Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cutter Houck's Question: Speech, Hate, and Young Democracies

Mr. Cutter Houck of the great State of West Virginia wrote me on the AaPS Facebook page and asked:

"What did you think of the reaction to the film 'Innocence of the Muslims'?"

Hmm.  A number of things.  First, I was disgusted.  There is never any justification for arguing that speech, even disgusting, insulting, denigrating speech, justifies violence.  The deaths, injuries, and destruction of property associated with the reaction to the films are utterly unjustifiable.

Second, I feel like there is an enormous difference between protesting, boycotting, and engaging in condemnation, on the one hand, and explicit violence on the other. The majority of the contemporary disruption is not in violation of our own national ethics; if you don't like things in a free country, you say it.  We need to realize that if we want the world to be free we have to accept that sometimes we'll disagree, and many folk in the democratizing world, Islamic, Arab, and otherwise, that freedom demands discourse within rules, not violence.

Third, I think that the tenor and language of the protests, which is often being directed more towards the government of the United States than at the actual private actors reflects a number of other issues: (1) inadequate political education among the protesters; (2) a misunderstanding of the nature of the American system of freedom of speech (in most polities such a thing could not be published, or at least remain online, without explicit of implicit consent of the state); (3) a redirection of anger over other things, including oppressive policies of their own states, American foreign policy goals that include (at times) the support of oppressive authoritarian governments and support of the State of Israel; (4) careful orchestration by political factions and organizations that are anti-American, anti-European, and/or anti-liberalization.

Fourth, I feel pretty confident that the actual violence in most instances was organized by organizations that are one or more of the following - anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-liberalization, pro-radical fundamentalist Islam.  I could be wrong, of course, but I just don't think so.

Fifth, I think that the political leaders of many of these states need to toughen up and explicitly condemn the violence in terms that make it clear that violence is not justified just because one is offended - and I don't care if subjectivist apologists argue this constitutes a break in tradition - modernity and liberty demand nothing less.  Equally, however, Americans need to understand why that is so difficult.  These leaders are running extremely fragile political systems - systems that aren't recently coming out of a revolution: they are still deeply amid one.  A large portion of people in these nations are not culturally modern - they have not grown up in cultures of toleration - heck, let's be honest, every developed, modern, democratic nation has had serious problems at least as recently as the post-World War II period.  It takes time to develop a society based upon agreeing to disagree, to tolerate.  Until that culture exists, the language of leaders has to reflect a tolerance of their own for pre-modern perspectives or else risk plunging again into revolution, to be followed most likely by authoritarian governments even less friendly to American interests as they are dominated by radical religious fundamentalists or paranoid militarist nationalists.

I also want to recommend some pieces that I feel really provide some valuable insight, if you'd care to read them.

If you only have a chance to read or listen to one of these, check out this one (entitled "Culture Clash Over Free Speech") from NPR's The Diane Rehm Show with Steve Roberts guest hosting.

Foreign Policy: "Keep Calm and Carry On" by James Traub

Foreign Policy: "The Failure of #Muslimrage" by Marc Lynch

NPR: "US, Libyan Versions of Consulate Attack Diverge" by Dina Temple-Raston

NPR: "How Are American Muslims Responding to the Anti-Islamic Film?" by Reema Khrais

NPR: "Libyan Militiaman Says He Warned US of Dangers" by Leila Fadel

The Washington Post: "Government-allied Libyans seize militia bases in Benghazi after protest, deadly clashes" by Abigail Hauslohner

The Washington Post: "Libya's central government exercises little control outside capital" by Abigail Hauslohner


  1. Thank you for the response and the recommendations. Interesting analysis Dr. Smith. I did not see if you have seen the film. It's unwatchable. I do not agree with the Justice Department's request for Google to remove "Innocence of Muslims" (not Innocence of THE Muslims, my mistake) from YouTube. This event reminded me of the Muhammad South Park episode where the profit was blacked out and muted for fear of reprisal. Is this the tail wagging the dog? Yes.
    Sam Harris had an interesting take on this issue.

  2. Honestly, I haven't seen it and imagine I won't, unless some necessity emerges. I just don't feel a need to see to expose myself to it - I know its purpose, I know it is meant to inflame and insult, and for the time, at least, that is enough for me. That said, I agree with you - freedom of speech means freedom of offensive speech. I don't like it, but such is life. If YouTube wanted to take it down, such is their business (which is, to a degree, their speech), but the government has no right to call for such unless it calls explicitly for violence - at least that is my opinion. Also, thank you for the link - Sam Harris is an interesting fellow and while I agree that no ideological or faith group is under any obligation to justify other groups principles in toto, but I also have never been a fan of his wide brush approach to faiths, personally. I have one of his books though, and need to dig through it at some point.


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