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stonetabletI am a fundamentalist.

No, this isn’t one of those glib non-confessional confessions ( “If loving my country too much is a crime, then I’m guilty as sin!”). I think fundamentalism, even in the name of something good, is a bad thing.

Fundamentalism is best described as the uncompromising adherence to a set of basic principles. Adhering to principles isn’t the sticking point. It’s the uncompromising part that presents the problem — the unwillingness to allow any other concerns into the discussion lest they distract from a laserlike focus on your guiding light.

My particular fundamentalism is free expression. I’ve become convinced that it is an essential good to be protected at all costs. Some people take this as a license to act badly, and I wish they wouldn’t, but their lack of judgment shouldn’t trammel this good and glorious thing, which in the end, torpedoes be damned, leads to a better future for everyone.

If you doubt that this is a kind of fundamentalism, read that paragraph again, changing “free expression” to “Christianity” or “Islam” or “the love of my country.” First principles are fine, but nothing should ever get exclusive control over our decisionmaking.

Free expression has defined a large portion of my adult life. My college teaching career was ended as a direct result of a free expression issue. As a result of this and other experiences, I tend to see free speech issues in fairly black-and-white terms.

It was my free-expression fundamentalism that led me last week to support Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. I looked at the issue, checked my free-speech compass, and BOOM, knew what was right.

But critics of EDMD have cited several concerns that they say should have shared the stage with free speech issues in this case, among them:

– That the existing atmosphere of general hostility toward Muslims is only exacerbated by the event;
– That the event represents a powerful majority attacking a less powerful minority;
– That moderate Muslims are unfairly attacked along with the extremists, increasing distance at precisely the time we need to be decreasing it;
– That “diluting the fatwa” is meaningful only in the abstract, and actually increases the chance of harm coming to those who most prominently depicted Muhammad;
– That many who participated took the opportunity to create intentionally obscene or demeaning images of Muhammad, and that this was inevitable;
– and more.

Not all of the arguments are equally good, and some are irrelevant (including at least one of those above, in my humble). The canard that the event represented “offense for the sake of offense” is the weakest of all, an assertion that really means, “I haven’t taken the time to figure out your point, so I’ll declare it nonexistent.” I think just about any argument that includes the avoidance of “offense” as its driving principle is hollow and misguided. Finally, I am still troubled by the assertion that those who participated out of ignorant or hateful motives irreparably taint those who did not.

But I’m also becoming more pragmatic in my dotage, and outcomes matter as much to me as abstract principles. (Those who have never thrown your entire family under the wheels of your principles may not know where I’m coming from, and that’s okay. My 30-year-old self agrees with you.)

In addition to some thoughtful opinion pieces, several people have offered convincing analogies. “There are campaigns to remove Mark Twain’s books from school libraries [because of the use of the word ‘nigger’],” said FB friend Bruce Ayati. “Would a campaign to use that racial slur, only to prove you can, be the right thing to do?” Not bad.

“Given the position of atheists in this country,” he continued, “it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening to us, where an Angry Atheist somewhere does something terrible, and we are all subjected to undeserved hostility in the name of ‘standing up’ to us and the supposed threat we pose to this country.”

Damn, that’s a good one. Damn.

The best of these and other arguments, offered by smart and articulate people, slapped me out of my hypnotic free-expression trance long enough to first confuse the issue for me, then to lead me to a change of mind. I’m now of the opinion that EDMD was not the right thing to do, and will in the end have done more harm than good. I still defend the right to do it, of course, and especially support those who are working so hard to do it right.

Considered in glorious isolation, the free-expression question was always open and shut. But nothing in human life exists in isolation, and a more thorough consideration of the context has led me to change my position. Not with 100 percent certainty. Anyone who registers complete certainty in a case like this is hereby invited to have a very nice day indeed, and my you’re looking fit.

And as before, and as always, I may be wrong. Most important, I continue to offer my strong support to those who choose to participate. How can I not, with articulate and thoughtful supporters like this?

[Thanks as well to commenters nonplus and yinyang and my old friend Scott M. for their part in slapping me awake.]

Anyone else have a principle so beloved that it sometimes blinds you to other considerations?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.