Free Speech, Precious Snowflakes, and Religious Experience


We do not blame such an one, when he tries for himself to advance as far as he can with the help of such principles of explanation as he knows, interpreting “aesthetics” in terms of sensuous pleasure, and “religion” as a function of the gregarious instinct and social standards, or as something more primitive still. But the artist, who for his part has an intimate personal knowledge of the distinctive element in the aesthetic experience, will decline his theories with thanks, and the religious man will reject them even more uncompromisingly. – Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy

by Matt Sheedy

In a New York Times op-ed this past Monday entitled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” comparative literature professor Ulrich Baer weighed in on current controversies surrounding the rhetoric of free speech in the U.S., where recent confrontations at the universities of Berkeley, Auburn, and Middlebury College have seen protests (and some violence) over the invitation of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and alt-right poster-boy Richard Spencer. Berkeley also cancelled a talk last week by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, prompting comedian and popular atheist Bill Maher to quip:

Berkeley used to be the cradle of free speech, and now it’s just the cradle for fucking babies.

For Baer, characterizing the students who fought to prohibit these figures from speaking at their campuses as overly sensitive “snowflakes” (a term that has become increasingly popular among the alt-right to deride anyone concerned with things like safe spaces, trigger warnings, gender pronouns, and micro-aggressions), “fail[s] to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ‘90s, to legitimate experience—especially traumatic experience—which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible.”

Adding some theoretical teeth to his argument, Baer draws on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s distinction between argument and experience in The Post-Modern Conditionwhere he challenges the idea that freedom of expression is the space from which “truth” emerges in public debate, and argues for a shift in focus toward the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” In this case “experience” is not some inaccessible realm of feeling (as with Otto’s idea of the holy quoted above), but rather a perspective that is under-represented and thus not well understood (e.g., transgender experiences).

Baer goes on to problematize the idea that unfettered free speech is a public good, citing the following concerns:

  • A university’s main goal is to produce and promote research, not incendiary views that can easily be found elsewhere, especially not those that “invalidate the humanity of some people,” which, he argues, ultimately functions to “restrict speech as a public.”
  • If free expression is meant to serve a general common good, “the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.”
  • Free speech is contingent upon the ability of all members of a community being able to participate “as fully recognized members of that community.”
  • The liberal defense of “an absolute notion of free speech” fails to see that minority rights, “both legal and cultural,” are under attack and that the endorsement by universities of various public figures like Yiannopoulos, Murray, Spencer, and Coulter functions to “discredit and delegitimize whole groups as less worthy of participation in the public exchange of ideas.”

I found Baer’s argument convincing and of particular interest for my own research on the rhetoric of free speech in relation to religion (and Islam in particular) within the Euro-West, and how it functions to maintain secular liberal ideology and a Protestant-centered view of religion, which Winnifred Fallers Sullivan describes “as being private, voluntary, individual, textual, and believed.” (8) This view, among other things, circumscribes “religion” as a belief in scriptural injunctions and as a private choice largely disconnected from other aspects of a person’s identity (e.g., culture, politics, economics, etc.), which has enabled Bill Maher and others, for example to reject the charge of Islamophobia by claiming they are merely critiquing “bad ideas.”

Leaving these questions aside, what piques my interest in this article is what I take to be a rather instructive example of the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion and the rhetoric of religious experience.

Returning to the quote from Rudolph Otto that opens this post, we often find ourselves in a similar conundrum within the study of religion when it comes to fairly and accurately  representing the “experiences” of those who are deemed to be religious. For Otto, and those who endorse his ideas, one can only understand “religious experience” as an insider, whereas the second order explanations such as “sensuous pleasure” or “instinct” offered by non-religious outsiders are rejected tout court. One problem with Otto’s argument, as Russell McCutcheon points out in his introduction to Religious Experience: A Reader, is that it requires the scholar to “share in the experiences of the people under study,” (11) which McCutcheon views both as a form of theological protectionism (i.e., one can’t know unless they’ve had a religious experience), as well as a failure to recognize that there is

no direct experience of a real world, without the application of a prior, constructed map that not only exists at a distance from that which it eventually represents but, more importantly perhaps, whose use actually transforms the generic, chaotic, and thus unknowable limitless background … into a delimited and thus manageable domain that can be conceptualized and only then experienced and known … (15).

As I understand him, McCutcheon is suggesting that the rhetoric of religious experience often prevents us from analyzing the worldly (that is, psychological, cognitive, socially constructed, etc.) maps (or ideological frameworks) that condition what many claim to be an unmediated experience.

Here I’d like to suggest a parallel between the concerns that Baer and McCutcheon raise in light of Lyotard’s emphasis on the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” In both cases, they seem to be pointing toward the concept of interpolation, which focuses on how subjects (and their experiences) are always asymmetrical and thus shaped in relation to where they sit in the social pecking order rather than starting from some abstract universal position (be it political or theoretical) that one must either assimilate to or experience for themselves. To put it differently, one may never be able to put themselves in the other’s shoes, but they can recognize how structures of power condition us differently in order to better understand how experience is a relational process, uneven and always shifting.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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