Free Speech, Riots And Incitement To Hatred

The recent rioting in the Arab World has raised controversy and difficulties over how to balance respect and tolerance of others with the right to free speech. Are people free to criticize, even if this will cause offence? Should we ban offensive comments in order to keep the peace? Or is that rewarding violence? Should people be free to incite hatred? Even if it leads to deaths? Does the right to free speech include the right to insult?

It’s hard to believe that the controversy was caused by such a worthless piece of crap. The trailer for a movie called The Innocence Of Muslims (apparently this was deliberately misleading so as to trick Muslims into watching the film). It’s not entirely clear who made the film bit it seems to be a person convicted of fraud funded by a hate group. It’s completely dreadful. It’s the standard of a school play. The acting is painful, being mainly composed of people shouting lines in a monotone. The costumes look like they were looking through an attic and wore whatever they found, while the set is non-existent. So how did it provoke so much anger and violence?

Let me just say that I know hardly any Muslims are deeply offended by this or rioting, just as not every Irish person is in the IRA. Let me be clear that I am referring to the handful of extremists who give the rest of us a bad name. A couple hundred fanatics don’t represent one billion people. There is also a cultural divide. Most protests have been in repressive countries where the state strongly controls society and the media. The rulers can easily ban anything they disagree with. The protesters don’t realise the different culture in the West where state and society are separated. In those countries there is less individualism and more collective responsibility for actions.

The real question is should it have been allowed. YouTube has blocked the video in several countries and a host of spokespeople have condemned it for being deliberately provocative (a fair point). Some say it should have been banned. However this would be a grave mistake. Free speech is an essential part of a democracy and we must be free to criticize everything and anything. Nothing can be above criticism. Refusal to accept criticism is a sign of weakness and insecurity. It implies that what is criticized is fragile and will collapse under the slightest criticism. If instead the fanatics challenged people to criticize Islam that would show that they are confident their beliefs are true and will stand up to rigorous testing. Refusal to criticise means society is an acceptance of mediocrity. It is only through criticism that we can improve things by removing the bad and valuing the good. A society that does not criticise is a stagnant society.

Imagine I released a similar video but instead of mocking Muhammad, I instead mocked Mitt Romney. Should that video be banned? After all it would offend most Republicans. What if they responded by burning my house down? Would I have deserved it? Should I be criticized or should the violent thugs? What’s the difference between criticizing politics and criticizing religion? They should be treated the same.

If we censor this not only are we rewarding violence but where do we draw the line? Will we ban everything that’s offensive? The popular Irish satirical comedy show The Savage Eye has a running joke where it blames the Catholic Church for all of Ireland’s problems (see below for a compilation of some of its skits, they’re hilarious). It also describes priests as child abusers (physically and sexually). Should we ban it? What if some Catholic extremists started burning embassies, then would we ban it? What about the Life Of Brian which subtly parodies Jesus? It actually was banned in Ireland upon release in 1979 (that’s what happens when you give the Church too much power). Should we criticize Monty Python for being provocative or should grow up and accept that an important quality is the ability to laugh at yourself?

Let’s be clear. It’s a terrible movie that extremists on both sides are exploiting for their own purpose. But an essential part of liberty is the freedom to express yourself no matter how stupid or insulting it is. If we censor this dreadful movie then we lose a part of our freedom and reward the violent fanatics.

2 thoughts on “Free Speech, Riots And Incitement To Hatred”

  1. I read online a few days ago a proposal by some muslim cleric asking for an international treaty to ban ridiculing of any religion, and I said what nonsense!
    You have said it well.

  2. Well put. My best friend is a Muslim and she is more offended by the actions of the extremists that the video. I have very mixed feelings about free speech. I think it mostly stems from the God hates Fags people. Sometimes freedom of speech is abused and it constitutes what is verbally a hate crime. White Supremacists for example fall into that category. There is a difference between criticism, satire and inciting hate.

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