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article imageOp-Ed: Whose fault is it when free speech leads to violence?

By Andrew John     Apr 6, 2011 in World
Is Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida really guilty of the deaths in Afghanistan caused by rioting over the Koran-burning issue?
You may remember that he threatened to burn 200 copies of the Koran on September 11 last year. There was outcry. He didn’t do it, but reserved the right to do so at a future date. In March this year he presided over a mock trial of the Muslim holy texts, which were found “guilty” and a copy was burned.
That, anyway, is the summary of it all, and the blog of Britain’s 130-year-old Freethinker magazine carries a detailed report with further links for those who wish to know more.
Jones may occupy – in this secularist’s opinion, anyway – part of the lunatic fringe of the Christian religion, but he does not, as the New York Daily News has it, have “blood on his hands.”
Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, is adamant in an article in the Telegraph that Jones is not at fault because those on the extreme fringe of another religion, Islam, decide to go wild after a copy of a book is burned.
Cards on table: I don’t believe in provocatively burning books, whether they’re the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita or the latest on Potter wizardry or Twilight bloodsucking. It just smacks, somehow, of walking into a bar, going up to the first person you see and telling him his mother shags slugs. That doesn’t make me a supporter of the religions concerned, just someone who doesn’t see the need to cause a row.
O’Neill’s point in his Telegraph article is that attempts to blame Jones are not only a threat to freedom of speech (the implied question: Where will it end?), but they also demean those Muslims who are not so easily combustible.
O’Neill puts it thus: “The feverish attempts to pin the blame for the Afghan instability on Pastor Jones demonises freedom of speech as something terrifying, even murderous, and it treats Muslims as brainless, wide-eyed automatons who can’t be held responsible for their actions.”
Provocation for murder
Later in his Telegraph article, he says: “The consequence of calling into question the free will of people who hear or read certain words is to generate an Orwellian rush to clamp down on anything judged to be ‘problematic speech’.”
For its part, the News says: “Jones has turned freedom of speech into a provocation for murder.” It goes on: “He has done so knowingly and with reckless disregard for human life. He shares responsibility for the deaths [on April 1] of at least 12 at a United Nations compound in Afghanistan.”
O’Neill points out that such nonsense amounts to saying that the attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan was the fault of Martin Scorsese, because the would-be assassin said he was influenced by Taxi Driver.
And O’Neill is a left-of-centre journalist, having once edited a publication called LM Online, the journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party (“LM” stands for “Living Marxism”). This was the predecessor of Spiked. So one wouldn’t expect a right-wing rant against Islam from him.
He makes the point that going along with the “blood on his hands” argument that words lead to undesirable actions on the parts of others would indicate that there should be no limits to curbing free speech.
“If words really are so dangerous, then surely they should be treated as just another weapon, like guns and knives, whose usage must be tightly controlled by the cops and powers-that-be,” he says.
Only the actions of those who directly caused the deaths in this shameful episode can be held to blame. Once we begin to blame someone for having an opinion – even if we think that opinion is lunatic in the extreme – we trample on free speech. If freedom of speech means anything, it means granting it to those you profoundly disagree with. The place for conflict is in debate, where it will do no physical harm and may open up some minds to opinions they haven’t hitherto wrangled with.
But beware! Many would like the citizen to be gagged. Ordinary people have a nasty habit of saying things politicians and others in authority don’t like. They’re a damned inconvenience. Once we start to encourage the idea that freedom of speech can be curtailed, it will become part of the mindset. People won’t even notice.
First Amendment
It’s also disturbing that there are people who hint that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the USA’s First Amendment might be a freedom too far.
Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat, Illinois) said: “I understand what the First Amendment says, the rights that are given to American citizens when it comes to speech and assembly and religion. But I want to tell you that this pastor with his publicity stunt with the Quran unfortunately endangers the lives of our troops and a lot of innocent people. It is time for him to accept the responsibility as an American to help our troops be safe.”
What is the answer? Many things cause deaths to soldiers and innocent civilians. How far back do you wish to untangle the causal chain? If Pastor Jones had never become a minister he might never have uttered those words. If he had not been born . . .
Yes, it’s more complex than that, but you get my gist. Should we blame not the person carrying out the death-dealing deed but, say, his ideals? Should we blame those for that IED at the roadside, and not the guy who put it there? Should we blame whoever put those notions into his head – the preacher at the mosque at Friday prayers last week?
There is no easy answer to this, because there are those who will always resort to violence before debate. Education is the key – that and a campaign on the part of the secular world (and I don’t mean atheist, just secular) to instil into the minds of those who prefer theocracy to democracy that killing does not solve matters, but merely inflames.
Altering expectations
That would be a long time in the execution, but it ought to be possible. Those in positions of power, be they presidents or preachers, monarchs or ministers, could begin the exercise now, gradually changing the intellectual milieu, altering expectations, making it the received, unquestioned wisdom that we don’t do violence except in the most extreme circumstances, such as threat to life.
What we do do is debate. Debate allows your ideas and mine to be rejected or accepted, ridiculed or modified. From it we all emerge as better thinkers, better citizens.
As John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, “There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation” (my italics).
And another one I like from the same source is: “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”
And there are too many dead dogmas in the world – dead dogmas that lead to dead people.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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