Balancing free speech in a world of turmoil
by Timothy J.A. Passmore
Sep 21, 2012 | 430 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It’s an age-old question that has been pored over and debated by political theorists and others for years: What limitations, if any, should be placed on one’s freedom of expression, whether it be through personal speech or in the press? This notion has taken center stage this week following the release of a frankly idiotic film in the U.S., as well as a series of cartoons in a French magazine, both mocking the prophet Muhammad.

Constitutionally, both the freedom of speech and that of the press are guaranteed in the First Amendment here in the United States. We tend to chide other countries that censor free speech, the press and the Internet. In some instances, we may even oppose certain expressions of this freedom, such as with the Westboro Baptist Church or the KKK, yet the protection of the underlying principle is so sacrosanct that the good tends to outweigh the bad. But is the justification of that freedom less clear when such expressions lead to chaos, death and possibly even war?

Gone are the days when conflicts between nations were based on political or personal feuds between kings and emperors. Instead, a critical role has been adopted by sub-state actors, whether it be individuals, groups such as paramilitary or terrorist organizations, or indeed the general public. Exposure to the words and actions of peoples in other countries is more accessible than ever, since the Internet and global media leave little hidden from the public eye. In many instances this has reinforced cleavages between groups that have greater exposure to one another’s cultures and differences. In short, the actions of one person or group could quite conceivably start an international war.

One has to wonder at the motives of individuals such as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, creator of the film “Innocence of Muslims,” which has caused widespread protests by Muslims around the world and has resulted in numerous deaths, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Heeding little from that, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo decided to publish “crude caricatures” of the Islamic prophet this week which instantly set French embassies around the world on alert, and will inevitably lead to more destruction.

One would suspect that the puerile and foolish motives behind the film and comic strip are nothing but profit mongering. Artists and the media have long understood the value of shock in being successful. In a world where the public demands scandal and outrage, it makes good business sense for a newspaper to publish, say, nude pictures of the future Queen of England.

However, most of those individuals also understand the potential repercussions of playing with fire. When Salman Rushdie published the highly controversial “Satanic Verses” in 1988, a fictional work considered blasphemous by Muslims, angry protests ensued, resulting in a number of deaths and a fatwa against Rushdie’s life.

Two decades later, with much greater exposure to foreign media and years of rising tensions between the Middle East and the West, similar actions promise to ignite a much more fierce response. Movie producers and magazine editors may feel they are being “edgy” and controversial, and they may stand defiantly by their decisions in a show of bravado, but actions such as these are hugely irresponsible and more than ever raise the question of censorship.

It’s not impossible to think that some might even be trying to “immanentize the eschaton,” or bring on the end of times. Knowing the reaction that will come to such inflammatory actions, why else would one take a cheap and grotesque shot at a religion’s revered leader, if not to incite all-out war? The Middle East is a fragile place right now, finding its way into a new era where democracy and Islam must align. Relations with the United States are finely balanced and could go in a number of directions. Perhaps some would see the future laden with conflict rather than peace.

Censorship is a slippery road. No one would sanction a state-controlled media in the U.S., and certainly open criticism is good for society. However, it is of paramount importance to understand the weight of one’s words and actions, particularly when directed at another culture in times of global instability. Little good can come from selfish acts such as those who made that film, and to the extent that such acts are leading to death and turmoil around the world, perhaps a revisiting of the limitations of the freedom of expression would not go amiss.