When you exhale, a powerful airstream passes through the trachea providing energy to two vocal folds. These folds vibrate 100 to 1000 times per second producing a stream of sounds. These collective sounds allow you to speak, but just because you can, it doesn’t always mean you should.
The hunt for a definitive line between free and hate speech is still in progress. In the last year especially, events such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the AFDI Muhammad Art Exhibit have helped to shine more light on this controversy.
But why is free speech controversial? Wasn’t it implemented to augment people’s freedoms? In a perfect world, it would, but too frequently the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America is utilized as a scapegoat for Americans to verbally abuse and purposefully offend specific people and groups.
Unfortunately, abuses to the First Amendment exist on a much greater stage than just one man standing on a street corner chanting inappropriate slurs. One such organization, Stop Islamization of America, proclaims that they are a “human rights organization dedicated to free speech, religious liberty and individual rights.” It is an interesting contrast to note that the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed them as an “active anti-Muslim group,” a view also shared by CNN author, Haroon Moghul and the vast majority of other groups and websites.
The SIOA’s partner organization, the American Defense Initiative, dedicated to “preservation of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal rights for all,” is also berated with the same accusations. Controversial figurehead of the century, Pamela Geller, is the fearless leader of both organizations – and fearless is not an overstatement. She has received countless death threats that have epically failed in their attempts to deter her. Her passion, she proclaims, comes from wanting to defeat “savage” jihadists.
Who are these savage jihadists Geller is working so tirelessly to bring down? The word jihad itself is highly controversial. Many claim that it means an inner spiritual struggle and an outer spiritual struggle against enemies of Islam. This is often interpreted to mean Holy War, which is the definition Geller frequently uses to condemn these “savages.” Though not to belittle the unfortunate fact that many violent acts have been carried out by self-proclaimed jihadists, it is not right to label the whole based on a few parts. According to The Islamic Supreme Council of America, the meaning of jihad is not violent but refers to the “internal as well as external efforts to be a good Muslims or believer, as well as working to inform people about the faith of Islam.”
If we cannot cohesively define one word, how can we come to an agreement about where the line between free and hate speech should lie? Is it feasible that everyone everywhere could be happy with a definitive decision of what defines free versus hate speech? That seems unrealistic. But perhaps when a large enough group, such as the United Kingdom, bans a person, such as Pamela Geller, from entering the country due to actions that were “not conducive to the public good,” the BBC reported a UK government official said, we might want to make note. So why were Gellers actions declared as “not conducive” while others were not? It is a slippery slope to go down, trying to filter through what does and does not cross the line, but it is even more dangerous to leave this issue unchecked.
Pamela Geller insists that America, and the world for that matter, has been infringing on people’s rights for years. That is why she is seen as so controversial. Outrage seems to follow her wherever she goes, but she hasn’t actually broken any rules. 32 weeks ago Pamela Gelles and the American Freedom Defense Initiative began an ad campaign in the NYC subway stations and on buses. These ads, not unexpectedly, initiated countless debates. In an interview with CNN, Geller reported that a judge ruled restrictions against her ads as unconstitutional, and allowed them to be published. She followed with, “I’m running [these ads] because I can.”
For the full interview, click this link.
At the beginning of this month, Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative implemented their “because I can” mentality to host a contest in which participants drew cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The winner of this contest would receive a generous cash prize of $10,000. The event was brought to an abrupt end when two gunmen, one confirmed Muslim, were gunned down after opening fire at security guards stationed outside the exhibit.
Violence should never be condoned as a method of defending or advancing one’s beliefs. It is devastating that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Americans have to be fearful of the constant possibility of being attacked. That being said, the “free-speech” contest the AFDI hosted immeasurably attacked the Islamic religion. A major pillar of Islam is that Muhammad was a man, not a God. It is vital for the religion that Muhammad not be drawn in any manner as doing so would place him at the same importance and stature as Allah. With this information, the whole event seemed to be a mockery of the Islamic faith.
In response to this event, senior Sarah Quinlan said, “As a Muslim myself, I’ve definitely experienced the double-edged sword of free speech. Some people give valid opinions on my faith and some just provide straight up prejudice and try and disguise it as an ‘opinion’ or ‘free speech.’”
Because of the religion of the two gunmen, the “savage” stereotype was unfortunately advanced. Were the organizers of the event blind to the violation they were committing? No. They had a police and private guard presence at the entrance which would imply they were aware of possible violence. When a guard announced the event was under attack, a participant wasted no time enquiring if “[the assailants]were Muslim?” which can be heard at 1:30:57 in this video.
It is a shame that people have to be afraid that the words they say could put their lives in danger, but it is humiliating that supposed free speech by Americans in America could be used as grounds for racist attacks in other parts of the world. On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a car bomb in Oslo, Norway. Though Geller and other self- proclaimed anti-jihadist bloggers refused that their work had anything to do with Breivik’s attack, many believed Breivik found inspiration from these Americans and even used some of their words in his 1,500 page manifesto about the threat of Islam.
Quinlan admitted that her “way of thinking [about the debate over free speech] is simplistic in terms of this conflict, however, her insight could not be more accurate. “My take on free speech is simple: just because you FEEL [something] or THINK [something] doesn’t mean it ALWAYS has to be said, and in turn, if something IS said and you disagree, there are respectful ways of handling it and sorting it out.”
Free speech, hate speech, neutral speech, how do we determine which of these categories our words fall under? Until we agree on where the lines are drawn, we should heed to the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”