Freedom of speech has never been absolute. Crying ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, we are rightly told, is just not on. So there is often a balancing act going on in democracies. But freedom of speech is a hallmark of a free nation.
Unfortunately, both free speech and free nations are facing stiff challenges lately from various quarters. Faulty notions of tolerance, the plague of political correctness, and insurgent radical Islam are all making things difficult for freedom. As a result, the free West, especially Europe, is quickly losing its grip on freedom of speech.
In the old days one might say that, “I disagree with what you have to say, but I defend to the death your right to say it”. Not a bad sentiment. It implies that free discussion is important, even if we strongly disagree with others.
But today a warped view of tolerance says that we must not only allow competing points of view, but we must embrace those views, even respect those views.
This of course is a distortion of the notion of tolerance. You have no need to tolerate someone who you agree with. It is only when real disagreements arise that tolerance is called for. But today we are told to respect and accept every opinion, every worldview, every lifestyle, all in the name of tolerance.
Of course it doesn’t work that way, and in the real world, double standards quickly come into play. Thus we are told to respect Muslims and their views, but many Muslims are quite happy to not accept other views, and to threaten a fatwa or riot in the streets instead. Recent episodes are all too familiar, be it the Pope’s remarks, Danish cartoons, or Dutch filmmakers.
Christopher Orlet, writing in the October 12, 2006 American Spectator, takes up this theme. In his article, “A Fatwa on Truth,” he provides another recent example, that of a French high school teacher, Robert Redeker. The philosophy professor in Toulouse recently wrote a newspaper article in which he accused Islam of “exalting violence,” and called Muhammad a “mass-murderer of Jews.”
For his troubles, he too is now fearing for his life, and considering a long-term spell in hiding. The Islamic reaction was predictable. But the response of the French elites has been mixed. Of major concern have been the spineless wonders who refuse to unequivocally condemn the fatwas and violence, and try to excuse the behaviour of radical Muslims. For example, the paper that published Redeker’s piece pulled it from its web site, and issued an official apology. Other French leaders have been equally unhelpful. Says Orlet,
“Not surprisingly, the French government is more concerned that M. Redeker does not disturb the fragile peace (read Muslim sensibilities) that has held since last year’s banlieue riots than with basic human rights; toward that end, the Chirac government will gladly sacrifice one man’s speech (to say nothing of the Truth) to avoid a street full of impassioned Muslim demonstrators burning churches, kicking Jews, etc.”
Of course France has long been in retreat not only from its Judeo-Christian heritage, but even from its more recent revolutionary heritage: “Just how far France has retreated from the ideals of the Revolution can be heard in the comments of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. M. Villepin recently told the French people that everyone has the ‘right to express his views freely, while respecting others [views], of course.’ Apparently there is now in France a civic duty to ‘respect others’ views’ equal to the right of free expression. Maybe, but I cannot see it. Nor can I imagine America’s founders – whom the French revolutionaries emulated – offering a proposed 11th amendment providing a ‘right to have one’s views respected’.”
But does every idea command respect? “Most, I suspect, would agree that murderers, looters, polygamists and such deserve little respect. Why then cannot there be an honest debate over whether Mohammed was – as M. Redeker alleges – a ‘merciless warlord, a looter, a mass murderer of Jews and a polygamist’? Simply because Islam allows of no debate when it comes to Allah, his prophet, and his word. And the French government is fine with that.”
France is simply renouncing its past commitment to ideals of free speech and discussion in order to appease “anti-intellectual Muslim thugs”. Indeed, the “West went through a similar crisis a few years ago during the height of the Feminist Inquisition and Politically Correct Crusade, which matched the worst excesses of McCarthyism for the sheer dread it imposed upon the hearts and minds of Americans. Ironically, it was worst in the press and academia, where untenured professors – almost all upstanding liberals – lived in constant fear of being reported to the PC police for gazing wantonly at a young coed, or making an off-color joke.”
“The difference is that even in the darkest days of PC the worst a malefactor could suffer was the loss of his career, his home, and his reputation. But offend the followers of Allah and you risk a beheading or years hiding out like a most wanted desperado.”
People with the courage of Redeker are becoming few and far between. But they need to be supported, not abandoned. Concludes Orlet, “For now teachers, writers, editors and artists have a clear choice to make: they can risk offending Islam and disappear into exile, or they can remain silent, like Iran’s intellectuals, like Egypt’s refuseniks. During the 1930s, German intellectuals like Thomas Mann could always flee to America, where speech was still protected, and where assassins were unlikely to get at you. Now as then America should extend an invitation to those like M. Redeker, just as it recently provided a safe haven for Salman Rushdie and Orianna Fallaci. Just as it once did for those fleeing persecution from the Nazis and the Soviets. The menace is no less great this time.”