opinion by Scott Shackelford
Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.
Editor's note: Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
The opportunity to identify oneself as brilliant or boneheaded via free speech is a beautiful thing – maybe the best of things our American democracy bequeathed to us, its ideological progeny, more than two centuries ago.
But the universal simplicity of the First Amendment each of us learns in grade school falls away as time passes. In today’s world expression of the painfully honest variety is apparently deserving of no quarter across great swaths of the planet. In real life, people get hurt, and die, because somebody somewhere decided THIS MOMENT was THE RIGHT MOMENT to be honest and clear-throated with their personal opinions.
Is this but more proof that a part of humanity is destined to remain stuck in the mud when it comes to ‘thinking big picture’ about individual freedoms? The sense that any good answers are lacking is a looming quality to life today.
As evidence, turn to the Middle East, a region recently thrown into tumult over portions of an American-made movie available on YouTube that mocks the Prophet Muhammad. This was an insult too far in the eyes of Muslims across much of the world. Thousands reacted angrily, with some going so far as to attack several of our overseas embassies – actions separate from the apparent terrorist attacks which took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans serving in Lybia.
Violent protests stemming from the film were witnessed as recently as Sept. 21 in Pakistan, where American flags were burned, an effigy of President Obama was set ablaze, and more than a dozen people lost their lives.
French flags burned too. On Wednesday a Paris newspaper decided to print embarrassing illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad. The supposed purpose was to satirize the American video and the violence it has birthed. The French government, realizing the implications of publication, defended free speech attitudes even as it asked the publication not to go forward with a plan that could turn a handful of drawings into this story’s latest flash point.
Many Muslims have been quick to term “Innocence of Muslims,” the controversial U.S. film, and the just published French cartoons, as hate speech. Free speech defenders have themselves been fast to insist that people own a right to free self-expression – and indeed, this strong belief in the ability to speak out against intolerant ideas is what led the French newspaper to take its brave (some might argue dangerous and misguided) stance in the face of fierce international denunciations.
A chief realization attached this sordid tale is that a free speech unassociated with consequences doesn’t often appear in real life: When last heard from, the shadowy creator of the low-budget U.S. film that has lead to so much anger had gone into hiding.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not used the opportunity to remind a watching world that our nation is beholden to its free speech principles, but instead to repeatedly denounce the film and attempt to have the film’s much-seen excerpts removed from YouTube.
Personal responsibility would seem to be a part of the moral. As much as one person may wish to poke his finger in the eye of an entire faith, it is incumbent on society to appreciate technology’s awesome power to take a small sampling of misguidedness and turn it into a terrible waste of human emotion at the hands of characters seeking self identity and expression.
Imagine losing your father or brother over an issue so seemingly inconsequential to half the world, and yet of such desperate importance elsewhere. In the meantime, terrorists on the run and in hiding are thrilled with such headlines because they provide fuel with which to stoke anti-American, anti-democracy sentiment. Bad guys may argue (truthfully, in fact) that idiotic films helping to inflame an underemployed, undeveloped, and unappreciated region of the world is exactly what free societies sometimes create.
A harsh truth is that many people have no interest living in such a free society. And no ad campaign is likely to deconstruct those angst-filled fears.
As always, the tragedy – aside from the immediate lose of human life – is the power of episodes like these to cloud our appreciation of our massive commonalities. Instead the sane thinkers in so many Eastern nations are being shouted down by millions who know no better than to defend their religion, and their nation, in the midst of a deeply disappointing and tumultuous era.
One would hope adults of any socioeconomic background in any nation could manage the same calm reaction that a lame, cheaply-shot film rightly deserves, and likewise appreciate that offensive caricatures on the printed page are nothing more than reflections of one individual’s opinion – and in no way an entire society’s reckoning of libelous thought.
Questions abound: To what degree will the U.S. government attempt to avoid similar international entanglements? Will our leaders become even more vocal proponents of free speech law, or much louder about denouncing and defining productions like “Innocence of Muslims” as hate speech in an effort to block their spread? Will the leaders of foreign countries grow to exhibit even less patience with caricatures so sure to inspire violence – and, as a result, perhaps less willing to help Western powers track down those evil figures who wish violence on us all?
Obviously there are no easy answers. Obviously every story will require its own unique solutions to any painful missteps. And yet Westerners spoiled to live in a world where they can say practically anything and receive little punishment for it must realize that technology gives us the right to instantly call any international destination our home – from Cairo to Islamabad.
So just ask yourself this question: How do you wish to treat your own neighbors, and to be treated by them? If the answer is poorly, then you may not be prepared to live in the 21st century.