This article is an op-ed submitted to the Harvard Political Review by the Cultural Studies Club of the Harvard Extension School and does not reflect the views of the HPR.
We are aware that many people in the community have taken offense to the planned reenactment of a Black Mass ceremony based on a literary source, and we have deliberated extensively over whether to proceed with the event. It gives none of us any pleasure to upset good people. For our personal lives, cancelling the event would be a great relief. We are under a great deal of pressure from many sources, have endured coordinated attacks via email, and have even received intimidating letters. All this leads us to ask: how do we benefit by defending the rights of others to express religious beliefs that are not even our own?
Obviously, not all forms of expression are constructive or pro-social, and some forms of speech need to be curbed. This is recognized by the delineation of what is referred to as “hate speech.” Hate speech is communication that has no purpose other than to express hate for a specific group and is likely to incite violence. While some people are offended by satanic practices, the Black Mass ceremony does not meet the criteria for hate speech and is as valid as any other form of religious expression. People might find the rituals offensive to their sensibilities, but there is no expression of hate towards any group, and there is no incitement of violence. This ceremony does not silence any individuals from expressing their respective faiths as they see fit. No one is intimidated in such a way that they feel they cannot behave as they choose. Those who oppose this reenactment simply feel that their deeply held rituals are being mocked.
The problem with their argument is that Black Masses are performed in private. If the rituals were intended to offend or mock as opposed to being personal affirmations of spiritual faith, they would not be performed privately without notice given to whomever they allegedly seek to offend. For those who have likened this event to reenacting a KKK rally or some other atrocity, this would be akin to Klan members burning a cross inside their own home for religious reasons and telling no one. The comparison simply does not hold. This semi-public event is a reenactment that is intended to shed light on the beliefs of a marginalized group that has continuously been denied a voice in our society. Their rituals serve their own affirmative purposes and, as they are performed today, have nothing to do with any entity that has taken offense. The attacks on the Satanists reek of religious bigotry, but because this bigotry is being performed by the dominant culture, the Satanists are the ones that are made to appear insensitive.
There are great misunderstandings about marginalized cultures and faiths and their practices, and the mission of our club is to allow these voices to be heard. We have received interest from many hundreds of people who want to attend the event, and we believe these interested parties are curious to learn more and mean no disrespect to anyone. Equating the offense of one’s sensibilities with hate will lead to the death of liberty for all. People should implicitly recognize that efforts to silence voices that a majority may disagree with must not be tolerated in a pluralist society.
While much of the mail we have received has requested we cancel the event, we have received several supportive letters that highlight the importance of staging this event. The following is an example:
“I’m sure you’re getting a ton of mail about this, but maybe not so many that are supportive. I’m really proud of your group for providing an outlet for minorities to let their voices be heard. It’s important that the lesser known (and lesser loved) groups be able to teach others about themselves without being drowned out, overrun, shuttered, and censored by the majority. It never fails to amuse me that at the slightest whiff of a Black Mass, the Christians will come out of the woodwork to try to shut it down as offensive, but you never hear of Satanists protesting Sunday schools or baptisms.
Equality is sometimes too much to ask, but your respect of the Satanic Temple in giving them the validation you’d give any of the other religions means a lot to me. I’m not a member of any Satanic group (and I’m too far away to attend the event), but my hat is off to the Cultural Studies Club and to Harvard for not only saying so but for demonstrating that all religions, even the unpopular ones, deserve a spot on the world stage.
Thanks for your time and good luck with the event.”
Returning to the original question posed, how do we benefit by defending the rights of others to express religious beliefs that are not our own? The answer is that this defense is central to the very fabric of democracy, and it is this ideal that keeps society from edging towards fascism.