The New Blasphemy

David Benatar writes on the parallels between the new intolerance and the old

In contemporary liberal democracies most of us are astounded that blasphemy elicited severe sanctions in earlier times – and that it still does in some places. Yet our own societies are becoming equally intolerant, even though the new intolerance is different in two ways.

The first difference concerns the particular words that are not tolerated. In liberal democracies today, there are generally no sanctions attached either to “taking God’s name in vain” or to other religious blasphemy. (The exceptions are those violent religious fanatics attempting to impose their will on the liberal democracies in which they live. They are practitioners of old-style intolerance.)

The new intolerance is offence not against God but against some – but only some – categories of humans. What are not tolerated are words and ideas found offensive by self-appointed representatives of and spokespeople for “oppressed” groups.

The second difference is the severity of the sanctions attached to un-tolerated talk. In liberal democracies, people are not generally executed or imprisoned for falling foul of the new intolerance. The sanctions are typically being “cancelled” – ostracised, shunned, condemned, and being fired or forced to resign from one’s job, with the resultant impacts on one’s well-being. (Those cases in which people have indeed been killed, albeit not by the state, are vigilante executions by violent religious fanatics of those they take to be old-style blasphemers.)

Despite these differences, there are also some remarkable similarities between the old blasphemy and the new. Among these is a common magical thinking. For opponents of traditional blasphemy, emitting the sound of the divine name or making the scratchings that constitute its written form (in whatever language) amounts to blasphemy if those sounds or scratchings are not made in the sacred context – of prayer or religious texts, for example. In any other contexts, those same sounds and scratchings were thought to constitute blasphemy.

This was cleverly lampooned in Monty Python’s 1979 film, The Life of Brian. A man is to be stoned to death for uttering the name of God in vain. The condemned man protests, explaining:

“Look, I’d had a lovely supper and all I said to my wife was ‘That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.’”

This elicits the fury of the presiding official and the mob gathered to carry out the stoning. The official tells the condemned man not to say the word “Jehovah” again. With that, one person in the mob then throws a stone at the presiding official. The presiding official calls him out for this, and the stone thrower then justifies his action by saying:

“Well, you did say Jehovah.”

He is then stoned by the mob. The official attempts to regain control of the stoning by saying:

“Stop that. Stop it, will you stop that. Now look, no-one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle. Even … and I want to make this absolutely clear … even if they do say Jehovah.”

After a short pause, the official is then stoned to death.

The humour arises from the stoners’ inability to distinguish between what philosophers call the “use” of a word and its “mention.” One uses the word “Jehovah” or “God” if one utters it either in prayer or as a (blasphemous) exclamation – such as “God damn it!” A mention, however, is different from a use. If John says: “Do not stone him even if he does say ‘Jehovah’,” John is mentioning “Jehovah” but not using the word. In other words, there is a difference between saying:

1. “God damn it!” and saying

2.  “Don’t say ‘God damn it!’”

The word “God” is used in the first instance, but only mentioned in the second. (A complexity is that I am not using it in the first instance. When I refer, as I do here, to somebody saying it, they are using it, but I am merely mentioning it.)

Notice also that 2 is different from:

3. “Don’t say ‘G damn it!’” or

3*. “Don’t say ‘G-word damn it!’”

Neither 3 nor 3* are injunctions against saying “God damn it!”. Instead, they are respectively injunctions against saying “G damn it!” and “G-word damn it!”. Notice, finally, just how obscure this entire explanation would have become if I had eliminated the word “God” entirely – that is, if every reference to it had to be replaced with “G” or “G-word.”

Those who have succumbed to the new intolerance have the same magical thinking as those guilty of the old-style intolerance. They too cannot see the difference between the use of a word and its mention.

This is especially true when the word is a racial, ethnic or gender slur. They think that the mere vocalization of the sound or writing down of the letters is a moral offence, irrespective of whether those vocalizations or writings constitutes a use or a mention.

There have been numerous such cases. Among those most recently targeted by the magical thinkers are Donald G. McNeil Jnr, a (now former) New York Times journalist, and Professor Adam Habib, who has temporarily stood aside as Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). It remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to return to his position.

Both Mr McNeil and Professor Habib mentioned (in perfectly innocuous ways) what the press coyly refers to as the “N-word.” Mr McNeil was responding to a question from a student about whether a classmate “should have been suspended for using the N-word in a video from two years ago.” Seeking clarification before answering, he effectively asked, although not in these exact words, whether that classmate had actually used the word or merely mentioned it. In seeking this clarification, he uttered the offending sound.

Professor Habib had similarly responded to a student inquiry, this time about a SOAS staff member who had allegedly used the offending word. Professor Habib responded by saying that if the person used that word – which he mentioned – then it would violate SOAS policy and action would be taken.

(Notice how the chilling effect of intolerance has resulted in my own coy description of what Professor Habib said, because the difference between use and a meta-mention – a mention of a mention – is as incomprehensible to the intolerant “progressives” as is the distinction between “use” and “mention.”)

Worse than the mob’s inability to distinguish use from mention, is (much of) the media’s inability to understand such a distinction. Thus, both men were reported by, respectively, the New York Times and the Times Higher Education, to have used the offending word. This is unprofessional reporting because it is inaccurate. It also has massive and unwarranted repercussions for people’s reputations. Moreover, it is now routine for many media making such allegations not to include in their reports the precise words used and the contexts within which they were used (perhaps because that would raise the ire of the intolerant). Without the provision of those facts, readers are unable to make their own judgments about whether the person really did use the slur or only mentioned it in an innocent way.

There is further similarity between the old and the new intolerance. In the case of God’s name, some utterances – those in sacred contexts – are permissible. In the case of slurs, the current intolerance grants certain vocalizations and written expressions of slur words indemnity. These are vocalizations and written expressions of slurs – whether they are merely mentioned or even used – by members of those groups to which they are customarily directed.

I shall invoke that indemnity here to explain that there is a difference between:

1. calling somebody “Kike!” and:

2.  saying “Don’t call somebody ‘Kike’!”

The first is a use, while the second is a mention. (Again, it does not follow that I am using the word in the first case. The person who casts the slur is using it. I am referring to them using it.) The second is also different from saying:

3. “Don’t call somebody ‘the K-word’” and

4.  “Don’t call somebody ‘K**e’.”

When one utters 2, one is enjoining somebody from calling someone else “Kike,” whereas 3 and 4 could be read as enjoining somebody from, respectively, saying “K-word” or writing “K**e.” (Who can actually say or read the word “K**e” aloud?) Similarly, if somebody were called a “Kike,” it might be inaccurate to say that they had been called a “K-word.” (There is, after all, more than one K-word.)

Those who think it is accurate, face a different problem. If “Kike” and either “K-word” or “K**e” are interchangeable, then one has not, in fact, avoided mentioning “Kike” by means of either of its substitutes. This could open the way to a further intolerance – intolerance for the more oblique references to slurs. References to slurs, much like the tetragrammaton, would then become ineffable.

The inability to see these differences and then to persecute people as a result of one’s inability, is a form of madness – and dangerous madness at that. While the stoning culture is worse than the cancel culture, both are dangerous departures from reason.