Remarks on the Occasion of Harvard’s Reenactment of the Black Mass

Christopher Robichaud, Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government


Good Evening,

I would like to thank the organizers for allowing me an opportunity to speak about the role of religious liberty, free speech, and toleration in a well-functioning pluralistic democracy. This event has garnered a lot of attention, and with it, a lot of controversy. My interest in it is as a professional ethicist who, by working at a school of politics, is tasked with engaging the public precisely at moments like this, when an activity forces us to focus upon the content of our fundamental political values.

There are many ways that we can attend to the content of our political values, the easiest of which is at a gut level. We can hear about something that shocks our sensibilities, like Harvard holding a reenactment of a black mass, and immediately decide that we cannot endorse it and indeed may even need to oppose it.

And to oppose it, we can use a variety of rhetorical strategies that have proven effective in the public domain. We can call the activity hateful, label it as unproductive and disrespectful, maintain that railing against it is no different than opposing a neo-Nazi demonstration, and so forth. We can then pressure the university to keep the event from happening, petitioning it to shut things down, threatening to withhold donations, etc.

We can do all of that, and as I have witnessed this past week, that seems to be the way a few people in the Harvard community and elsewhere have chosen to go about it. Much of it is unfortunate. But not all of it, of course. When fellow citizens speak sincerely and passionately about how sad an event makes them, how hurtful it is to them, this is important to hear. Vocally articulating dissent is absolutely a healthy part of the democratic project, and demonstrates the messy but ultimately worthwhile business of learning to live with each other in a pluralistic society where people deeply disagree about fundamental matters.

But one thing that is worrying is if this whole process doesn’t include some critical reflection. As I see it, we have a responsibility to answer the Socratic mandate of being reflective citizens, of not simply articulating—loudly—our political values, waving them around with pride and pushing ahead with them with passion. Rather, we need to hold up our values to scrutiny and ask a very hard question: what, precisely, do these values require of me as a citizen.

The Satanic Temple, which will be performing today’s reenactment, has over the past year been very effective in forcing the public to ask this question. And I sincerely believe that in doing so, it is providing our Republic with a valuable service. Like Socrates, the Satanic Temple is quite successful in making us examine our convictions, often doing so in dramatic fashion. Suppose a community insists that the division between church and state is compatible with it erecting a monument of the Ten Commandments on state property. Fine, says the Satanic Temple. We will put a statue of Baphomet next to it. No, we can’t do that? Please tell us why not. Suppose an organization demands that free speech and religious freedom allow them to protest the funeral of Boston marathon victims. Fine, says the Satanic Temple. We will celebrate a “pink mass” making fun of that organization—mocking it. No? That’s not fair? Why? Suppose a university prides itself on its tolerance. Great, says the Satanic Temple. Then we would like to reenact the black mass. No? Tell us why not.

That’s the challenge. Right there. And however one comes down on answering that question, I think those who reject meeting that challenge—who walk away from it or downplay it or find every reason in the world why it’s not worth thinking about—I mean, really thinking about—I think those people are fundamentally the most dangerous among us. This flawed but ambitious democratic project that we are all engaged in cannot survive a majority of us walking away from such a challenge or thinking that we’ve met it with about five seconds worth of reflection. We must meet it. And we must meet it with intellectual integrity.

So with that said, let me advocate for the importance of the Harvard community to tolerate today’s activity and not greet the holding of this event with condemnation, as a few have chosen to do.

The idea that only religious activities that are inoffensive should have a legitimate place in the public arena is, to my mind, an untenable position. That’s because what is judged to be offensive is fundamentally a subjective matter, and prone to change. Today’s offensive activity can become tomorrow’s status quo. This has indeed often happened, especially in the realm of religious expression. In a pluralistic democracy that takes religious liberty seriously, the public’s tolerance of religious activities should not depend so crucially on the vicissitudes of public opinion. Religious liberty only for those who espouse the popular religious views of the day is really no liberty at all.

And tolerance that comes at no cost is no tolerance at all. I don’t tolerate eating ice cream. I tolerate trips to the dentist. Tolerance is a virtue directed precisely at things that make us uncomfortable, even morally uncomfortable. Masquerading as tolerant only to demand that nothing offensive ever comes your way reveals, I’m afraid to say, that you are anything but tolerant.

Tolerance demands a certain attitude toward offensive activities, one that I will come back to in a moment. And it is not boundless. Reasonably, we may be intolerant of certain things. Hate speech, for instance. But we must be very wary of letting dominant religions label as hate speech any activity that explicitly rejects them. That should be obvious.

All the same, to see this more clearly, we must distinguish merely offensive activities from hate speech. Hate speech targets marginalized groups and typically functions to silence them. As the philosopher Jeremy Waldron characterizes it, hate speech attacks the dignity of fellow citizens by challenging the idea that they are indeed fellow citizens. Hateful speech—another category of speech—celebrates violence and atrocity. Merely offensive speech does not celebrate violence or atrocity, and it does not target marginalized groups by challenging the legitimacy of their involvement in the democratic process.

Merely offensive speech is, by being offensive, harmful to some people. But, importantly, speech that’s offensive may not intentionally be so. We can foresee that a certain activity may offend but not intend that it do so, a distinction—that between foreseeing harm and intending it—that Catholic theologians and Catholic philosophers rest much of their moral thinking upon, typically by appealing to something called the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Clearly, all else remaining equal, we have a moral obligation to avoid offending people, even if we don’t intend to do so. But we do not have an absolute moral obligation not to offend people, and so must balance this obligation against other considerations. If I can’t exercise my deeply held religious beliefs, or express what I take to be an important truth, without offending you, then while I may have some obligation to “lesson the blow” to you, as it were, I have no obligation not to exercise my deeply held religious beliefs or express what I take to be an important truth.

We are all about to learn what the black mass is all about. From what I have come to understand, it is, at its worst, merely offensive. The rejection of a faith tradition, whether that rejection adopts a mocking tone or not, and the adoption of a traditionally villainous character as a hero instead, does not in any plausible sense constitute hate speech.

Indeed, it does deep injustice to those who are the target of hate speech to place such a ritual alongside, say, the burning of a cross in the southern United States, and declare the two activities morally equivalent. With all respect, it takes a practiced obtuseness to think that declaring one’s allegiance to Satan in the context of a ritualistic rejection of the Eucharist, on the one hand, and wearing a Swastika while articulating the inferiority of the Jewish people, on the other, are on a moral par. False equivalencies abound in our society like an intellectual virus. They do us no good. And the worry here is not merely academic. We must think clearly about how to characterize different kinds of controversial speech if we are to have any hope of intelligently promoting free speech while also protecting the rights of marginalized communities.

The black mass, from what I understand, does not advertise itself as being polite, and may even reasonably be viewed by some as being mean-spirited in its ritualized rejection of faith traditions. All the same, I will reiterate that characterizing all offensive speech as hate speech does no service to marginalized groups who are the target of such speech, nor does it help us think clearly about what the liberty of free speech and free religious expression demands. If we understand hate speech as, at heart, silencing fellow citizens by portraying them as unequals in our democratic process, then the reenactment we are about to witness, in its most uncharitable interpretation, still falls far short of being hate speech. A ceremony rejecting religion, in a mocking tone, at worst announces to fellow citizens that the participants think everyone else got things really wrong in matters of ultimate truths and they’re not going to sugar-coat telling us that. Offensive? Perhaps. But it’s a scandal to the idea of hate speech and the corrosive effects that it has on our Republic to count such a ceremony as an instance of it.

And even the offensiveness of this event needs to be put in context. Will it be shocking? Of course. But shocking does not warrant public censure. I invite you to pause over the fact that constant exposure to other ceremonies has dulled our senses from seeing them as shocking. Consider, for a moment, a stranger to faith who walks into a Catholic church. (I will describe the one I was raised in.) She is greeted by a large cross, upon which a Jewish man, stripped down only to a loin cloth, is crucified, with thorns on his head and a spear wound in his side. Around the pews are images of him being tortured to death. There are also images of a woman bearing a child who she conceived through divine impregnation. A standard part of the ritual involves the community simulating the consumption of flesh and drinking of blood. Not shocked? You might not be, but the stranger to faith surely will be. I think the idea here is clear.

So for those who will find the black mass offensive, what does tolerance demand, given that religious liberty and free speech warrants this practice? Well it certainly doesn’t require Catholics, among others, to embrace the content of the activity. That’s absurd. Nor does it require them to remain politely quiet or to refuse to take a stand on the merits of the activity. Tolerance is not the same thing as indifference. But expressing disapproval through organized protest, and even through petition, must—if tolerance is to be respected—fall short of demanding that the activity be canceled. It must fall short of using the various levers of power to shut it down. It must let it happen, without imposing undo political, social or economic costs on the participants. Respecting fellow citizens as fellow citizens does not require us to always avoid offending each other. And religious expression or free speech that formally rejects the religious views of others is simply not disrespectful, in this sense.

I conclude by sharing that, knowing in part what will follow, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am morally uncomfortable with some of the elements of this ceremony, particularly with its portrayal of women. I should immediately point out, though, that my discomfort extends to many mainstream religious activities and organizations that, in my view, fail miserably on this count as well. I mention this simply to emphasize that my tolerance of this event is not advocacy for all of its content, and those who wish to interpret my remarks in this way do so uncharitably. And if pushed on this, I swear, I will blame the whole thing on Dungeons & Dragons anyway. The 80s tried to beat into my head that my beloved hobby was a gateway to darkness, and lo and behold, here I am. I must have failed a saving throw somewhere along the way.

A little fun aside, I have offered what I hope is taken to be a good faith effort at engaging in some critical reflection over this event, concluding that, based on the argument I have just presented, tolerance demands us not to silence it, offensive to some though it may be. Others of course may disagree with this position and I hope a healthy discussion ensues. When something like this occurs, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the controversy at the expense of looking at the community. Hundreds and hundreds of you have come here today. That is inspiring. And deep disagreement need not, nor should it be, divisive.

I was buoyed this weekend by my mother’s thoughts, a conservative Catholic who, while objecting strongly to the content of the event, nevertheless recognized the importance of allowing it to proceed and of inserting reasoned discourse into the process, which is what I hope to have done tonight. Thank you.