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Pills of logic: The argument 'an open society cannot censor cults' debunked in three moves

Luigi Corvaglia

The argument is simple: in an open society, individuals are free to determine their own lives and join the group of their choice. The syllogism proposed by some advocates of religious freedom automatically leads to the labelling of opponents of restrictive practises and sectarian abuse of power as enemies of religious freedom and free choice, and thus illiberals. The reference to 'fascism' is not even too veiled. It is worth looking more closely at the components of this argument. The first concerns the free choice of the individual.

1 - Every individual must be free to make their own life choices. Any interference is illegitimate and totalitarian. This is undeniable within the framework of a liberal society. Everyone must be free to make the choices they want, including those that might harm them, such as joining a destructive cult or taking addictive substances. The man who expressed this concept most effectively in the 19th century was Lysander Spooner, author of Vices Are Not Crimes. The noted abolitionist of slavery began his classic libertarian pamphlet with these words:

Vices are the acts by which a man harms himself and his property. Crimes are the acts by which a man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the mistakes a person makes in the pursuit of happiness. Unlike crimes, they do not involve malice towards others or harm to their person or property.

In other words, it is one thing to 'commit mistakes in the pursuit of happiness' without harming the person and property of others, which no one has the right to prevent unless he or she is the bearer of paternalism and an ethic of principle, as Weber puts it, it is quite another to harm 'the person and property of others' with 'malice'. The laudable intention of the libertarian Spooner was to distinguish the two conditions, lest vice be punished instead of crime. However, the prejudicial defence of cults runs the risk of confusing the two levels and making crimes disappear, because the actions of totalitarian leaders aimed at harming 'the person and property of another' are crimes. In the name of 'freedom', this creates the situation that James Joyce called a 'free fox in a free henhouse'.

2 - With regard to religious freedom, one of the greatest and most central achievements of the society that emerged from the liberal revolutions of the 17th century, it is always worth quoting one of the greatest exponents of liberal thought and defenders of secularism, Gaetano Salvemini:

The clericalist demands freedom for himself in the name of the liberal principle, only to suppress it as quickly as possible in others in the name of the clerical principle.

If the sharp notation of this giant of liberalism was about the Church's claim to interfere in secular affairs by claiming the right to illiberality based on liberal principles, the paradox appears even more grotesque and blatant when the claim is made by groups known or discussed for harassing or dangerous practises for their followers.

It is clear that the "new religious movements" have no reason to be defended, because in the liberal democratic framework, freedom of religious is intangible. Those that need to be defended are abusive and totalitarian cults, i.e. groups where abuse and harassment take place. This defence becomes necessary for abusive cults precisely because they operate in a liberal democratic system that condemns abuse and harassment.

3 - So, returning to the issue of liberalism and individual rights, we finally find that some defenders of what they call NRMs are completely identical to the defenders of cultural differentialism, the political concept that is the proudest and bitterest enemy precisely for liberalism and universal rights. The differentialist defends the 'right to difference' of all cultures, i.e. they want the preservation of peoples' identities. Even though, like the statements of the 'NRMs', this may seem like a commitment to universalism and ecumenism, the differentialists are an enemy of the open society. That is, the differentialist believes that 'foreigners' should be preserved as such, living 'among themselves' and retaining their own cultural references and values because they are 'different' and must remain so. they defend their 'right to be different' in order to prevent other cultures from mixing or merging with theirs. This is called differentialist racism. This differentialism, which is a defence of one's own closed group, also defends other closed groups against the state, against the demands of the open society, so that it does not interfere with one's own group as well. Behind the libertarian and respectful proclamations of allogeneic cultures, this conception aims at the restoration and defence of individual cultures, so that they become a counterweight to globalist ideology; that is, precisely to the universalism of human rights. Just as it is not surprising that the proponents of differentialism are representatives of the far political right who coin their own incongruent version of 'multiculturalism', it is also not surprising that the defenders of the 'right to difference' of 'cults' are often representatives of visions that are anything but ecumenical and propose their own incongruent version of 'ecumenism'. These, in fact, propose a 'multicultism' that is the mignon version of the multiculturalism of the Nouvelle Droite, but more akin to what Italians call "Pax Mafiosa". Thus it happens that the representatives of the most closed, illiberal and incompatible cults find themselves in the same associations for the defence of religious freedom. High-ranking members of notoriously destructive cults, traditionalist Catholics, Satanists, tantric sex gurus, followers of religions who believe that those who do not follow their beliefs are eternally damned, closed and intransigent micro-communities, all together (passionately) against those who denounce exploitation. In the name of the open society.

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