All actions have consequences, including how we express our ideas and ourselves. Often our expressions have unforeseen or unintended consequences. Yesterday’s attack on the US Consulate in Libya that took the lives of four people is reported to have been a retaliatory response to a YouTube video. The video disrespects Islam by ridiculing Muhammad. I haven’t added my clicks to the view count, and I’m uninterested in commenting on the video itself, but I am interested in the consequences of free speech.
All expressions—especially those that reveal something we find real and true—expose us to some vulnerability. Will the hearers disagree? Will disagreement diminish me in their sight? Will disagreement prompt action, like distancing from me or harming me? Of course, in a presidential election season, we don’t need reminding that some expressions are not true and are designed to expose someone else’s vulnerability. And some expressions are designed to provoke disagreement. Some are designed to manipulate us or to bait us to respond in a way that benefits the speaker, if only to garner notoriety. Perhaps the quip, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” turns out to be deadly after all.
Our First Amendment only protects free speech from government interference (or legal action) to the extent that the speech does not cause harm to others. Specifically, speech that threatens others, incites immanent lawless action, states facts falsely, is obscene or sexually exploits children is not protected. Happily for writers, speech owned by others merits no First Amendment protection, either.
The diversity of opinion on what qualifies for protection and on appropriate consequences provides the real grist for discussion. Ted Nugent is legally free to make public political statements so long as he doesn’t threaten anybody or incite lawless action, but that does not exempt him from consequences like losing an employment contract. How about the violence that saturates US entertainment—does it not incite more violence? Isn’t it demonstrably harmful to our kids? Tipper Gore made that argument, God love her, and her efforts met resounding defeat and castigation.
Personally, I have a hard time advocating limits on any artistic expression that a creator finds to be real or true, even if I find that expression upsetting or manipulative. Embracing another’s truth and reality can expand our own. On the other hand, I also believe we each carry responsibility for the footprint we leave in the world. It is the people who threw grenades in the Libyan attack who are responsible for the deaths and damage, not the filmmaker. The filmmaker’s contribution was to throw disrespect like a grenade. Expressions that lack respect for others can do no good. They leave only the footprints of destruction and human diminishment.
Join the conversation. Do you think the filmmaker did the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded global theater?
Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.