Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Right to Be an Asshole and Liberal Democracy

The people who attacked and killed the American ambassador in Benghazi are murderers.  Our president said that we are working with the Libyan government to bring those responsible* to justice, and I hope that we do so, and quickly.  'Pastor' Terry Jones and others like him, on the other hand, are assholes (trying deliberately provoke a religious war is, among other things, a dick move).  And unlike the murderous militias with RPGs, they have every right to be assholes, even though their assholery is of a rather purposeful nature (Jones seemed rather thankful that Americans died in order to show the world what muslims were 'really like').

The right to be an asshole -- of the hateful, offensive, or simply noxious varieties (Nazis, Fred Phelps, NAMBLA**) is a critical right that we Americans enjoy.  It is the most radical outgrowth of free speech.  But people are not born respecting free speech anymore than they are born respecting the integrity of the political process.  Free speech is something that requires a civil society truly dedicated to it, and laws and institutions that defend it.  It is rather recently that Americans could safely say things that offended others -- 200 years ago, Americans didn't recognize the right of papers to say nasty things about Adams and Hamilton. 150 years ago people rioted in similar ways when a newspaper badmouthed slavery. 80 years ago people beat up those who spoke out for labor. 50 years ago people were killing people who spoke out against segregation, and, and these examples only cover speech that has merit, not some idiot's offensive ramblings.  It has taken years of hard work, a more tolerant and less violent civil society and some people giving up their very lives in order for Fred Phelps to have the right to say the things he does.

And so it is no surprise that people in Egypt and Libya do not recognize the right to be an asshole.  Having elections is relatively easy, but it will take years of building for those nations (so recently under despots) to have the kind of civil society that can tolerate offensive speech.  Hopefully free speech will still be fashionable when that building is complete.

*who do not seem to have been an angry mob, but instead a well armed terrorist militia of some kind.

**provided that they just talk, not act out whatever vile or perverse beliefs they have

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