One Man’s Speech

“If your freedom of speech has no limits, may you accept our freedom of action.”   

This was a statement painted on a wall in Cairo where protestors yesterday stormed the U.S. embassy.  And this morning, we learn that U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens was killed along with three other embassy staff in a rocket attack on their car.  These acts and other protests in the Middle East are in response to a film, The Innocence of Muslims, that supposedly contains insulting depictions of the prophet Muhammad and was recently promoted by the Muslim-bashing, Florida pastor Terry Jones.

This is a travesty in the world of diplomacy as much as it may also be a painful examination into the nature of free speech. It is a terrible thing when thoughtful leaders and diplomats have to avoid starting wars because the worst of us has inflamed the worst of them, but is there anything we can learn from this?

The First Amendment protects Jones’s right to be a colossal son of a bitch and the Israeli filmmaker Sam Bacile* to spew whatever nonsense he chooses. As Americans, we value the sanctity of speech to the extent that we must endure hate speak for what it is and know that it does not represent who most of us are. And I, for one, would not have it any other way. To the Middle East citizens who have risen in protest, however, no such distinctions are made. Their cultural indignation resulted first in protest, which is speech, and then in assassination of  four members of our State Department, which is not.

Is this a digital age story?  I think so. Jones and Bacile enjoy the same, free tools as everyone else for disseminating their venom, and they wound up killing American public servants and creating a diplomatic nightmare for the State Department. If that isn’t an example of the dangers of amateur kooks wielding powerful communication tools writ large, I don’t know what is. I have no thesis to offer, only an invitation to share your thoughts.  Certainly, it is clear in moments like this that while speech should always be free, it can run smack into some very substantial limits without anyone passing a single law.

*UPDATE:  The story keeps getting stranger.  Bacile may not even exist.  Read this from The Atlantic. 

FURTHER UPDATE:  Reports today (9/13) indicate that the Libyan attack on the American consulate may have been planned, possibly even for 9/11, and that the attackers seized on the opportunity of the protests against the film.  At this point, the attack is still being investigated, and no party has claimed responsibility.

© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • When the filmmaker didn’t get enough of a reaction, he uploaded a translation just to make sure that the Muslim world understood what he had created.

    When is are people going to acknowledge that the right to free speech is a responsibility? Inciting a riot is a crime. When will hate-mongers be brought to be responsible for their speech?

  • I wouldn’t say it is a “digital age” (though “digital” is a contributing factor) story, but rather a “global village” story, liberally mixed with conflict of values – one that cannot be peacefully resolved and will continue to plague humanity in the coming decades.

    Up to a point, the existence of conflicting value systems was made possible by geographical divides. A hundred years ago, nobody in Libya would have known what some nutty Florida pastor was ranting about – and thus nobody would have cared. These days, things that happen on the other side of the globe might as well be happening in your back yard. The internet allows news to travel faster and further, but any other form of mass media would also do the trick.

    As for the conflict of values, this is where matters get ugly. In short: value systems are oft times mutually exclusive – there is no way to reconcile the idea that men should be able to speak freely with the idea that there are some things men should never say. There is no way to reconcile the idea that men are free to hold whatever religious or philosophical beliefs they choose with the idea that anyone holding a different set of beliefs from your own is automatically a bad guy.

    Terrorism – such as we have seen in years past, but more starkly the attack in Libya – is an attempt to impose one value system upon another culture by force. Let’s make no mistake, if the U.S. imposes sanctions upon its citizens for speech that offends islamic religious sensibilities (meaning any speech that would constitute blasphemy in Islam) – purely for the sake of protecting its citizens – it will mean that portions of the islamic value system will become an integral part of U.S. culture, no less than in countries under Sharia law.

    One may ask what harm is there in seeking not to offend, but one basic feature of human nature is that someone’s always gonna get offended. In Poland, we’ve seen numerous instances of fundamentalist Catholics going out of their way to get offendeded (by attending black metal concerts, for example). From a purely religious standpoint: both Christians and Muslims believe that they hold the truth of God’s teachings and that infidels are going to Hell. Both cannot be true at the same time. Thus, anyone preaching that Islam is a false religion, automatically causes offence. At the same time, were we to prohibit such preaching, the result would essentially be the preference of one religion over another (caused by the fact that Christians – as a rule – don’t put infidels to the sword anymore).

    Frankly speaking, I see no easy solution. I am a cynic, so I have very little belief in the power of words in the face of lethal force – all the less if those who use it are not listening. In a better world, the ball would now be in the Libyan authorities’ court – find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Unfortunately, such a result appears highly unlikely. Realistically, I believe the culture that’s more committed to its continued existence will prevail.

    • All spot on, Faza. You’re right, of course, that we cannot (and should not) contemplate the notion of chilling speech even for the sake of security. On the other hand, we don’t seem to be very good at marginalizing our extremists, starving them of the attention they need to survive.

      It’s interesting food for thought. I would not hesitate to make a film that contains elements that might offend American Christians, but I would think long and hard about making a film that depicted Muhammad in some way that might cause an international incident. This sounds hypocritical, and to some extent, it is. In America, in order to preserve free speech, we have to keep running it on all pistons, keep proving the point no matter who gets offended. But as members of the Global Village, as you say, we have to accept that the consequences of speech can be far more serious than a few grumpy protestors at a movie theater. True, we consider those who respond violently to be unenlightened, but that becomes very quickly beside the point after events like these.

    • I mostly agree, Faza, but I’m afraid I take issue with this passage:

      “Terrorism – such as we have seen in years past, but more starkly the attack in Libya – is an attempt to impose one value system upon another culture by force.”

      Not to excuse the attackers (and I don’t and never would), and setting aside that it seems now very unlikely that the attack was made in response to the film, I think this mistakes the nature and purpose of terrorism in our times.

      Terrorism is the tactic of the weak. Its goal is not to impose a value system, but to disrupt or ward off one via the terror of random violence. The POV of the terrorists and their sympathizers, (and I am not saying they are right) is that they are minding their own business in their own country and culture, and we are the ones trying to impose our value system on them by aggressively exporting our media culture (including via the Internet directly into their homes.)

      I think many experts on conflict and politics might even debate whether an attack on a foreign diplomatic post constitutes terrorism at all, as opposed to guerilla war, since the target was not civilian and the purpose was not to create fear in the general population but to actually kill or damage a “legitimate target,” (as they call it in warfare circles.)

      Personally, I deeply mourn the loss of Chris Stevens, by all accounts one of the decent and level headed people that seem to be so out of fashion today, and I absolutely condemn the vicious attack on what is (let us not forget) sovereign US territory. We should (and I suspect will) hunt the perpetrators down. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what terrorism is and what causes it.

  • Well, I think things in Egypt went as they should. An American said something monumentally stupid, some folks in Egypt complained loudly, and the US Embassy confirmed those people were, indeed, monumentally stupid. Things got out of hand in Libya, right about the time they stopped using speech and started using violence.

    In fact, what’s needed is more communication — enough from the sane members of our country to change the perception of Americans in the eyes of those who think we all agree with Bacile and Jones.

  • The fact that we may all sit around and vigorously argue whether someone has a right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater doesn’t change in any way the fact that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater is a perfectly idiotic, and potentially very harmful, thing to do. As I see it, the developing story to watch here isn’t a free-speech one, it’s a political one. Will we hear from anti-Muslim right-wingers some full-throated defense, not of Terry Jones’ “right” to spread his message, but of the message itself? The symbolically fraught date of this horrible attack, the acknowledgement that we’re in full (and bitter) campaign mode here in America, and just the general deviancy-defined-downward state of our national discourse makes me think that we will.

  • A good article and the film makers are incredibly irresponsible. As publishing technologies haev spread, I think people’s sense of right and wrong and civic responsibility has not kept up.

    In this case, though, I’m not sure that anything could be said one way or another – the protestors in Libya were shouting ‘we are all Osama’ and had rocket launchers, sounds more like an Al Qaeda or an Al Qaeda type group is ultimately behind this, and the protest was astroturf, an excuse to blow something up on 9/11.

  • Looked up Terry Jones and found this from Wikipedia: “…became an assistant pastor in Kentucky. He went to Cologne, Germany and founded and led the Christliche Gemeinde Köln (CGK) in 1981, In 2002, Jones was fined $3800 by a Cologne court for using the title “doctor” when all he had was an honorary degree from an unaccredited school. According to the German Evangelical Alliance, Jones was released from the leadership of the Christliche Gemeinde Köln in 2008 due to his indefensible theological statements and his craving for attention. The Gainesville Sun reported that he left the church in Germany after being accused of fraud. A leader of the Cologne church said Jones, “didn’t project the biblical values and Christianity, but always made himself the center of everything.” German press agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported that church members said Jones ran the Cologne church like a sect leader and used psychological pressure on members, “subordinating all activities to his will.” Der Spiegel reported that Jones had been ejected by Cologne church for creating “a climate of control and fear.”

    Sounds frighteningly like another evangelizing Jones from history, doesn’t he? One who also managed to get an ambassador killed then made a host of people drink cyanide in Kool-Aid. Jim Jones.

  • I disagree with you here. Bacile and Jones are cretinous, vile thugs and in my opinion all civilized people on all sides of ANY argument should vehemently disavow them, but to say THEY killed Stevens and the other Americans at the Embassy is both irresponsible and factually wrong.

    Free speech needs to be protected and defended. As an American Jew, I’m disgusted with the idea, say, of Nazis marching in Skokie, IL, but FAR more disgusted by any attempt to stifle the ability of those Nazis to peaceably exercises their right to express their views.

    I saw parts of that trailer and it was, frankly, juvenille and insulting. But I’ve seen far worse aimed at other groups without a violent response. The people who killed those four Americans are not defenders of Islam, they are murderers, and they alone are responsible for thoe tragic deaths.

    • The only reason, Seth, that I pose the question on this site is that I find the power of a couple of village idiots to create a diplomatic disaster unprecedented. As it is my intention to weigh the pros and cons of the digital age, there is no getting around the fact that 20 years ago, Terry Jones and co. would be obnoxious town-square lunatics with a relatively small megaphone. Today, like everyone else, they have access to affordable means to produce a film and distribute it globally. I think Faza (earlier on the thread) is right that it’s a Global Village story, and we discover here that many of our far-flung villagers don’t share our local idea of free speech.

      You’re right that the attackers are responsible for the murders, of course, but a historian writing about the chain of events would have to begin with the hate-speak of a few American assholes in Florida and end with the death of American diplomats in Libya. Let’s hope that’s where it does end, but I don’t think so.

  • The filmmaker is in the hiding, the “pastor” is about to give a news conference, which the reporters will check againist further inflammatory remarks, as well they should…it’s really simple, this is a lunatic who used the internet as a megaphone and he was heard on the other side of the world…

  • Apropos is Christopher Dickey regarding both the diplomatic and domestic implications.

  • With rights come responsibilities. This is very much in line with what I was recently talking about in “Artist Responsibility”. Another excellent article, David!

    • What about when the creators are not artists? Any idiot can use the filmmaker’s tools. Long gone are the protected guilds and their codes of conduct.

  • Only in America does the culture (and therefore, the government) carry such principles forward to the extreme conclusion. We take their truth to be self-evident and sacred. In effect, we have faith. This is a luxury the rest of the world does not have.

    In (most) other countries there are laws against activities that inflame – from outlawing Nazi propaganda to dress codes. Where violence has occurred, the government has placed the safety of the majority over the right of the individual. e.g. In Britain: There is a “control order… against an individual that imposes obligations on him for purposes connected with protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism.

    Here, in the US, we’re not ready to go there, but for how long…

    • I have to say, Douglas, that I hope we are never ready to go there. I personally don’t believe that it is extreme to allow all voices to be hear; we have no choice, even though there is risk. That said, the reason I pose this question on this site is that the effect of this stupid film is somewhat unprecedented. 25 years ago, Jones and his ilk would just be nuts in the park square, generally being ignored. Today, anyone can use digital technology to broadcast to the world. I wouldn’t hope to see chilling speech as a solution, but I do think we’re flirting with a new kind of danger.

      Thanks for posting.

  • So much to chew on in this meaty discussion (thanks David), not the least of which is the paradox that the digital age has brought all citizens of the world closer, but often with very divisive results.

    I too support free speech, no matter how idiotic. But I also see that such tolerance comes at a cost: Americans have lost the capacity for outrage (often swapping it for cynicism). Anything goes, culturally and politically, in the name of free speech, even the most egregious verbal attacks. The really sad part is that innocents, like the Americans in Libya, become the casualties.

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