Thursday, September 13, 2012

Inalienable Rights?

I don't know how to ask what I'm about to ask without pissing everyone off, but maybe that's what makes it good material for discussion. +Jeff Jarvis wrote in his blog today:
Zeynep Tufecki, a brilliant observer of matters media, digital, and social, cautioned on Twitter that we must understand a key difference in attitudes toward speech here and elsewhere in the world: “Forget Middle East, in most of Europe you could not convince most people that *all* speech should be protected. That is uniquely American,” she tweeted yesterday. “In most places, including Europe, ‘hate-speech’ –however defined — is regulated, prosecuted. Hence, folks assume not prosecuted=promoted…. US free speech absolutism already hard to comprehend for many. Add citizen media to mix, it gets messy. Then, killers exploit this vagueness.” Excellent points and important perspective for the current situation.
I, like Jeff, am a Free Speech absolutist. I'm lucky enough to live in a country that has chosen to protect this unalienable right. So much so, that just like the quote above, I had to be reminded that this is far from universal. Watching Erin Burnett on CNN tonight, I witnessed a clip of a protester in Cairo talking to the media, repeating that "Obama is guilty! Obama is guilty!" in reference to the idea that the President Obama, backed by U.S. Intelligence, had to "know about this movie", and "chose not to stop it", as if such a thing were even possible in America.

The concept of free speech was utterly alien to that man.

The distance between an American and the American Government was non-existent to him.

As an American, I fully--instinctually--understand that it is not a contradiction to be utterly disgusted by the hate-filled speech of a fellow citizen, and still stand up to defend that citizen's right to speak it; that the answer for Bad Speech is More Speech. It is so important to our way of life, that it was the very first thing codified in the Bill of Rights.

Here was a citizen of Cairo, demanding that a foreign leader in a foreign country betray one of the most fundamental pillars of that country's way of life, because, not only does he think freedom of speech *should* not exist, but that it *could* not exist. The idea was utterly alien to him.

So the thought that popped into my head that I'm wrestling with is this:
Is this man an exception? Is he the rule?

If the latter, what hope is there in an Arab Spring for freedom in that part of the world, where one of the fundamental tenets of liberty is literally inconceivable? I frequently wonder whether or not Americans--who were born to these concepts--are still capable of shouldering the great burden that liberty demands of us. What, then, can we expect of those to whom these concepts are alien?

I ask these questions off the cuff, and with an open heart and curious mind. I don't mean to offend. At the very least, I hope you find this question more interesting than figuring out which campaign tweeted which statement when--which seems to be the discussion that's taken over CNN for now.