I trust I’m not alone in spotting the following trend in conversations. I’m sure I’ve seen it as much on television as I have in personal exchanges. The discussion tends to proceed like this: Person A espouses position P; person B attacks position P; person A responds by noting they are entitled to hold position P.
The obvious problem is that such a reply is a blatant red-herring. It’s futile to invoke your right to hold and express a certain view because in having that view criticised, your right is not under attack. Freedom of speech does not require blind deference to the views of another, no questions asked. Engaging in debate does not undercut your liberty. The only time such a response would be appropriate is when your view is attacked with non-intellectual force; that is, with the threat of sanction by the state.
And that’s because noting what you are entitled to is an inherently political move. The state should provide the framework within which we don’t worry about its intervention, and we can all let rip with fierce discussion accordingly. A must respond to B’s attack on P with an argument, because I’m just another interlocutor like him. His rights are beside the point.
On a related note, though, whilst it’s advisable for the state to stay out of the business of imprisoning people for their opinions, it also seems wise to see them as having a more positive duty to defend that very system by standing up for free speech. And what it certainly shouldn’t do is utilise public institutions and platforms to criticise and condemn particular speech-acts. That’s like a referee entering the game of football by putting one team’s striker through on goal with the ball.
What the hell, then, is going on in Egypt? Some Muslims there have got pissed over the publication in America of a film that they perceive to be mocking Mohammed. They want it banned. The US Embassy is gathering some heat as a consequence. So the Embassy released a statement embracing the First Amendment and refusing to get involved in the substantive discussion, right?
No. Not at all:
A United States Embassy official had no immediate comment on the protesters’ actions, but the embassy had put out a statement earlier on Tuesday condemning those who hurt the religious feelings of Muslims or followers of any other religions.
“We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the embassy said in its statement…
“Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy,” the United States Embassy’s statement said, adding that it condemned the efforts by “misguided individuals” to hurt the feelings of Muslims.
Okay, there’s a defence of free speech in here. But it should be made period, categorical, case closed. Instead, we get this half-hearted cowardly qualification condemning the ‘hurt[ing]’ of feelings.
I can condemn that. As can you and these hurt Muslims. But the referee shouldn’t be voluntarily joining us. And none of us should be calling on him to do so.
[Update: I see immediately on Twitter that the situation has escalated somewhat, which I managed to miss. It’s even trending.
To pre-empt you all, I acknowledge that the statement could have been made dishonestly in an attempt to keep people calm and deflate the situation. If that is the case, then it’s obviously less bad. But I’m still left uneasy about the thought of an Embassy even partially pandering in public to the bad desires of an intolerant group because security concerns trump values. Evacuate the place, pump up its protection. But don’t ever play down America’s bold belief in free speech. That strikes me strongly as a path it would be pathetic to pursue. Small-scale clashes like this help to strike a tone, and they all collectively count.]
[Update II: One more afterthought. There’s another nuance in the Embassy’s statement that makes the precise mistake I noted in the first part of this post. They say that America believes in ‘respecting‘ religions, and then proceeds to condemn attempts to offend people of particular faiths. But, once more, the important sense of respect here is the willingness to tolerate, to offer legal protection. America does indeed believe in this. But that’s perfectly consistent with speech by individual citizens about religions that may offend people. This is a crucial distinction. The Embassy ignores it and makes it look like one point – condemning offensive speech – follows from the other – respecting religion. It doesn’t. And if instead they wish to define ‘respect’ more broadly as nobody saying anything offensive about the religion in question; well, that’s simply not the American ethos at all.]