Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The International Culture Wars

Apologies if this is incoherent or full of spelling errors. I feel the need to get it out fast, and other elements of life intrude.

Romney was right. The response of the US Embassy in Cairo to the gathering mobs outside protesting the showing of a movie critical to Islam somewhere in south Florida was wrong and counterproductive.

The problem here is—I speak from anecdotal, but first-hand, evidence—that even well-educated Arabs do not seem to understand the concept of free speech, and why it is so important in the Christian West. Any comments from the Embassy or the US government need to make that case. If, instead, they simply say they disagree with the film, or condemn it, that will cut no ice. After all, why then did they not suppress it, and punish the perpetrators?

It would be just like the Libyan government condemning the murder of the US Ambassador, but then doing nothing to either catch the perpetrators, or protect the Embassy in future.

Once upon a time, it was possible to just live and let live—Westerners did what they wanted in the West, and Middle Easterners did what they wanted in the Middle East. This is no longer possible, because international communication—in this case, YouTube—means any word spoken in the US is now immediately heard in Egypt. Therefore, in order to accommodate Egyptian demands, the US and the West would have to radically alter their own culture and civic standards.

But then, the US and the West have been doing exactly the same thing to Egypt and the Middle East for some time: demanding, for example, the end of head coverings for women, homosexual rights, the prohibition of child brides, a homeland for the Jews, and so forth. We left “live and let live” behind a long time ago.

Actually, I wonder whether many educated Westerners themselves realize how fundamental and how necessary free speech is to our Western European culture. It has certainly not been well-honoured recently in Canada.

Let me outline a few points here; the sort of points that need to be made to the wider world. I think it has become a practical necessity to do this; organs like VOA and the BBC should be mandated to emphasize this.

First, of course—I think everyone understands this much--freedom of speech is considered in the West, at least since Locke, a fundamental human right. This doctrine of human rights is the essential cornerstone of all government theory and political ideology in the West. This means government does not have the right to suppress or punish speech, unless a real, tangible harm can be demonstrated. 

John Stuart Mill.
As John Stuart Mill explained at length, it is impossible to have a democracy without freedom of speech. This is why, in parliament, even libel laws do not hold. Without free access to all the available information and to everyone's point of view, and being able to argue everything out in public, the public is unable to make the best decisions—and will ultimately not even know what is going on in government. It is asking a lot to ask the West to give up democracy.

At this point, a Muslim might object—and the government of Egypt has objected--that Western governments have many restrictions on free speech. One is not allowed in Germany or France to cast any doubts on the reality or severity of the Holocaust, for example. In Canada, one cannot say anything that might subject any identifiable group to hate or ridicule. Surely, religion is more important than any of these things. It is therefore hypocritical to extend no such protection to religions. Indeed, not to do so shows that the West is merely irreligious, not concerned with human rights.

To which the response is that the hypocrisy is real, but two wrongs do not make a right. The restrictions on free speech about the Holocaust, or about various preferred ethnicities, should also be lifted. The way they have worked in practice demonstrates strongly Mill's arguments that they interfere with good public policy and cannot be fairly enforced. 

Why poison hemlock gets such a bad press.
As to blasphemy in particular, it is not just that the West cares less about religion. Jesus himself was executed for the crime of blasphemy, essentially invalidating blasphemy laws, in Christian minds, for all time. For Western secular humanists, the case is the same: Socrates was also executed for the crime of blasphemy, invalidating the idea for all time in the minds of Western thinkers generally.

For scientists, Galileo was .... no, they always get that one wrong. It wasn't blasphemy, and he was not executed. But the strength of the legend shows how deep the opposition to blasphemy laws, and the perceived importance of free speech, is in the West. In a sense, indeed, science really is founded on the concept of free speech. The idea is that one should publish one's findings, so that others can try them as well and see if they really work. The more natural approach elsewhere had always been to keep them secret in order to exploit them for personal gain. 

Galileo, alive and well.
Ergo, for the West, without free speech: no human rights, no democracy, no religion, no philosophy, no science.

Bit much to have to give up.

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