Saturday, April 2, 2011

Free speech--defending the indefensible?


Tolerance might be insufficient, but it’s a starting point.

Obama was right to condemn the killings that occurred in Afghanistan in response to the burning of a Koran in Florida by Wayne Sapp, with the infamous Terry Jones presiding.  He was right to say that although “the desecration of any holy text, including the Koran is an act of extreme tolerance and bigotry [...] to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity”. 

But I think that the leader of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was very mistaken to say that “we should be blaming the person who produced the news—the one who burned the Koran.  Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offending culture, religion, traditions”.  Though ‘freedom’, a nebulous and slippery term, is clearly not exclusively defined in these terms, in the U.S. at least the freedom to offend is precisely one of the things protected.  And that, I am convinced, is a good thing.

De Mistura said, “I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan”.  That statement is little short of offensive.  It presupposes that people who kill other people have no agency whatsoever.  Because whatever conditions create the justifiable sense of anger, hurt and frustration that the contemptible decision to burn the Koran surely engendered in Afghans, something personal is required for people to then kill other people.  By all means, here as elsewhere, examine the contexts in which crimes occur.  Look at the social and other factors that go some way towards explaining them, and justify them in the minds of perpetrators.  But that critical and necessary examination doesn’t mean that you have to suspend morality.

Now I can understand why De Mistura said what he did.  His job is to maintain good relations with Afghans.  And so he is willing to turn what should be a moral and legal matter into a political one (not that the three are easily separated).

Should Wayne Sapp and Terry Jones have been discouraged from burning the copy of the Koran?  Yes.  Should they be condemned for it?  Ditto.  Was it by most stretches of the imagination an immorally offensive thing to do?  Absolutely.  But not more morally offensive (and to me, far, far less) than the killing of another human being. 

How can members of a United Nations mission possibly be held responsible for the actions of a demented pastor in Florida?  De Mistura is offending not only the most basic sense of justice, but the memory of those UN employees who were killed by particular people.

I don’t know if the fact that I cannot imagine an act of speech or non-physically violent protest that would even begin to push me towards violence makes me a product of some kind of soulless liberal society.  And I’m not sure whether I should be disturbed that I’d be far readier to defend Jones and Sapp than any one of the people who murdered the UN workers. 

But I’d like to think that the legal injunction to tolerate those things which upset us, which we don’t like, which we might find offensive, is something we’ve got right in the U.S.  The willingness to kill over a religious slight, Holocaust-denial laws in continental Europe, and the predilection of the British government for banning visiting speakers to appeal to various political constituencies are morally reprehensible (though clearly on different levels). 

The justification of any of these responses, though informed by historical, social, economic, religious and cultural specificity, is an exercise in sweeping something unsavoury under a carpet.  It’s fine today, but it will cause an ungodly stink tomorrow.  The romantic in me says that it’s an avoidance of debate, an unwillingness to engage in dialogue, and shirks the moral responsibility that each of us have to stand up for things that we believe in, but in a way that is constructive, open and forthright.  Our liberal society is full of flaws (many of them inherent in liberalism), and our own practise is shaky at best, but the ability to say anything, and the imperative to speak against those things we disagree with are an ideal worth aspiring to in a democracy.

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