Machan's Musings - Cultural Relativism and Freedom

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Submitted by removed on Fri, 2006-02-03 20:13

Machan's Musings - Cultural Relativism and Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

In one area, classical and modern liberals have tended to agree, namely,
that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, expression, speech, and
so forth. Both types of liberals have been supporters of the spirit and
letter of the US Constitution’s First Amendment (although modern liberals
have been known to cave in when it comes to the demands of political
correctness). At least when it comes to political ideas, both groups
champion the position that people may not be censored and otherwise
intruded upon in their beliefs and in their efforts to express these

Yes, there are problems with some of this. Can a modern liberal, who is
hostile to the principle of the right to private property, really stand up
to public pressure concerning various opinions? On public property—which
is what many modern liberals consider all property—can individuals retain
and practice the right to free expression? After all, suppose those
representing the public prohibit certain kinds of speech or artistic

Basically, those who do not respect private property rights cannot
consistently stand up for the right to freedom of expression. And this is
very evident just now, when all around the globe some Muslims are not just
peacefully but aggressively protesting the expression of views and images
critical of their religion. It hasn’t yet come full-blown to these shores
because much of America is private-owned—newspapers, magazines, film
companies, television stations and so forth do not belong within the
public sphere. But elsewhere it is evident that without respect for the
right to private property, freedom of speech is seriously jeopardized.

In some areas Muslims, who feel offended at cartoons printed in privately-
owned newspapers, have attacked the embassies of the countries in which
the papers are published. In particular the Danish have been under assault
en masse because some Danes have ridiculed and made fun of Islam.

Interestingly, many who vociferously defenders of the right to free
expression at home—people often associated with the ACLU—are silent about
the threats to and attacks upon free speech abroad. Why is there no outcry
about this from the usual sources?

It is quite possible that those who often speak out against censorship
and state intimidation of freedom of speech have been disarmed by a
relativism they also accept. Sure, when the Bush Administration is
suspected of violating freedom of speech—by means of secret wiretaps and
so forth—that’s roundly condemned. But what about what thousands of
Muslims are doing abroad just now, attacking people of whose ideas they
disapprove? Why are their targets not receiving vigorous support?

It may well be the influence of moral and political relativism that
accounts for this. The essence of such relativism is that what one ought
to do and what laws ought to govern varies from place to place, time to
time, country to country, culture to culture. For a relativist defending
free speech here in America it may be OK if people abroad are not free to
speak out. These are the same folks who hold that economic principles are
relative, as are many others—what is true for Americans is not true for
Iranians or Pakistanis or Cubans.

So, should a bunch of Americans protest certain Hollywood movies,
magazine articles, or newspaper cartoons by attempting to shut down the
forums which make room for these, that would be a bad thing. It would then
be justified to call in the American Civil Liberties Union—because this
would be an American issue. But if people abroad are attacking those with
whom they disagree, that may be difficult to complain about from a
relativist position.

When, several years ago, the novelist Salman Rushdie had a contract on his
life because his novel, Satanic Verses, offended Muslims, many did speak
up in his defense, recognizing that what is written or spoken does not
qualify as some kind of attack upon people. The old adage, “Sticks and
stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” still held back
then, in the minds of many Western intellectuals, pundits, and other

But now that multiculturalism and relativism are rampant among these same
folks, they have become silenced in the face of attacks upon free
expression. Yet this is wrong—men and women everywhere have the right to
free expression and those who want to violate and void that right need to
be vigilantly criticized and restrained.

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