The Western World Is Not Really Dedicated to Free Speech


It’s always wise to allow for the possibility that Pope Francis’ pronouncements have been edited or mistranslated, which might distort his meaning. With this in mind, his comments on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as reported by the Associated Press, would seem to establish a certain comfort level with the Heckler’s Veto of free speech.

The AP reports:

Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good.

But he said there were limits.

By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that, to borrow the Pope’s analogy, the limits of speech tend to be defined by whoever punches Dr. Gasparri the hardest. In the case at hand, Charlie Hebdo got away with mocking Christians, Jews, the French, and a variety of other targets. If they hadn’t made fun of Islam, the murdered journalists would still be alive. But they did, so they aren’t.

If the Pope wishes to speak along these lines, it would be welcome for him to acknowledge that all these concerns about “insulting the faith of others” are voiced by secular Western politicians and media exclusively after Islamist bloodbaths. No one seems even slightly worried about insulting the faith of Catholics. The reasons are obvious.

To put things even more frankly, there is very little concern in the Muslim-controlled world about giving offense to other faiths. Governments dominated by Islam tend to explicitly demote other religions to second-class status–if they’re lucky. Advocating other religions is a swift route to imprisonment or execution, as Pastor Saeed Abedini can attest, if you can reach him in the Iranian dungeon where he’s rotting away. Can anyone name an Islamic government that fully respects and protects the exercise of other religions within its borders? Respect must be reciprocated, or it becomes a matter of dominance and submission, no matter how much high-minded language surrounds the act of surrender.

A pregnant woman named Meriam Ibrahim ended up chained to a wall in a Sudanese dungeon for the “crime” of marrying a Christian man. For some reason, no one in Barack Obama’s oh-so-tolerant administration seemed terribly concerned about that. Not a peep of Obama’s “future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam” rhetoric about universal religious tolerance was heard. Come to think of it, he declared, “The future must not belong to those who bully women” in the very same speech–but Meriam Ibrahim got bullied, to put it mildly, and Obama said nothing. The only part of that call for religious tolerance that ever seems to have any real-world impact, or is even remembered a week later, is the part about respecting the group that is conspicuously willing to murder those who disrespect them.

“Provocation” is an entirely subjective concept. If we establish a regime of speech controls based on avoiding offense, the easily offended become enormously powerful–and the strategically offended are right behind them. The black comedy of campus speech codes and “trigger words” provides an absurdly exaggerated example of how strategic claims of offense can be used to silence dissent.

“You cannot insult the faith of others,” Pope Francis declared. If he will pardon the expression, the devil hides in the details. Who defines the parameters of forbidden insult? Who certifies which faiths are valid, and therefore protected, from insult? Who prescribes, and implements, the consequences for defying the ban on insults? Pope Francis did not call for outright government censorship, and it would be absurd to claim he’s endorsing the murder of blasphemers–but “cannot” is not synonymous with “should not.”

To say that we should not insult the faith of others is to answer speech with speech. No one is required to applaud Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, or hold back on criticizing them. I have never read anything from Charlie Hebdo staffers, living or slain, that implied they believed themselves above criticism. They seem like the sort of crew who would buy copies of a magazine insulting them and pass it around the office, to roars of laughter. Their position on free speech can be expressed in logical and consistent terms.

Pope Francis certainly has good intentions, but if he wants to express his position with comparable clarity, he will need to explain precisely what should happen to those who do insult the faith of others. If he answers that they should suffer nothing worse than stern disapproval, he disagrees with Charlie Hebdo primarily on emphasis, not substance–and isn’t it somewhat irresponsible to place emphasis on words like “cannot,” when the world is so deeply concerned about the sizable number of people who think “cannot” means a death sentence?

The Charlie Hebdo massacre, and its aftermath, proves that the Western world has a big problem with the principle of free speech. The problem is that the Western world doesn’t really regard it as a sacred principle, not even in America. Islamists have called our bluff, but we drew the cards long ago.

Our media are not just willing to accept the imposition of sharia speech codes because they’re afraid of getting bombed or shot by fanatics. The Left entertains Islamist censorship demands because it has its own list of speech and ideas liberals would like to suppress. Giving up the right to draw pictures of Muhammad is a small down payment on more speech restrictions to come. Islamists are kicking open a door that socialists across the Western world would like to pass through.

Dissent is so unruly, you see. Socialism requires control, which is dissipated by dissent. There are sacred principles the socialist certainly believes should go unchallenged, but freedom of speech and religion are not among them. When you hear someone like Barack Obama talk about battling “extremism,” remember that’s the word he uses for people who think their taxes are too high, patients who want to control their own health care, consumers who don’t want to subsidize products they aren’t interested in buying, and celibate nuns who don’t wish to pay for abortifacients. Submission is an important concept both in Islam and the religion of the State.

Once freedom of speech is no longer an inalienable right, all that remains is to negotiate its limits. The Islamist cell that slaughtered Charlie Hebdo‘s editors and artists drove a hard bargain. Sometimes the deal is done with cold, hard cash instead of bullets.

After denouncing the Charlie Hebdo massacre and vowing to create “a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked why his social media giant puts up with government censorship in so many of the countries where it operates. His response, courtesy of the UK Guardian:

“One of the big questions that we struggle with: in an ideal world there would be way fewer laws restricting speech,” he said. “The reality is most countries do actually have laws restricting one point of speech or another. … So the real question is how do you navigate this?”

Zuckerberg said that Facebook resists breaking the law in countries purely on a point of principle of defending free speech.

“The real question we weigh is does that actually give more people the ability to express more things? And the problem is if you break the law in a country, then oftentimes that country will just block the whole service entirely,” he said.

“Which then makes it that millions of people are now deprived of the tools that they were using to communicate with their friends and their family and to express as much as possible. So it becomes a very tricky calculus.”

Yes, indeed, it’s a “tricky calculus.” The Heckler’s Veto is designed to make free speech a difficult calculation. It is a tactic favored by those who believe our commitment to free speech will inevitably crumble, if the price is made high enough. Even if you give Zuckerberg full credit for the good intentions he expressed, he’s still negotiating: Facebook with heavy censorship is better than taking a firm stand and leaving some people with no Facebook at all. It’s not an illogical position–but peer into the details, and you will once again see a very large devil grinning back at you.

Leading figures in business, media, and politics across the world are deciding that free speech is more trouble than it’s worth. You can expect the value of speech to be marked down even further.