Monday, October 15, 2012

Free Speech? When Was That?

Jonathan Turley is up in arms about what he sees as an assault on free speech, citing statements like the Australian Prime Minister's recent "Our tolerance must never extend to tolerating religious hatred." Turley puts it like this:
Free speech is dying in the Western world. While most people still enjoy considerable freedom of expression, this right, once a near-absolute, has become less defined and less dependable for those espousing controversial social, political or religious views.
Once near absolute? When was that? In the 1950s, when you could lose your job for publicly defending the communist party? In the 1960s, when professors were stripped of tenure for criticizing the Vietnam war? In the 1970s, when people marching for gay rights were beaten up by police? No society has ever tolerated every shade of opinion, and most have responded to some provocations with violence.

Turley is also confused about what "free speech" means. He seems to think it means that you can say whatever you want without being attacked for it, or at least without being attacked by government officials. That's wrong. It seems to me that it is the job of the President or Prime Minister to publicly disagree with offensive statements. "Free speech" means, not that you won't be criticized for what you say, but that you can't be sent to jail for it. Since none of the Americans recently in the news for making anti-Islamic statements have been jailed -- or "questioned" by the police, or had crosses burned on their lawns, or any such thing -- they absolutely do have the rights we call free speech. It is true that some European countries have laws against blasphemous or hateful speech, but this is not new; those countries have always had such restrictions, legally or otherwise.

I suspect that Turley really just means that it has gotten harder to publicly criticize Islam. I agree with him that there has been a lot of cowardice about this, but I also understand the reason western leaders tiptoe around it. Right now one of the world's biggest long-term problems is the integration of the Islamic countries into the broader world economy and society. The siege mentality of many Muslims has lots of unfortunate effects, like support for terrorism and for thuggish leaders who "stand up to the west." It is in all of our interests to make Muslims feel welcomed, or at least un-hated, in the world at large. Muslims need to get over being outraged by the statements of western nut cases, but western leaders also need to do what they can to smooth things over when such outbreaks occur.

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