Blasphemy, Free Speech, and Dangerous Things
„With great freedom, comes great responsibility“
(paraphrasing Spiderman and… Voltaire)
During the past few weeks we’ve witnessed violent riots in several Muslim countries, protesting against a film that (to their opinion) insults Mohammed, their prophet.
The discussion of these incidents in western media and politics as well as on social media platforms was a mix of two othering-strategies:
On the one hand occidentalistic (in the post-colonial meaning) opinions and world-views, often including many prejudices about and generalizations of Muslim and/or Arab culture.
On the other hand, there was a clear dissociation from the creators of the film and its content.
For a long time, I found it very hard to constitute my opinion on the matter, until a survey in Germany made me realize that we might be discussing the wrong issue. In the survey, 47% of the participants supported banning the video. That is, 47% chose against blasphemy on the cost of setting (another) precedent for a limitation of free speech.
Freedom of opinion and freedom of speech cannot facilitate themselves
They require (among others!) a society which enables marginal (and sometimes extreme) opinions to be heard but at the same time is also sensitive to the opinions and emotions of others.
The former without the latter is like a “democracy”, in which the majority decides but the rights of the minority are not protected. That is, no democracy.
Free speech isn’t really free if the opinions of the privileged can ascend the opinion of the unprivileged/discriminated. It isn’t free if the privileged can say what they want without considering the consequences for others, less privileged persons.
This applies especially then, when a discourse crosses cultural, national, and geographical borders.
Which brings me to the next question:
Should content, which is published knowing that violent reactions will follow, be treated similar to content that explicitly incite violence (such as hate speech)?
(a similar question was also discussed by Padraig Reidy)
I say no. Maybe because I support radical free speech, maybe because I fear a dystopian future of the kind Ray Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451 (a book-less future, where the firemen’s task is to burn libraries together with their owner. A future, which was created gradually by limiting free speech in order to protect the feelings of different groups).
But that still wasn’t the main question. The main question is a meta-question about our society and its free speech. As I said in the beginning:
With great freedoms, comes great responsibility
Our society, especially in western democracies, urgently needs to start reflecting about its alleged free speech. Because granting free speech without educating about the power of speech, its possible consequences (for the self and for others), the respect for other opinions and beliefs etc. is not creating freedom – it’s creating power without responsibility.
The discussion of the film and its violent results isn’t a discussion about the creators of the film (them) and the participants of the violent riots (again, them).
It’s a discussion about us, about our society.
A society that constantly produces kinds of speech, which cross the line of how to express legitimate criticism and which try to influence (an already problematic) discourse by knowingly inciting disrespectful violence instead of respectful dialog.
Free speech per se isn’t a moral superiority, it’s the way we use it that defines our morals.
 Voltaire. Jean, Adrien. Beuchot, Quentin and Miger, Pierre, Auguste. “Œuvres de Voltaire, Volume 48″. Lefèvre, 1832