More Obama: Freedom of speech obligates us to condemn insults to religion

Noah already blogged the lowlight of this morning’s National Prayer Breakfast speech but don’t overlook this passage. The Washington Times didn’t.

There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both. 

But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.  And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — (applause) — and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.  Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech.  Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

Watch him deliver that at 12:25 below. He floated the same idea of a trade-off on blasphemy in his now famous speech to the UN a few years ago when he told the General Assembly “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” Legal sanctions against blasphemers are a bridge too far, he conceded, but moral sanctions are not just warranted but obligatory. We’ll punish the blasphemer, just not with the power of the state. Re-read the boldfaced part above. Does this guy, who swore an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, actually believe that our duty to defend a blasphemer’s right to free speech is no greater than our duty to condemn him for affronting religion?

Lots of questions flow from this. An obvious one: Who decides what qualifies as an insult? Islamist fanatics in various countries protested Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover of Mohammed shedding a tear and holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign. There’s nothing derogatory about that image; it’s the magazine’s decision to violate Islamic taboos prohibiting images of Mohammed that is itself the “insult.” Does O think we have a moral duty to condemn any depiction of Mohammed, whether insulting or not, because it offends Islamic sensibilities? Another obvious question: What other sorts of insults do we have a moral duty to condemn? Lots of secular liberals out there wouldn’t care if I insulted a religion but they’d be deeply insulted if I said progressivism was a philosophy favored by authoritarian lowlifes posing as populists. Why should we allow rough-and-tumble political criticism like that but join hands in condemnation of religious criticism? The Free Exercise Clause says you have a right to practice your faith, not that it enjoys some special moral prophylaxis from affront. You’d think a liberal, whose base includes so many atheists, would be more reluctant to pander on that.

But those are minor points. The big argument against O’s blasphemy trade-off is that it ignores the whole reason this topic is salient right now. Ross Douthat explained that neatly a few weeks ago:

[W]e are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.

In this sense, many of the Western voices criticizing the editors of Hebdo have had things exactly backward: Whether it’s the Obama White House or Time Magazine in the past or the Financial Times and (God help us) the Catholic League today, they’ve criticized the paper for provoking violence by being needlessly offensive and “inflammatory” (Jay Carney’s phrase), when the reality is that it’s precisely the violence that justifies the inflammatory content. In a different context, a context where the cartoons and other provocations only inspired angry press releases and furious blog comments, I might sympathize with the FT’s Tony Barber when he writes that publications like Hebdo “purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” (If all you have to fear is a religious group’s fax machine, what you’re doing might not be as truth-to-power-ish as you think.) But if publishing something might get you slaughtered and you publish it anyway, by definition you are striking a blow for freedom, and that’s precisely the context when you need your fellow citizens to set aside their squeamishness and rise to your defense.

That’s a point you’d like to think the Leader of the Free World would be eager to make. Yes, he could say, in a world where criticism of religion was uniformly answered peacefully, it’d be fine to denounce the blasphemers. We don’t live in that world. When a fanatic demands that you choose between the right of the individual to mock and the right of believers not to be offended, on penalty of death, the choice is clear — no ifs, ands, or buts. When Charlie Hebdo or Lars Vilks or Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t need bodyguards anymore, then and only then will he condone moral sanctions. Instead, this. But at this point, what else would you expect?

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