On the surface, there’s not much in common between Putin’s government and the murderous mobs rioting in Libya, Egypt, and now Palestine in response to an obscure Internet video by someone named Sam Bacille.
Except they can’t tolerate speech with which they disagree.
What about Americans? Where do we stand?
When I wrote a defense of the free speech rights of Pussy Riot, a feminist band recently sentenced to two years prison in Russia for their protest invasion of an Orthodox Church, I was surprised to get pushback from Westerners.
They pointed out that Pussy Riot, in general, is very offensive, crude, and downright disgusting, not to mention shockingly unsanitary if certain claims are true.
Granted. Completely granted.
They pointed out that people of faith in America have not suffered the kinds of suppression and persecution the Orthodox Church has.
Also granted, at least in living memory, with the stipulation that the people who wrote the Constitution knew very well what religious persecution looked and felt like.
Neither point matters, however, against the priority of the right to free speech.
With the shocking statement by our Cairo embassy that “hurting the religious feelings of others” is an “abuse” of the right to free speech, America seems a little closer to Russia and even those fanatical mobs today.
President Obama, while saying many good things, also said that “the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
As a religious person myself, I do not like when people put a crucifix in urine and call it art, when they make movies like Dogma or The Temptation of the Christ, when they make fun of “zombie Jesus” on Easter, or take out subway ads mocking and denying God. It offends me.
However, I would fight to the death for the right of people to do so.
Why? Because we do have a right to free speech and we do not have a right not to be offended.
At the heart of Christianity from its earliest days (although admittedly not always practiced), is the idea that religion should flow from the inside, not be enforced from the outside. Melded with the ideas of the Enlightenment, we have developed a culture with an unshakable confidence in truth.
We think that truth will win.
If you put all ideas in a public marketplace, swirl them, shake them, discuss and debate them, truth will emerge.
The offenses and vulgarities are not a threat because truth overcomes them. Even if people choose to embrace falsehood and offensive speech, however, that is their right as free beings.
People are free to choose wrongly.
So we enshrine blasphemy and offense as a right. You have every right to hurt the religious feelings of others, to denigrate the religion of others, as well as to question their marital status, to decry how they raise their children, what they think about abortion, how they respond to Chris Brown and Rihanna’s potential reconciliation, and whether Kristen Stewart is a tramp or a victim.
This is why I’m uncomfortable with so-called hate speech legislation. Let crimes such as vandalism, assault, murder, or in Pussy Riot’s case, criminal trespassing, be fully prosecuted. Let even vile speech, however, be protected. Ideas, even outrageous ideas, are not the enemy.
You have the right to swear, to create obscene performance art, to make a complete fool of yourself.
Within certain narrow legal guidelines, well threshed out by our judicial system, your speech can be restricted in order to not materially harm another person, but that’s it.
And I have the right to call you a fool or a devil, to shred your arguments, to prove you wrong, and finally to defriend you on Facebook.
This is a right because it is inherently a human right. Plus, as Soviet protest books and recent Twitter revolutions prove, there really is no way to truly stop free speech. It is tricky. It goes underground.
Except in America, where it is proudly out in the open.
But if we start making it governmental policy to create a right to not have feelings hurt, and expect our feelings to be protected in return, where does that end?
If America stops being America, who will be the beacon of freedom and liberty to the world?
So, I say, I am Pussy Riot and I am Sam Bacille.
They are both offensive idiots, but I stand with them.