Comedian Ricky Gervais is an in-your-face atheist who makes a good living offending people. A year ago in an interview in The New Humanist Magazine, a British atheist publication, the politically-incorrect Gervais foreshadowed necessary context for the violent umbrage Muslims take toward offenses to their religion. Funny thing is that it also applies to “offended” censorship-law-passing types.
Gervais said, “You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended.” Are you listening, Muslim world?
Offensive speech happens. The truth offends liars. George Carlin’s seven words you can never say on television offends prudes. Opinions contrary to your own offend you. Mocking religious beliefs offends those holding them.
Given the murder of four U.S. diplomats and the storming of U.S. embassies in the Middle East, Muslims must have been quite offended. Justification was ostensibly a made-in-America YouTube video titled Innocence of Muslims that allegedly disparages Mohammed. To Muslims, we’re told, this is an offense punishable by death, hence riots ensued.
Of course with the Obama administration it’s never cut and dry. Despite days of grin-and-bear-it denials, it’s clear that the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya where the four American diplomats were murdered was an al Qaida-backed, planned terrorist attack.
That hasn’t prevented hand-wringing over how America is still responsible for the attacks because it allowed the production and publication of the video – actually a trailer for what we’re told is a feature-length film - on the Internet. And it hasn’t prevented calls to restrict to the point of criminalizing the video’s content and other inflammatory or provocative speech
I haven’t seen the trailer, and I won’t see the trailer - I don’t need to stick my head in a badly clogged toilet to know that it stinks.
But I have read a Los Angeles Times column and letters to the editor in The Seattle Times (here and here) and the Newark Star-Ledger that express outrage less over violence and murder and more over how those who hurt feelings or bruise sensibilities should be subject to prior restraint (“a line be drawn somewhere”) or criminally charged (“any person insensitive enough to provoke such a response should be considered to have performed an unlawful act and subject to appropriate punishment”).
Only in Seattle can someone suggest with a straight face that the First Amendment and freedom of speech are out of date and treasonable.
The LA Times column, a breathtaking apologetic for censorship of “provocation (that) is certainly irresponsible”, is worse since it was written by a former journalist, who was a top advisor to former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Careful - the next provocative copy to be censored may be your own.
Since I’m a grumpy old man with a short fuse who finds attempts to limit free speech so offensive as to drive me to untoward action, under their theory the lot of them should be tossed into jail for provoking me into maybe doing something.
Even President Obama endorses such thinking. The White House tried twisting the arm of Google to withdraw the trailer after publicly condemning it and expressing regret that it hurt the feelings of Muslims. Defending the First Amendment was an afterthought. To its credit, Google told the Obama administration to pound sand.
When the riots in the Middle East started, the first utterance from an American official was a mea culpa statement of regret from the American embassy in Cairo. It was red meat to the mad-dog mob.
But this is how it starts: intemperate words or an ugly image, the mad dash to appease, the slightest suggestion that freedom should have limits, a few sentences in columns here and there, a speech or two, someone’s elected on that platform, then a lawyer files a complaint and eventually a judge rules that there’s an exception to what had been taken for granted for centuries.
Hurting someone’s feelings or sense of esthetics or even their religious beliefs isn’t an imminent clear and present danger justifying censorship, book burning or speech cops – bruised egos shouldn’t torpedo the Constitution.
If you have a beef, write a letter to the editor, organize a boycott, stage a peaceful protest but let the free marketplace of ideas sort out and resolve the issue. Don’t torch buildings and kill people. Be offended all you want, but you don’t have the right to demand not to be offended and enforce your sense of offense through violence or outlawing what you don’t like. This is an American value that must be driven home to the entire world, Muslims included.
The Tony-Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon may, I’m told, be as offensive to Mormons as Innocence of Muslims is to Muslims, but you don’t see cadres of guys on bicycles in short-sleeved white shirts and black slacks and neckties storming Broadway with firebombs, automatic weapons and RPGs. And you don’t read columns and letters to the editor demanding the musical be closed down because it’s offensive and irresponsible provocation.
The right to hold and express an opinion, even an offensive one, is as fundamental to a democratic society as a free press or the free exercise of religion, which are probably equally out of date and treasonable to that offensive guy in Seattle.