Constructive Uses of Freedom

Anti-Muslim attention hound Pamela Geller hosted a "Draw Muhammad" event in Texas this past weekend. Perhaps unsurprisingly in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, it resulted in an attack by apparent Muslim extremists angered by the obvious provocation.

Incidents like this spark the never-ending debate about the limits---if there are to be any---of free speech. On one side, the absolutists who argue that absolute freedom of speech includes an absolute freedom from using good judgment. On another, religious hypocrites who insist they should be free to mock and ridicule others but would happily accept an American Christian theocracy. And on yet another side (this is a triangle), a bipartisan group of authoritarians who believe security is probably a good justification for curbing some mean language.

This is not going to be a "free speech is important, but..." college newspaper editorial. I, like the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, interpret the First Amendment strictly. It says government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, and I read that to mean "NO law." I think that rule applies to obscenity laws, so-called hate speech laws, and anything that would prohibit "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater," too. If I'm any kind of "qualified absolutist" as Justice Black has been described, the qualifications would be few and far between.

That said, you can simultaneously embrace the absolute freedom of speech but still believe that such freedom can and should be used for constructive ends. That's why events like Geller's bother me. Of course she and her supporters have the freedom to purposely provoke Muslims with cartoons of Muhammad. And of course nothing they did justifies the violent attack that resulted. But that still doesn't mean they're good or right or heroes for doing it. And I don't think the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, who frequently used racist caricatures to get across their satirical points, should be lauded as heroes of freedom, either. This is not at all to detract from the tragedy of their murders or justify the extremists who killed them.

Last month, cartoonist Gary Trudeau accepted a Polk Award for his long career with remarks that infuriated people who believe the freedom of speech justifies literally anything and everything people want to say. He urged cartoonists and satirists like those at Charlie Hebdo to avoid the urge to "punch down," and instead turn their wit and criticism against those in power. A marginalized minority religion is an easy target. Elites who exploit the masses (and can ruin your career or reputation if you raise their ire) are a more constructive punching bag.

Trudeau then addressed certain absolutists specifically:

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

This was not well received. David Frum took umbrage in the Atlantic, accusing Trudeau of victim-blaming and ignoring the real source of societal privilege---the will to violence. In my view, Frum tries too hard to wring sympathy for extremists and a desire for censorship from Trudeau's reasonable call for personal temperance. One can simultaneously believe that the freedom to be offensive should be protected but not necessarily used.

It is not anti-freedom to encourage people not to be assholes simply because they can be.

Which brings us back to the Geller event in Texas. The sole purpose of the event was to provoke anger among Muslims who Geller hates and smears at any chance she can get. Her hatred is tribal---an us-against-them, spiritual war between two mutually exclusive civilizations. Those who attended used their freedom only to incite, not for any constructive purpose.

Should we pass laws against events like that? No. There is no justification, whether it be to encourage religious or ethnic sensitivity or to prevent violent responses, for the government to attempt to curb religious criticism or blasphemy of any kind. America should become neither a police state nor a theocracy. But that's not where the discussion should end.

Yes, you have and should have the freedom to criticize any religion. But of what value is your criticism? Are you illuminating contradictions, or exposing corruption, or are you just harassing and ridiculing The Other as part of a tribal circle jerk? It is not unreasonable or fascist to suggest that our freedom can be used for more constructive ends than petty agitation.

Our diverse society includes people of as many different backgrounds and viewpoints as you can imagine. It is critical that we protect everyone's freedom to believe and say whatever they feel. It is also critical that we maintain a dialogue among each other to avoid or minimize unnecessary conflict that solves no problems and helps no one in need. That dialogue should begin with an affirmation of our freedom, not end there.