Those inflamed masses chanting in the streets of Islamabad, Riyadh and Baghdad are angry – really angry. But why? It’s just a cartoon! I know – it’s because they’re backward. You see, they don’t get the most fundamental, unequivocal, un-underminable right there is in an advanced society: freedom of speech. If only those rampaging hordes put down their flaming Israeli flags and tasted a good dose of Enlightenment. I mean, we already have … right?
Freedom of speech, if you listen to talking TV heads, is supposedly the bedrock of our free and open society. Because we’re willing to think critically and voice all opinions in the public sphere, we ensure that the marketplace of ideas functions. By openly and honestly debating every issue out in the proverbial town square, we ensure the triumph of democracy, the downfall of terrorism and the everlasting survival of humanity.
It’s easy to see why freedom of speech has become a rallying cry in this clash of cultures. A convenient, easy-to-understand point of distinction, freedom of speech symbolizes the gap between our society and their society – our civilized world and their Middle Ages. That’s why you see so many commentators, liberal and conservative, from here to Jerusalem, touting freedom of speech as a fundamental difference between Western society and Islamic society.
The problem with this elegant dichotomy is that, for all practical purposes, Western society doesn’t actually place freedom of speech upon an altar. We think we do – that is, we believe that we believe in freedom of speech – but when push comes to shove, freedom of speech is not an end-all, be-all value.
Western governments impose speech restrictions and criticize the free press routinely. You can’t deny the Holocaust in some European countries. Almost every year, Congress considers a Constitutional amendment to criminalize flag burning. President Bush and Vice President Cheney routinely lash out at the media for publishing confidential information; the administration pressured The New York Times to cancel its story on the domestic surveillance program for more than a year.
Nongovernmental interest groups continually pressure media outlets to restrict content. The University’s Student Relations Advisory Committee wrote a letter to the Daily’s editors suggesting that the Fourteenth Amendment might override the First (An open letter to the Daily, 02/03/2006). The campus chapter of the NAACP almost boycotted this paper because it thought we should not have published certain cartoons. The American Family Association has threatened to boycott Ford Motor Company if it doesn’t cancel advertisements targeted at the gay community. Conservative action groups forced ABC to cancel its Memorial Day broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan.”
Even among American citizens, respect for freedom of speech is far from universal. An early 2005 survey of 112,003 American high school students found that 36 percent of students believe newspapers should seek “government approval” of stories; the same poll found 32 percent thought the press had “too much freedom.”
It may be romantic to pretend freedom of speech is the cornerstone of Western civilization. It puts us in a tremendous position of power – we can condemn those roving Muslim masses as the product of a closed and intellectually backward society. It makes us feel good about ourselves; it allows us to wax poetic about the fundamental differences between them and us.
But that’s a bunch of nonsense – Western society has no moral pulpit from which to preach. We don’t actually value freedom of speech as much as we pretend to; we condemn the Muslim rioters for not understanding our values when we don’t understand them either.
Of course, there is a lot to condemn. Violent, deadly riots are never excusable, never justifiable. Peaceful leaders have broken empires and overturned decades of institutionalized repression without firing a shot. Insofar as Western leaders are condemning the violence that has captured, they’re fully justified.
But it’s pure hypocrisy to lecture the Muslim world on the integral role of free speech in our society. If an American newspaper published an equally inflammatory cartoon defaming Christianity, there’d be an outpouring of rage. Maybe not violent rage, but rage – conservative groups worked themselves into a tizzy last year because SpongeBob SquarePants might be gay.
Just imagine if The Washington Post ran a cartoon of Moses killing a Muslim child, or if The New York Times ran one of Jesus bombing an abortion clinic.
How large would the “it’s freedom of the press” crowd be?
Momin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org