Provocation isn’t the highest form of free speech
posted at 4:30 pm on May 16, 2010 by J.E. Dyer
It isn’t even necessarily the most extreme. Extreme, like provocative, is in the eye of the beholder. But one thing the video of the attack on Lars Vilks in Sweden makes clear is that being shocking and offensive isn’t something one’s fellow men will line up to defend with their lives and sacred honor.
There’s no question the Vilks film being aired in the video clip is provocative. I have no trouble seeing why Muslims would find it offensive. Of course they shouldn’t get away with shutting down the film by turning into a pack of baying hyenas. But neither should we be surprised that this particular manifestation of free speech got no vigorous defense from the crowd.
As Allahpundit points out, most of the crowd is excruciatingly passive as the Muslims keep the Donnybrook expanding by the minute. It actually comes off like something from a Monty Python short to me: if you focus on the obviously Swedish Swedes in the front row during the whole event, their disengagement becomes downright hilarious.
But why would we expect anything different? For a long time now – at least three to four decades – the Western-modernist justification for free speech has been that we aren’t supposed to care about anything so much that we want to shut down either opposition, disrespect, or subversion. We aren’t supposed to have any absolutes that motivate us to effective defense at the point of confrontation.
When confrontation does erupt, it’s very often over subversive or provocative expression: images or words juxtaposed deliberately to shock or incite. The thing about this form of expression is that people instinctively know there is nothing noble about it. It isn’t intended to improve, instruct, ennoble, or empower. It doesn’t make the heart or mind feel clean, positive, compassionate, generous, or hopeful. Humans aren’t wired to be courageous and self-sacrificing in defending their right to be either its authors or its witnesses. Our most likely responses are uncomfortable laughter, cynicism, and a sense of mental unsavoriness. If the American Revolution had been about the right to depict George III as a pederast surrounded by his catamites – well, it couldn’t have been, is the point. No one would have fought for that.
Provocative speech gets, rather, a free ride on the forms of expression it is worth fighting for. The freedom to not believe in Mohammed as God’s prophet is at the top of that list. That freedom covers everyone on earth – Christians, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, Confucianists, Baha’is, animists – who does not accept the dictates of Islam. The freedom to not have another’s conception of God forced on us – to not be forced to do obeisance or pay a penalty – is a freedom worth fighting for. So is the freedom, in the realms of philosophy and science, to differ with tradition, majority views, and “consensus.” The freedom of women to participate fully in public life, on a footing of equality as human beings, is worth fighting for. The freedom of people of different races and religious and ethnic backgrounds to do the same is worth fighting for.
I don’t know what the Swedes attending the Vilks presentation would have been willing to fight back over, but it doesn’t surprise me that no one cared to make a provocative video juxtaposing Mohammed with gay images his casus belli. We need to have this very clear in our Western minds as our troubled world lurches forward. The right to offend others is something that gets a pass because of the good that comes from the better, higher, more important right to make our own philosophical decisions. The right to be deliberately offensive is a parasite, not a first principle.
Defending freedom of speech and thought is more likely to occur if Muslims challenge what really matters to us. I’m as concerned as others that it might not occur even then, but I don’t view the Vilks video as a true test of Western mettle. There have been truer tests in recent years, as when French politicians take care to obtain permission before entering majority Muslim areas of large cities, and the British parliament and courts knuckle under to de facto shari’a rule in parts of England herself. Canada’s law(s) against anyone ever having to be offended by anything said by anyone – presumably excluding white males of European descent, who can be offended at will – are certainly an example of a failed test, if the fact that Mark Steyn’s comments on Islamism have run afoul of them is anything to go by.
So there is certainly reason to be concerned. But the fact that people sat passively while howling Muslims shut down a showing of the Vilks video isn’t an indictment of the West’s moral courage. Provocative videos with subversive sexual overtones – expressions that some people know will offend and incite others – are not the definition of what is “Western.” They are merely what we tolerate, as the detritus – and yes, I mean the detritus; there is nothing high or noble about lampooning someone else’s religion – of the worthwhile, worth-defending attributes that do define us.
Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.
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