road before. The road where certain beliefs and ideas were placed beyond reproach by the rule of theocratic law, but rather than label their critics as “Islamophobes” or “Christophobes,” critics were called “blasphemers” and “heretics” and were garroted or burned at the stake. Of course, free governments will no longer issue death penalties for the crime of being offensive, but criminal penalties of any type are unconscionable. No idea is beyond critique. No belief is too precious to be held above examination and yes, even ridicule.
If the goal of freedom-loving societies is to ensure the maximum number of people living in them have access to the possibility of human happiness, and if human happiness is a product of actions inspired by beliefs, then all beliefs need to be on the table. How else can we choose which are worthy of our respect? How else can we cause to whiter away under the relentless light of rational critique, those beliefs which inspire actual atrocities?