how do we know what we know is true,  politics

more reflections on free speech

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I’m still slowly reading a big book about 17th century arguments for and against religious tolerance. It is called John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture by John Marshall. I’m really not used to being stuck in the middle of one book for this long, but it seems like the kids are still always talking to me or climbing on me, and this book requires some concentration to be able to follow it. The book is worth reading though. I’m enjoying learning about the different arguments. I’m enjoying reflecting on it in light of questions about free speech.

Arguments for toleration often exist in response to specific arguments against toleration. Against toleration were those that said that the spreading of lies were worse than murder as they killed the soul. Against this were those who argued that all branches of Christianity are flawed, thus none could claim to be the complete truth and all must be tolerated. There were those who argued that Christianity itself had become too corrupted when it became the religion of empires and that only in its early primitive time had it been pure and also tolerant. There were also arguments that salvation depended on only believing a few general ideas rather than believing lots of specific doctrines, which of course allows for a greater degree of toleration.

To really understand the time we must remember that spiritual truth was a national matter. Some people saw heresy as every bit the threat to the spiritual wellbeing of the nation that false news has becomes a threat to democracy. The wellbeing of the country was at stake.

I hear echoes of these arguments (for and against toleration) in questions about newspapers and fake news. Trump would have us believe that the New York Times, CNN and other mainstream media sources are dangerous lies. Others (myself included) believe that it is Breitbart, Stormfront and Fox News and other right-wing news sources that are lying. Some people counter this with “all media lies” or that all contain a grain of truth or that since we can’t agree which are true we must tolerate all.

Others argue that any actions suggesting we do not tolerate and accept all news means that we descend into total censorship – another argument made in the 17th century, that if religious diversity was not tolerated they would be at risk of the inquisition.

The language of toleration isn’t quite applicable to the issue of fake-news since people would disagree on what not-tolerating means. Is trying to get companies to stop advertising on Breitbart an attempt at censorship? Is Trump shutting mainstream media sources out of press briefings censorship? I would argue that trying to stop companies from advertising is not censorship, since no company is obliged to advertise with any source, but that a President and administration should be held very accountable for decisions they make in who they allow to report on them, and that freedom of the press there is very important.

Then there were those who were against toleration because they believed it leads to disorder. Toleration of diverse religious believes would mean tolerating those who questioned the government or the ownership of private property. It would also mean tolerating those who refused to take oaths, meaning that their word could not be considered in courts. Countering this Philipp van Limborch argued that many of the groups persecuted were not nearly as bad as their foes had described them. Accusations of sexual misconduct was a separate problem from heresy, Limborch argued, and not all heretics engage in them, despite them being associated with heresy in the popular conception of the time.

I hear echoes of these ideas in the discussions of different groups whether they are Muslims or the alt-right. Is the group as a whole violent? Can either group be separated from their violent elements? Are actions to be condemned but the thoughts and beliefs that promote those actions to be tolerated? I would answer here that Muslims are a wide and diverse group of people who should not be held accountable for the violent elements. Yes, people on twitter are more than delighted to share the verses of violence and screen shots of violent ideas, but Christianity has equal skeletons in its closet. Islam as practiced in certain places promotes injustice and domination of women, but so too does Christianity. Just as Christianity can and has grown and changed to embrace women’s rights, in some circles, so too can and has Islam.

I think that the bad parts of the alt-right are inherent in the alt-right. Perhaps the alt-right has some legitimate concerns somewhere but if they changed to express only those legitimate concerns and not the bad they would not be the alt-right at all. I think their ideas do promote violence and thus should be challenged, no-platformed and rejected.

I’ve been hanging around on twitter quite a bit these days, trying to understand the points of view of those I disagree with. It has been fascinating to get the glimpses into the beliefs of people who honestly believe that we’re facing a life or death situation, where even non-binding motions like the Canadian motion 103 are portrayed as dangerous infringements on freedom of speech. The motion asks the House of Commons to denounce Islamophobia and then calls for a report to be done looking at what the government could do to challenge religious discrimination and to put religious discrimination in context by studying hate crimes too. People are arguing it introduces Sharia law by making it impossible to criticize Islam. There’s nothing in it that would dictate punishments for anything. It doesn’t alter the criminal code. It isn’t making anything criminal. It’s saying lets learn about the issue, and let’s say that Islamophobia is bad. I saw one person on twitter say they thought the shooting of six Muslim men in a mosque in Quebec was probably staged purposely to try to get motion 103 passed. I can’t understand at all how people could think that way, but people do. I can’t see Islam as this huge threat.

On the other hand, I can picture danger coming from the hate speech and the alt-right. There was the shooting in Canada.It haunts me how people described the shooter. The following is from the Globe and Mail.

“I can tell you he was certainly no Muslim convert. I wrote him off as a xenophobe. I didn’t even think of him as totally racist, but he was enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement,” Mr. Boissoneault said.


François Deschamps, an employment councillor who runs a refugee support Facebook page, said he immediately recognized Mr. Bissonnette’s photo. “He was someone who made frequent extreme comments in social media denigrating refugees and feminism. It wasn’t outright hate, rather part of this new nationalist conservative identity movement that is more intolerant than hateful.”


People try to dismiss that as just one crazy person, but how many crazy people constitute a problem? And more significantly, does the right-wing nationalistic stuff contribute to it? Does it create the problem? I think it does.

I keep editing this to add more. As soon as I ended it with “Does it create the problem? I think it does” I started to ask myself, even if it doesn’t create the violence, isn’t it still a problem? What if it just meant one group making the other group feel uncomfortable? One could look at the pyramid of different ways in which people end up systematically oppressing others and ask if it contributes to that. But hypothetically, what if everyone who believed those ideas kept perfectly quiet about their beliefs, and never causes any problems or let anyone know they believed it – would it still be wrong? Does truth matter?

Backing up a little from those questions of philosophy, I want to write about another idea brought up in the book I’m reading. The book mentions two different people’s way of trying to encourage good discussion. Here’s a quote:

Where Locke might be said to have stressed toleration through civility, charity among differing views, and silence, Bayle tended to stress the reasoned demolition of others’ argumnets leading to their inability to claim the right to impose their beliefs on others. (520)

There are those who say if you disagree with someone on facebook just move on, or rather to keep politics and religion out of facebook and polite society. There are others who say false ideas should not go unchallenged but should be sensibly challenged. The former would seem superficially to resemble Locke’s method of toleration, but I think it misses out on the fact that Locke urged people to constantly seek truth and to try to consult others and learn from them.


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