The Bill of Rights sets the example for all democracies and wannabes around the world. It was a revolution in personal freedoms and restrictions on government theretofore, and since that time it has enabled many individuals and groups to promote the good and dissent against injustice throughout the country.
The decision by the French weekly Charlie Hebdo to print cartoons that put Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a bad light met with violence from individual jihadists. This series of events brings into the foreground the degree to which freedom of expression should be limited. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Does the Western view of freedom of speech protect the scandalizing and ridiculing of religion; are religions somehow exempt from criticism and satire, or are they to be held sacrosanct from attack ex nihilo, adherents, or secular entities?
From my vantage point, any religion must be treated as any other social institution, and any adherent to a particular faith perspective is first a citizen. Consequently, when the religion or one of its members takes a position on something in the public arena, that point of view is fodder for any attack. If the religion’s founder is cited for justification of that position, then the founder is subject to criticism by opponents as well. Such is the nature of political discourse—and it is fair.
However, the First Amendment does not protect all speech. When the language used is intended to injure or insult so much so that societal peace is breached, then that speech is not easily protected. Hate speech is a prime example of that. The question whether political cartoons and satirical, or derisive, remarks are prohibitive has been debated and legally argued continually throughout American history. It is very difficult to determine motivation and intention—so measuring genuine harm or the degree of offensiveness is no easy task. A person, group, business, or other entity could always claim criticism of any thing, place, or person that is part of the public discourse can never be too captious and, thereby, disclaim any responsibility for how the populace reacts. Everything is up for grabs. What people are responsible for is how they choose to respond to whatever is interpreted as insulting—and that decision also must not be deliberately injurious, offensive, violent, or invasive to others.
There have been countless times when I have watched a movie—from classical period pieces to popular films—when I have unexpectedly heard racially derisive dialogue and seen violent acts against certain categories of people. I have attended comedy routines during which inflammatory language has been utilized. These are contexts in which everything is open season, i.e., there are no holds are barred. Hence, getting all bent out of shape about what is said or done is excessive, and the best response is either to be equally creative or artistic in return or to ignore the characterization or to enter into constructive debate about why this or that verbiage or action should not have been perpetrated.
As an advocate of nonviolent direct action, I believe there are always alternatives to violence that can be effective and instructive. In my opinion, physical violence, that is to say the use of force or power—whether against property or people—ought never to be an option. I know this outlook, or estimation, is absolutist, but I firmly feel that the old saw “violence begets violence” is true and causes irreparable damage. It is always excessive. Certainly, words can be intrusive, offensive, hypercritical, and hyperbolic; if so, there are ways to counter such interpretation that are equally incisive, trenchant, and caustic, but resort to violence—particularly that which is primarily physically or bodily harmful—is insuperably disproportionate in nature. Here, I do not mean to downplay or minimize emotional or psychological impairment, for that is real and can most assuredly be described loosely as violence. However, such detriment can be treated, whereas death forever ends the possibility of recovery—and especially when innocent lives are lost.