Muhammed Cartoon in French Magazine: This is Not How We Should Be Using Free Speech


In the wake of all the deadly, Anti-American protests across the Middle East allegedly in response to the Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s film Innocence of Muslims, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has today decided to place its stamp on the controversy and publish a cartoon that is apparently offensive to Muslims. The cartoon immediately evoked questions about free speech.

I can appreciate, deify, encourage, celebrate … practically everything but masturbate to free speech and the protection of it, but up until maybe 10 years ago I hadn’t had the empathy and moral compass (both of which I’ve found to come quite natural to a liberal mindset) to account for taste. After a while, I came to the realization that there was probably a difference between the freedom to speak one’s mind and the freedom to offend someone, and that the elusive force that keeps people from crossing the border from the former to the latter is a matter of respect, decency, and ultimately intelligence.

Up until a few weeks ago, prior to reading Ascent of the A-Word by Geoffrey Nunberg, I had been relapsing into my pugilistic 15-year-old phase, yelling at PolicyMic’s libertarians and conservatives and believing that my points would be more effective if I used insults. I had convinced myself that the people who disagreed with me, that the people who came to PolicyMic with hard heads and unwavering views, didn’t care much for changing their minds. Believing that people approached debates with their minds stubbornly made up, I stubbornly made up my own mind, flooded it with generalizations, and stopped debating entirely. Instead, I elected to be an asshole. And I’m pretty sure, during that short-lived, frustrated phase, I didn’t really change anyone’s mind.

In short, I abused my free speech — and it got me nowhere.

Granted, free speech technically does not (and, I guess, in a perfect world, should not) inhibit one’s right to offend someone. I don’t believe in censorship. But unfortunately we’ve yet to develop enough of a collective conscience — a common sense — to use free speech in the most constructive way.

Every idiot who blasphemed Islam loud enough, knowing full well how an overly-sensitive, hyper-religious, ultra-zealous populace would react to perceived blasphemies, ended up inciting riots; and in one case I’m aware of, one of them got himself killed (yes, he played just as much a role in his own death as his killer). I’m not saying they deserve to be blamed, or — Theo van Gogh’s case — that they had it coming. Please understand that. I’m disgusted with animal-like behavior, but I’m at least consciously not prepared to lower myself to that medieval level. However, people’s disgust with Muslim thugs (whom I’m willing to bet are a minority and therefore aren’t representative of the Islamic world — even if they probably would claim to be) need to begin seriously asking themselves, what did you expect? What else could have you expected?

A mentor of mine, a lawyer, had to remind me when I’d been angrily expressing my frustrations with the Muslims who’d been storming U.S. embassies and consulates of the principle of accountability, which was a wonderful slap in the face: The people who author these inherently insulting cartoons or produce these inherently insulting videos were so preoccupied with their right to say something that they ignored the question of whether or not they were prepared to hold themselves accountable for what they say.

There will no doubt be some libertarians who’d take issue with this article, and to them I ask: Do free speechers think about that when they open their mouths? Do they think about the violence they may incite? Did it not occur to Nakoula that perhaps he wasn’t going to be the one who’d suffer the consequence of his video?

It definitely didn’t occur to the four Americans who were blown up in a car in Libya thereafter.

Instead of entertaining our masochistic fetish for angering people and inciting riots; instead of dwelling on why these people can’t relax and have civil, adult conversations about religion; and instead of shooting away at Muslims in the holy name of free speech first (and aiming later), why don’t we avoid being assholes — like me — and actually think about constructive, innocuous, and more nuanced strategies for educating the ignorant? Why can’t we be adults ourselves and explore ways to bring people to the table and encourage dialogue? The First Amendment doesn’t say anything about, at all costs, celebrating it on some specified Sabbath, or glorifying the men who conceived it, or pardoning people to be morons and beckoning them to abuse it. I’d like to believe that, as the dominant species of this planet, we’re better than that.

Yes, we have the constitution, and we should all be grateful for that. But we also have brains (most of us anyway). Maybe that’s why we run to the Constitution so much; perhaps we’re becoming more and more afraid of thinking.