Is Nothing Sacred?
The L. A. Dodgers have foolishly breathed new life into the blasphemy question.
Near the end of Assassins of the Mind, Christopher Hitchens states that nothing is sacred:
In the hot days immediately after the fatwa, with Salman [Rushdie] himself on the run and the TV screens filled with images of burning books and writhing mustaches, I was stopped by a female Muslim interviewer and her camera crew and asked an ancient question: “Is nothing sacred?” I can’t remember quite what I answered then, but I know what I would say now. “No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn’t be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one. Thus, the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well.”
Hitchens makes four claims in this passage. The first is that nothing is sacred. This ontological claim is followed by an epistemological one: if there were some sacred object, we would not be able to identify it as such. The third claim, signaled by 'thus,' appears to be an inference from the first two: free expression is the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification. If it is an inference it is obviously a non sequitur. For if nothing is sacred, then neither is free expression, and adding the epistemological point does nothing to validate the inference. The fourth claim is that all rights depend on the absolute right of free speech.
One obvious problem with Hitchens' view is the one I just alluded to: it refutes itself. If nothing is sacred, then nothing should be upheld at all costs and without qualification. If nothing is sacred, then nothing is worthy of unconditional respect. And that of course includes the right to free expression. For Hitchens, however, free expression is an absolute value, one subject to no restriction or limitation. It is thus a secular substitute for a religious object. A consistent secularism ought to eschew all absolutes, not just the religious ones. If nothing is venerable or worthy of reverence, then surely free expression isn't either. If nothing is sacred, then neither human beings nor their autonomy are sacred.
In any case, is it not preposterous to maintain that there is an absolute right to free expression? No one has the right to spout obvious falsehoods that could be expected to incite violence. Free expression is a high value and so is social order. These competing values show that free expression cannot be an absolute value.
Hitchens claims that we cannot know which religious objects are truly sacred. He may well be right about that. But then how does he know that free expression among all other values has absolute status and trumping power?
Finally, since there cannot be an absolute right to free expression, all other rights cannot depend on this supposedly absolute right. But even if there were this absolute right, how would the right to life, say, depend on it?
I think it would be better for Hitchens and Co. to make a clean sweep: if there are no transcendent absolutes such as God, then there are no immanent ones either. Free expression is just another value among values, in competition with some of these other values and limited by them.