Let’s get clear on one thing. Terry Jones, the delightful Florida pastor who burned the Koran the other day, thereby setting in motion a sequence of events that has led to several days of violence and bloodshed, is a bigot, and a jerk, and many other unsavory things. But if he is made to suffer anything more than the severe disapprobation of every reasonable person it will be an offense far greater than his actions themselves.
It’s been very depressing to find so many bloggers desperately longing for the law to catch up with the wicked pastor. Here’s Laurie Essig expressing a common sentiment:
It’s true that symbolic violence and actual violence are of a different order. But it is also true that symbolic violence creates the conditions for beatings, torture, and murder to occur. Even within the limited liberal philosophical notions of “free speech,” certain forms of incindiary speech are excluded from protection. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. You ought not to be able to scream “God Hates Fags” at the funerals of U.S. soldiers or the victims of homophobic violence. And burning a Holy Book in an effort to incite violence around the world should be a criminal act.
Too bad they’re not. As more symbolic violence against Muslims, gays, and anyone else whom God hates is allowed to flourish without limits, actual violence in the real world will grow exponentially. Perhaps it’s all part of God’s hateful plan. But then again, maybe it’s just the result of blindly allowing certain forms of hate speech to flourish because we refuse to see that speech is not always free. (Emphasis Added)
Do I really need to give the lecture about how freedom of speech is meaningless if it doesn’t cover vile and offensive speech? That’s not a limited, liberal philosophical notion of free speech, that’s simply what the phrase means. Once we start down Essig’s road, where does it end? If Jones’ actions are to be considered an incitement to violence then it is hard to imagine what sort of political expression would not be so considered. Essig singles out speech directed towards gays and religion for her disapproval. But how does she feel about flag-burning or anti-war protests? I’m sure she is aware that her justifications for curtailing speech have been used with equal force by people wishing to outlaw those activities.
The fact that hooligans and psychopaths will use offensive speech as an excuse to commit violence is the price you pay for a free society. We accept that price because we recognize that the alternative, in which the government decides which ideas are acceptable and which are not, is far, far worse. We understand that what starts as a high-minded attempt to curtail “symbolic violence” leads inevitably to limits on speech we happen to like. And we also understand that when A commits violence because B did something offensive, the proper apportionment of blame, in nearly all cases, is 100% on A and 0% on B.
There are scenarios in which speech effectively becomes action, and incitements to violence are already properly outlawed. But what Jones did is not even close to these grey areas. He and thirty of his followers burned a Koran on private property, in a proceeding that was ignored by virtually everyone until feckless politicians and imams on the other side of the world specifically used it as an excuse to incite their followers. To argue that Jones’ actions were nonetheless an incitement to violence is to grant a heckler’s veto against any sort of offensive speech.
But Essig looks tame when compared to the ludicrous R. Joseph Hoffman. Most of his post is just a silly, insult-laden rant against P. Z. Myers, but he ends with this interesting paragraph:
Jones is a different story. A more dangerous one. He is the ugly Id unchained from the soul of an America I’d hoped had died. It is moronic, armed, and dangerous. It does not question the ontological correctness of its religious and political views. It burns a book in Lake City, Florida, and Muslims (and others) die in Afghanistan and soon Pakistan and elsewhere. Jones does this knowing they will die, praying to his defective God that they will die, in order to prove his belief that the devil is with us. He is with us, and he needs to be charged with and convicted of murder. His name is Terry Jones.
Charged and convicted of murder? Really? You know, I happen to be a great admirer of P. Z. In fact, I’m so offended by what Hoffman wrote that I think I just might go outside and kill the first person I see. I trust Hoffman will turn himself into the authorities when I’m finished.
Hoffman is far more interested in psychoanalyzing people he dislikes than he is in making an actual argument. So let us leave him to his rapt self-admiration and consider instead this long post from Josh Rosenau. The opening several paragraphs are quite good (except for some misplaced vituperation directed at Sam Harris) and strike what to my mind is the right note. That’s where you grit your teeth and make it clear that putting up with people like Jones is the price you pay for basic civil liberties. But I do wish to comment on this:
Which is why it’s necessary that people decry Pastor Jones’s inflammatory actions, and why I find it so strange to see atheists, skeptics, and others trying to defend Jones, or simply focusing on the question of whether he was legally entitled to burn copy of a book he owned.
Considering that we have just seen two people who either think that Jones was not, or should not be, legally entitled to do what he did, and considering that major American politicians are now talking seriously about curtailing basic freedoms because we’re at war and all, I think we can be forgiven for focusing on the legal question.
Sadly, Josh’s post then takes a turn for the worse. He flirts with the idea that Jones’ actions constitute fighting words, which is ridiculous and rather undercuts his earlier impressive rhetoric in defense of freedom of speech. But even worse is this:
To which Jones’s not-quite-defenders will insist that the blame should still rest primarily on the shoulders of those who actually killed a dozen UN workers in Afghanistan. Which is true, but only to a point. It’d be an easier case to make if the Afghan people didn’t have some cause to feel like they are in the midst of a war being waged against them and their religion by a coalition of Christian Western countries. You and I know that Jones is a nutjob who uses his cult-like church as free labor for the furniture business he and his wife run, and that he is just an attention whore, using this stunt to get free press. But given all the attention he’s gotten over the last few months from the media and our government, Afghans can be excused for thinking he might be an influential figure in American political and religious life.
It’s also not unreasonable to think that Afghans would have a lower threshold for American anti-Islamic acts than Muslims elsewhere. On a fairly regular basis, Afghan weddings get bombed and their trucks shot up by American planes and helicopters. As much as a given Afghan may not have liked the Taliban, the American puppet government is corrupt and plenty deadly in its own right. It’s fine for us to say Afghans are being too sensitive if they think a jackass in Florida is a threat or intimidation, but put yourself in their shoes.
This is just infantilization, nothing more. When rampaging mobs start slaughtering people because their imams and politicians tell them that someone on the other side of the world disrespected their holy book, no one should care about their attitudes towards Christian Western nations. When trivial provocations like unflattering newspaper cartoons or lone lunatics burning Korans are enough to set people to days of mindless violence, we are well beyond looking for rational justifications for their actions. Most people in the world, placed in their shoes, would not have behaved the way these folks behaved. And I frankly don’t understand people who look at what happened and think Jones’ actions are the really important part of the story.