Free speech, responsible speech, and the ‘right to offend’


GIG HARBOR, WASH.—It’s disturbing to watch bad ideas grow legs. In the deadly firestorm ignited by the Danish cartoons caricaturing Islam, one bad idea—the “clash of civilizations”—seems to have found its feet. The agenda shaping up for this clash—free speech versus Islam—is driven by another bad idea: the “right to offend.” Free speech is to represent the best of Western civilization and the Enlightenment, with its most extreme test—and biggest gun—proudly trundled forth: insult and provocation. As if! As if Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, invasion and occupation of Iraq, and other varieties of “regime change” the West envisions for the Arab world were not offense enough. And how bizarre that offensiveness is held up as civilized, rather than seen as fueling the clash.

Descending to the bait, defenders of offensiveness weigh in across the spectrum. On the left, Art Spiegelman, cartoonist for The New Yorker, asserts in The Nation, “There has to be a right to insult,” even if it stirs discomfort. Aligning on the right, William Bennett and Alan Dershowitz castigate Western media for “betraying” their “duty” to republish the Danish cartoons. Meanwhile, contrarian Christopher Hitchens derides “the babyish tantrums” of the Islamic world and “this sickly babble about ‘respect.'”

More such ilk doubtless will air in Round 2, when Iran’s largest newspaper publishes the “winners” of its Holocaust cartoon contest, and an Israeli paper does likewise with its anti-Semitic contest. The media will again agonize about republishing—and the West’s insult-artists can crow again about taking the blows and, unlike those ‘babyish’ Muslims, not burning down a Starbucks.

This is so sandbox, so sticks-and-stones, and in these tinderbox times so dangerous, like strapping on a suicide belt. Rights come with responsibilities, and it’s time to talk about the responsible use of free speech.

Starting with this question to the insult-artists: And your higher point is…?

What’s lost in this slugfest, drowned out by extremists, are the voices of moderate, responsible, democracy-promoting Muslims. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a majority of Americans now think Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence.

A Muslim who spoke out was the editor of the Jordanian paper Shihan who posed this question: “Muslims of the world, be reasonable. What brings more prejudice against Islam—these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim?” For his bravery he was fired. Instead of insult, how about defending this speech of reason?

And how about reviewing the clashing civilizations’ agenda? While the West insists free speech be on the docket, Islamic thinkers would offer another item: power.

As Rami Khouri, respected editor at large of Beirut’s Daily Star, claims: “This is not primarily an argument about freedom of the press…. It is about Arab-Islamic societies’ desire to enjoy freedom from Western and Israeli subjugation, diplomatic double standards, and predatory neocolonial policies.” Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author shortlisted for the Nobel, writes that people in the West “are scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population.”

And to this history of insult we would add more insult? As to insult, a test for the defenders of the right to offend: Presumably you have exercised your free speech to the maximum protesting the bonafide offenses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, this near-unforgivable insult of torture that America has visited on the Arab world? It’s my Voltairean right to ask and your responsibility to answer. (Mr. Bennett and Mr. Dershowitz fail this test: While citing the media for not republishing the Danish cartoons, they excoriate them for publishing the images of Abu Ghraib.)

Provocation, insult, giving offense: When the target is deserving, these are powerful tools, and the West has a glorious history of using them. Henrik Ibsen outraged audiences with his play “A Doll’s House” when Nora slammed the door on her infantilized existence—and forever altered our consciousness about woman’s place. With his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. argued the case against the Establishment that the Negro could no longer wait for freedom but must claim it now—and unlocked the prison for all of us. This is the highest—and most responsible—use of the right to offend: to enhance human dignity.

But in these last decades this right, which Voltaire in the 18th century wielded so forcefully against tyranny and intolerance, has degraded in the West to mere offensiveness, with no higher purpose but to shock and titillate, leaving us empty products like “The Vagina Monologues” and, most recently, the Oscar-winning song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” What impoverishment of the Enlightenment!

Just as Islam risks hijacking by extremists, Western civilization faces similar risk—from free-speech extremists—and what we are losing is meaning, mattering, beauty, wit, a sense of the sacred. The real clash is within each civilization—within the West and within Islam. And the real agenda is about representation: Who finally represents us—the best in us or the extreme? The insult-artists, those who brandish the right to offend, fail on all levels: They do not represent the best of the West, nor enlightened free speech, and they do not point the way to better relations with the Muslim world. For them, expression of a small, splenetic self is all.

Responsible speech cares—about the world, others, consequences. It is capable of self-critique. And, by definition, it is answerable, accountable. As such, we need lots more of it—on all sides. Arab leaders and the Arab press should stop their anti-Semitic, anti-infidel rants. Our president should desist from insulting entire peoples as part of an “axis of evil”; evangelist Franklin Graham should stop referring to Islam as “a wicked religion”; and our insult-artists should grow up.

Only through responsible speech can we transform the clash of civilizations into a round table. And, ultimately, only through responsible use can we retain that most precious of rights: free speech.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and is working on a new play, “Prodigal.”