Defining divinity by what it was not, a form of negative of apophatic theology, represents a school of thought in several religious traditions. Confronted with the ineffability and unknowable character of the Divine, even in the revealed religions of Abrahamic monotheism, description of God by denial serves the dispelling of unorthodox conceptions and apprehensions. Via Negativa makes periodic revivals in Western theology but has ultimately failed to bring a coherent, concordant definition of God or theism into consensus. As the billions of adherents of the Abrahamic faiths remain divided even on the question of Divine nature, let alone divinity’s instructions to humanity, defining God by non-attributes has brought us no closer to universal understanding.
What has been attained by humanity with far greater success, and in far shorter time than the torturous epochs between theological councils and conclaves, is an accord on definitions of inalienable and inviolable human liberties. The differentiations and eccentricities of national constitutions aside, the concepts of liberty enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly of 1948 represent one of the broadest-reaching moral equilibriums that the species homo sapiens has achieved in its time on the planet. It would not have been possible without the Age of Enlightenment and the theories of liberty that followed; embodied most powerfully in the United States Constitution of 1789 and with greatest intellectual force in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in 1859.
Humanity has passed from the age of Divine Right and the unimpeded authority of inherited and appointed powers into the age of mass enfranchisement and constitutional protections for all citizens. One no longer needs to be a baron to claim protection under Magna Carta and the long-received wisdom of serfdom, slavery and the workhouse has become morally scandalous. This occurred in less than three centuries in the Western world, despite perennial obstructions and great leaps backward. Concepts of liberty forged in the Enlightenment made this state of consensus possible. Ideas empower and emancipate where tribal loyalty and instinct do not. The freedom to even publish the upcoming magazine is secured, with some tenuous foundations, on the English traditions of liberty; a written constitution would make better cement for the protection of The Yorker from censors and libel suits but for now, the respect for Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act would keep us safe.
A form of Via Negativa for defining human rights has been exercised in the calculated rhetorical assault on human liberty in the wake of the January 2015 Paris terror attacks. The determination by apologists for political Islamism to impose restrictions on free expression, ostensibly to stave off future attacks and avoid ‘provocation’ of the perpetually offended and aggrieved, is advanced with more sinister designs. Suddenly, the supporters of blasphemy laws and restrictions on what can and cannot be published and said in public are fond to quote the over-wrought assessment of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court case brought against Yiddish-speaking Jews who opposed American involvement in the First World War, Holmes coined his now infamous ‘fire in a crowded theatre’ metaphor as a legitimate restriction on freedom of expression. Often forgotten is that the case of US v. Schenck itself constituted an authoritarian crackdown on peaceful civil protest and was overturned in 1969. That did not stop Mehdi Hasan proclaiming the timeliness and validity the metaphor on Question Time and denouncing “the hypocrisy of the Free Speech Fundamentalists” (Hasan may or may not have been deliberately invoking a slur of the same name thrown at the murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh after his assassination in 2004.)
There was no fire in any theatre, nor any danger to life emanating from the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The only danger was to the puffed-up and insecure pieties and pretences of self-pitying, self-loathing theological egomaniacs. Islamism makes grandiose claims to knowledge and lawful exercise of power based on demonstrably false and fraudulent evidence. It invites being laughed at. And the broader Islamic taboos on depictions of the Prophet Muhammed are themselves a gratuitously unreasonable demand to make of the entire species. To say nothing of wearing heart and pride on one’s sleeve, it is a massive exposed weakness. Steve Shives, an American YouTube personality and liberal commentator stated in 2012 that the taboo on depicting the Prophet was an insecurity “begging to be f***ed with.” In simple terms: make not such a big thing of it, and Charlie Hebdo wouldn’t waste their time making fun it. Centuries of magnificent Islamic devotional art has been thrust into obscurity and flame by modern iconoclastic superstition and the non-Muslim world must cower in fear that one wrong word or public display could lead to massacre.
All humans possess not only the right to speak but the right to listen. Arguments have not only the right to be said but the right to be heard. You trample not only on one person’s speech by declaring them offensive and prosecuting them for blasphemy or ‘hate speech’ – you cloister the minds of all who may wish or not wish to hear them.
It is not hyperbolic to state that in every country on Earth, there are people convinced with moral certitude of their own authority to censor, impinge, suppress, invade and destroy the expressive and conscientious lives of others. Mercenary and technocratic as many censors and secret-policemen are, the role of the True Believer eclipses the self-serving actions of their colleagues. Ideological movements which depend upon censorship and intimidation of journalists, writers and free-thinkers are not always but often millenarian and utopian. They offer the ultimate answer to the great questions of existence; all matters have been decided, the truth has been revealed, there is only one way – and it is their way or the highway.
In Robert Oxton Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, a mythological version of Sir Thomas More is juxtaposed with his future son-in-law Will Roper. Standing for the free conscience and free intelligence, More questions Roper’s desire to go to any lengths to catch the enemy of Christ, the Prince of Darkness himself:
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
You may despise cartoons and novels making light or even insulting and disparaging something you admire or devote your life to following. You may think Charlie Hebdo represents the Devil – whether literally as an enemy of the Prophet Muhammed, or as part of the structuralist-racist-colonialist-capitalist-reactionary-feels-hurting oppressive monolith. Any attempt to suspend or cut down the laws guaranteeing its liberty in France or elsewhere, or to replace them with laws guaranteeing the protection of individuals from offence or hurt feelings, is an attack on the most basic integrity of free society and the free intelligence.
Latest posts by Jack Staples-Butler (see all)
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