Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last week, President Obama tried to explain this strange attachment that Americans have to freedom of speech. He was handicapped by his attraction to a moral principle whose dangers the journalist Jonathan Rauch presciently highlighted in his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors: "Thou shalt not hurt others with words."
During the last few weeks, the widespread, often violent, and sometimes deadly protests against The Innocence of Muslims, a laughably amateurish trailer for a seemingly nonexistent film mocking the prophet Muhammad, have demonstrated the alarming extent to which citizens of Muslim countries, including peaceful moderates as well as violent extremists, embrace this injunction against offending people. "We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression," a Muslim scholar explained to The New York Times. "We think it is an offense against our rights."
This notion of rights cannot be reconciled with the classical liberal tradition of free inquiry and free expression. But instead of saying that plainly, Obama delivered a muddled message, mixing a defense of free speech with an implicit endorsement of expectations that threaten to destroy it.
"The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression," Obama said. "It is more speech." So far, so good. "There is no speech that justifies mindless violence," he added. "There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There's no video that justifies an attack on an embassy." Although it is sad that such things need to be said in the 21st century, Obama was right to say them.
But Obama undermined his own point by pandering to the rioters and their sympathizers. "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam," he declared, condemning this "crude and disgusting video," which he said "must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity." He seemed to conflate tolerance of religious differences, which freedom of conscience requires, with respect for other people's beliefs, which cannot be enforced without destroying freedom of conscience.
Obama muddied matters further by quoting Mohandas Gandhi's puzzling declaration that "intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit." This statement appears in a 1921 Young India article where Gandhi chastises "non-cooperating" lawyers for looking down on colleagues who did not join them in protesting British rule by refusing to participate in the legal system. That "arrogant assumption of superiority" was crucially different from violence, and Gandhi's sloppy equation of the two is precisely the sort of confusion that defenders of free speech should be keen to correct.
Rauch explains why in Kindly Inquisitors. Quoting a law professor's comparison of racial epithets to bullets, he notes the implication: "If you hurt me with words, I reply with bullets, and the exchange is even."
Rauch's book was largely inspired by the tepid Western response to the death decree that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989 as punishment for the insufficient respect he showed Muhammad in his novel The Satanic Verses. While Khomeini was wrong to call for Rushdie's murder, many commentators said, Rushdie was wrong to be so reckless with Muslim sensitivities.
This pathetic pattern, which was repeated after the manufactured outrage over the Muhammad cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, is playing out yet again as American officials ritually reject the "intolerance" embodied in a ridiculous YouTube video, as if they have a duty to condemn cultural artifacts that upset people. As Rushdie himself told New York Times columnist Bill Keller, "It's not for the American government to regret what American citizens do."
That's the appropriate response to people who insist, as an Egyptian protester quoted by the Times did, that "Obama is the president, so he should have to apologize!" No. That is not our president's job. Neither is lecturing us about being nice to people who think trashing a school or burning down a restaurant is an understandable response to hurt feelings.