Tolerating the Intolerable

David Foster

February 1, 2006

The judicious (and awesomely prolific) Joseph Knippenberg wondered what my reaction might be to this piece by William Rees-Mogg, which uses John Locke, the seventeenth century English philosopher, to help us think about those cartoons of Muhammad that have prompted boycotts, flag-burnings, riots, arson, death threats, and deaths in various quarters of the Islamic world.

This is complicated, and before I offer a few preliminary thoughts on the question, let me say that the most infamous cartoon, which I have not been able to see myself, is reported to have shown the prophet with a bomb in place of a turban. To the average Westerner, this suggests that the founder of Islam and Islam itself fosters violence. Now, this is a suggestion that might seem to be confirmed by the violent (and almost certainly well-orchestrated) protests against the cartoons and violent attacks on various elements of the Danish State. I understand that some Muslim clergymen bravely waded into the crowd as it furiously torched the Danish embassy in Beirut and tried to calm it down, so it behooves us not to tar every Muslim with the same brush. Still, the issue we are dealing with is violence in the name of Islam; and the current violence suggests that there is some truth in the basic message of the cartoon. But—and I’ll return to this below—the message that Islam leads to violence is not what the violent protest is about.

Back now to Rees-Mogg’s column. Most of it is a reasonably good summary of some arguments from Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration.” At the beginning of the column, however, Rees-Mogg states that Locke “would never have defended those offensive cartoons,” and he ends with the statement that “Locke would not have believed in insulting publications or in violent response.” Locke was indeed against “violent response,” especially to speech about religion, but there is a whiff here of the idea that the cartoonist and publisher are as much to blame as the violent man. Rees-Mogg probably did not intend that, but let’s be clear that whatever Locke might have to say about “offensive” cartoons he surely would never treat them as the equivalent of “violent response.” To put it a little more adequately, for Locke, killing someone or burning down an embassy is always much worse than insulting him.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is almost a summary of Locke’s view. That view stems from the idea that the state has a monopoly on the use of force (except in the one case where your life is threatened and there is no time to appeal to the state), that the state should treat all religions as equal, and that it should treat every religious group just as it treats any other legal group. To update one of Locke’s examples, a given church or religion is to be treated by the state exactly as the state would treat a bowling league or a scrapbooking club. However insulted the scrapbooker might feel about being treated as the equal of a bowler, she has no right to react violently against the state or against the bowler.

Having said that, I concede Rees-Mogg’s point that Locke would have citizens address one another in a civil manner. Indeed, Locke goes beyond mere politeness, suggesting that in conversing with one another we ought to strain to avoid giving offense. And it is apparently this injunction to civility that led Rees-Mogg to conclude that Locke would not approve the publication of cartoons that someone might find offensive. I’m inclined to agree, but I think that Locke would immediately and equally strongly insist that one ought to be slow to take offense. Actually, that is not strong enough. As I’ve already suggested, however impolite or impolitic it might be to insult someone, there is no excuse for threatening to kill him (or actually killing him) for something he says or depicts on paper. Rees-Mogg is not wrong in noting Locke’s exhortation to civility, but he changes the meaning of that exhortation by not seeming to recognize the mutual obligations involved in Locke’s idea of civilized behavior or the important difference in rank of the various deviations from it.

Another problem with Rees-Mogg’s appeal to Locke (and here I skip over the whole sphere of arguments having to do with freedom of speech, which are not directly derived from Locke’s argument for toleration) is that the riots and deaths are occurring so far in other countries: Lebanese, Indonesians, and others are rioting in their own countries against something that happened in Denmark. Locke’s argument for toleration does not address this international element of the issue (except to say that you cannot be a good citizen of one country if your primary loyalty is to a leader—say, the Pope or the Caliph—in another country). The kind of speech he was calling for presupposed a decent liberal polity of a certain kind, a polity which supplied the preconditions for civil speech. I suspect he would say that one cannot simply apply the standards used inside such decent countries to determine what relations should be between those decent countries and others with very different standards of behavior. Nevertheless, what we have here is an attempt by people in Lebanon and elsewhere to use violence or threats of violence to change the domestic life of people in Denmark. The Danes must ask themselves whether they want to change the character of their lives in response to such threats. One suspects that if they do, they will not be acting as Lockean liberals, motivated by a generous or charitable civility to their fellow human beings, but out of fear. It is wonderful to have Lockean support for civility, but nowadays the call for civility is too often the mask worn by cowardice.

This brings me to another problem and the point I anticipated in my second paragraph. The people rioting, ostensibly in the name of Islam, to protest the cartoons are not taking offense at the idea that Islam favors violence. On the contrary, they proudly proclaim that Islam requires the death of certain people. A sign at one of the riots said something like this: “Denmark must be slaughtered.” No, what the rioters profess to be offended by is the mere depiction of Muhammad. In principle they would be equally offended by a beautiful Rafael painting of Muhammad releasing a dove of peace. These rioters are iconoclasts in the precise sense of the word. And whatever theological considerations might justify their view, from the Lockean perspective, they are insisting that you accept their theological position or, to the best of their ability, they will kill you.

Now, that insistence—act and speak as if you believe what I believe or I’ll kill you—would never have been accepted by Locke. In fact, it is precisely that demand that Locke identifies as the problem of religion in his day; it is the very problem his doctrine of toleration is meant to solve. As Rees-Mogg notes, Locke’s argument for toleration rests on the premise that it is “the nature of the understanding that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.” In the cartoon case, we are being asked, under the threat of violence, not to depict the prophet; that is, we are being asked to treat him as if we accepted the theological beliefs that lead to the doctrine that such depictions are blasphemous. It may be that the creator and publisher of an offensive cartoon uncivilly insult others, but those who react with violence to that insult implicitly reject the fundamental premise of Locke’s argument for toleration, because they are acting as if they could get belief through “outward force”; which amounts to the same thing, they want to punish wrong belief by outward force.

According to Locke, the man who makes the demand we are considering is telling you what religion you must adopt and is in effect trying to rule you. On my reading of Locke, that is not grounds for civility but manly vigilance, firmness, and action.

David Foster is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate professor of political science at Ashland University.