There’s no Intolerance like Tolerance of Intolerance

Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments

“Freedom of speech. Just watch what you say.” – the subtitle of Ice T’s third album The Iceberg, 1989, Sire/Warner Brothers Records.

I am an advocate for free speech. This may not surprise you, since many of the topics I write on are somewhat controversial, at least in the eyes and minds of some people. The right to free speech underpins the democratic system, one where the voice and opinion of an individual can be used to influence the actions and decisions of governmental power. Free speech, and freedom of speech, are featured along the separation of church and state in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In Australia there is no explicit right to freedom of speech in a constitutional or legal level, excepting that of freedom of political speech, covered under common law. However, the freedom to speak in Australia is widely accepted as a right among its people, whether or not the law states it to be such, as things should be in a reasonable and tolerant society.

Many countries do not have the right of freedom of speech, and in some cases, the wrong kinds of speech could land you in jail as with Alexander Aan in Indonesia, or dead as with the case of Ismail Mohamed Didi in The Maldives. Similarly, Taslima Nasreen has been driven from her country because her right to free speech was not protected. And there are many more examples I could give, but choose to only use these for the sake of brevity.

When freedom of speech is taken away, so are so many of our additional rights, like the right to disagree with something we see as wrong, or the right to express oneself in an artistic or critical way. And this is where things get interesting.

I’m going to use one current example to put this into perspective. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would know that a couple of weeks ago the focus of many Islamic people was upon a certain YouTube video called “The Innocence of Muslims“, which is apparently a trailer for a longer movie feature. (Although upon viewing it, I doubt any money would be able to be raised for such a poorly made movie, which looks to me like it was conceived and produced by a high-school student for their end of year project.) While the movie is poor, and the final plot and implications of it have apparently caught many of the cast and crew by surprise (they said they didn’t know it would be used to incite violence, etc.), it comes forward at a time when I think freedom of speech is paramount among human rights issues. (If you must watch it, it is found here.)

It has been suggested that most of the people who rioted and killed over this movie never actually watched it. In fact, I’d say most people haven’t seen it. If they had, they’d recognise it for what it is; a poorly made short film. Whether it is divisively trying to incite violence from the Muslim world remains to be seen. I would not sit through the 13 minutes of this movie “trailer” unless you have a particular liking of bad acting, blue-screened chroma-key over stock footage backdrops, or camels. It really doesn’t say much at all as a piece of cinema, in fact I heard it rightly described as like “a strikingly un-funny Tim And Eric clip”.

The movie “The Innocence of Muslims” is really beside the point here. It’s the backlash over the film that concerns me, and not for reasons you may think. Sure, I see the rioting and killing of innocent people as an extremely exaggerated and out of proportion response to this film; many of those who rioted probably thought they were standing up for Islam, but does a badly made film call for the death of unrelated parties?

Waleed Aly, the incredibly articulate journalist and one-time executive member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, wrote probably the best account of the “riots” in Sydney with this SMH piece titled “The Incredible Muslim Hulk proves to be no friend of Islam either“, where he makes some very astute observations:

“This isn’t about a film. It’s about an excuse. We know because we’ve seen it all before, like when Pakistani protesters vandalised American fast food outlets and burnt effigies of President George W. Bush in response to the Danish cartoons.”

“We know because so much of the weekend’s ranting was nakedly gratuitous: ”Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell”. Pardon? Which dead? Weren’t we talking about a movie?”

“This is what gives Innocence of Muslims meaning: not its content, but its context. It’s a symbol of contempt, which is why protests against it so quickly turn into an orgy of anti-Americanism. So, ”Obama, Obama, we love Osama” they scream, mainly because it’s the most offensive rhyme they can muster. Osama, too, is a symbol; the most repugnant one in their arsenal. How better to prove you exist than to say something outrageous?”

“That the Obama administration immediately condemned the film in the strongest terms doesn’t register. Nor that the White House took the extraordinary (and ultimately unsuccessful) step of asking Google to pull the video. This is invisible to an audience of humiliated souls waiting desperately to be offended and conflate every grievance. Indeed, they need the offense. It gives them the chance to assert themselves so they can feel whole, righteous even. It’s a shortcut to self-worth.”

The protests and rioting have brought rise to an even more insidious idea; the UN this week are reconsiderin establishing international anti-blasphemy laws, which would make any expression against any established religion illegal. What does this mean exactly? How can it possibly be enacted, when for some the simple expression of a religion which is different to their own is seen as blasphemy? To protect the rights of religions over the rights of people is a direct affront to the freedoms of personal speech and expression. As stated in the article:

”I expect that we’ll regress to where we were a couple of years ago,” said Courtney Radsch, program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at the non-profit group Freedom House.

”Human rights are not about protecting religions; human rights are to protect humans,” she said. ”Who is going to be the decision-maker on deciding what blasphemy is?”

These are real concerns here, and ones that we should all be worried about.

An anti-blasphemy law is much like a law which disallows the criticism of government, or of royalty. It disenfranchises individuals and puts extends the decision-making process in laws to groups that are better off never being criticised. It would formalise much of what already happens in countries like Pakistan, where the Penal code already prohibits any blasphemy against an established religion, and brings this to an international level, where it comes down to the decision of a law-maker such as a judge to decide whether or not blasphemy has occurred. As we see in Pakistan, blasphemy is subjective, and the decision can end up in the hands of people who wish to further their religion, whatever steps it takes to do so.

This is not about Islam. It is not about Christianity. It is not about Hindu or Buddhism or Scientology. And it is most certainly not about atheism. This is about having the right to speak up when you disagree with something. This is about the idea of freedom of speech, and how people must see it first as a human rights issue before they see it as a way to protect their religion. As I have said before, I don’t care what you believe, as long as you don’t use your religion to create political and social policies in its name.

There is one thing to keep in mind though; with freedom of speech comes responsibility. You, as a citizen of the world, have the responsibility to not willingly cause harm to another, for whatever reason it may be. Specifically sending words of hate, or words of violence against people goes against this responsibility. Calls for beheading of infidels, threats of rape and murder, whether they be idle or not, have no place in today’s society; what we should be focusing on is the ability for people to air their grievances in a peaceable manner, in a therapeutic and constructive manner rather than the knee-jerk and cathartic reactions we have seen of late, no matter how good they might feel at the time.

My friend Tauriq Moosa, writer and blogger at The Big Think talks candidly about freedom of speech, and its responsibilities, in his piece titled “Freedom of Expression Means the Freedom to Insult“:

Firstly: freedom of speech is understood to be the ability to say, portray, express, etc., almost any idea without worry of silencing, violence and so on. I say “almost” because while we should be able to express an idea, there might be times when expressing it “incites” violence, hatred and so on. However, this is the exception, not the rule. It must and, indeed, is very difficult to show incitement, libel and so on, which constitute justified infringement on speech. All of it, however, must fall under a case-by-case basis: not some broad ruling that this type of speech cannot be allowed. As Kenan Malik has highlighted, we ought not to judge the content of speech but assess the risk and ramifications, given the evidence at hand, of allowing it.

This means we can have religions defamed, just as we have any ideas defamed. Mockery, insult and so on are all encapsulated with the same right that allows us to speak up against oppression. In other words, the freedom to insult is freedom of speech. There is a separate question of whether insult, mockery and so on is advisable or moral.

Should we tolerate intolerance, or should we be intolerant to that too? Is there a bottom-line, where the rights of people and their freedoms override the rights of a religion not to be questioned or denied its privileged position in society? If human rights are to be extended to all humans (which should be the focus here), then the wants and needs of an established religion, established government, or established legal jurisdiction surely must come second.

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  1. When does violent rhetoric like “behead these people” become hate speech?
    (from wikipedia) In 1989, …New South Wales became the first state to make it unlawful for a person, by a public act, to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of a person or group on the grounds of race …An offence has not yet been prosecuted under this law.
    Oh “race”. I see. Well that doesn’t help Sydney-siders.
    Now check out:
    (from wikipedia) A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.
    “Class of persons” ahh excellent!? Except for there’s an exception in Section 11(b) (i) of the Act granted for “genuine religious purpose”.
    D’Oh. Foiled again. So violent salafi jihadists go resume your rhetoric. I mean free speech.

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  2. “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” ― Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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