Patterico's Pontifications


The Right and the Duty to Insult

Filed under: General — See Dubya @ 7:00 pm

[posted by See-Dubya]

Don’t make me go back and find where I’m getting this from, because I think it was a lot of places, but it may have been nowhere. It’s possible I am setting fire to a straw man completely of my own imagination here. But maybe this is worth saying anyway:

During the cartoon jihad, and now again with the South Park/Cowardly Central chickenout, there’s been a lot of discussion of the need to exercise our rights. One of the justifications for printing the offensive material is that if we don’t exercise these particular free speech rights, we’ll lose them.

Let me speak freely here: that’s crap. I’ll grant, of course, that South Park or the Danish Cartoonists have the right to print and say what they like about whatever or whoever they like, even if it is offensive, without retaliation from private or public actors. But the tenor of the discussion as I am hearing it implies not only a right, but an obligation to insult things, in order to preserve the right to do so.

I have two problems with that. The first is that it confuses rights with customs. Customs don’t necessarily give rise to rights. In fact, customs and traditions can infringe on rights (see, e.g. religion v. free speech, or slavery v. self-ownership). We don’t enumerate our rights and make them a law because everyone agrees on them or because it’s a widespread custom. We codify and delineate rights because they are potentially controversial, awkward, or inconvenient. The fundamental ones, like those in the Bill of Rights, don’t go away just because customs change. The right to bear arms, although often regulated (and often illegally), endures even in places where guns aren’t popular. And even when rights are violated regularly, it doesn’t mean they no longer exist. (One exception to this is international law, which depends heavily on the practice of nations. Another is trademark law, which must be enforced and challenged against adverse use for the right to be recognized.)

But in everything else, rights and customs are independent of each other. Therefore it’s not necessary to preserve a right to insult by establishing a custom of insulting people. It might make it more widely accepted (which I’m not sure we want), but the right to insult Scientology or Islam or Presbyterianism won’t vanish just because it isn’t done for a few years. Like an unused muscle, it may be a little sore when you exercise it again, but it is always a right.

On the other hand, insulting things just for the sake of insulting them is pernicious. It’s uncivil. It’s not a good small-r republican virtue. It’s my obligation to exercise my rights responsibly, sensibly, and respectfully, and I don’t see any reason to insult or ridicule other people’s deeply held beliefs for no other reason than that they are deeply held.

(Yes, there’s a “but” coming up. Don’t worry.)

That right’s written down, so I don’t have to worry about exercising it when I don’t need to use it. I don’t carry a gun around out of some fear that if I don’t, the right to do so will vanish. I’m free to own or carry a gun or not as I feel it’s prudent (and legal) to do so. If I don’t vote in this election, I don’t lose the right to vote. If I don’t go to church, I don’t fear that I will lose my freedom of religion. Same with the freedom to ridicule.

If you really believe that your free speech rights will vanish if you don’t regularly offend others, then how often do you deliberately offend your own mother? You should call up your mom right now, and say, “Mom, you skanky old hose-bag, f— you!” Then explain you just did it in order to preserve your right to offend. Repeat with everyone you know, just to remind them that you have the right to do so.

Which is my second problem with this concept of the mysterious, vanishing right to be offensive: what an ugly, paranoid, tedious world that would be if we really believed our rights were so fragile and tenuous that they vanished without constant use.

No, I think the right to insult, ridicule, and parody is like any other right: it ought to be used responsibly. There’s a reason you have a right to say unpopular things, just like there’s a reason you have a right to own a gun. Both are occasionally necessary for defense of yourself and of the Republic. But you have an obligation to use them wisely. In the case of offensive speech, it ought to be reserved for the things which really deserve your contempt.

I’m using the word ought because this obligation is governed not by force but by conscience. It’s up to you to use this right in good faith, and judiciously. If everything is equally laughable to you, it shows you have no judgment. Insulting others just because you can get away with it is pretty contemptible in itself, as is ridicule against the weak and the well-meaning. I believe someone who is worth taking seriously is very careful about what he laughs at.

Which brings us back to South Park. One of the most dangerous ideas in the world right now is Islamic exceptionalism. The pernicious notion that Islam is a force above and beyond all human law–and above all human rights–drives terrorism, empowers fascist movements, and immiserates a huge swath of the world. What insufferable airs. What an indefensible pretense. What a ridiculous pose.

What a laugh. Its consequences are tragedy and atrocity, but radical Islam’s source is a farce.

The same is true, to a much lesser degree, with Scientology, which hasn’t killed anyone but still regards itself with all the touchy, priggish self-importance of a bunch of new-age Ayatollahs. What a bunch of censorious ninnies. Get over yourselves.

If ever there were creeds that needed taking down a notch, these are the ones. Good for South Park for laughing at them. I don’t like South Park because they are indiscriminate with their scorn and insult things for the sake of being insulting, but they sure got this one right. And jeers to Comedy Central for shutting them down. Not only does Comedy Central scorn the things that don’t deserve it, but unlike South Park, they turn away from insulting the things that really do deserve it. As a civic institution, they’re a complete failure, and they’ve misused this important freedom we are fighting to defend.


(Retitled, and cross-posted at The Jawa Report.)

23 Responses to “The Right and the Duty to Insult”

  1. I don’t carry a gun around out of some fear that if I don’t, the right to do so will vanish.

    Er… the right may not have vanished, but the ability to exercise it without getting arrested certainly has, in many jurisdictions. I believe that unfamiliarity is a significant contributing factor here: ordinary decent people haven’t exercised that right in a long time, and have forgotten it, delegated it to the government, or abandoned it to the ruffians.
    So, while rights in the abstract aren’t contingent on their continued exercise, practical rights sometimes are.

    Eric Wilner (3936fd)

  2. See Dubya, you say near the end that “Scientology…hasn’t killed anyone.” I think the Lisa McPherson case is actually pretty damning.

    Steve Ely (ff51b4)

  3. No offense, but this post seems a tad incoherent. You spend the whole first part saying that just because we don’t exercise a right it doesn’t go away (totally off-point), and then conclude by saying that islamic exceptionalism is dangerous (the actual point).

    I know that the “If so-and-so happens the terrorists will have won” thing was a running gag for a while, but this is the essential point. If they manage to get us to shut up with the threat of violence, then they have won. We’ve conceded the point of islamic exceptionalism. I, for one, don’t want to live in that world.

    CraigC (28872d)

  4. The people in the West need to wake up. islam is a sick joke. It’s a pernicious death cult that seeks to dominate the world. They’re lucky that I’m not the president, cuz I’d have already called all the leaders of islamic countries together and told them that one more attack on America or its interests or its allies, and severe military action will be taken. And if there’s a mass attack, boom goes Mecca and Medina. Political Science.

    CraigC (28872d)

  5. Here is my quibble with See-Dubya’s otherwise cogent argument: It is true that even if we fail to exercise our rights regularly they will not necessarily go away, but we do run the risk that it will be that much harder to re-assert them when we wish to do so. The Danish cartoons are a great case in point. For years Western Europe operated under the idea that it was not “tolerant” to offend Muslims (and other minorities, though Muslims were the most prominent ones) so great care was taken to accomodate them, even when their beliefs butted up against the principles of liberal democracy.

    Mark Steyn has written a great deal about this and cited numerous examples, such as British authorities having clear information that Pakistani Muslims in London were not allowing their daughters to go to school but deciding to be “culturally sensitive” by looking the other way, or French recreation directors agreeing to have gender specific days at local swimming pools in order to avoid offending Muslims by allowing boys and girls to swim together. Now that Western Europe has finally realized that they need to address the contempt that their radical Muslim communities have for “Western values,” they are learning that it is too little too late. We need to guard against that in this country, and letting radicals of all stripes know that the Constitution and Bill of Rights overrules whatever religious precepts they wish to follow.

    Steyn (again) quotes a wonderful piece of advice from the Australian treasurer, a fellow by the name of Peter Costello, who said, “There are countries that apply religious or sharia law — Saudi Arabia and Iran come to mind. If a person wants to live under sharia law these are countries where they might feel at ease. But not Australia.” We need to make damn sure they are made to feel the same way about America.

    JVW (d667c9)

  6. Craig C–I did a tiny bit of editing which I think will make this hang together better. I see the argument like this: The idea that we must insult Islam or else we’ll lose the right to free speech just from disuse is bunk. Rights don’t go away on their own. Furthermore, insulting things just for the sake of preserving our rights is injudicious and hurts society.

    Instead, you should insult things because they deserve insulting. And Islamic exceptionalism and Scientology, especially, deserve ridicule.

    is that more clear?

    See Dubya (3a983b)

  7. I just watched the episode in question (it will be repeated tomorrow 830pm PDT).

    The point of the entire episode had little to do with Islam, Mohammed or terrorism. What it was is a giant FU to Comedy Central. Basically, it called the executive suite of CC a bunch of smallberries and morons for allowing ANY group to dictate what could be shown. Doesn’t matter who.

    Kevin Murphy (6a7945)

  8. This post glosses over some pretty basic facts about Islam.

    You write: “On the other hand, insulting things just for the sake of insulting them is pernicious. It’s uncivil.”

    Except, that isn’t what has occurred here.

    [And that’s not what I said had occurred here.–See Dubya]

    Nobody is posting images of the prophet Mohammed “for the sake of insulting.” They are posting Mohammed cartoons specifically because they’ve been threatened with violence if they do it.

    The Constitution of the United States is at odds with Islam. In Islam, there is no concept of free speech, if that speech questions the legitimacy or current practice of Islam.

    That is the fundamental issue here. Islam cannot abide the phrase “inalienable human rights.” In Islam, there is no such thing; and so to a follower, it is self-obvious that there is no such thing as free speech, or freedom of religion, or many other freedoms that the Constitution and Bill of Rights enshrine.

    For Islam to exist then, the Bill of Rights CANNOT exist.

    The Mohammed cartoons are the epitomy of this basic friction.

    RightNumberOne (11dd90)

  9. If ever there were creeds that needed taking down a notch, these are the ones. Good for South Park for laughing at them. I don’t like South Park because they are indiscriminate with their scorn and insult things for the sake of being insulting, but they sure got this one right.

    Trey Parker has said in prior interviews, somethign along the lines of “if we ever reach the point where we say ‘we won’t make fun of that,‘ we’ll become everything our critics have accused us of being.” I think that’s about right. No one should be exempt from satire.

    Look at it this way: a big part of the outrage over this week’s South Park episode is due to the fact that in the very same episode that CC refused to show Mohammed, they happily showed Jesus, George Bush, and a few caricatures of Americans pooping on each other – not to mention Jesus as a character on the show in years back. If they had had a track record of insulting Islam and Scientology, while giving other religions a pass, CC might have had good reason to say “enough.”

    Xrlq (9aea6d)

  10. After the edit, my initial comment no longer makes much sense, the line I quoted having vanished… but I agree much more with your new version.
    One new quibble: I wouldn’t characterize trademark law as dealing in “rights” as such. Exclusive use of a trademark is not so much a right as a boon granted by the government; if trademarks are not enforced, the default is for everyone to have the right to use words, phrases, and symbols as they please.

    Eric Wilner (3936fd)

  11. Your last paragraph expressed my own sentiments about Comedy Central and South Park. Comedy Central has no problem airing extremely offensive and bigoted material when it is directed toward groups that don’t fight back, but if threatened by the litigious Scientologoids or the bomb-throwing Jihadists, their spines turn to jelly.

    Maybe if Christians made death threats their complaints would be heeded. But, then again, they wouldn’t be very good Christians if they did that.

    Dave (cc4e42)

  12. “Rights don’t go away on their own.” – See Dubya

    I agree with you, in this statement, Dubya. But, in this sentence, you encapsulate the issue. Our rights won’t simply vanish or disappear. It takes effort, conviction and the lack of same, for rights to be redefined, overturned and finally, struck down. One just needs to look at European speech laws to recognize the thin line between freedom of speech and freedom from speech.

    Maintaining our basic rights is paramount to living in a civilized, prosperous society. But, there are other issues at stake. Who makes the distinction between insult and satire? Who determines what and who, can be critiqued?

    The real point that continues to get lost amid all the discussion is that images of Mohammad are forbidden. It matters not the context, even if Mohammad is “normal, just standing there.” Any image can be reason for the radicalized factions of Islam to riot.

    What, then, is a civilized society left do to? Cleanse ourselves of any instance of Mohammad? Of any Islamic symbol that might, possibly, incite violence if improperly used or displayed? And what if a group of Christians turned radical, threatening violence and riots any time Jesus Christ or Mary or any Christian symbol was displayed – no matter the context. What then?

    RJD (d81c98)

  13. I understand the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution guarantees us freedom of religion AND freedom from religion. I restate the need for freedom from religion at this point in time.
    I also fear the rising tide in this country to debase all religions EXCEPT those who threaten the debasers with their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Perhaps there is a lesson for Christians in all this, but what that may be, I don’t have a clue.

    Paul Tucker (2fc496)

  14. No one seems to have brought this up but…

    Muscles, if not used for long enough, eventually break down alltogether and become unusable. If a muscle breaks down enough it will never recover and can never be used again. It’s called atrophy.

    I actually think it was a good analogy…but that’s because I disagree with the author’s point.

    AGuest (8ab119)

  15. Thanks, guest. I was thinking that same thing. The whole premise that rights don’t disappear if not used is not true in the real world. If not exercised, rights DO become more and more difficult to take advantage of without pain. Do we want to wait for civil war against the caliphate in this country?

    Another Guest (3450c6)

  16. I have to wonder if the poster of this even watched the first episode?

    A speech from that episode which sums this whole thing up

    “Freedom of speech is at stake here, don’t you all see? If anything, we should all make cartoons of Mohammed and show the terrorists and the extremists that we are all united in the belief that every person has a right to say what they want.

    Look people, it’s been really easy for us to stand up for free speech lately. For the past few decades, we haven’t had to risk anything to defend it. One of those times is right now. And if we aren’t willing to risk what we have now, then we just believe in free speech, but won’t defend it.”

    JeremyR (af92e5)

  17. Freedom from religion? Go reread the First Admendment and some history. Freedom of speech. Freedom to assemble. Freedom of the press. Freedom of relgion, ie. Freedom to worship as you see fit.
    And that is exactly what we need right now. Not less religion, that will only make matters worse. Less free religion means we move closer to one religion. If America is suppose to be THE democratic example, then we – this nation – must display those freedoms and more at all times.

    RJD (d81c98)

  18. If the purpose of art is to increase our understanding, then this piece is art. Thanx, I learned something.

    Howard Veit (28df94)

  19. The South Park episode is not an example of exercising rights for the sake of exercising rights (or we’ll lose them), it’s in the nature of a reaction to political correctness, a species of liberalism that teaches that the West must suppress speech (and thought) that deals truthfully with cultural and religious differences, particularly differences that make non-Westerners appear in a negative light or suggest that not all non-Western groups can be expected to assimilate into Western society.

    In turn, this doctrine derives from the fundamental liberal dogma that only the individual matters, that all individuals are alike, and that group differences are unreal and of no social importance.

    Speech codes (as on our universities) or speech legislation (as in Europe) are designed to implement these basic liberal understandings, which in the mind of the liberal are more fundamental than “free speech.”

    The distinction between mockery and fair comment is meaningless in this context. What a scholar might consider a fair, balanced account of Islam, its history, and its doctrine, might be taken by a Muslim as mockery or ridicule, a work ripe for censorship, because it “insults.” The standard then becomes entirely subjective, and the whole basis of law — fair notice of what behavior is illegal — is undermined.

    MD (9f37aa)

  20. South Park vs. Cartoon Jihad/3

    [click here to read the english version of this post]

    Michelle Malkin porta lo “scandalo South Park” sulle colonne del New York Post, con un editoriale durissimo (e significativamente intitolato “Cowardly Central”) contro l’ipocrisia del networ…

    The Right Nation (59ce3a)

  21. I wonder if anyone would care to comment on the show in which Jesus craps on Bush and the flag?

    [Should we comment? Or just riot? The latter appears to be more effective . . . — P]

    Charlie (e16458)

  22. Just because you have a right to free speech doesn’t mean you’re entitled to disturb the peace. And the fact that a lot of us think we’re anonymous when we’re out in public doesn’t make it true or entitle us to a right of anonymity.

    Society depends on people living around each other and people who insist on being jackasses kind of ruin the freedoms of the rest of us. This is the basis of laws against public nuisances. Panhandlers annoy people in downtown areas, hurting the businesses there, but because of the ACLU and its fundamentalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights, nobody can do anything about it.

    So, I take C-Dub’s point, and it’s why I’m not a libertarian.

    On the other hand, it seems more than a little odd that they can caricature God and Jesus (and portray him as gay), but then become squeamish about Mohammed. It suggests that religious people offended by such attacks on their beliefs should become violent if they want to be heard. Or that Muslims are still covered by the “sensitivity” exemption, like African-Americans, who may not be called the N word except by each other.

    AST (ec5bea)

  23. […] Dutch queen Beatrix delivered her traditional christmas speech yesterday. At the core of this speech was her message that tolerance and freedom of expression are the cornerstones of democracy. And indeed, there is no democracy without the freedom of expression and without tolerance. At the same time she stated that both are not unlimited: incitement to hatred cannot be tolerated and freedom of speech does not mean that there is a right to insult. These limits on tolerance and freedom of expression should not be explained as ‘dhimmitude’ or as giving victory to those dreadful Muslims. In some circles (link refers to a website; not the webmaster is meant by my remark but some of the visitors – Dutch) freedom of expression seems to be more and more explained as the duty to insult Muslims or to reveal the ‘truth‘ as loud and as confronting as possible, if you don’t you are politically correct and you don’t fit in. Perhaps if people don’t use the freedom of expression in most blatant way, they are afraid to lose it at all? It is usually used as an attempt to disqualify those (non-)Muslims who do not reject islam by definition, who state you should try to establish a dialogue even with hardline islamists, meaning taking the arguments (and not necessarily their actions) of islamists serious. The argument of dhimmitude results in taking your own stance as self evident, something that does not need any further examination, while the argument of the other is obviously wrong because you hold the monopoly on the truth. […]

    C L O S E R » Blog Archive » Tolerance and freedom of expression (69d0f5)

Powered by WordPress.

Page loaded in: 0.3427 secs.