Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Does Freedom of Speech Mean To You? Part 3

My friend, David Matthews II, host of the ShockNet Radio program "Brutally Honest" posted (on 17 September) a fascinating analysis of how the by-now infamous "movie trailer" containing insults to islam (that triggered riots leading to deaths) relates to the topic of free speech.

He concludes with:

This video was done under a cloud of deception and misdirection. Their intentions are in doubt. They knew what kind of audience they were focusing on. If they wanted to show just how ugly and ill-tempered and ultimately fatalistic the Muslims can be, well, congratulations, they succeeded. And just as a bonus, they will get the very groups they otherwise denigrate – the ones that defend the un-defendable – to support their right to show that video. 

In other words, despicable things are going to be defended by staunch defenders of free speech - after all, the point is that free speech only has real meaning when it is granted to those with whom you disagree.  Going along with free speech is easy (and meaningless) when the words (and intentions) are congruent with your own.

David talks about the intentions of the film makers - although he concedes that he can't be certain what they were.  Nevertheless, it seems reasonably likely that their intentions could have been to provoke the sort of reaction from radical muslims that actually occurred.  Let me assume for the moment that this is truly the case - their intention was to provoke a violent reaction from the muslims.

David also talks about the limits to free speech, using the familiar example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  Obviously, if the intent is to cause panic (which could well result in casualties) in a case where there actually is no such fire, then it's widely accepted that this oversteps the bounds of free speech.  There's a judicial test of speech that seeks to draw a line regarding inflammatory speech, called the "incitement test" - in reference to words "inciting" violence.  As found at this site, the test is simply 

... the government may prosecute words that are "triggers to action" but not words that are "keys of persuasion."

Note that shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when no such fire is present uses no words that are explicit calls for action, but it can be argued that this single word "Fire!" is implicitly a trigger to action.  A fine line, here.  But drawing such a line is important, no? 

How does the infamous YouTube video situation fare using this incitement test?  David argues that events in recent history make it clear what muslims are likely to do when something comes out in the media that is perceived as disrespectful to islam.  Hence, any such blatant insults to islam, like those contained in this "trailer" (Does a full-length film actually exist?  I doubt it.), are virtually certain to incite violence.

But wait ... the "trailer" had a relatively long, quiescient history on the Internet, having first been posted some time ago.  It was only when someone posted about it on an Arabic-language blog did anyone in the islamic world even know about the existence of this video.  From there, it seems it "went viral" amongst muslims, triggering the riots.  The reactions to the video depended on getting the attention of the target audience.  Famous people are more likely to incite international reactions than nobodies.  Insults on a movie screen in a theater are more visible than those spoken in a tavern.

I've long held that words have no intentions associated with them - they're just words.  Some of them may be offensive to some people (who must choose to be offended by such words) and so could be considered provocative.  But not all uses of a particular word have clearly-associated intentions.  Compare the intentions of the word 'nigger' when used between two African-Americans, versus when used by a Ku Klux Klan member using it to describe an African-American.  Same word - two different intentions.  

Hence, we can't look to the objective reality of words to evaluate intent.  My friend David has evaluated intent and leans toward proposing that this violence-provoking YouTube video was intended to incite violence.  But the video contains no explicit calls to violent actions in its words.  We all know how muslims react to insults to islam ... but this video might fail the standard incitement test described above, unless the video implicitly is a "trigger to action".  Another fine line to draw.

Some friends and I are engaged in provocative presentations at American Heathen - the host (RJ Evans) has been the target of death threats, as has co-host Al Stefanelli.  None of us have made any secret of the fact that we have the same absence of respect for islam as we have for christianity.  Of course, at the moment, we're babbling away in relative obscurity.  What might happen if our program becomes well known nationally and internationally? 

Given this, here's what I worry about.  I have no problem if I start receiving death threats directed at me.  I'm willing to die for the cause of Freedom and Liberty for All that we espouse on American Heathen.  But what if our program gets popular enough to draw the attention of the fanatics (christian and muslim fanatics are hard to tell apart!) and in protest they blow up a building and innocent people become casualties.  I would not at all feel good about such an outcome.  

However, the issue comes down to this:  if I believe in Freedom and Liberty for All, am I willing to silence myself voluntarily owing to the actions/reactions of fanatics about my words?  Do I muzzle myself even in the face of a possibility of a violent reaction?  No matter how awful it would be for people to become victims through a reaction to my words, my commitment to this cause is no less deep than the commitment of the fanatics to theirs.  Does that make me a fanatic?  I think not.  Although I'm willing to die for my beliefs, I'm not willing to kill or injure anyone (except in self-defense) for any cause.  No cause, however otherwise noble, is worth supporting if it advocates or condones the use of violence on innocents to further its goals.  If anyone is so offended by what I say that they're moved to violence, they should have to courage to attack me directly, not visit their vengeance on innocent people.  If they do so, however, it will not silence me!

If we surrender our freedoms, especially the freedom of speech, in order to avoid "offending" fanatic muslims (or fanatic christians) who then express themselves via violence, then we're simply allowing ourselves to be intimidated by weaklings, who have no other means of achieving their ends but by terror visited on innocents.  They are consummate cowards!  I spit on them and their causes!!  We will not give up our freedoms willingly in the face of terrorism.  The terrorists will have succeeded if we do so!!

For your convenience, here are links to Part 2 and Part 1  

1 comment:

Garrett Fornea said...

The statement in bold - that free speech only has real meaning when granted to those you disagree with - reminds me of a quote by Thomas Paine, which I recently posted on my Facebook. The quote states:
"He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."