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The Assault on Freedom of Speech

Roger McCormack ’14

The potent outcry of hate exploding throughout the Middle East is engendering discussion regarding the limits of free speech that the First Amendment delineates. The crux of the debate revolves around the film “Innocence of Muslims” and its parody of Islam.

The film has been virulently denounced by the Obama administration and sundry political figures. Ostensibly, these denunciations seem to heighten the need for increased peace between the United States and the Middle East. However, the denunciations effacingly champion the social stigma against polemic and free speech in contemporary American dialogue. These condemnations evoke Calvin’s Geneva and innumerable polities, in which reason fails to be the supreme arbiter, succumbing to entreaties founded on irrational, as well as risible, claims.

Libya’s incipient outcry (resulting in the deaths of four U.S. citizens) against a video depicting the prophet Muhammad, among other things, as a pederast and philanderer, spread throughout the Middle East, providing a didactic rationale for the perils of the immutable cult of personality, be it secular or religious, and the violence it propagates.

Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, responding to the attacks, stated, “There’s no question that as we’ve seen in the past with things like (Salman Rushdie’s novel) Satanic Verses, with the (Danish) cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, there have been such things that have sparked outrage and anger, and this has been the proximate cause of what we’ve seen.” “We are of the view that this is not an expression of hostility in the broader sense toward the United States or U.S. policy.It’s proximately a reaction to this video.”

This is an interesting take, especially given that the investigation into the causes for the protest is inchoate, with U.S. intelligence working to corroborate evidence that suggests the attacks were premeditated by a sect of Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, protests in Malaysia displayed zealots holding signs decrying “Destroy America.” How erudite. The ambassador’s jejune comments, especially with forthcoming evidence, deeming it reasonable that a film (however blasphemous), be placed as an equivalent to religious terrorism, is egregious at best.

However, banning and condemning attacks on religious figures also represses various forms of polemic that have arisen against Islam in the past. For instance, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh’s film “Submission”, which displayed the iniquitous results of capitulating to the demands of Islamic fundamentalism, particularly for women, lead to Van Gogh’s brutal murder, stabbed and shot innumerable times in the streets of Amsterdam. Ali, author of the autobiography Infidel, is quoted in the Huffington Post: “When it comes to the Koran and the prophet, Muslims are equally offended by any work they perceive as disrespectful of those two icons: from the current Koran project in Germany, which is a serious academic work, to the notorious film on YouTube. For the average Muslim it is all an attack on the faith.”

Following this analysis, it seems many U.S. statesmen would hold the same view of religious polemic, be it crass and scrofulous, or researched and erudite (However, I would amend Ali’s view to state fundamentalist, rather than “average”, given the harsh condemnations by moderate Muslims of the recent violence and the beneficence they display towards differing religious faiths). Obsequiousness in the face of dogmatism can only invite an abject scorn towards the United States and its policies regarding religiously motivated violence.

This produces a divineness and deference that will erode the mutually beneficent forces of debate and argument among rational human beings. In any serious dialogue, a position, however sacrosanct and tacit, must be open to re-evaluation and ambiguity. Of course, this dialogue stymies (often fatally) fundamentalist religiosity.

The compendia displaying the global and domestic status of free speech offer a compelling insight into the current polarization of free dialogue. In Russia, three members of the punk band “Pussy Riot” were slapped with a two year sentence in a penal colony (Russia has come so far since the gulag) for religious “hooliganism” in a scene reminiscent of a cabaret. This spawned vitriol and condemnation from such disparate figures as Madonna and Aung San Suu Kyi (champion of Burmese democracy).

The Russian state’s collusive relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church displays the inherent danger of allowing avid religious belief (as well as secular corruption) to be wrought at the behest of an individual’s natural rights. Strangely enough, the calls to ban the anti-Islamic clip have not fomented this intense sense of solidarity. Granted, the film is puerile, even mordant. However, is it really the proper role of government to censor public dissemination? I have the right to read Mein Kampf and declare it racist, jingoistic, and evil.

However, for a government to ban this book places immeasurable credence on paternalism as an effective means of governance. Draconian measures everywhere, displayed in the Catholic Church of yore and its Index Librorum Prohibitoroum, demean the role of the individual and permit the state to gain totalitarian control in the minutest details of our lives. The results often have an abject similitude. Mothers being torn from children (Pussy Riot), the death of innocent individuals, and the creation of states analogous to Stalin’s Russia or Ceaucescu’s Romania are just a few examples of the evil wielded by despotic states.

However, this is not just a global issue, but a fervent domestic one. The recent attempt by the University of Cincinnati to abrogate free speech on its general campus, instead relegating it to a minuscule portion of the school’s campus, displays the decrepitude of intellectual inquiry present among college campuses. Thankfully, the school’s attempt at delineating a “free speech zone” met with derision and was subsequently declared unconstitutional.

The very proposal of a diminutive area where one can debate Marxism, existentialism, Christian ethics, and countless other issues so pertinent to the ethos of global life raises the specter of the seed that gives birth to the dictator, the despot, the autocrat, the oligarchy, and the subsequent blight they wreak on free societies everywhere. Frighteningly enough, the case in Cincinnati has shed light on the gamut of free speech abuses occurring throughout the United States.

The hallowed halls of Yale, world-renowned for rigorous intellectual inquiry, gained attention for the closing of the Yale Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism, in the face of criticism about a conference discussing anti-Semitism. This is akin to banning dialogue related to Al-Qaeda, fascism, or any other system promoting despotism and evil, because individuals may be hurt by the exegetical analysis of the subject matter. Granted, these are abjectly evil systems.

However, holding to blissful ignorance about the causes of racism and bigotry, in the hope of somehow effacing a more loving polity, is fallacious. Examining the precepts an organization holds, being able to forcefully debate these issues, postulating solutions for dealing with iniquity, endeavoring to educate, never providing deferential treatment to controversial subjects, and a constant striving for heightened knowledge of the vagaries of life, are just a few prerequisites for a better world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, romantic poet and founder of Transcendentalism, penned this sage bit of wisdom: “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.” I’ll leave you with another quote, from the passionate pen of Thomas Paine, firebrand of our own revolution and author of Common Sense: “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.” Take heed.

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