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Limits to Free Speech?

When I met last week with two Moroccan friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while, the first thing each of them wanted to talk about (the meetings were separate) was the anti-Mohammed hate film and the controversy it has caused. Both of them were upset, but they are worldly types who know that YouTube is filled with all kinds of trash, so they weren’t thrown into a frenzy by the simple fact that such a film could exist. They know they are haters out there. What they did want to know was how the U.S. government could stand by and do nothing, when the film was clearly designed to insult a whole community of innocent people (Muslim believers), and stir up trouble. Especially once the embassies were attacked and four Americans killed, wasn’t it the government’s obligation to shut the film down — if only to protect their own interests, not to mention prevent further offense? And didn’t their refusal to do so represent some kind of endorsement?

My response was, first of all, to point out that the filmmakers are a bunch of losers, completely unknown before the film went viral and had its stunning “success.” It is beyond the capacities of even the U.S. government to watch every video on YouTube, and estimate the potential for future harm before it happens. My friends were doubtful about this, perhaps because they give too much credit to the power and reach of the U.S. government, and perhaps because they live in a state that keeps a watchful eye on everything its citizens are doing and thinking. But I explained that our government has far more important things to worry about than fringe dwellers on YouTube. They are engaged in wars, overt and covert, in several nations, and are trying to figure out if Iran is preparing a nuclear bomb. They are trying to manage a financial crisis at home, and deal with the consequences of its bastard stepchild in Europe. There is the Chinese leadership transition to think about, and so on. Do they really have the time to notice a video on YouTube which, until the events of last week, only a few thousand people had seen?

My friends accepted this logic, though they still had their doubts. They began to look around for a conspiracy, and insist that there was more to this than met the eye. Surely Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Steve Klein, and the others hadn’t made this film on their own. Someone had put them up to it — perhaps the Syrians, perhaps the Israelis, perhaps even the U.S. government itself. I mentioned Occam’s Razor, the idea that when trying to decide why something happened, the explanation “that makes the fewest assumptions” is often the best. Sometimes, I said, Oswald really is the lone gunner, the planes that flew into the World Trade Center are the cause of its collapse, and a hate film made by a bunch of nobodies is able to provoke rage in twenty countries. To imagine otherwise is to believe not only that the conspirators can forsee the results of their actions with eerie precision, but that they are able to control everything down to the smallest detail to get the intended result. Sometimes, I insisted, stuff happens — things no one saw coming, that create the illusion of a malign genius pulling the strings.

This left one other question on the table. Once the damage done by the film became known, why did the U.S. government continue to defend its right to exist? Why didn’t they just pull it off the internet, and arrest the filmmakers? This may seem like an outrageous question to many Americans, who put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the mobs who resorted to violence. For an American, a verbal assault never justifies violence — they are two different things, and a person who leaps from one to the other is displaying a moral weakness, a dangerous lack of self-control. (We can argue whether this is really true. What about bar fights? But we do tend to blame the person who threw the first punch, not the first slur.) My friends, who come from a different culture, see things from a different angle. For them, social harmony is more important, and freedom of speech is never the right to insult and defame. They see nothing wrong with expecting people to dress modestly, avoid vulgar language, and keep their carousing out of sight. After all, your grandmother might be offended — it’s a simple question of respect. Even more so for a film whose sole purpose is to offend others. Isn’t that like dumping your garbage on someone’s lawn? What right does that have to be protected speech?

I explained what free speech means in America. Different societies have different standards, I said, and the U.S. has perhaps the broadest standard of all. The only red lines I’m aware of are direct calls to violence, or spreading false information (such as slander or fraud) that does material harm. Even then, a crime must be proven, with evidence of intent and according to law. There is simply no way to remove a film proactively from circulation, on the simple assumption that someone’s feelings might be hurt. So there is nothing illegal about the Mohammed film, no matter how disgusting we may find it — and there’s a reason for that. America was settled by people fleeing from religious or political persecution, and they placed a very high value on the freedom to express their beliefs. In fact, this is the core value on which all our other freedoms are based. To protect that right, we must extend it to everyone. This means that no matter how strange or offensive an opinion may be to the rest of us, we protect it in order to protect our own perhaps equally bizarre opinions. And we accept the consequences of this, namely that we can never expect the government to step in and tell someone he’s wrong. If we find an opinion harmful we need to defeat it in argument, not through the force of the state — or just learn to “live and let live.”

Of course, as I think any American understands, this is the ideal, but the reality is far from perfect. These protections weren’t extended to Communists in the 1950s, who were considered to be agents of an enemy power. Another example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were persecuted in the 1940s for refusing military service on religious grounds. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was martyred in 1844, and from the Wobblies to the Civil Rights movement to the Occupy movement today, the U.S. government has a history of spying on opposition movements. Perhaps to a greater extent than we realize, we pick and choose which opinions to tolerate, which to celebrate, and which to suppress or condemn. The idea of freedom of speech as an incontrovertible right plays a fundamential role in our self-image as Americans, but in practice, we do place limits in the name of protecting ourselves against a greater danger. So the question remains — why is the Mohammed film okay, particularly when it has placed our relations with a large part of the world at risk? Is it possible that this is a symptom of something deeper in the American psyche? Is it possible that hate speech against Muslims is something we are prepared to defend, more so than other forms of hate speech?

Keep in mind, this film didn’t appear in a vacuum. Now, this isn’t the same as saying that the film was made by hidden conspirators, or anyone other than the handful of losers whose names we know. But there does exist an international network of anti-Muslim hate groups, from the English Defence League to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to people like Anders Behring Brevik, the Norweigian mass murderer, that has strong roots in the U.S. as well. Bloggers like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller are the “intellectual” leaders of this movement, with Geller currently running ads on buses and subways in American cities that refer to Muslims as “savages.” Politicians like Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, and Peter King have lent their support to this movement as well. Mosques have been burned, referendums have been passed against the nonexistent threat of Sharia law, and an attempt to build a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan drew national controversy before it was finally approved. Our own president is often accused of being a Muslim — as if that were the deepest insult, a fatal sign of his “otherness.” Fortunately none of these are majority views. But it does show a certain tolerance for anti-Muslim hate speech, a double standard that calls into question our claim to universal rights.

In defending the right to make a film insulting Mohammed, are we merely sticking up for our principles? Or are we picking and choosing? If a group of Hezbollah supporters living in the U.S. were to make a film portraying Jews as pederasts, money-grubbers, and depraved lunatics — which is how Mohammed was portrayed — would our first instinct be to champion their right to free speech? Or would outrage and condemnation rain down from all sides, along with calls to investigate their finances, their network of connections, and even kick them out of the country? Perhaps the viewpoint of my Moroccan friends, which places social harmony first and asks people to use their rights responsibly, is worth hearing. Of course, it’s never okay to storm an embassy by scaling the walls, setting fires, sacking and pillaging. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that millions of people who didn’t do these things — engineers, grandmothers, shopkeepers, schoolchildren — were deeply hurt and offended. Is our message to them that we don’t care, because they’re Muslims and somehow deserve it? Or can we show some respect? If they were our neighbors — which in this world of YouTube and Twitter, we all are — would we toss our garbage on their lawn, or would we strive to be neighborly?

It feels silly to appeal to basic decency, because that’s such an unhip value. It feels silly to say, “Muslims are people too,” but they are. Perhaps the rush of claims and counterclaims in the media makes us lose track of that fact. Muslims aren’t some abstract group of “others.” They get up in the morning and have breakfast, kiss the kids and send them to school, get on the bus to go to work, sell shoes or chop meat or fill out paperwork, study hard because they want to pass the test, have illicit affairs, go drinking with their pals, fall asleep in front of the TV. What are we trying to say to these people, when we claim that it is an American value to insult their religion, their cherished beliefs, and the bonds that tie them together? I support the right of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula to make that film — it’s our principle of free speech. But I think there’s a conversation we should be having as Americans, as to whether it’s the right thing to do. After all, we value social harmony as much as Muslims do. We voluntarily place limits on our own freedom. We don’t think it’s okay to walk up to people on the street and start hurling insults — so why do it on YouTube? It may be legal, and it may be protected speech, but a person obesessed with insulting others is not very healthy. Perhaps we should shame them in the same way we shame anti-Black racists, or anti-Semites. If Muslims are the last group in the world whom it’s okay for Americans to insult, that doesn’t reflect very well on us as a culture.


Comment from yahia
Time: September 26, 2012, 09:52

So why is the Mohammed film okay, while expressing antisemitic ideas is criminal? For freedom of speech to be an “incontrovertible right plays a fundamential role in [your] self-image as Americans” is a big joke.

Comment from Marcel Côté
Time: September 26, 2012, 10:17

Yahia, what you’re saying is more or less what I’m saying. On the one hand, Americans feel very strongly about free speech as the most basic freedom of all — and on the other hand, there are many examples in our history where that freedom wasn’t protected as it should be. (I gave some concrete examples, like Communists in the 1950s.) So we have a double standard, and I’m calling on Americans to examine that, especially when it comes to anti-Muslim hate speech. People should restrain themselves voluntarily when the only purpose of speaking is to insult and provoke others. On the other hand, I agree with what Obama said yesterday at the U.N., that “the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech.”

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