Friday, September 28, 2012

Free Speech, Mona Eltahawy, Pamela Geller and Censorship

As we've discussed before there are people who make money, get media attention, and have fun baiting Arabs and Muslims with speech that is either deliberately insulting or could be inferred to be insulting. This is wrong BUT it is something which they have every right to do. There are plenty of things to be critical of in the Arab or Muslim world. Some critics want to see a form of modernity and rationality emerge in some areas to improve people's lives. Other critics just like irritating people. And thin-skinned people of any creed are usually irresistible targets for trolls, whether it be online or elsewhere. If I know that you're going to go berserk every time I say the word "Rosebud" I just might, were I so inclined, amuse myself by saying that word and watching the world burn.

Sometimes though, criticism originates from a place of hatred and racial/religious superiority rather than love, from a place of contempt rather than attempted understanding. The criticism may be stated in blunt ugly antagonistic terms. This is usually the case with the noted conservative racist birther blogger Pamela Geller, who has built her career in part by saying nasty things about Muslims, Arabs and occasionally blacks or President Obama as well. Evidently, Geller has paid for ads to run in NYC (and other) subway systems which read "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad"

Obviously I don't agree with the ad's implication that anyone who is opposed to the current Israeli government's policies is a "savage" or in support of jihad. And it is ironic beyond words that Geller, who was vehemently opposed to Muslim Americans building a mosque in New York City that she felt was "too close" to ground zero, and sought to limit other people's property rights and rights to practice their religion has wrapped herself in the same First Amendment that she seeks to ban for others.

But that we are all hypocrites to one extent or another doesn't change that fact that in America, we ALL have the right to free speech. The government can't tell you what to think, what to believe, prevent you from expressing your opinion, or send you to jail or fine you for expressing your opinion. It also means that other people can't (either individually or as part of a mob) prevent your speech from being heard in the public arena. This second part is a little trickier because of course your right to free speech ends where someone else's ownership rights begin. You have a right not to be put in jail for speech. You have no right to a blog post or comment, to be published, to have your ad accepted. So while I can appreciate journalist and occasioal MSNB contributor Mona Eltahawy's passion and righteous indignation at seeing that message, I can't agree that attempting to deface and censor the message is really "free speech". The proper response should have been to organize and get her own message out there. Geller has every right to put her message in the public square. It is, perhaps worth pointing out, if you are not familiar with Eltahawy, that she is not a fundamentalist but a liberal who advocates for women's rights. She has been scathingly critical of several aspects of the Arab world's politics and traditions. In Egypt she's been arrested and assaulted for her activism and reporting.

Of course I haven't recently strolled by an ad implying that millions of my countrymen and co-religionists are savages so it's easy for me to take a somewhat detached look. Defacing ads is small potatoes in free speech wars. People have done it in other situations but that doesn't make it right. It is important to confront "racist speech" but the way you do that is by more speech, not by trying to censor. That's what I believe. Geller has every right to imply that some people are savages. That right must be defended. Free speech is not negotiable.  Again, though this particular "speech" didn't quite trip my outrage wires the same way that this cartoon might have so I think we all have limits. Bottom line is that as I don't want you deciding what I can read, think or say you probably wouldn't want me determining your correct thoughts or statements. Watch the video as Eltahawy defaces the ad and Pamela Hall, president of Stop the Islamization of America, another Geller group, tries to stop her.

What do you think? 

Is the ad free speech?

Should there be a hate speech exemption to the First Amendment?

Is Eltahawy's response appropriate?

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