Celestial Lands Liberal Religious Faith… and the occasional political musing.

Free Speech, Responsibility, and Religious Violence

Freedom is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the United States, and perhaps in the world.  Be it Religious Freedom, or Freedom of Speech, or the Freedom of the Press, the Freedom of Association, or any of the common conceptions of freedom that we experience in the United States, I believe that we as a nation have misunderstood the meaning of freedom to the point that that misunderstanding has become a danger to our country and the world.

Now, I’m going to say a few things in this article that might ruffle some feathers on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.  I know that from the outset, and that is part of why I have not written this article before.  But as we have violent protests and attacks on U.S. Embassy compounds across North Africa and the Middle East, I think it is time that we have a conversation about what freedom means.  As both candidates for the office of the President are running around making vague and confusing comments on the meaning of freedom, I think we need to seek some clarity on what freedom means in the society and polity of the United States.

So, I’m going to make the four statements of my thesis, and then talk about their ramifications.

  1.  Freedom can only exist where it is paired with responsibility.  Individual freedom can only exist where it is paired with individual responsibility.  Cultural freedom can only exist where it is paired with cultural responsibility.  Freedom without paired responsibility is not freedom, it is anarchy.
  2. Freedom as it is understood in the polity of the United States is freedom from unnecessary government intrusion.  The U.S. concept of freedom does not apply to any other part of our lives except for the relationship between the people and their government, and is not absolute even in those relationships.
  3. Freedom only has meaning when it is practiced in community.  To be free and alone is simply to be alone.
  4. All freedom has limits.  Those limits are set in two ways: where one person’s freedom abuts another person’s freedom, and where a person or group’s freedom abrogates their responsibility.

What this means is that in the political and cultural system of the United States, there is no such thing as absolute freedom.  There are limits, both governmental and cultural, upon all of our freedom.  Those limits are not only necessary, but beneficial to our having a society that allows us any freedom at all.

I think that we, the people of the United States, have forgotten these aspects of freedom… and that is part of the explanation for what is happening in the riots in Cairo, Yemen, and a few other places in North Africa and the Middle East (not in Benghazi Libya, however, for that appears to have been a coordinated Al Qaida inspired terrorist attack).

We cannot have freedom of speech in this country if people are not held responsible and accountable for the results of that speech.  You cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre… and you should not be able to publish hateful, vindictive propaganda about Islam without facing severe and significant consequences.

We cannot have religious freedom in this country, unless people are held responsible and accountable for how the use of that freedom affects the lives of those who encounter it.

We cannot have freedom of the press in this country, unless members of the press are held responsible and accountable for the accuracy and effect of their reporting.

We cannot have personal freedom in this country, unless individuals are held personally responsible and accountable for their use of that freedom.

We cannot have the right of free association in this country, unless the groups thus formed are held responsible and accountable for their actions and behavior.

For the freedoms we have, we must pay a price, and that price is personal and associational responsibility and accountability.  Our society must hold people and groups accountable for the way they use the freedom of speech.  Our society must hold people accountable for their use of the freedom of religion.  Our society must hold people accountable for their use of the freedom of association.  Our society must hold people accountable for their use of the freedom of the press.  And it is not the Government that should do this accounting, but all of us.  Together.

For freedom in the United States does not, and cannot mean a freedom from consequences.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

 

7 Thoughts on “Free Speech, Responsibility, and Religious Violence

  1. A thoughtful and difficult post, David. I suspect you are right that it will ruffle feathers. I also believe you are right that “freedom” is a very misunderstood concept. For example, many people cite “freedom of speech” as an example for why individuals should NOT pull support from a business after an owner’s extreme statements. To pull one’s individual support from a business clearly does not violate the free speech relationship between government and individuals that you clarify.

    You get down to specifics when you say, “You cannot shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre… and you should not be able to publish hateful, vindictive propaganda about Islam without facing severe and significant consequences.” And I started to disagree with you in your equating of these two things. I do think you’re not legally allowed to shout fire in the theater, but freedom of speech and of the press does guarantee us the right to publish propoganda and even hate speech directed towards groups when it does not directly call for violence without interference from the government. But you’re pairing a “cannot” with a “should not” — and I agree that one should not publish hate speech and propaganda without some sort of consequence, even if this consequence is just the censure of society. And then I see you pair this with “And it is not the Government that should do this accounting, but all of us.” I certainly don’t think that hate speech and propoganda is without its consequences, and that people who engage in it should face consequences from all of us–censure, rebuke, disavowal, financial boycott measures, and other peaceful forms of protest.

    In essence, I think the U.S. embassy in Cairo was right on the mark in their statement saying, “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims… Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Those who are calling this a statement that is in violation of freedom of religion or freedom of speech or freedom of the press are profoundly misunderstanding those freedoms.

  2. Nana' Kratochvil on Friday September 14, 2012 at 15:11 +0000 said:

    Thanks, David. This is excellent. I have experienced eye rolls and protests when I said that freedom and resposibility are two sides of the same coin. They must go together.

  3. Cynthia,

    You are absolutely right in describing what is the current legal interpretation of what the meaning of the Right to Free Speech is in the United States. In my article, I am not seeking to describe what the courts have interpreted that clause of the Constitution to mean. I am seeking to challenge that interpretation. I am seeking to say that we as a society should re-consider whether hate speech and speech that incites to riot is indeed still “Free Speech”. Remember, in criminal and civil law, one can still beheld responsible for the results of one’s actions, regardless of intent.

    What I am saying Cynthia is that I think that we as a nation have interpreted the Right of Free Speech too broadly, so broadly that we no longer include enough accountability and responsibility for that speech.

    I also am making the argument that American society as a whole has ceded too much of the responsibility to hold each other accountable to the government. We have lost most of the non-governmental ways to hold each other accountable to the societies values and principles, often in the name of upholding the Freedom of Speech.

    So, in a descriptive sense, you are right Cynthia. I simply have come to disagree with you on the ideal.

    Yours in faith,

    Rev. David

  4. David:
    I’m thinking of all the different forms of religious violence this country, and the world, have seen in the last 60 years.
    On the “Christian” side: IRA bombings and violence in N. Ireland. Fringe radical pro-lifers (universally condemned by all sides) who occasionally kill/bomb abortionists or abortion clinics. Also, the ocassional personal labeled as “right-wing/conservative” (regardless of actual belief) who goes crazy. There are “nutjobs” out there, after all.
    On the Buddhist side: um…nobody, except the occasional monk who self-immolates in protest of China’s policy on Tibet.
    Hindu: mostly limited to persecuting Christians in India (or, it might be Indian Muslims).
    Jewish: um…again, very few, outside of Palestine/Israel conflict.
    Islam: draw a cartoon, even be thought to be insulting their prophet Mohammed, make a movie, video, just about anything…and you will trigger seemingly worldwide riots and violence. The same thing simply doesn’t happen with Christians of any stripe around the world (apart from local tribal violence in N. Africa).
    Don’t forget….in much of the world, especially the Middle East, there’s truly no such thing as freedom of speech, let alone when it has contact with religion.
    It’s the elephant in the room that few want to address. (It’s why higher criticism has lots of fun with the Bible, but nobody wants to touch the Koran, for example.)
    Some good initial thoughts, David, but this needs to touch on the foundations of Western freedom and rational thought. The rest of the world operates very differently from those ruled by post-Enlightenment thinking.

  5. ‘you should not be able to publish hateful, vindictive propaganda about Islam without facing severe and significant consequences.’
    First, what penalty would you apply to the video producer, to the onion, or to Pat Robertson or Jerry Boykin?
    The error in your thesis is that people need rights, not ideas. No amount of derogatory words by one person justifies violence by another. No amount of Mohammed jokes, no amount of yo momma jokes. I’ll give a slight exception for face-to-face incitement of violence but that is related to inciting violence not the mode of doing so. It is also dependent on the face-to-face in the moment situation. Reading thugs or experiencing them after the fact bring the responsibility to choose a reaction other than violence.
    The pen is mightier than the sword, but it is not a sword. Those who respond to the pen with a sword are always the criminals. Of we have responsibility, it should e the responsibility to react rationally not to worry about not offending others and certainly not to protect bad ideas from criticism.

  6. Now I’m following you a bit more, and I’m not entirely sure I disagree with you on the ideal, actually. I think I was speaking more descriptively about what is and not what I think is ideal. What do I think is the ideal? I think I’ll have to think a great deal more about that. I’ve always focused on what I think our constitutional rights are, and not what I think they should be. It’s an EXCELLENT question, and thank you for raising it. I’d love to hear more about what you have to say about HOW we hold each other accountable in non-governmental ways. I’m still parsing this out.

    I’ve certainly done a lot of thinking about hate speech in particular. I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with people who would claim it is just free speech and not actionable, and I usually disagree. Often hate speech is clearly done with the intent to incite violence or with the intent to intimidate or terrorize a group of people, and it is over the line for free speech. Just where that line between plain bigotry and this sort of hate speech is can be difficult to determine in some cases, and then in others it is crystal clear. When you light a match under a powder keg, you can’t plead that all you were doing was lighting a match, and that the explosion is all the fault of the powder.

  7. To riff off Jason for a moment, I find it interesting that we find humor (both literature genre and usage) in both parts of the Bible, in the Hebrew/Aramaic and the Greek. The Hebrews and Greeks clearly understood and used humor in its various facets, which is likely partly why the West has an appreciation for sarcasm, black humor, and the rest.
    I’m uncertain as to whether or not the Koran is similar, especially in its treatment of Mohammed. Was Mohammed ever cited in the Koran as using humor? Does this affect how Islam views humor, even about its prophet? Makes it interesting in seeing the reaction to the heads of religion being satirized or mocked.

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