Two days ago Pope Francis issued a clarification (which I would characterize more as a wishy-washy retraction) of his implicit endorsement of physical violence as an appropriate response to free speech that he made last week. I enthusiastically endorse the excellent analysis by Jacob Sullum (thanks to regular commenter Luke for pointing me to that link!) and I encourage everyone to go read it in its entirety.
I want to reiterate the nature of my disagreement with the pope: it is not about human nature. I agree, of course, that many humans instinctively want to respond to insults with violence. That is not the point.
My disagreement with the pope is two-fold. First, the pope strongly implied in his original remarks that the human instinct to respond to insults with violence is a fundamental fact of life to which we must (perhaps even should) simply resign ourselves. I disagree, and so does Jesus (hence my leveling a charge of hypocrisy against the pope). This aspect of human nature is not a feature, it's a bug, and the pope should have said so. He should have said, "Insults make us angry. We want to respond to anger with violence. I get that. But Jesus teaches that we should respond to anger not with violence but with compassion and forgiveness, because anger is usually a result of emotional pain. This is the thing that those who insult religion need to understand: their insults cause pain to their fellow human beings. And while they have the absolute right to say whatever they want, we all have a moral responsibility to temper our actions with compassion."
That's what the pope should have said. (And, Frankie, if you want to hire me as a PR consultant, I'm available.)
But the second aspect of my disagreement with the pope is that he singled out insults against religion for special treatment. The problem with offensive speech is that offense exists only in the mind of the offended. In the case of physical violence there is no disagreement about the harm: the life is lost, the bone is broken, the nose is bloodied. But offense is subjective, a matter of taste. I, for example, do not find the Charlie Hebdo cartoons at all offensive. In fact, I think they are well within the bounds of reasonable socio-political satire (unlike, for example, "The Innocence of Muslims" which I did think was offensive.) This raises the same unanswerable question that all matters of faith inevitably lead to: on what basis do decide who is right? Are Muslims "legitimately" offended or are they being hypersensitive pussies? (And, of course, if someone takes offense at my use of the (deliberately provocative) phrase "hypersensitive pussies" the same question applies recursively.)
Personally, in the Charlie Hebdo case I come down on the hypersensitive-pussy side. This idea that creating an image of the Prophet is a grievous sin is a relatively recent invention. Muslims used to create images of Mohammed themselves. But it doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong about that (there is no way to tell, that is the whole point). If we give in to the offense of Muslims, what about other people's offense? What about my offense? I am deeply offended by many things the pope says (like the garbage he continues to spew about homosexuality being sinful, women not being suitable for the priesthood, the unacceptability of birth control, yada yada yada). Should the pope stop saying those things because they offend me? Of course not. Why should Muslims be entitled to more consideration than anyone else?
The elephant in the room is that the actual answer to this question is: because there are a billion Muslims, and some of them riot in the streets and blow shit up when they get offended. But the correct response to terrorism is never to capitulate to the terrorists. That simply emboldens them. The correct response to terrorists, as it is to any bully, is to stand up to them, to say fuck you, no, you do not get special treatment simply because some of you are willing to violate the social contract.