Only the outcry over the photos of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, competes with the past week’s headlines about the angry, often violent, response to the anti-Muslim video made in California. In both cases, those who made and distributed the images proclaim their right to free speech — as well as the notoriety and cash that goes with it. But while most of the Anglo-American media have joined in outrage over the indecency of the royal photos, the toxic video mainly inspires righteous warnings about censorship.
For the French court that awarded an injunction on further publication of the royal photos, they amounted to a “brutal display” which couldn’t be tolerated. The right to be left alone trumped any claim of public interest.
In the wake of the horrific US embassy killings in Libya, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insist that while they find the video distasteful, none of this could impinge on the stakes for free speech. Less surprising is Google’s posture that it will not take down the video from YouTube (which it owns), because those stakes were higher than the deepest moral offence to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Amidst the Leveson inquiry into the ethics of the British media — which received fulsome coverage on both sides of the Atlantic — the usual appetite for saucy photos has been displaced by a tone of measured disdain toward the French, Italian and Irish papers that did what the London and New York tabloids would normally do at the drop of a bra.
Google acted swiftly enough last month when Australia’s Online Hate Prevention Institute complained about anti-Semitic videos on YouTube. The offending material was gone 24 hours after the complaint. How does this square with YouTube’s present claim that its policy on hate speech is only about targeting individuals, not groups? Or with Google’s readiness to censor the video in Egypt and Libya, but not in other countries where public order and sensitivity were no less engaged?
Yet this is all down to “culture,” according to the New York Times — specifically, the gap between the west’s concern about individual life and free speech, versus the east’s sensitivity about faith traditions. In response to the assertion by a Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson in Cairo that denying the Holocaust would not pass muster in the US, the Times stoutly pronounced that this “is also protected as free speech” there. In strict legal terms, perhaps – but imagine the outcry that would ensue in the thick of an election race if a blatantly anti-Semitic video were peddled on Google!
It certainly says something about our ethics that the brutal display of the royal pictures is deemed less acceptable than that of a remarkably crude video which maligns the founding figure of a faith tradition, with the explicit purpose of inciting a riot. The same may be said of the gratuitously offensive Danish “Muhammad cartoons” in 2005 – and the pointedly obscene ones published on Wednesday by a French magazine.
The idea that any public interest is served by these choices is absurd, no matter which side of the Mediterranean one is perched.
No less absurd, though, is the violent public response of many Muslims, even if sparked not by the latest video alone but a series of hateful acts by a crew of Qur’an defilers and other agents provocateurs. Such “protests” become violations of the same religious principles in whose name they are undertaken. More fundamentally, neither God nor Muhammad requires the protection of blasphemy laws that are enforced by states and political movements whose own moral behaviour is far more abusive of their faith tradition. The recent treatment in Pakistan of a 14-year old, mentally-disturbed Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, is a case in point in shaming the would-be shamers.
The trouble with attributing all this to “culture” is that it gets us off the hook. We stand on soap-boxes to yell about the inviolability of free speech or scripture or the public’s right to know — whatever is handy for the prejudices of the moment. The upshot is to debase those principles, which are never in the first place absolute. Their exercise comes with responsibilities, hard though it is to acknowledge this from soap-boxes.