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Words Can Kill

By Adam Wagner

Speech is dangerous. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

Words can be offensive, painful and harmful. Insults have started wars, ruthless orders have murdered millions.

So why has the right to freedom of speech been central to every successful democracy? Because free speech is the vehicle for ideas. Without the free exchange of ideas there can be no science, there would have been no enlightenment, we would still be in the dark ages.

Ideas are the basic currency of all human societies. The ability to speak, write and now input data is how we advance and what separates us from, and places us above, every other species on Earth.

But the clash of ideas is not for the faint-hearted. That’s why totalitarian regimes shut off free speech immediately. Entire power structures can disintegrate if their underlying axioms are undermined.

Just ask Galileo Galilei, who propagated the literally revolutionary idea that the Earth orbits the Sun. The Roman Catholic Inquisition put him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

But without the Copernican revolution, named after another scientist, we probably wouldn’t have modern science. We certainly wouldn’t have space travel. Without Darwin’s theory of evolution, we wouldn’t know who we really were as a species.

After millennia of painful setbacks and stuttering progress, we now understood that without the free flow of ideas, and the ability to dispute and argue, our societies become clogged up like a heart supplied by a sclerotic artery. We know enough about ourselves to see how prone we are to blocking and even killing inconvenient truths. That’s why freedom of speech is fiercely protected by every system of rights.

Religion has a complex relationship with free speech. Some religions, at times, have flourished by aligning themselves to scientific and philosophical progress. No major religion is an island, and to survive not just decades but centuries, a religion has to adapt to the progress of societies which host it.

But some ideas have been so dangerous to religious dogma that they have caused people to be ex-communicated or even killed.

And so it continues today. The more fundamentalist a religious community, the more it will try to choke off the free exchange of ideas. That’s why Charedi schools are in trouble with Ofsted for redacting large sections of text books and using religious studies lessons to instruct on science. In a conceptual system founded on the absolute truth of an Iron Age text, modern science is a major threat.

And yet the word of God created the universe – and disputation (without carefully maintained boundaries) is at the heart of Talmudic discourse. It’s complicated.

In the Orthodox community, even Modern Orthodox, biblical criticism, the historical fact that the Bible was written by multiple human authors over time instead of dictated by God to Moses – is mostly taboo.

But the Orthodox community has no monopoly on censorship. Over Israel, much of the Jewish community traffics in the unmentionable. That is why the ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ protest was so controversial. Around 50 mostly young Jews said kaddish, the memorial prayer, for 62 Palestinians who were shot dead by Israeli soldiers on a single day.

The torrent of personal abuse that followed it was a signal of how important the debate over Israel-Palestine is, and how we must maintain an open channel for respectful debate and disagreement.

Speech hurts. Ideas matter. Sometimes things need to be said. Attacking the messenger has always been common but it has never been right.

Adam Wagner is a barrister, and founder of the human rights website

Posted on 23 August 2018

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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