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I’m deeply saddened today

Published on 12 September 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

I was not planning this blog entry – but I’ll do it anyway. I’m sad, terribly sad … and angry. Four people died, yesterday in Benghazi from sectarian violence. Four lives were snuffed out, and many others’ will be changed as the consequences of distributing an offensive movie about the Prophet Mohammad reverberate across the Muslim world. That the four people were diplomats, and in a sense my colleagues, makes the event personally more poignant. But I worry more about the infinite hidden consequences – the mutual suspicion, the resentments, the misunderstandings that will echo down the months and years to come. Hate has been seeded mindlessly – under the title of “freedom of opinion and speech”. Years of patient work building bridges have been destroyed – a flash-flood has destroyed it all. What for? I wonder. Voltaire has been misattributed the following sentence: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it”. I’m not surprised – no true skeptic would make such a bald statement. The right to free speech originated first and foremost as protection against the state’s use of its monopoly of force to silence public discourse. In the US Constitution “free speech” is part of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789 says at its Article 10—No-one should be harassed for his opinions, even religious views, provided that the expression of such opinions does not cause a breach of the peace as established by law. Article 11—The free communication of thought and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen can therefore speak, write and publish freely; however, they are answerable for abuse of this freedom as determined by law. While “free speech” is not conditional, the Declaration clearly sets limits to “free speech” – these limits arise from the balance between free speech and “social peace”. There is awareness in the Declaration that if the individual is to be protected from the tyranny of the majority, this does not entitle the individual to tyrannize society in turn with ideas that many people find offensive. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Though the formulation is more absolute, its placement in the Declaration signals that the rights is embedded in a social framework, and is not unfettered. I’m afraid I see no legitimate purpose is making such the offensive creation, which has resulted in the four deaths. What I see, however, are the consequences, and they are dismal, both for the evolution of Muslim-Christian relations and for freedom of speech. Just as its oppression, abuse of free speech endangers us all. For a moment we may pause to reflect on how better to balance individual and collective rights. Inevitably these rights go together, for we are, after all, also a community. We better take responsibility, lest the state do it for us.

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