Take back the right to be offensive

By David T. Jones on November 4, 2010

“Freedom is the right to say things others don’t want to hear.”

~ George Orwell


After nine years of carefully navigating between the Scylla of global revenge against the Muslim world for 9/11 and the Charybdis of insisting Islam is inherently peaceful with the 9/11 terrorists depicted as nonreligious miscreants, we have gone aground.  

Americans are now impaled on the Constitutional imperative of First Amendment "free speech"-- which we have made even more a national shibboleth than the right to bear arms.  Over the years, it has mattered not that many other countries have scuttled free speech and/or neutered it in practice (if it might be interpreted as "hate speech," it must be foregone or punished).  We have exulted in discord.

Burn the American flag?  Free speech.  Burn the Bible?  Free speech.  Paint swastikas and march in Nazi uniforms?  Free speech.  Place the crucifix in a beaker of urine?  Free speech.  Depict Jesus Christ as the principal pederast leading a homosexual flock?  Free speech.  Pretty much the only limit has been burning witches.

So what was different with the Rev Terry Jones proclaiming that he will burn a stack of Qur'ans?  Wasn't it as much his right to burn a Qur'an as it is for anyone around the world to burn the U.S. flag, the Constitution, the Bible?  Are Americans to be responsible for the maniacal action of any yahoo anywhere in the world who takes offense at our existence?  

The traditional constraint on free speech has been the classic statement by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that no one has a right to cry "Fire" in a crowded theater (assuming that there is no fire).  But Holmes' hypothetical fire shouter is broadcasting a lie--he knows there is no fire.  The Rev Jones may be wrong (or right) regarding the invidious aspects of Islam, but his action is not the immoral equivalent of the Holmesian fire shouter.  

Western society is moving further and further away from the childhood adage that "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me."  Instead, we have embraced a version of self-censorship that has been labeled "politically correct" and desperately avoid words that are no longer deemed acceptable even in impolite society.  In so doing, we have conceded the ground of political dialogue to enemies of free speech, who make a fetish of being deliberately thin-skinned injustice collectors.  We are so fearful of the consequences of whatever may be regarded as offensive, that we preemptively duct-tape our lips, indeed revel in it as "sophisticated" post-national conduct.  

But we really are creating a society in which only the speech of minorities is protected--and that they have unlimited license to insult the majority.  Or do you really believe that visible (or invisible) minorities speak of majorities in Emily Post phraseology?  

To be blunt, we are cowards.  A soft answer turneth away wrath?  In your pipe dreams; a soft answer convinces the speaker that you are open to insult indefinitely or open to manipulation to say only what the terrorist wants said.  Thus in 1988 Salman Rushdie publishes  novel (Satanic Verses) and has required protection against death threats for almost a generation.  There should be a subsidized new edition annually.  Or the Jyllands-Posten publishes a dozen mildly satiric cartoons of Mohammed in 2006 and the Islamic world riots, reducing the Danes into cringing caricatures of their Viking ancestors and the rest of the world cowers in mealy-mouth fear of reprinting them.  Every newspaper should rotate one on its editorial page every day.

To be sure, fear is not baseless: narcoterrorists in South America murder offending/crusading journalists.  Less than a month ago still another terror-bomber attempted to attack Jyllands-Posten (unsuccessful partly because the bomber was technically incompetent).  And even a semi-satirical effort by cartoonist Molly Norris to defuse the issue with more cartoons ("Everybody Draw Mohammed Day") backfired.  Reportedly, the FBI cautioned her after a fatwa called for her death; she has changed her name and gone into hiding.  

We need to take back the right to be offensive--as offensive as those who offend us.  We need not accept as our paradigm the classic description of a Canadian as one who says "Pardon me" when someone steps on his/her toe.  We should be able to do more than temporarily withdraw an ambassador from Tehran when Canadian citizen Zahra Kazemi is raped, tortured, and murdered for taking photographs.  The terrorist is the ultimate bully; but the successful bully convinces victims to capitulate with barely a muscle flex.  

Perhaps semi-clandestine Predator strikes are our answer.


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