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Blame and Intellectual Freedom

A kind reader sent me a link to an opinion article in the USA Today that has some implications for librarians’ allegedly central value of intellectual freedom, but first let’s consider a new memoir by Salman Rushdie about his time underground evading a death sentence, also written about in the USA Today.

As many of you probably recall, in 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa – still in effect – that Muslims should murder Rushdie because of his allegedly offensive book The Satanic Verses. I don’t remember where I was when I read about the fatwa, but I remember reading The Satanic Verses and thinking to myself that someone would have to be pretty darn sensitive to get offended by that book, if they could even understand it.

Those who remembered the Iran Hostage crisis of a decade before were used to anti-western violence coming out of Iran. Then again, the U.S. government had helped oust the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq regime in the 1950s and supported the Shah of Iran as a western puppet. It’s hard to believe, but some countries around the world resent it when more powerful countries start messing around with their internal politics. Talk about sensitive!

But all Rushdie did was write a book, a book that most of the people supposedly offended almost assuredly hadn’t read. There were counter protests at the time, and I remember seeing demonstrations by American writers speaking out for Rushdie. I don’t know if the ALA issued a statement at the time, but I do know there are thousands of copies of The Satanic Verses in American libraries.

In the past couple of weeks, the latest similar controversy – similar in that people who are offended by something they haven’t seen are murdering people they don’t know – is the now infamous Muhammad Movie Trailer video on YouTube.

I don’t think anyone would try to defend its cinematic quality. I couldn’t sit through the whole thing it was so awful. By awful, I don’t mean that it ridiculed Muhammad because I don’t really care. All religions get ridiculed by someone, and the nonreligious get their fair share of abuse as well. It’s called free speech. Get over it. If you don’t want to get offended, don’t watch the video, which can’t be seen in Libya or Egypt anyway.

I mean awful because the acting, directing, dialog, cinematography, and special effects were comically bad, like third grader homework project bad. If I were a Muslim, I would take comfort in knowing that the people opposed to my religion were so simple minded and inept. If that’s the best the Muslim-hating crowd has to offer by way of propaganda, the Muslim cause is safe because everyone in the movie seems like an idiot spouting gobbledygook.

The stereotypical librarian position might be something like, okay, it’s too bad people were offended, but no one has a right not to be offended. After all, a good library will have something to offend everyone, including access to YouTube.

To think otherwise is to think like a terrorist. “Do, or don’t do, this thing or I will start killing people and the blood will be on your hands, etc.” No, Mr. Terrorist, the blood’s on your hands.

Murdering an innocent American diplomat is a horrible thing, and it is entirely the fault of the people who murdered him. No one forced or coerced the murderers into committing the act.

There are other views, though, like the one sent in by Kind Reader. In the USA Today, a religion professor argues that the maker of the video should be arrested, and not just for his offending our cinematic taste. The professor claims that she’s not against the First Amendment, even though it seems pretty clear that she is. The weirder thing is recommending the arrest of someone who didn’t break any laws.

The argument, such that it is, seems to be based on four claims.

First, “it is difficult to teach the facts when movies such as Bacile’s Innocence of Muslims are taken as both truth and propaganda, and used against innocent Americans.”

I don’t quite get this one. Nobody is stopping anyone from teaching.  And I don’t see who is considering this video “both truth and propaganda.” Truth and propaganda about what? To whom?

Next, we’re told that “the “free speech” in Bacile’s film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers.”

Since when is the First Amendment protecting free speech simply about protecting someone “expressing a personal opinion”? Even so, why shouldn’t we consider the video an expression of the personal opinion of the person who made it, just like murdering an innocent diplomat is an expression of the personal opinion of the murderer?

Then, “Bacile’s movie is not the first to denigrate a religious figure, nor will it be the last. The Last Temptation of Christ was protested vigorously. The difference is that Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Embassy personnel.” And that’s illegal how?

I still disagree with the logic, but this one is on somewhat stronger ground. It basically claims the video is like shouting fire in a crowded theater, speech that can create a clear and present danger. But there’s a difference.

A video on YouTube doesn’t create a clear and present danger in that way. There are people reflecting and then choosing to riot and murder. The video didn’t “inflame” them. Terrorists and thugs inflamed them. It’s like blaming a rape victim because she dressed “provocatively.” Or blaming a clothing store that supplied the provocative dress for the rape.

And finally, “While the First Amendment right to free expression is important, it is also important to remember that other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right.”

We who believe in the value of free speech are usually quite aware that other countries and cultures don’t understand or respect that right. Other countries and cultures also don’t respect the right of women to vote or appear in public with men unrelated to them, of homosexuals to exist, of persons who don’t adhere to the state sponsored religion to have equal protection under the law, and all sorts of other rights Americans take for granted.

You know what? We don’t care.

Even though the professor would presumably have “Sam Bacile” arrested by Americans, this isn’t an American issue. This is a human rights issue. Take a look at the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article 19:

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.

And Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

The two of them cover the situation rather nicely. I have a basic human right to “impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” plus the right not to be killed for doing it.

Violators of basic human rights are responsible for that violation, whether they’re Libyan murderers or the United States government. “Sam Bacile” might be a cretin and a terrible filmmaker, but he didn’t kill anyone and he’s not responsible for anyone’s death. Blaming anyone else but the perpetrators of violence for that violence is already thinking like a terrorist.

Librarians sometimes trivialize the value of intellectual freedom, such as claiming that moving a book from the children’s section of the library to the adult section because of a parental complaint is a violation of intellectual freedom, or the idea of “banned” books being censorship. How heroic of the librarians.

But cases like this bring the value of intellectual freedom into sharp relief. Do you really support intellectual freedom? Then you’ll support Americans making videos about Muhammad if they want and you’ll blame killers for killing, not filmmakers. That’s when the defense of intellectual freedom gets harder.



  1. Murder is never acceptable, no matter what the reason.
    But why do we blame the offended for being hurt? This is sending a double message-to those kids in school who are bullied, it is not their fault, but to those who are offended when someone (presumably an adult) says or does something that they know will hurt another party it’s allowed, and the offended party’s fault?
    A story on NPR last night discussed this larger issue fairly well ( and also raised questions of our current free speech laws.
    You mention (and I’m biting, yes) countries that don’t let women vote or drive and other things we have the luxury of taking for granted, but what about these countries mentioned that do have hate speech limitations, in Europe and Northern Europe especially? Some of those countries are consistently rated as the ‘happiest’ in the world and I can’t believe that it has nothing to do with the fact that as a whole those countries agree that the emotional and psychological well-being of their citizens (resulting partly from being free from hate speech) is a priority. The overriding tone in American culture seems to be ‘I want you to care about MY feelings, but I don’t have to care about anyone else’s!’, and that attitude just won’t work.

  2. noutopianlibrarian says:

    I don’t blame the offended for being hurt – I accord them responsibility for murder, assault, rioting, and blanket hatred based on their societal mythologies.

    I seem to recall that it was in one of those happy northern European enclaves that the assassinated filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, was based so your choice of these as paragons of restricting offensive speech as a key to happiness seems selective at best. In fact, northern European countries have led in fostering free speech, often offensive to those who don’t share the same sensibilities, and I would argue that it is this quality of toleration, not the U.S. version of liberalism that constantly seeks to restrict in a misguided version of creating harmony, that contributes to whatever happiness quotient ranking they may achieve. Setting aside whether murder is ever justified, I would argue that my own morality includes the precept that it is not justifiable to persecute or harm others based on your own worldview, be that nanny liberalism, religious devotion to a world mythology, or conformist conservatism. Fortunately this dovetails nicely with the intellectual freedom ethos of my chosen profession. I applaud the Theo Van Goghs, Karen Finleys, Trey Parker and Matt Stones, Larry Flynts, and Amy Goodmans of the world, for as different as their content and approaches are, their courage in the face of a world that would persecute and harm them for their speech is laudable.

  3. As your username implies, there is no utopia to be had. I don’t think that I stated that there was in my post. There is no perfect society, and there is no perfect law, because even the non-mudering humans of the world are imperfect in the daily practices of our chosen moralities. ‘One size fits all’ government is impossible as well. All we can do is that we think it best, but the think part is crucial. I suggest that it is important to remember both viewpoints. Not just that they exist, but what the experience of being on both sides is really like.

  4. All I have to say is that when your invisible friends start telling you to kill people, there’s medication for that.

  5. Jen-
    No one is blaming the offended for being hurt. The offended are being blamed for destroying property and killing innocent people. You’re also comparing apples to oranges with the bully analogy. You can’t compare a helpless kid being beaten up at school, harassed, or a victim of rumors to a group of extremists who could simply just avoid the video all together. In fact, many of the countries rioting don’t even have access to it to begin with!

  6. The hate speech comparison seems a bit off, but the bullying analogy is completely mistaken. This is Person A killing Person B because Person C did something thousands of miles away that Person A doesn’t like. There is no proper analogy for that sort of savagery. If the filmmaker had made a video with “respectful” images of Muhammad, the “offense” could very well have been the same. I don’t understand how anyone with a belief in basic human rights could suggest we try to see the other side. There’s not another side worth seeing unless you think violence and murder are proper responses to someone somewhere doing something you don’t like.

    If Americans started killing diplomats from the middle east because they’re offended by the current actions in Libya, would it be important to think about their feelings and try to explain them away? There are Americans who would try, but I don’t want to be an American like that.

  7. Bravo, noutopoianlibrarian, well said!

  8. ANY religion who’s god needs defending from insult is a religion made up of followeres worshiping something that is not a god. That’s the biggest problem with Islam, Allah is not enough of a god to defend himself, he needs legions of uneducated followers to do that. Logic then dictates that Islam is a false religion.

    See, that was simple, wasn’t it?

  9. There’s just one teeny-tiny problem with this whole thing…IT’S NOT TRUE. Ambassador Stevens wasn’t murdered because of some badly-produced, defamatory YouTube video. The incident in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, timed for September 11 and intended to avenge the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan-born al Qaeda commander and #2 to Ayman al-Zawahiri (al Qaeda’s current leader, who took over after Osama bin Laden was killed).

    Yes, the video has been protested – or at least been used as justification for protests all over the so-called “Muslim world.” But Ambassador Stevens et al was another matter entirely.

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