Column

09.21.12

Free Speech: A Cloistered Value?

One of the most troubling responses to the Middle East violence provoked by a controversial anti-Islam video clip came from the eminent scholar Stanley Fish. Writing in the New York Times, Fish reads the protests entirely through the Western traditions that led to contemporary American free-speech protections. By casting the protesters as a binary, polar opposite of American sensibilities, and then trying to sympathize with them, Fish is simultaneously but groundlessly triumphalist about Western free speech values and disparaging about their universality.

Fish creates an indefensible framework implying that free speech can only be the product of Western, and indeed, Protestant political, social and intellectual traditions. Fish argues that the Protestant "bargain with the state" was to get freedom of religion in exchange for keeping it out of the public sphere. From that, he notes, we derive everything essential in American free-speech rights.

The implication is that it is almost impossible for any society that is not directly the product of the Protestant Reformation to embrace some variant of the principle of defending even unpalatable speech. His foil—demonstrating this supposed uniqueness—is not surprisingly the Muslims of the world, specifically the video protesters. Fish is convinced that, "the entire package of American liberalism... is one the protesters necessarily reject."

Fish omits completely how organized groups in various countries sought to use the protests for their own political purposes. Worse, he badly misreads the psychology of many of the individual protesters, which was admirably summed up in the Sydney Morning Herald by Waleed Aly.

Fish implicitly argues that Islamic traditions invariably produce a totalitarian religious social order, relying on reductive, orientalist caricatures of what in fact are extremely heterogeneous Muslim histories, and intellectual and political heritages. There are deep traditions of pluralism within Islamic theology and Arab culture. Moreover, there is no tradition of mob protests associated with insults against Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. This mob reaction to perceived insults is not "traditional," but rather grounded in a concatenation of circumstances, new interpretations of religion, and emergent political ideologies that developed during the 20th century.

Like all religions, Islam can be mobilized to legitimate almost any social and political program. The present burst of intolerance, chauvinism and paranoia on the Islamic religious right is clearly and traceably the product of a specific set of cultural and historical circumstances, most notably the encounter with colonialism, and the program by Islamists to reinterpret Islam along reactionary political lines over the past century.

Fish's implication that this kind of intolerant reaction is essentially hardwired into all non-Western and non-Protestant traditions begs the question how Catholic and Orthodox Europe, or Latin America, ever adopted liberal values. And his framework suggests liberalism can only be adopted in Asia and Africa through colonialism, mimicry or Western cultural hegemony, and maybe not even then.

It is solipsistic, if not narcissistic, to imagine that—because the culturally-specific features of contemporary American liberalism (that, after all, in our own history was long in the making and is still not fully accomplished) derive from certain Protestant Western European traditions—this is therefore the only context in which such values can be firmly rooted. By pretending to "understand" the illiberal attitude of what he imagines the protesters' mindset must be, Fish simultaneously privileges the American, Protestant and Western traditions (in that order) and implicitly dismisses all others as belonging to different experiences that cannot produce an adherence to values such as free speech.

Modernity may have originated in the West, but it no longer belongs exclusively to the West. Almost all existing societies participate in and help shape it. A few decades ago, Partha Chatterjee suggested that for the postcolonial world, modernity was always and inevitably "a derivative discourse," that would invariably be defined in the West. With the rise of numerous postcolonial powers, that argument looks harder to defend.

Obviously there are going to be significant differences in the ways in which modernity and liberalism take root in different societies. Even among societies emerging from the Protestant Western tradition, American free-speech rights are uniquely permissive. Canada bans hate speech. Britain has official secrets, prior restraint, anti-blasphemy and notoriously lax libel laws. Numerous countries in Western Europe have made it a serious crime to question the historicity of the Holocaust.

Given these variations within societies emerging directly from the Western Protestant Reformation—all of which can still be called liberal societies that value and protect free speech—it should be obvious that globally there will be even greater variations. It's wrong to think that the essential values embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and so forth, only be grounded in Western traditions. These are universal values because there is something innate to modern humanity that strives to realize the essence of these freedoms, whatever culturally-specific variations may occur.

In an effort to be open-minded gone terribly wrong, Fish forecloses the idea that other cultures and traditions, specifically the Islamic and Arab ones, can inform and secure freedom of speech and, implicitly, other liberal values. A quick survey of freedom of speech around the world suggests he is wrong about the unique ability societies rooted in the Protestant Reformation to embody these values. They have already spread far and wide. There is no reason to think that the Arab or Islamic worlds, or any other major cultural block in the modern world, is somehow uniquely immune them.