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Condoning Violence; Destroying Free Speech

I’ve recently given a couple talks called “Free Speech Under Siege” (the most recent at Clemson, which you can watch here) in which I argue that the primary threat to free speech today comes not from terrorist attacks, such as those in Paris in January, but from an unwillingness to defend free speech as a right. That’s not to say terrorist attacks aren’t significant — ask Flemming Rose or cartoonist Molly Norris how free they feel to speak after being threatened with death for daring to publish drawings of Muhammad. My point is that the threats and killings can only succeed in chilling our speech if we let them. One way we do that is by appeasing those who resort to threats and violence.

Appeasement was on full display after the Paris attacks in what I call the “yes, but” approach to free speech — as in, “yes, free speech is important, but you shouldn’t offend someone else’s religion” or “violence is not the answer, but how else would we expect people to react to such inflammatory rhetoric?”

Pope Francis took this approach soon after the Paris attacks, calling Charlie Hebdo “provocateurs.” The Paris attacks obviously were not justified, according to the Pope, but “a reaction could have been expected.” “You cannot insult the faith of others,” he said. The dean of a journalism school displayed the same attitude, writing in USA Today that while free speech is important, Charlie Hebdo’s mocking pictures of Muhammad were “beyond the limits of the endurable” and therefore outside the protections of the First Amendment.

The latest example of this view comes from Garry Trudeau, author of the popular Doonesbury comic strip. Trudeau recently took the occasion of winning a lifetime achievement award to criticize Charlie Hebdo for publishing “hate speech.” He claims that Charlie Hebdo and others who published Muhammad cartoons “provoked” the Paris attacks and other violence across Europe. Unlike the Pope, Trudeau didn’t even bother to say the Paris attacks were unjustified, but let’s be charitable and assume that he doesn’t actively support violence against those who draw pictures for a living. Even with that caveat, though, more violence is exactly where his view will lead. Freedom of speech will be the cost.

After all, to say that someone “provoked” an attack on them is to say that they are at fault and the attacker was justified. Similarly, when someone says “free speech is important, but you can’t offend someone’s religion” what he really means is that free speech is not as important as the offended person’s feelings.

In either case, the clear message is: the cartoonists are in the wrong, and they, not their attackers, are responsible for the resulting violence. That’s what it means to say, as the Pope did, that a “reaction could have been expected” and to criticize Charlie Hebdo for provoking it. Trudeau made this meaning clear in his own remarks, accusing the cartoonists of “inciting” violence and causing “Muslims throughout France to make common cause with [Islam’s] most violent outliers.” Islamic terrorism, it turns out, is the fault of a handful of cartoonists and other provocateurs. No wonder the Obama administration blamed a schlock video for the Benghazi attacks.

To be fair to President Obama, this sort of appeasement was going on long before he came along. The first president Bush reacted with little more than annoyance when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwah against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. His son responded to the Danish cartoons controversy by expressing more sympathy for offended Muslims than for cartoonists who were threatened with death.

Is it really surprising that we are getting more violence in response to speech when we’ve been telling those who resort to it that it works — indeed that it should work?

What the appeasers ignore is the vast difference between speech and force. Thomas Jefferson captured the distinction long ago when he said, “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Speech, no matter how offensive, is fundamentally an appeal to reason and choice. That’s true even if the speech in question is not actually reasonable, because the listener always has the choice to stop listening and walk away. Not so when the argument is made with bullets.

It’s certainly true that offensive speech — indeed, any speech — can “provoke,” but the important question is what is acceptable as a response. Trudeau accuses free speech “absolutists” of failing to recognize an offended group’s “right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain.”

Indeed they are. What they are not allowed to do is respond with violence. In a civilized society, one has the right to respond to speech with anger, outrage, more speech or a cold shoulder. No one has the right to respond with a hail of bullets.

As Ayn Rand once said, “a gun is not an argument.” If you doubt that, try debating with someone who agrees to talk to you until you offend them, at which point they will kill you. It’s a real conversation stopper.

And, of course, that’s the point. Anyone who chooses a gun over an argument wants to control the entire debate — indeed, whether any debate takes place at all. It’s senseless to say they just want to prevent “offensive” comments, because a resort to threats and violence means they get to decide what is offensive.

Does anyone really think that people who are willing to respond to cartoons with violence will be satisfied once those cartoons are banned? How does the debate proceed after that point? “You can’t draw a picture of my prophet, but feel free to argue that he doesn’t exist or that his word isn’t law as it says in the Koran”?

What’s left when one side in a debate claims the right to control the entire debate and to kill anyone who disagrees with them? Only violence. The irony of all this is that Trudeau, the Pope and their fellow critics are the real provocateurs. By condoning violence in response to speech, they will only end up ensuring that violence becomes the rule.