Is it Human Nature to Murder People for Their Opinions?

Yesterday, May 12th, another blogger was murdered in Bangladesh:

The Bangladeshi humanist blogger and author Ananta Bijoy Das has been hacked to death in Sylhet by four masked men wielding machetes and cleavers. His murder is the fourth such attack in Bangladesh in the last three years and the third in as many months. Das had been working with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) to gain asylum in Europe; just last week a visa application was denied by Swedish authorities.

In 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death, while Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed several times and several bloggers were arrested. More recently, in February this year, Avijit Roy was also hacked to death while his wife Bonya Ahmed was severely injured. Then in March, Washiqur Rahman was also hacked to death. And today Ananta Bijoy Das has been killed in the same way.

Attacks previous to yesterday’s have been motivated by a desire to suppress the opinions of the bloggers on the grounds that their opinions “defame Islam”. Although no one has come forward yet to explain the motive behind the most recent attack, it’s a pretty good guess that its motive is the same as that of the previous attacks.

There is a tendency to see these and other similar violent assaults as more or less peculiar to Muslims, or at least, as peculiar to religious fanatics of one faith or another. But the tendency to blame religion strikes me as a misleading one.

Religion might all too often add fuel to the fire, but the fire is already burning even before religion inflames it higher.

We humans have a very long history of irrationally suppressing opinions we find offensive both through overtly violent and through other means. Apart from murder, we also employ such means as shouting down the speaker, hounding them, ostracizing them, insulting them, or threatening them with various other repercussions if they persist in expressing their views. Such behavior is ubiquitous, and when a behavior is ubiquitous, when it is found in all places and at all times through-out history, it must be suspected of being a human trait, rather than merely a cultural, social, or individual one.

The fact – if it is indeed a fact – that the suppression of offensive opinions is grounded in human nature does not mean that the suppression is morally or ethically justified.

Human biology is not the sum of human destiny. We seem to be either unique or almost unique among animals in that we have brains capable of making decisions that run contrary to our instincts. Consequently, it cannot be truthfully said that, because suppressing opinions that offend us is human nature, doing so is either necessary or even inevitable. There is no escaping by that route the obligation to decide what is morally or ethically just.

The question thus comes down to what kinds of opinion, if any, can be morally or ethically suppressed?

Over a hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill provided what I regard as a sound answer to that question. The example he used to make his point involved the English corn merchants. They were the bankers of his day. The merchants were often reviled, especially by poor people. Poor people perceived that the merchants frequently manipulated the market to drive prices up, making corn unaffordable to many, and had much to say about the fact. In turn, the merchants took offense at the things said about them, and sought to have such speech criminalized. Mill came to the defense of free speech by arguing that no one had a right to suppress opinions on the mere basis that such opinions were offensive to them, for to be offended was not to suffer actual harm. Only if someone’s speech was an incitement to do actual harm to someone could it be morally suppressed.

I follow Mill in believing that offense is not a basis for suppressing someone’s opinions. However, the obvious counter to that position is to argue that offense is actually harmful to the offended party. And that is what the American philosopher Joel Feinberg did in the 1980’s.

Feinberg argued that a person’s opinions can cause embarrassment, shame, fear, revulsion, shock, and so forth, in other people, and that those feelings can amount to actual harm done. He therefore urged that Mill’s “harm principle” be replaced with his “offense principle”.

Feinberg’s illiberal views seem to have been picked up on mostly by the radical Left. So far as I’ve heard, on many college campuses today, the notion that opinions which cause someone offense are actually injurious to them has largely prevailed over Mill’s harm principle. And this appears to have led to all sorts of notably stupid situations. For instance, Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine:

Last March at University of ¬California–Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.

Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.”

By the prevailing standards of the American criminal-justice system, Miller-Young had engaged in vandalism, battery, and robbery. By the logic of the p.c. [political correctness] movement, she was the victim of a trigger and had acted in the righteous cause of social justice. Her colleagues across the country wrote letters to the sentencing judge pleading for leniency. Jennifer Morgan, an NYU professor, blamed the anti-¬abortion protesters for instigating the confrontation through their exercise of free speech. “Miller-Young’s actions should be mitigated both by her history as an educator as well as by her conviction that the [anti-abortion] images were an assault on her students,” Morgan wrote. Again, the mere expression of opposing ideas, in the form of a poster, is presented as a threatening act.

The notion that mere images of aborted fetuses can rise to the level of “an assault” that might be justifiably defended against to even by means of vandalism, battery, and robbery is, of course, a dangerous idea. But the notion is also a logical deduction from Feinberg’s offense principle.

Once you grant that anything which offends a person does actual harm to that person, that person is logically justified to take action to prevent themselves from coming to harm. And the greater the potential harm, the more extreme the legitimate range of actions they can take. If your opinion on some matter, however trivial it might be to you, can cause me severe, lasting and permanent damage, then what prevents me from being morally justified when I resort even to violence in order to prevent that damage? What matter vandalism, battery, and robbery when done in “necessary” self-defense? Or if I feel sufficiently harmed, why should I not recruit three of my friends with whom to hack at you with machetes?

Although my example here has been an example of an assault on free speech from the American Left, such assaults are by no means confined to any one ideology, movement, or politics.

The dangerous idea that we have a right to suppress opinions or ideas that offend us is a notion that is very likely to always be with us in one form or another, for it seems to be rooted in human nature itself, rather than more simply rooted in a particular religion, ideology, or society.

And that can be a scary thought, for the implication here is that all the world’s social or ideological progress might be little more than a veneer, and that a future age of illiberal barbarism is perhaps just as much a possibility as a future age of enlightened civilization. We will always have within us the genes for that barbaric age.

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