As many of you may be aware, the United Nations is working on a resolution that has been termed the “Anti-Blasphemy Resolution.” It’s unclear at this point whether this will be an extension of previous non-binding resolutions on the topic or whether those who are pushing it will actually be successful in making it binding on member countries. In it’s earliest form, which I believe dates back to 1999, the only religion protected under the resolution was Islam, and support for the resolution grew dramatically among certain countries in the wake of 9/11.
But what does this all mean? It’s obviously relatively meaningless as far as legitimate protection of the sensibilities of all religious people is concerned, or at least it will be until it is expanded to include all religions and is enforced upon the countries who are its proponents. But still, what is the real significance of such a resolution? I maintain that it has little to do with religion and sensibilities at all, but rather goes directly to the roots of liberty.
As should be clear to any westerner, a binding U.N. resolution that could be termed”anti-blasphemy” is not only an attack on, but, in fact, a direct limitation of the freedom of speech. And freedom of speech is not something that sits on a sliding scale. You either have it, or you do not. So let’s explore this core freedom of ours a bit. We all know that our freedom of speech is not 100% and absolute in all cases. Everyone knows the example of yelling fire in a crowded theatre. But why is this type of speech restricted? Simply put, it is one of the very few instances in which words can kill, or at least bring some level of physical harm to people. One could also argue that the freedom of speech is less about words and sounds that come from our mouths or even communication in general, and more about the freedom of expression of ideas, and the fire in a theatre example is clearly not an expression of an idea. But for now, that additional argument is less relevant. Indeed, in the context of this U.N. resolution, the idea that words or ideas can cause people physical harm or even kill is precisely the argument for such a restriction of speech. That is to say, the reason we don’t allow someone to yell fire in the middle of a crowded theatre is the same reason we can’t allow anyone to speak out against Islam: it puts innocent people in imminent danger. Or at least that’s the only supportable argument. This is, of course, the same rationale for restricting Geert Wilders access to the United Kingdom: Such speech will lead to violence perpetrated by those who are offended by the ideas expressed.
So this raises a questions for us: Is it preferable to restrict and condemn the expression of ideas that may be offensive to some, or to restrict and condemn the violent behavior of those who are offended by the simple expression of ideas?
Let’s examine this from the perspective of liberty. The ability to perpetrate violence may very well be a necessary component of liberty. I think of the importance and intent of the second amendment for instance. A people’s ability to defend itself, which may very well necessitate violence, is a hallmark of liberty. But the ability to perpetrate violence is not the keystone without which the entire principle of liberty would collapse. In contrast, the free expression of ideas that is afforded by our freedom of speech is that keystone. Indeed, without true freedom of speech, true liberty does not exist. As soon as the free expression and exchange of ideas are restricted we have nothing to defend with violence; without free speech our liberty is meaningless. If one can’t speak out against something, there is no way to be free from the influence of that thing. Imagine if free speech in the political arena was restricted. Even though this would only be one restriction of speech, without contrasting and competing political ideas we would immediately find ourselves under despotic rule. Indeed, it is precisely the free expression of ideas that inhibits totalitarianism.
Also important to the concept of free speech is the plain fact that it is non-negotiable. As I stated before, free speech, like all freedom, does not sit on a sliding scale. You are either free or you are not. The limitation of such a freedom in any form negates entirely the freedom itself. This concept is very simple: if speech is at all restricted, it is not free, rather it is restricted. As an analogy, one can think of restrictions placed on alcohol. I doubt anyone would argue that we have freedom in our use of alcohol. Beyond even the important issues of drinking age and drunk driving laws, our mere access to alcohol is restricted. Virtually all places in this country require the suspension of alcohol sales at a certain time of day, and some – deeply confused I might add – places even restrict where and how it can be made available and even what can accompany it when it is available. Very clearly, our alcohol use is not free, it is restricted.
So, if free speech is the keystone of liberty, and any restriction on free speech entirely negates the foundation of the freedom, it follows that a restriction or condemnation of the free expression of ideas rather swiftly eliminates liberty itself. And with that, we have a new question: Is it preferable to eliminate liberty, or restrict the possibility that a person or people be offended?
I would never argue that the mere act of offending people is a positive thing. It is certainly negative. However, we should cherish the fact that we may sometimes be offended. That we may be offended is one of the manifestations of our freedom of expression which is the keystone of liberty. If we could never be offended we could never be free. I hope the United Nations will protect my right to be offended, and ensure that right is available to everyone else in the world as well.