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Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the right to 'Free Speech' and the freedom of 'Right Speech'

To condemn hateful speech, or call for a protest against those who promote it, is itself a form of free speech. Announcing that you are offended when someone insults you or something you believe in is not an act of censorship. What person would refrain from issuing a rejoinder against those who insult him on the grounds that the right to insult precludes the right to defend? It is worth remembering this in light of The Innocence of Muslims and the hostile rhetoric against those whom it offends... 
Shock and offence are not feelings people cultivate. They are spontaneous emotions that reflect a violation of a person's sense of self. When someone is shocked or offended, it is natural that they would express it. Yet when Muslims offended by the movie or the cartoons do so, they are accused of being an enemy of free speech. There is no excuse for reacting to an insult with violence. But many who peacefully express their condemnation of hateful views are lumped into the same category: "Why Are Muslims So Easily Offended?", goes the refrain. 
Worse yet, the creators of the cartoon are portrayed as heroes for mocking Islam in a country known for its hostility toward Muslim immigrants and fierce state protection of free speech provocateurs. Editorials around the world have lauded the magazine for its alleged bravery, with one author proclaiming, "If free speech means anything, it's the right to say and publish things that other people find objectionable and irresponsible, even blasphemous." 
Such a perspective confuses what free speech does with what free speech means. Free speech allows people to insult, berate, and defame each other, but that is not what most people want, and it is rarely what makes freedom of speech attractive to those who do not have it. Those forced to live in countries without free speech know that one of its greatest values is the ability to speak the truth about one's position, to contest false depictions, to refute bias and slander. 
Free speech means not only the right to offend, but the right to defend. When Dan Cathy proclaims his prejudice against homosexuals, or Charlie Hebdo its hatred of Muslims, that is free speech. But when gay rights groups call for a boycott, and Muslims protest a cartoon or a movie, that is also free speech. Free speech does not mean deferring to people's right to abuse you.
I find the above from this article, 'The Freedom To Criticise Free Speech', poignant, disarming and humbling even, in the way it reminds us that any affirmation of freedom cannot deny others the capacity to refuse—even to say no to freedom itself—if freedom is to be free. To me this raises a question which, perhaps, we've been shying away from because of the obligation it places on the self: what if free speech only becomes meaningful as an expression of freedom to the extent that it allows for the freedom to criticise free speech?

What if the cacophonous clatter of 'Free Speech' (and the associated understanding of 'rights' deriving from a notion of the transcendental subject/atomistic individual) has deafened our ears to the silent plea of what Buddhism calls 'Right Speech' (and the associated understanding of 'freedom' deriving from a refusal of the transcendental subject/atomistic individual)?

Speak only the speech that neither torments self nor does harm to others. That speech is truly well spoken. Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech when it brings no evil to others is pleasant.
— Sn 3.3

Monday, September 24, 2012

What's in a profession?

The declaration of the one who professes is a performative declaration in some way. It pledges like an act of sworn faith, an oath, a testimony, a manifestation, an attestation, or a promise, a commitment. To profess is to make a pledge while committing one’s responsibility. “To make profession of” is to declare out loud what one is, what one believes, what one wants to be, while asking another to take one’s word and believe this declaration. -- Jacques Derrida

Had a discussion on Facebook yesterday about the Ukrainian-based feminist group Femen's topless protest tactics. The following is what I wrote and I'd like to relate it to Derrida's suggestions about a profession of faith (which inspired the paper I wrote):

There is a complex issue of how their tactics risk feeding the exploitative capitalist machine, which amongst other things, profits from the very idea that freedom is to be attained in the unfettered expression of the desiring-body. She writes on her naked body (see image in the link), 'I am free'. Free from what? Freedom only becomes meaningful in relation to what it releases. But leaving this issue aside, on the whole I'm not dismissing the counter-strategic use of the female body and tropes of raunch culture as a mode of political engagement. In fact, the activities of queer communities exemplify this very well: it can be a very powerful mode of political resistance. Having no knowledge of the specific circumstances in Ukraine—but based on what little we hear in the press—it may indeed be the case that Femen's approach has some merit in that context. But this is also precisely what gets my goat: that they portray their understanding and practice in a 'globalising' manner. This, then, has imperialising/colonising/subjugating effects of silencing other women, reproducing certain hierarchical relations whilst professing to be speaking for 'us' women—such as for instance, the totally ethnocentric and hubristic slogan 'Better naked than the burqa'. This is what the Femen spokesperson says:

"Believe me, it is really difficult for me to take my clothes off and stand in a public place. But this is the fight, and the fight is never easy."

OK. This is a profession, a pledge committing one's responsibility, a promise. But I'm curious: If there were means to actually allow their voices to be heard, and if people would be willing to lend a sympathetic ear rather than shoot off their moralising mouths, I wonder how many women in France, who despite the burqa ban, might say the same?

"Believe me, it is really difficult for me to KEEP MY CLOTHES ON and stand in a public place. But this is the fight, and the fight is never easy."

And why shouldn't they given the injustice of the legislation, not to mention the actual threat of violence it has prompted? Or if we could also somehow listen to the women of the diverse Muslim cultures of the world, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere (I stress this because there is often a conflation between 'Islam' and certain Arab cultures), I wonder how many might say:

"Believe me, it is really not an issue for me to cover myself (fully or partially) and stand in a public place. The fight you are fighting is not the battle of my choosing."

This is, of course, not a denial of the very real suffering that could be facing some women in some cultures, but merely a point about how willing we are to listen and recoil back on our own beliefs and outlooks—how willing are we to listen to what others profess and enter into relations of good faith with those who appear so strange and foreign?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An invitation to a profession of faith

A paper I wrote early last year where I seek to articulate the experience of faith I've felt through my coterminous sacred and scholarly pursuits of Buddhism and academia, has just been published today in this issue of the Cultural Studies Review with the theme, 'Secular Discomforts and On Mad Men'. The paper makes (in all senses of the word) a profession of faith. Incidentally, I also chanced upon today this review of Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists and Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless. I post the following excerpt partly to get on my soapbox yet again about the hubris of received Western (neo)liberal approaches to secularism, and partly to contextualise my own arguments within current debates about secularism and religion. 

More importantly, though, I really do wish to invite others to consider Critchley's suggestions about faith, which are informed by similar lines of inquiries I pursue in my work. The hypothesis in the paper posits an open approach to faith that is irreducible to any determinate creedal formulation, and hence possibly shared by 'believers' and 'non-believers' alike. Faith as a certain affective capacity to enact trust and fidelity ('religious' or not, who hasn't been drawn into such relations made possible by a promise?). Faith as a capacity to always remain hospitable to the incalculable future to come, which, if it comes, would awaken change, affirm hope: recalling at once the finitude of our condition, an open question summoned by the impermanence giving breath to this very life. Yours faithfully.

What is dismaying about Religion for Atheists is how deeply it embodies the ideology of the present—how it can describe so well the anxiety, isolation, and disappointment of secular life and yet still fail to identify their source. Botton’s central obsession is the insane ways bourgeois postmoderns try to live, namely in a perpetual upward swing of ambition and achievement, where failure indicates character deficiency despite an almost total lack of social infrastructure to help us navigate careers, relationships, parenting, and death. But he seems uninterested in how those structures were destroyed or what it might take to rebuild them, other than a few novelties like a restaurant where patrons are guided into intimate confessions with strangers, or temples without gods. Botton wants to keep bourgeois secularism and add a few new quasi-religious social routines. Quasi-religious social routines may indeed be a part of the solution, as we shall see, but they cannot be simply flung atop a regime as indifferent to human values as liberal capitalism. 
The crisis of secularism goes much deeper than a deficit of personal meaning. The separation of church and state is so entrenched in the Western mind that it can be difficult to see the capitalist nation-state as a theological and political whole. Secularism is not strictly speaking a religion, but it represents an orientation toward religion that serves the theological purpose of establishing a hierarchy of legitimate social values. Religion must be “privatized” in liberal societies to keep it out of the way of economic functioning. In this view, legitimate politics is about making the trains run on time and reducing the federal deficit; everything else is radicalism. A surprising number of American intellectuals are able to persuade themselves that this vision of politics is sufficient, even though the train tracks are crumbling, the deficit continues to gain on the GDP, and millions of citizens are sinking into the dark mire of debt and permanent unemployment. 
The rise of radical political religion in the U.S., most recently in the forms of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, is not, as almost any mainstream pundit would put it, a dying gasp before the final triumph of liberalism. Rather, it is re-awakening of the theological desire that was always latent in liberal democracy, resting beneath its supposedly secular principles. As Jacques Derrida argued, Western politics have an auto-immune disorder: they are structured to pretend that their notions of reason, right, and sovereignty are detached from a deeply theological heritage. When pressed by war and economic dysfunction, liberal ideas prove as compatible with zealotry and domination as any others. Citizens see the structure behind the fa├žade and lose faith in the myth of the state as a dispassionate, egalitarian arbiter of conflict. Once theological passions can no longer be sublimated in material affluence and the fiction of representative democracy, it is little surprise to see them break out in movements that are, on both the left and the right, explicitly hostile to the liberal state. 
Simon Critchley, an English philosopher who currently holds a professorship at The New School in New York, wants to provide a theoretical framework for that hostility, one that begins with our disenchantment with religion and our disappointment in democratic politics. Critchley has made a career forging a philosophical account of human ethical responsibility and political motivation. His question is: after the rational hopes of the Enlightenment corroded into nihilism, how do humans write a believable story about what their existence means in the world? After the death of God, how do we account for our feelings of moral responsibility, and how might that account motivate us to resist the deadening political system we face? 
This is what Critchley is after: a work of self-becoming powerful enough to break through the status quo, but one that is defined by its self-negation, its responsibility to others, and its nonviolence. 
We might call this a secularization of a dramatic religious experience, or a radical acceptance of our own emptiness. But unlike an evangelist, Critchley understands that attempting to fill the void with traditional religion is to slip back into a slumber that reinforces institutions desperate to maintain the political and economic status quo. Only in our condition of brokenness and finitude, uncomforted by promises of divine salvation, can we be open to a connection with others that might mark the birth of political resistance. Critchley seems to suspect that a dark period of economic depression is just the moment for us to admit our weakness—when we are more acutely aware of how little most of us in the liberal capitalist machine have to lose. The challenge is to avoid numbing ourselves with optimistic employment forecasts or dreams of heaven, but rather to let our agony drive us to political imagination. 
This is the crux of the difference between Critchley’s radical faithless faith and Botton’s bourgeois secularism. Botton has imagined religion as little more than a coping mechanism for the “terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability,” seemingly unaware that the pain and vulnerability may intensify many times over. It won’t be enough to simply to sublimate our terror in confessional restaurants and atheist temples. The recognition of finitude, the weight of our nothingness, can hollow us into a different kind of self: one without illusions or reputations or private property, one with nothing but radical openness to others. Only then can there be the possibility of meaning, of politics, of hope.