We may prate of toleration: Saint Joan and the Inquisition.

I’m pretty wishy-washy. I’ve changed my mind often enough that I no longer delude myself about the permanency of my opinions. Much of what I now believe I might well have second thoughts about tomorrow, or next year, or on my deathbed.

The one opinion I would regard as impregnable – the one that, for all my wishy-washiness, I doubt I’ll ever renounce – is that society and the law ought to permit the widest possible scope for freedom of thought. That the Overton Window ought to be thrown open to its maximal extent, and that those visionaries and lunatics who insist on considering possibilities beyond its frame ought to be left free to preach their aberrant ideas. That however troubling or even dangerous those ideas may be, the petty tyrants who stir up mobs to persecute deviant thinkers are much more to be despised.

I have at least the normal human complement of cowardice and muddleheadedness, but I do try and apply these principles consistently. To take a couple recent examples from the archives of Spectator columnist Dominic Green, I agree with him that the British far-right ex-thug Tommy Robinson ought to be free to speak to any audience willing to listen, but disagree that a Boston College “queer theorist” ought to be smeared as a pedophile based on his turgid ruminations on Henry James and “the erotic child”. [1]

I don’t dispute that Robinson’s and the professor’s ideas are potentially harmful. In my view the benefit of being free to consider those ideas – all ideas – outweighs the real risk of harm. I would believe this even if I hadn’t noticed that the people we appoint to police our dangerous ideas eventually and unfailingly end up policing our songs, jokes, and poems.

However: in the spirit of wishy-washiness, which is also the spirit of engaging with uncomfortable ideas, let me consider the possibility that my one impregnable opinion is dangerous, and ought to be suppressed.

***

One of the problems I’ve been grappling with over the last few years, during the rise of what I’ll non-judgementally call Social Justice ideology, is at what point a person of conservative temperament is obliged to defer to the incoming set of taboos.

(When I speak of a “conservative temperament” I’m referring not to a set of political opinions, but to an outlook we might call Burkean, or Chestertonian: an attitude of modest deference to long-established traditions, on the grounds that, however silly they might appear, they must have some social utility in order to have been adopted in the first place, and passed down through the generations.)

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

This is quite apart from the question of whether it’s physically safe for me to violate those taboos: I would obviously prefer, in accordance with my belief in maximal toleration, that believers of whatever faith deal gently with taboo-breakers, non-violently ejecting them from the holy precincts but otherwise ignoring their provocations. But I’m not concerned here about the responsibilities of believers: I’m about as likely to embrace Social Justice as I am to convert to Hinduism. The question I’m asking is, how much deference do I, as a resident non-believer, owe to the majority religious community? – particularly when it’s not clear whether that community is in the majority, or whether it’s a religion at all?

***

It was with the above questions in mind that I found myself reading George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play Saint Joan, which depicts the brief military career, trial for heresy, and posthumous rehabilitation of Joan of Arc.

As Shaw explains in the Preface, the play was written to correct the audience-flattering mythologies that had gained currency in the intervening centuries – namely, that Joan had been done in by a conspiracy of villainous and superstitious buffoons of the type that we, in our sophistication, would see through today. In Shaw’s view, the Inquisition was no more inhumane in stamping out Medieval blasphemies than an English court would be in stamping out their 20th Century equivalents. Shaw shows the prosecutors extending every opportunity for Joan to save herself by denying that the voices which had guided her were divinely inspired; which she finally does, to their relief. But when she discovers that this petty lie won’t gain her her freedom, merely save her from the bonfire, she recants her recantation, and chooses martyrdom.

As Shaw tells it, Joan was tried fairly, and found guilty “strictly according to law”. Her prosecutors, however we might scoff at their certainty that the Catholic church was alone capable of interpreting God’s will on earth, were correct enough in their estimation of where heresies such as Joan’s might lead: first to Protestantism – the dissolution of Western Christendom into a jumble of warring sects – and then to Nationalism – the collapse of the feudal political order – and the diminution of religion to a minor handmaiden of the state.

Before Joan’s trial begins, the Inquisitor gives a lengthy speech – two and a half pages of solid text, in my Penguin edition – imploring the members of the court to “cast out” both anger and pity, while bearing in mind the unseen consequences of their verdict:

God forbid that I should tell you to harden your hearts; for her punishment if we condemn her will be so cruel that we should forfeit our own hope of divine mercy were there one grain of malice against her in our hearts. But if you hate cruelty – and if any man here does not hate it I command him on his soul’s salvation to quit this holy court – I say, if you hate cruelty, remember that nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy.

Nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy: a sentiment that any modern Inquisitor, of whatever ideological stripe, could get behind. If a demagogue like Tommy Robinson is permitted to say mean things about Islam, it will lead to discrimination and violence against Muslims. If a professor is left free to muse about the ethics of sex with minors, it will lead to the sexual abuse of real-life children.

Of course, dire real-world outcomes can be imagined for any controversial opinion. A famous playwright helps sway a generation of idealistic intellectuals into sympathy with Stalinism and millions of unlucky Third Worlders wind up living under Communist regimes. A group of disaffected ex-leftists cobble a new political philosophy out of their reading of an esoteric classics professor and tens of thousands wind up dying in futile Middle Eastern wars. A minor YouTube celebrity, to annoy his girlfriend, uploads a video of her pet pug dog giving the Hitler salute and – well, who knows what genocidal consequences might follow?

Shaw writes in the Preface to Saint Joan:

We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime, in spite of the risk of mistaking sages for lunatics and saviors for blasphemers. We must persecute, even to the death; and all we can do to mitigate the danger of persecution is, first, to be very careful what we persecute, and second, to bear in mind that unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence.

This is the pragmatic argument for toleration: it’s not that we should leave people free to speak their own minds because it’s the right thing to do, but because if we clamp down too tight, the reaction may lead to anarchy and societal collapse.

But it’s no easy thing, calibrating the level of toleration; and reckless thinkers like me, smuggling our arguments for unfettered speech under the cover of “temperamental conservatism”, should be properly wary that we might, by sanctioning the miscalibration of the social machinery, accidentally bring about the end of civilization.

M.

1. The essay characterized as pedophilic by Dominic Green was subsequently extended by its author to book length: I attempted to read the section on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw but found it impenetrable.

Surprisingly, it seems I haven’t mentioned G.B. Shaw on this blog before. An anecdote I shared in 2010 about the farcical fact-finding mission of a “great Humanist” author to a Soviet work camp in the Arctic could have involved Shaw, who was similarly duped on his visit to the USSR; but that anecdote actually concerned Maxim Gorky. In my discussion last year of John Updike’s The Coup I lamented that “the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities” was increasingly neglected, and a couple months back I took issue with William Hazlitt’s attack on wishy-washy writers.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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