Sunday, July 13, 2008

Donahue, Censorship, and Hate Speech

There are two statements that the head of the Catholic League has made with respect to the Case of the Communion Cracker that deserve special mention, because they bring up special moral considerations.

[Note: Previous posts covering other aspects of this issue can be found in the Case of the Communion Wafer Part I: Theft, Part II: PZ Myers, and Part III: Bill Donahue]


In the first press release that the Catholic League sent out on this issue, , Minnesota Prof Pledges to Desecrate Eucharist Bill Donahue said:

Because the university is a state institution, we are also contacting the Minnesota legislature.

In what follows it is necessary to remember that this blog is concerned with morality, not matters of law. If one wants to know what the law does or does not allow, consult a lawyer. This blog is concerned with ethics.

On the matter of free speech, one principle that I have defended a number of times is that the right to freedom of speech does not imply a right to immunity from criticism. In fact, it implies no immunity from criticism. Criticism is a form of speech, so naturally if there is a right to freedom of speech it must include the right to a freedom to criticize.

PZ Myers has a right to freedom of speech. This includes a right to communicate the proposition that the consecrated communion cracker is still just “a frackin’ cracker”. This includes the right to treat any cracker that comes into his rightful possession as a cracker, and to do with that cracker whatever he may rightfully do with any other cracker.

This right to freedom of speech does not grant Myers a right to immunity from criticism. It is still perfectly legitimate to use words and private actions in order to condemn Mr. Myers if he should perform such an act. In fact, the right to freedom of speech implies that it would be wrong to prohibit others from criticizing Myers for those actions, since criticism is speech.

The question of whether people have a right to criticize Myers through words and private action is a different question from the question of whether he would deserve criticism if he were to perform such actions.

However, the primary distinguishing characteristic of the state is its monopoly on violence. The right to freedom of speech implies a right to immunity from violence. Bringing the threat of government violence against people is one way of reacting to another person’s words with violence. Whenever anybody summons ‘the state’ to stand on their side they are summoning the ultimate instrument of violence.

Summoning the state to stand on one’s side is the very definition of censorship.

The charge of ‘censorship’ tends to be used too liberally. People often use the accusation as a way of deflecting blame and silencing criticism. For example, if a person makes a racist remark and becomes the subject of a stream of condemnation and adverse private actions as a result, he is likely to scream ‘censorship’ at those critics and assert his right to freedom of speech. However, as I said above, the right to freedom of speech is not immunity from criticism or private actions. Using the concept of ‘censorship’ in this way counts as an abuse of the term – a rhetorical ploy used to try to trick critics into silence.

However, the charge of ‘censorship’ is used legitimately whenever it is used against people who try to summon the power of the state to silence an opinion. Here, the word does apply.

Since Donahue has threatened to summon the state to his side to silence those he disagrees with, the accusation of ‘censorship’ would be perfectly legitimate in this case.

Hate Speech

I have written a couple of posts about hate speech. Hate speech, I have said, involves making unfounded moral accusations against a group of people as an expression of one’s own unjustified hatred and/or as a way of promoting hatred in others.

This leads to the second statement that Donahue made that I would like to look at. This occurred in the second press release, “Hysteria Marks Myers and His Ilk”

It contains the following statement:

As a result of the hysteria that Myers’ ilk have promoted, at least one public official is taking it seriously. Thomas E. Foley is chairman of Virginia’s First Congressional District Republican Committee, a delegate to the Republican National Convention and one of two Republican at large nominees for Virginia’s Electoral College. His concern is for the safety of Catholics attending this year’s Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Myers’ backyard. Accordingly, Foley has asked the top GOP brass to provide additional security while in the Twin Cities so that Catholics can worship without fear of violence. Given the vitriol we have experienced for simply exercising our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, we support Foley’s request.

Earlier, I said that “hate speech” was speech that makes unfounded moral accusations against a group of people either as an expression of the hate of the speaker or to rouse sentiments of hate in the audience.

Donahue’s statements clearly qualify.

There is absolutely no evidence that Myers and his ‘ilk’ are interested in any sort of violence. At the very least, Donahue did not provide any.

In fact, in the very same press release, Donahue himself testifies to the lack of evidence of any threat of violence.

But he’d better be careful what he says, because if I get any death threats, it won’t be hard to connect the dots.

Apparently, Donahue had not gotten any death threats. Yet, in spite of this absence of evidence of a threat to violence, Donahue acted to paint Myers and ‘his ilk’ as people prone to violence – as people to be hated and feared because of a tendency to do harm that requires Donahue and his allies to seek additional security.

The hate-monger wants people to believe that the targets of their hate are a threat because the hate-monger feeds off of fear and hate. Donahue either believes this nonsense – which makes him a bigot in that he presumes the moral inferiority of whole groups. Or he does not believe this nonsense but is willing to use fear and hate to manipulate others for his own benefit.

Either way, it does not speak favorably to the matter of his own moral character.

If Donahue were a moral and just person, there are a couple of things that he would have done differently.

I find it interesting to note that Donahue runs an organization that he claims to be concerned with civil rights. Yet, Donahue shows absolutely no understanding about what civil rights are about. One of the things it is about is not using hatred and fear as a weapon to score political points.

Another thing that a person concerned with civil rights does not do is make gross overgeneralizations about whole groups.

In my own case, I will criticize a person only when I have evidence that the person has done something wrong. I will never make an accusation against Donahue and ‘his ilk’. This is because I am aware of the fact that Donahue’s ‘ilk’, just like Myers’ ‘ilk’, make up a diverse set of people who do not all share the same beliefs and moral failings. I condemn Donahue for Donahue’s words and actions, and worry about the ‘ilk’ only when I have evidence on which to make a judgment.

Donahue does not need evidence. Donahue is more than willing to make a pre-judgment of Myers’ ‘ilk’ – to judge them without evidence by making unfounded generalizations. This pre-judgment is the very essence of bigotry, and it is something that Donahue seems to have no problem with.


Donahue’s problem is that he does not have any type of moral theory that tells him what counts as a violation of a civil right and what does not. All he has are his own feelings. Since those feelings include Donahue’s hatreds, bigotries, and prejudices, we can easily see those sentiments coming out in his moral claims.

This is not a blanket charge. This is something that can be demonstrated.

We see Donahue’s call for censorship in his threat to appeal to the legislature to silence those who make claims he does not like.

We see Donahue’s disposition towards hate-mongering in branding Myers’ ‘ilk’ as prone to violence without any evidence but Donahue’s own desire to believe the worst in (certain) others.

We see Donahue’s prejudice in his disposition to pre-judge Myers’ ‘ilk’ – making gross generalizations that allows him to judge a whole group of individuals without any consideration of individual differences.

This from a person who heads an organization that is allegedly concerned with civil rights.

They should be acutely embarrassed.


Burt Likko said...

A marvelous post, and good job following up on this issue.

Naturally, freedom of speech does not involve freedom from criticism; indeed, he who invokes freedom of speech implicitly invites criticism.

Do you attach any significance to the fact that Myers is tenured? Were he to be fired, that would represent the University of Minnesota going back on a promise to not fire Myers for any reason. Tenure is offered to academics who distinguish themselves in their disciplines as an incentive for them to stay affiliated with a particular university, so it's not as though the university gets nothing out of keeping Myers employed.

And it is amusing that while we might debatably say that Myers' tongue-in-cheek "threat" to desecrate a communion wafer is hate speech, I have little doubt that you are right and Donohue's second press release -- implicitly accusing "Myers and his ilk" of violence when there has been absolutely no indication of any kind of violence from that quarter directed at anything other than a small piece of very stale and tasteless bread. Indeed, Myers has been on the receiving end of death threats. So if we're going to lump figureheads in with their followers, I would say Donohue can add "hypocrisy" to his list of moral offenses.

Ron in Houston said...

Donahue and I obviously must have read PZ's cracker post the same way.

I read it as PZ encouraging people to go into Catholic churches to get him consecrated bread.

To the extent that causes a scene or disrupts their services, it would be an act of violence. Maybe not physical violence but certainly a form of emotional/spiritual violence.

I think we all agree that there is what tort lawyers call, "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

There is a line where behavior becomes so unreasonable, so insensitive, that it needs to be discouraged.

I happen to think PZ crossed a line and needs to be discouraged.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

ron in houston

I would not go quite so far. As I argued in an earlier post, the 'emotional distress' aspect has a couple of qualifiers.

Somebody else's 'emotional distress' does not give him the right to control what I do with my property. Marrying somebody of the 'wrong religion' might cause a mother emotional distress - but it does not give her the right to select the marriage partner.

Also, the a person loses the right to claim "emotional distress" over any premise they use to influence votes on social policies that affect others. Catholics who try to defend votes on stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage, and the like on a set of premises that include transubstantiation cannot scream 'emotional distress' to keep others from challenging those premises.

I continue to hold that acquiring property through deception is theft (the species of theft known as fraud). The only legitimate way to acquire ownership of a consecrated communion wafer is through fully informed consent to transfer ownership, which is not likely to happen. The moral atheist will not steal. The moral atheist who receives property he has reason to suspect was stolen (which is the only reasonable assumption regarding consecrated communion wafers) will return that property to its rightful owner.

Sheldon said...

"Either way, it does not speak favorably to the matter of his own moral character."

If the label "religious nut" can be applied to anybody, it can be applied to Bill Donahue. Perhaps this exempts him from moral responsibility? I seriously suspect he is insane.

Ron in Houston said...


You've raised an interesting point. The reasonable man standard and the ethical standard are not necessarily compatible.

It's really a question of whether ethics exists in a vacuum outside of the cultural context of the ethics.

Wow. I'm pondering this one. I'll actually need to ponder it before I can respond.