Freedom – At What Cost?

Charles Lane of The Washington Post wrote recently in defense of some cartoons that were published in a French magazine Charlie Hebdo, claiming that freedom of speech trumps everything else like common sense and decency. The cartoons apparently poked fun a the prophet Mohammed, and there were significant concerns that the publication of the cartoons could spur more violent protests and riots in the Middle East.

Perhaps that claim that freedom of speech trumps everything is a good policy when the only thing at stake is someone who has their feelings hurt or otherwise object to what is said or published. However, when the safety of many people are at stake, perhaps the policy doesn’t have to uphold a person’s right to make fun of another person’s religion just because they can.

We in the Western world understand satire and spoofs, but not all mid-east cultures do. They see those cartoons as a direct insult, and their reactions are not even in the same ballpark as ours. They don’t have a constitution that supports freedom of speech or an understanding of what that means. What they have is a long legacy of retaliation against anything they see as an insult. 

So maybe we need to be more mindful of that.

Back when Voltaire made his famous remark, “I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” he was speaking to people of a like mind. In the Western world at that time, most people acted and reacted with a sense of civility and decency. Direct attacks on religion or culture were not commonly made, and when they were, for the most part, responses were tempored with that same sense of civilty and decency.

That doesn’t happen anymore, and I cerainly would not like to see another 9/11 just so someone can make a film or draw a cartoon, or write an article that some radical extremest will take issue with.

On the other side of the issue, Charles Lane says that if we stop publishing the type of cartoons that the Islamist found offensive we are giving in to a “small handful of extremists who want to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave.”

I don’t think that asking people to stop and consider the consequences of what they say or write takes away from freedom of speech. They can still choose to go ahead, or they can make the decision not to because of the potential grave danger.

What do you think? Should our basic freedoms trump everything else?

9 thoughts on “Freedom – At What Cost?”

  1. Shouldn’t an element of freedom be self restraint. If I believe you are wrong, I should have the right to tell you and to give my reasons. But if I’m just being mean-spirited and want to call you names, should that be my “right”?

  2. Maryann, I think you are conflating freedom and judgment. We can enshrine freedom of speech in our Constitution, but we cannot do the same with common sense. The Constitution (to focus on the U.S. for a moment) states that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. So it allows criticism of the president, of religion, of the way your neighbor cuts his lawn. That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences–someone else might criticize you, poke you in the nose, or fly a plane into a building. Or maybe no one will do anything. We can never predict consequences with certainty.

    In the Middle East, there is a grievance industry. The Arab world has slipped behind the West in the last 400 years, and for some people it’s easier to blame someone than address the basic problems. I saw part of that hateful anti-Muslim video, and it’s trash. But no one would even have known about it unless someone had gone looking for dirt associated with that Florida minister. Then they told the Muslim world that they must be enraged, and many obeyed. Even so, the violent reaction may be traceable specifically to Al Qaeda and not to the general public.

    We live in a free society. Some people will always tell us we must not offend them, but haven’t you noticed that the demand for respect is often a one-way street? So no, I don’t think we should advise citizens to be careful what they say. Certain people will hate the United States because we are rich, powerful supporters of their sworn enemy Israel. Real or imagined insults to the Prophet are simply excuses.

  3. Interesting discussion. I think we need the right to practice common sense. L.D. Masterson said it well. Use self restraint and common sense when spouting opinions you know are going to cause ruffled feathers – or downright revolt! Laws and rules are there to keep things within bounds, yet there are always the rabid few who delight in stomping on the rules, and then getting bent outa shape when called on it. I think it’s called “human nature.” No one rule will ever fit everyone, because everyone is not the same.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Bob. I think we are basically on the same track with our thinking. My intent was not to say that we should infringe on free speech, just suggesting that we not knowingly incite violence just because we can. I think we can agree that the consequences of criticism or even a poke in the nose are not as serious as inciting some radical to commit some terrorist act. If we can use good judgement and not say or do something that will do that, I say we should use that judgement.

  5. I’m too lazy to research who it was that said it right now, but someone said something about how freedom of speech doesn’t extend to yelling FIRE! in a crowded theater. If that’s true, and I rather believe it is, how much worse is it to say or write something that you know may put countless people in danger? I certainly don’t condone the violent behavior of the protesters, but if we know in advance that such a murderous response is possible, or even likely, what sane person would deliberately seek to provoke such a response? To me, that isn’t a freedom of speech issue. It’s about taking responsibility for your own behavior, and giving a darn about your fellow human beings.

  6. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that, Susan.

    LD, if you want to call anyone nasty names, yes, that is your right, even though it be poor judgment.

    Maryann, if I make a vile anti-Muslim movie and no one sees it, can we agree that I haven’t incited any violence yet? Then if someone comes along looking for dirt and finds my movie, then denounces my previously unknown work to the world and causes riots to ensue, who is the inciter?

    What if you and I are having a private conversation, and I say, “Gosh, Maryann, I sure do hope those Ay-Rabs all burn in hell.” You take exception and tell some friends what I said. Word reaches an American Muslim who takes my comment as final proof that America is a hateful place. Did I not have the right to express my private opinion? Did you not have the right to tell someone about it? Same question about the Muslim.

    Life is full of unintended consequences.

  7. So true, Bob, but I think a key point is that the scenario you laid out started out with a private comment that was never intended to go public to offend anyone. The video and the cartoons that I cited in my original points were intended from the get-go to be public and the risk of offense was not only great but something the creators were well aware of.

    I think the points that some have made about stopping to use good judgement, still have validity without infringing on free speech.

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