Outrage: Videos, Violence and Lessons Learned
Every once in a while I go through some serious soul searching about my commitment to freedom of speech. It happens when hateful or destructive speech is protected – like pornography for example. I think pornography is toxic and should be banned along with all other environmental pollutants. Hate speech is another one. A few years ago a member of a hate group from my North Chicago suburb went on a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana targeting African Americans and Asians that took the life of Northwestern’s basketball coach, Ricky Birdsong. I couldn’t help but feel queasy about defending his right to hate speech – was I right to separate his speech from his actions, protecting one and condemning the other? Now protestors across the Arab world are trying to understand how we can protect a video that mocks their religion as free speech. Something about their question is giving me that queasy feeling, as if my commitment to free speech is preventing me from seeing something important. But what?
Before we can tackle that question, we should recognize that there is a second issue here: violence. The question about free speech is complicated by the violent reaction that has taken the lives of many, including J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya. If you follow me you know that I have no queasiness about condemning violence no matter the justification. Secretary of State Clinton expressed it well – “To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible… It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage. But as we said yesterday, there is no justification — none at all — for responding to this video with violence.” Clearly, the violence is the wrong way to voice your objections, but the question remains: should speech with a “deeply cynical purpose” to “provoke rage” be protected?
I’m not the only American to feel queasy about this question, nor is it the first time we have asked it. A portion of American law is devoted to parsing the type of speech that is protected and the type that isn’t. Google, the parent company of YouTube, followed that approach when it set up standards for videos on its site. Though Google does prohibit pornography and hate speech, the company decided that the video in question didn’t violate its standards because even though it was hate speech, the hate was directed toward Islam and not toward “Muslim people”. That is an intriguing place to draw the line – your video can express hate against an institution but not people. But what if others would draw the line in a different place? The White House drew it in a different place, but Google rejected their request to take down the video. By the objections to the video coming out of Egypt and Libya, it seems they draw the line in a different place as well. What are we to think about that?
David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times reporter, offered insight into why Muslims think this video should not be counted as protected speech in a must read article, but before I share some highlights from his article, I want to make a very important point. If you think the violence we are witnessing is about religion, or that the cause is the same in each circumstance, you are mistaken. As explained on a great Worldview program on WBEZ radio with Jerome McDonnell, the violence is political and cynical. Just as right wing elements in the US are provoking fear and hatred of Islam to whip up partisan fury through this video, right wing elements in the Muslim world use the same video to provoke fear and hatred of the US and to whip up partisan fury. Please do not get seduced into thinking that the Arab world is more violent than we are, unfit for democracy, or religiously intolerant. That is not what is happening in Libya and Egypt – we do not know who exactly committed the attack on the Consulate that killed Ambassador Stevens but we do know this: as reported by David Kirkpatrick and colleagues, “in the days after the attack far larger crowds than the one that attacked the mission turned out in both Tripoli and Benghazi to demonstrate their sadness at [Ambassador Stevens] death and their support for the United States.”
So, back to Kirkpatrick’s article about where Muslims might draw the line. The thoughtful, nonviolent and sincere critique of where Google drew the line coming from Muslims revolves around a profound cultural difference, a difference we in the West consistently fail to understand in our dealings with the Arab world. The headline of Kirkpatrick’s article referred to it as a “cultural divide” and indeed, cultural differences often lead to tragic misunderstandings and I think that is what is happening here. Even more than our commitment to freedom of speech, Americans defend the rights of individuals. All our rights and freedom discussions revolve around individual rights and freedoms. As Google said, it’s okay to hate an institution, but not people. That’s a very American thing to say. In the Arab world, freedom is a deeply held value but, according to Kirkpatrick, the word is nestled in “a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.” Or as Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said in the article: “The message [we are hearing] is we [Americans] don’t care about your beliefs – that because of our freedom of expression we can demean them and degrade them any time, and we do not care about your feelings.”
Valuing the rights of a community to be protected from insult arises out of the Muslim world’s deep commitment to religious diversity. The Middle East is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – it was a melting pot long before the US claimed that as part of our identity. For a diverse group of people to live together in peace, perhaps the wisest foundation is not individual rights but cultural respect. That’s hard to think about when right wing elements are grabbing the headlines, but Muslim’s focus on cultural institutions might be what’s been missing from our discussions about protected speech. Adding cultural respect into the mix might help with that queasy feeling. My suggestions is that rather than retreat into easy condemnation of the violence or righteous judgments about Islamic immaturity or incompatibility with freedom or democracy, we might instead try to learn what we can from the Arab world’s long experiment in multicultural living. Are we mature enough to not be sidetracked by right wing forces here and abroad who peddle hate and foment violence? Are we secure enough to accept constructive criticism from an ancient culture? If we want to be able to answer “yes” to these questions, perhaps we should follow this advice from the sayings of Muhammad: The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said to one of his companions: “Son, if you are able, keep your heart free from malice toward anyone.” Al-Tirmidhi:59