Skip to content

Freedom of Offending

2011 April 4

“Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion or traditions.”

Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, who is wrong about that.

It feels weird having to defend a bizarre, craven Christian-supremacist.

Imagine this. A young Saudi woman in the United States, wishing to join the “Saudi Women Revolution Statement” demanding the abolition of the Saudi law of Male Guardianship, especially the wilayat al-nikah, burns a Koran, finding license for that doctrine in its proclamation that “men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient” (4:34). In retribution for the desecration, Afghan men slaughter eleven U.N. workers, beheading two. Who among the readers would condemn her for the massacre?

Another hypothetical. What if Sinead O’Connor’s famous appearance on Saturday Night Live, in which she tore a photo of the then-Pope to publicize Catholic nefariousness, had happened two years later in 1994, during the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, the most Catholic nation in Africa? If some Rwandans had, hearing of the television event, brutally slaughtered some of the peacekeepers in vengeance, what conscionable person would have lain blame at O’Connor’s feet?

Now, tearing a photograph of the man whom the world’s billion Catholics are under strict instructions to affirm is the infallible vicar of Christ on Earth may be slightly different from burning a book that the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are under strict instructions to affirm is the final and unalterable revelation of God (and that those who do not accept this revelation are to be slain), but it’s not different enough to undermine the obvious conclusion. People who enact the most extreme sorts of violence in response to non-violent free expression of any sort are to be condemned in the strongest terms, and the free expression, however offensive to however many, deserves our most fervent defense every time.

It seems a pity to have to point it out. Anyone should be able to burn any book without fear that they or anyone else will get killed in retribution. This even applies to unsavory, Elmer Gantry-like pastors in Florida who know little about sophisticated theology and less about attractive facial hair. Also, cartooning and depicting characters in novels should be acts that don’t strike terror into hearts or result in international murder conspiracies whose suborning is financed by totalitarian theocratic despots. I affirm now, as I’m sure we all ought to, that no man need fear for his or anyone else’s life if he offends me (and I’m offended daily), and that’s as it should be.

Terry Jones’s sundry pronouncements of his intentions have been very clear: he thinks Islam is evil and violent. He is entitled to that assessment, and a great many thinking persons would agree with it. He asserts now that this point was proven in Mazar-i-Sharif, and no one has shown this assertion to be unjust. Of course it is true that Jones is not a free speech hero (I daresay his response to an Imam burning a Bible would be cringe-making), but that does not mitigate the main point: it betrays a really serious and powerful lack of moral perspective to condemn Terry Jones for burning a book rather than Afghanis for beheading foreign workers over the burning (or even to condemn them equally).

In 1999, Rudy Giulliani, then the Mayor of New York City, threatened to cut city financing to the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an exhibit called Sensation, which featured a painting by Chris Ofili (who is Catholic) entitled The Holy Virgin Mary, in which the immaculately conceived Nazarene lady is depicted as a black woman. Among the media used to produce the piece was a resin-covered lump of elephant dung. The good Mayor, before the 9/11 attacks brought him national recognition, accused the exhibit of being “anti-Catholic” and warned the museum that he would move to de-fund it. Hillary Clinton, then the First Lady, attacked Giulliani, saying, “Our feelings of being offended should not lead to the penalizing and shutting down of an entire museum.” And yet, when people’s feelings of being offended result in gut-wrenching violence, huge swaths of the political and punditry classes rush to repudiate the offender rather than the murderers.

Joe Klein, finger out and wagging, breathlessly declares that “Jones’s act was murderous as any suicide bomber’s.” General David Petraeus grovels and snivels, offering contrition on Jones’ behalf: “In view of the events of recent days, we feel it is important… to reiterate our condemnation of any disrespect to the Holy Qu’ran and the Muslim faith. We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Qu’ran.” Even Hamid Karzai puts on his best indignant face, demanding that the US and UN “bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime,” there referring to the burning, not the beheading. This is the most outrageous of all because any criteria that foists culpability on Jones also implicates Karzai, who stoked that fire as enthusiastically as he could, in a cynical attempt to secure political benefits from the controversy.

This sort of violence is not Jones’ fault; it is attributable instead to the ease with which people can be tricked into thinking that a book is perfect or magical. Can anyone point to a case in which victims of imperialism, exploitation, impoverishment, disrespect, parasitism, exclusion and manipulation went out and beheaded folks in an anger inspired by something like the burning of a book, when religion was not central? If someone cartoons Muhammed, there is bound to be bloodshed. But not if someone were to burn The Constitution or The Origin of Species or The Feminine Mystique (a profane act of hideous desecration). And if there were, what commentator would assign fault to the book-burner?

The irony is that anyone wishing to condemn hateful speech that incites violence has first and foremost to denounce the Torah, the Bible and Koran, which have incited people to worse violence for longer than any piddling Floridian dunce could ever manage.

Are you prepared to do that?

*  *  *

This was originally published at Focal Points, the blog of the think-tank Foreign Policy in Focus, where J.A. Myerson has started writing regularly. It is largely adapted from a discussion he had on Facebook with The Busy Signal’s own Akie Bermiss, Andrea Greco, Brian Dorsam and Colin Lissandrello.

18 Responses
  1. Colin permalink
    April 4, 2011

    Anyone wishing to condemn hateful speech that incites violence has first and foremost to denounce the portions of the Torah, Bible & Quran which advocate violence – not their entire content. They would only have to condemn the texts wholly if they condemned persons who spew hateful speech wholly, rather than condemning the hateful speech itself.
    Terry Jones may have an insightful take on any number of subjects.

  2. Colin permalink
    April 4, 2011

    Alright, I tried to walk away from this but was drawn back. As one who condemns Jones’ act, and would prefer that doing so not “betray a serious and powerful lack of moral perspective,” here goes:

    First, your title and opening sentence suggest that we oughtn’t condemn him at all, while in the paragraph where you offer the “lack of moral perspective” attack, you posit a far more defensible criterion: condemning him as much as or more than the murderers, specifically as being culpable for the murders.

    Let us arbitrarily say that the murderers are 99.999% culpable, so any comparison between the two in terms of culpability would be foolish. Let us isolate Jones’ action. Surely, we ought to be able to burn books without risking violence, but such is unfortunately not the case. Jones’ earlier plan to burn a Quran was warned against by General Petraeus, which was hardly necessary in light of the murders following a mere cartoon depiction of Mohammad in ’06. And, if Jones had not burned that book, it is quite probable that those murdered would still be alive today. So, while not comparable to the murderers, I believe he is nevertheless culpable for the murders in a different sense.

    Second, while I condemn Jones’ act from a personal moral perspective, I believe he should be defended by the law. “Don’t offend X because they’re liable to kill people” is essentially giving in to terrorism, in addition to stifling free speech.

    Before going on, I’d like to verify whether you would continue defending Jones in these terms: isolated from comparison with the murderers, and isolated from what position we feel the state should take.

    • April 4, 2011

      I like books, so it doesn’t make me feel especially good watching them burned, but I don’t feel a moral opposition to their burning. The Koran, as books go, is particularly chock-full of hatred, violence, misogyny and license for totalitarianism, abuse and slaughter, so it is righteous and proper to treat it with suspicion, hatred and ridicule.

  3. Colin permalink
    April 4, 2011

    I don’t feel a moral opposition to burning books either, when put in such broad terms, nor do I feel a moral opposition to burning the Quran, per se. [While I agree that we should treat its text with suspicion, I’m not so sure about hatred and ridicule… but that’s another subject.] So, why condemn this particular act of violence-inducing hateful speech? I’ll admit that what follows is shooting from the hip.

    1) What results does the actor intend to bring about?

    2) What results does the actor suspect might occur as side effects?

    3) Sitting in our comfy moral judgment chair, we opine whether the overall positive impact outweighs the negative.

    I do not suggest that this view is correct, but merely that it is not necessarily inferior or, as you put it, lacking moral perspective. Granted, you did not claim that this method of thinking is itself inferior, but it has led me to condemn the action in question, so by extension… you get the idea.

    Let’s start with your young Saudi Woman example.
    1) She probably intends that her act bring about media attention and shock value, which in turn will bring more attention to the Saudi Women Revolution Statement. Longer term, she probably hopes that their demands be met, essentially ending the role of the Saudi Woman as a piece of property.
According to their statement, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has promised the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in June 2009 to cancel Male Guardianship and to end Sexism in the country, but these promises remain unaccomplished.” So this is a realistic, specific goal, however difficult to attain. It certainly would not be the first time that pressure for equality overcame a tradition based in religious fundamentalism.

    2) Let’s assume she’s not completely isolated from the news, and thus is aware of what happened in 2006 after the cartoon Muhammad incident, as well as the broader proclivities of Islamic fundamentalists. Surely she would be aware of the risk, then, of violence and even murder.

    3) I have no experience with being a Saudi Woman, nor do I have a concrete conceptualization of how many women are in this predicament. But I do know that it’s horrible, and that the possibility of changing it is very real. It’s hard to say how much influence would be gained by increased media attention, but certainly it would be a step in the right direction.

    I cannot begin to measure a small step forward in the freedom of countless women against the likely murder of any number of unfortunate victims of reprisal, so I cannot support the act, nor can I condemn it. If eleven U.N. workers were slaughtered in retaliation, I would mourn their deaths and hope that it was worth it.

    In addition to the hateful, violence-inducing aspect there is a clear, positive purpose, with serious potential for efficacy. And this is what is missing in the case of Jones.
    What good could Jones possibly have believed would come of his action? Here is his press release:
    It is filled with vague calls for Islamic accountability.
    Fundamentalist Islam already gets plenty of press, so he’s not exactly raising awareness. Further, he has no realistic, attainable goal; nothing that might warrant the deaths of innocent people.

    In my eyes, there was little to no positive to be gained by Jones’ action. Certainly not enough to offset the risk of serious violence. So, from my comfy moral judgment chair, I hereby condemn the recent Quran burning by the man with the intense handlebar mustache.

    • April 5, 2011


      Your argument seems to be essentially that the threat of theocratic violence should scare us into self-censorship, unless you find the cause to be an especially good one. I suppose that’s one tack to take; it just makes me a much more radical free-speech advocate than you.

      To fearlessness in speech and hatred for extreme violence!


  4. Colin permalink
    April 5, 2011

    Not quite that broad. You can go on denouncing Islam and the Quran all you want, and I’d be fine with it even if I didn’t think you had an especially good cause. But for acts with enormously high instigation value, such as burning a Quran in front of the press, yes I’d hope you have a solid case – you’re willfully placing others’ lives at risk.

    To reasonable use of our freedom of speech and… hatred for extreme violence (except for self defense. revolutions are badass)!

    • April 5, 2011

      “you’re willfully placing others’ lives at risk.”

      No you’re not. The only people liable to take someone else’s life over a Koran burning are theocratic psychopaths. It insults your basic integrity to let those people blackmail you into silencing yourself. It is they who place others lives at risk.

  5. Colin permalink
    April 5, 2011

    Shades of grey… you can place others’ lives at risk without being liable to commit the deed.

    Let’s take an extreme example: Fred is in a room with 2 other people – one with a gun, and one held hostage. The gunslinger says “If you say X, I will shoot this hostage.”

    Sure, our legal system should defend Fred, but I would condemn his action. Would you?

  6. Alice Bacon permalink*
    April 5, 2011

    Things can be both (justly) legal and (very) idiotic. The reason we have freedom of expression is to prevent retaliation by government. It doesn’t say anywhere in the constitution “People are allowed to do stupid things and no one will ever react.” He is surely at fault, but not for the reactions incited by his book burning.

    • April 5, 2011

      For what, then, is he at fault?*

      For the record, I didn’t make a legal argument anywhere. Obviously, it’s legal to burn books and illegal to behead people. What I said is that the problem when someone pulls a PR stunt and someone else retaliates by way of massacre… is that the latter has retaliated by way of massacre, not that the former has pulled the stunt.

      The central issue is that some people profess that a book is perfect and magical. Eliminate that from the equation and what you have is a jerk being rude and people getting offended — that happens constantly and is completely tolerable.

      Since the events in Mazar, I have been told so many times that, as Akie put it to me on Twitter, “we should respect the dedication and the honesty of their committment to the Qur’an.”

      No. Not at all. Their dedication has led them to believe so fully in the perfection and magical powers of a set of assertions that they find righteousness in beheading people for someone else’s burning of a book. And, I think we’ll all find, this is the selfsame type of person liable to find that a woman is to be put to death for being seen in society without a head-covering, and, finding the slaughter of a virgin too horrible to bear, will rape the woman in advance in order to rectify the moral question. There is nothing about this belief that I respect.

      I hate those beliefs, I hate the people who hold them, and I will not be made to feel ashamed of it.

      *Only the question at the top of this comment is a direct reply to Alice. I’m genuinely curious to know what you find him to be at fault for.

  7. Colin permalink
    April 5, 2011

    What about Fred, Jesse?

    • April 5, 2011

      Phelps? That guy sucks. What point are we making about him?

      • Colin permalink
        April 5, 2011

        No… Fred from my extreme example.

      • April 5, 2011

        Your example fails in a lot of ways. I’m tired of talking about this, having made every point there is to make. I’ll put forth a new argument when someone else says something interesting.

  8. Colin permalink
    April 5, 2011

    You didn’t answer the question. Please do so.

  9. Colin permalink
    April 5, 2011

    I responded to all 3 of your thought experiments on Facebook, and fully explored one here. All I’m asking in return is a yes or no to a single thought experiment… my first and only.
    It’s not meant to be analogous to Jones. Just answer on its own terms. Please?

    • April 5, 2011

      No. I’m busy. If it’s not even meant to be analogous, I’m not interested.

      • Colin Lissandrello permalink
        April 5, 2011

        It doesn’t have to be analogous for its function to be relevant to the argument.

Comments are closed.