Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Is freedom more trouble than it is worth?

Reviewing a book about blasphemy and apostasy laws worldwide, Claire Berlinski makes some points that seem even more relevant after our government's reaction to the violent Islamist reaction to that film. We need to be certain about what we believe.
...[W]e must resist these bans for our own sake. This we can and must do. Students now coming of age at European and American universities will not remember the intellectual and moral climate in 1989 after Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was published. I was at the time studying at the most left-wing college at Oxford University, where the embrace of every old-fashioned pinko platitude was commonplace and the college turtle was named Rosa Luxemburg. But I do not recall one single student, one single academic, expressing anything but proper outrage upon learning of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. There was perfect moral clarity: the fatwa was the very essence of savagery, and it was unimaginable that we should dream of compromising with those who would issue such a thing.

Compare this to the reaction to the case of Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who in 2010 drew a cartoon in honor of "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." Following the pronouncement of a death sentence upon her, she was effectively forced into the equivalent of an FBI witness protection program. She no longer exists. Her identity has been erased. But popular sentiment, in this case, was mixed: many were outraged, but this comment, posted below the news item reporting the story, was not anomalous:
I will say that what she did was shortsighted and frankly kind of dumb. While I believe in free speech I also believe that if I say something offensive I'm likely to receive unpleasant reprisal and if I were to attack a religious group known for defending their beliefs with violence by creating a contest desecrating their most holy of symbols I could end up with a lot of death threats and possibly end up dead in a ditch. So, frankly, I don't feel sorry for her.
This failure to grasp the very point of freedom of expression, and its connection to civilization, represents not a revolutionary change of mind in the world, which has always been savage, but a revolutionary change of mind in the West, which for a too-brief moment was not. ....

...[T]he inherent right to believe as one's reason and conscience dictate, free from political penalties or state coercion [is what makes] blasphemy and apostasy laws a violation of human rights and dignity. But this does not mean that we have a right not to be contradicted or offended, or to exact bloody revenge when we are. Yet the majority of human beings throughout history and throughout the world today consider freedom of religion an outrage and suspect intuitively that unfettered freedom of speech would be the expressway to chaos, ethnic cleansing, and the breakdown of social order. There is much in human experience to suggest they are right.

It is only in this broader context that we can understand how quickly and readily the West has collectively decided that freedom of speech might be more trouble than it's worth. The problem is not so much the Islamic world, which is typical of the world as it has always been; it is our own fragile commitment to liberty.
It seems to me that freedom of political and religious expression ought to be something all Americans, from right to left, should affirm and defend. We have become much too tender-hearted to those with grievances at the expense of a robust defense of freedom. Free speech means nothing unless it protects unpopular speech from violence or legal sanction.

The Claremont Institute - First Freedoms