Freedom of speech cornerstone of American identity, way of life

In the aftermath of the attacks on U.S. embassies in Benghazi and Cairo, many outlets rushed to condemn the creators of the film that supposedly prompted the attacks. The fact that information has emerged in recent days suggesting that the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was a calculated terrorist attack, possibly orchestrated by al Qaeda, is only part of what was wrong with the aforementioned reaction.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among the chorus of film-condemners. I’m sure the film may be gross and disrespectful and stupid and it may be true enough that America is not a nation founded on persecuting and ridiculing anyone’s religion. Also, the President and Clinton can be forgiven for statements they made in the hours during and immediately after the attack, when events were unfolding rapidly and they may have thought that words of appeasement could save lives. But in the long-term, it is not a good idea to condemn satirists or satire of religion without in the same breath upholding the importance of freedom of speech.

There is no principle more central to America and its very essence. Commerce has always existed, and many other great civilizations have been capitalist, after a fashion (the Greeks and Romans and most of Europe throughout the middle ages upheld property rights, at least for some). I believe the Greeks–not America– introduced separation of powers and, I believe, representative democracy.

But never has another civilization–great or small–upheld the principle of freedom of speech–at least not to the degree the United States has. And it is respect for this principle, with only the most narrowly tailored exceptions, that has allowed this country to be the freest–and also the most tolerant–society the world has ever known.

It is a paradox, of sorts. The fact that in this country, you can’t be prosecuted for speech, writing, depictions, etc. unless it is proven in court that you called for/incited violence that was carried out, for instance, or made threats, or abused children in order to express yourself, or intentionally damaged someone’s reputation in a measurably injurious way, is what enables us to be the freest, most creative, most tolerant country in history.

Think about it: if you never have to tolerate the opinions, ideas, or even insults of someone or some group you find offensive without becoming violent, you never need to develop the capacity for tolerance. Correspondingly, societies–like many across the Arab world today–in which certain subjects are not allowed to be discussed and certain words, views, and types of expression are illegal, are societies in which people never develop the capacity to tolerate views which offend them. After all, they don’t need to develop much capacity for tolerance when everyone pretty much holds the same views. Indeed, it is the very lack of freedom, including freedom of speech, that prevents these societies from maturing into their higher potential.

In general, groups that punish open debate and discussion are the most closed-minded and limited in their perspective. One does not need to go to the Muslim world to observe this phenomenon. It does exist, albeit to a lesser extent and thankfully not due to legal restrictions, even here in the U.S. Communities that are insular, in which members rarely associate with much less discuss issues with people who see things differently are the most self-reinforcing and narrow-minded. Sadly, that closed-mindedness exists even in enclaves that consider themselves “liberal” here in the U.S. (Just hang out in the faculty lounge of most universities, or in most newsrooms across the U.S., and try to express a pro-Sarah Palin view, to give one example. You probably won’t get more than a single sentence out before your opponents start sputtering, getting red in the face with anger, etc. The more logical and reasonable sounding your points “The woman may not have been ready for the vice presidency, but as an accomplished woman who ran a state she can’t be a moron,” for instance, the more outraged they will become). That could be because for many American liberals, their politics has taken the place of religion and has become a type of religion, whose orthodoxy one–especially one who looks and seems like she should be part of the group–defies at her peril.

Well, my theory about political liberalism having replaced spiritual belief in the hearts of some American Jews is a digression. And I’m not making the best case for upholding the principle of free speech in America with that example, maybe. But the bottom line is this: whether liberal or conservative, whatever race or religion or ideology, the vast majority of Americans do not view ideological or religious differences or verbal/written insults as grounds for violence. We do not, unlike many societies that preceded us, prosecute blasphemy. To do so–to start labeling and prosecuting as “hate crime” critiques of religion–however revolting and stupid–would be a gigantic step backward. And it would, ironically, be a great triumph for the forces of intolerance.

No society–and no individual–can mature into a thinking, responsible body without learning to tolerate the discomfort of disagreement, criticism, even disrespect–without becoming violent. In this, the Muslim world needs to develop or not as it sees fit. But for opinion-makers and leaders in this country, with its legacy of free speech, to suggest otherwise–and imply that we must change to suit the Muslim world on this issue–reflects a level of confusion or cowardice that does not grasp the import of that most unique founding principle, without which the United States would not be so special after all.

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