Posted on 14-09-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

Free speech has been in the news a lot lately.  From the blasphemy set up of an underage Pakistani Christian child with Downs syndrome, to a cartoonist who hurt the tender sensibilities of India’s ruling class and in the last few days the Islam bashing cheap production that predictably has drawn mobs out all over the Muslim world.  Two questions are raised by these brouhahas.  First, is violence, particularly mob violence, an appropriate response to speech – however insulting?  Second, what is the culpability of the person uttering the offensive speech?

On the first issue, I cannot think of any justification for the type of rioting taking place in Egypt and now Yemen and other places (Libya may have been a terrorist hit on the anniversary of 9/11).  On a personal level I suppose I can make a case for self defense in the event of imminent bodily harm.  The penalization of fighting words varies across the globe – though typically is a prosecutable offense in certain jurisdictions and not a license to fisticuffs.  But in the final reckoning, the primary blame should fall on the person who responds to words with violence.

A few years ago I had a discussion with a hyper-religious neighbor who was loudly asserting that free speech was not a license to say whatever you wanted.  The comment was ironical given that he did not understand that his previous statement informing me of my ultimate fate in hellfire for my choice of deity was extremely offensive even if it was a core belief for him.

Freedom of speech implies the freedom to offend – otherwise it would not be a freedom that needed codifying.  The obvious question is how far can you offend and what can you make offensive statements about.  On this issue there is wide divergence.  Countries prone to ethnic or religious violence are very sensitive about statements intended to incite, and they prohibit such statements.  Others like some European countries have tried to erase a history of discrimination and prohibit racist of bigoted statements in a surfeit of political correctness.  And then you get countries like Pakistan, where the practitioners of the whose majority religion are so insecure in their faith that they penalize blasphemy with the death penalty.

The problem with these restrictions is that they infantalize public dialogue to the level of the most thin skinned cry baby in the community.  Blasphemy laws are even worse because they can be misused.  For lightening the mood of this discussion Monty Python’s mockery of blasphemy laws in a Life of Brian is posted below:

 

 

In my opinion the American rule of free speech is something that should be a desirable goal.  It requires maturity on the part of society to take to heart the old nursery rhyme on Sticks and Stones.  But while I disagree with criminal liability for the speaker, I do not wish to absolve them of any criticism.  It is one thing to toss out a provocative hypothesis to advance a discussion.  It is another to throw a match on gasoline in the form of taunts, abuses and other offensive statements just to get a rise out of someone.  Most human beings engage in self-censorship from time to time as a basic element of good manners or the understanding that rights do not exist in a vacuum.  They co-exist with responsibility in creating the obligations of citizenship.  The American constitution (in contrast to the Indian constitution) does not explicitly spell them out, but they are implied in the desire to form a more perfect union.  By leaving it to implication they are relying on the judgment of the citizenry in deciding the narrow line between advancing public debate and tossing the match.

In my opinion the producers of the Islam bashing film and for that matter the Islamophobes who infest the right-wing commentariat do the latter.  So while the rest of us protect the rights of these bigots to speak, we should be free to condemn as harshly as possible the content and intent of the speech.

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