Sunday, May 14, 2006

Free Speech vs. Offensiveness


A great debate of our time, in light of the rise of Islamism's power worldwide.

It generally takes the form of the offended party crossing swords with everyone else, but you usually also get some people who aren't affected and who simply stand up for either political correctness or free speech.

The Mohammed Cartoon Controversy was something of a no-brainer for most people. A few cheesy cartoons in an obscure Danish newspaper is hardly the height of insult for most, and indeed the Muslim reaction was greatly amplified by a distorted version of events in many parts of the world as well as the general anti-Western sentiment festering there. It was also taken too far by many. Indeed, most saw the extremist Muslim response (burning embassies and Bush-dolls) as far more disgraceful public behaviour than the cartoons themselves could ever be. Some people asked what would happen if another religious figure, like Christ, Buddha or Vishnu, were shown instead... Most decided that nothing would have happened.

My position on the matter was that freedom of speech should be respected in that the newspapers should be free to publish the cartoons, knowing full well that it might cause them to lose business from some Muslim customers. There should be no government intervention, essentially. I argued that freedom of speech is intended to protect ALL speech, even that which you might find offensive or disagreeable - people wouldn't bother writing laws protecting it otherwise.

What happens when the situation is far more extreme than a few stupid cartoons, though? What happens when people's "speech" is so shocking and disgraceful that no right-minded person would ever associate themselves with it, regardless of their own views?

In the United States, there is a Christian religious organization called the "Westboro Baptist Church" which, amongst other things, conducts noisy public protests at the funerals of American servicemen which were KIA in America's War on Islamism.

This church is the group behind the now quite infamous slogan, "God hates fags!"

Anyway, they gather near military funerals waving their signs and spewing forth their hateful filth. Why? They believe that almost everyone except them is either a "fag" or a "fag-lover". They believe that America's war with Islamism is the result of their god punishing America and the West for it's alleged love of gay people. Yeah... I don't really get it either. Bush probably hates gay people almost as much as they do. The only difference is that Bush has at least some sense of common decency... Not to mention the fact that he's probably mostly sane. The fact that gay people are prohibited from serving in the US Military has also seemed to elude these crackpots...

Anyway, needless to say, most people don't like this church pitching up at their son's/daughter's/best friend's funeral to spew forth disgusting, hateful rhetoric in flagrant disrespect and contempt for the deceased. The result is that a bill was easily passed by the US Congress which "restricts" protesting at military funerals. Link.

I'm sure most people are relieved, and I can understand why. Honestly, you do not need that sort of problem when you're dealing with the death of a loved one. You don't.

It leaves me in something of a moral quandary, however. The American Civil Liberties Union - a somewhat libertarian law organization which defends personal rights in the US - has controversially decided to challenge the new law in court. They argue that it is in violation of the free speech laws contained in the US constitution.

I find myself agreeing with them. It makes me feel dirty and it makes me feel like a traitor, but if I did not agree with the ACLU, I would be a hypocrite. Why did Congress pass the bill? The Westboro Baptist Church's actions offended people. It is not right for the government to censor speech because it is offensive - it is not the government's place to take a certain stance on offensiveness or morals, even if it is a stance shared by 99.9% of a country's citizens.

Would I be able to look a deceased serviceman's parent or loved-one in the eye and give this argument? Probably not. Would I be able to control myself if I were faced with similar protestors at the funeral of someone I dearly loved? I don't know. I'm not perfect.

Maybe freedom is more important than my comfort or my sensibilities. Maybe true freedom sometimes means that you have to let other people say what they want to say, even if it hurts you.

So... yeah. I'm a gay person standing up for the Westboro Baptist Church. Shoot me now... you'll make it quick if you're kind.

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