On “The Innocence of Muslims”: Free Speech Covers the Unpalatable

The violence that occurred in Libya and Egypt last week over a YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” has been rightfully condemned, but too often it has also been rationalized, justified, and given credence. The inciting video is seen as hateful enough, distasteful enough, to make these acts of violence, if not justifiable, understandable. Because the video is seen as hate speech, it has been the object of as much criticism as the violence, and its removal from YouTube in Libya and Egypt has been praised. When did we get into the censorship business?

This video, no matter what lies it may contain, should not be the object of criticism for its mere existence, nor should we be proud of Google for censoring it. We are free to criticize what it says, and by all means to disagree with it, but shutting it out of public debate is not the way to go about addressing its speech. Freedom of speech means that sometimes people will express opinions that offend, and that this speech must be protected. If America is to be for freedom of speech everywhere, we can’t support censorship if it happens to suit us at that moment.

Now, clearly, Google is a private company that can choose whether or not to host anything as it pleases, but this still smacks of hypocrisy. This is the company that refused to continue to do business in mainland China if the Chinese government demanded they censor their search results. This is the company whose motto is “Don’t be evil.” Why in the past have they acted on ideals, but now they act on realpolitik?

Censoring the video wasn’t a commendable action, this was being forced to grapple with the realities of freedom of speech and backing down. Civil liberties are not easy things to have, much less protect. They result in chaos, in dissent, and sometimes in violence. They make a society harder to govern, for they reduce the power of the state. They make people free. All of this is good, our doctrine goes, but with one caveat: only when it happens in America.

For decades the US has preached democracy while establishing dictatorships, preached civil liberties while ignoring where they are stamped down. Be it in the guise of the King of Saudi Arabia or our good friend Mubarak in Egypt, we like order and stability in other countries, and so when faced with the uncertainty that comes from a fledgling free society, we panic and run for cover. We need to let Egypt and Libya, countries we had such high hopes for during their revolutions, understand civil liberties. Tantrums over religious insensitivity can only go so far. At some point people will realize that they are living in the age of the internet, that they will be insulted. Hopefully, this leads to freer societies.

Our credentials as global peacekeeper and freedom-maker have been taking a shellacking for about as long as we’ve been touting them. We have a pretty bad record, but we could turn this around. We don’t need to support the easy course, we don’t need to be complicit in despotism worldwide.

Censorship isn’t anywhere near the road to civil liberties, no matter how necessary it seems at the moment. Instead of allowing two worlds to exist – one where freedom is good no matter what form it takes, and another where freedom is some distant and ephemeral goal – we could stand for abroad what we live by at home.

So let’s stand for what we stand for. Let’s really be for freedom of speech everywhere, and not just when it’s convenient. Let’s let people be offended, let them be outraged. Let’s let people begin to understand what freedom is, what its implications are. Freedom is a nice, happy, positive word, but in reality freedom hurts.

Freedom is the freedom to say things that will hurt others, to act in ways that others find objectionable. It is at these extremes that freedom needs the most protecting. We must, if we stand for free speech, support the right of those we most disagree with to speak.

Yes, I found “The Innocence of Muslims” disgusting, but I would be outraged if YouTube decided to pull the video globally, and I bet I wouldn’t be alone. If this kind of censorship had happened in America, there would be public outcry, not support. The fact that Google had cover because we in America don’t mind if censorship happens abroad is appalling. Censorship is censorship wherever it happens, whatever the circumstance. Somehow, we’re just more comfortable when the censorship happens somewhere else.

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