Free Speech or Free Spite?

By Nwachukwu Egbunike

For the past couple of weeks the world has known no peace due to the provocative video thriller – Innocence of Muslims. Already the rage has consumed John Christopher Stevens, the late US Ambassador to Libya and many innocent people have been sent on an early and compulsory journey to their graves. At the centre of this crisis, trenches are been dug for and against free speech. What is free speech? Can intentional spite be considered free speech?

No amount of provocation can justify the killing spree and destruction that have characterized the reaction of Muslims against their Prophet. It also goes without saying that although the movie was made by a crazy American Christian or Jew does not necessarily translates that the US sponsored or backed the movie. Similarly it does not mean that Christians or Jews everywhere are against Muslims: to do so will be an over simplification and the amplification of the ‘single story’. Besides the apology of President Obama and Secretary of State – Hillary Clinton – has shown that the above propositions are not mere theoretical assumptions.

At the same time, no one has the right castigate the religion of others. It is also plain hypocrisy to feign disgust that Muslims are protesting the affront on their religion. As long as it’s peaceful, they have the right to protest. After all people march against other causes. That’s the beauty of democracy: if you are not comfortable with an action or inaction, you show your angst by making as much noise as possible – so long as you don’t break any law in the process.

Net freedom is founded upon the principles of an unfettered freedom of speech. This is has historical precedents that governments – of all times and places – are never comfortable with a medium that they have no holds on. As such they try to strangle free speech through legislature usually citing state security and other reasons. Therefore the fear of digital freedom is not metaphorical but real. From the Arab Spring we have amble examples of how the politicians tried to cut off their voices of their citizens. During the Soweto riots, the same happened, but could not repeat itself during the strike by the South African miners because of the digital democratization of information. The genocide in Rwanda was propelled by radio but well hidden from public glare until late into the massacres. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that this would certainly have been more difficult in this century. If you have any doubts, Google Syria: this lays that to rest. The senate presidents of Nigeria and Philippines have recently moved to censor the ubiquitous social media their respective countries.

However, is free speech absolute? A point of departure is to focus our gaze on man. Human beings are autonomous but not independent. Autonomy in the sense that no two people are the same and such there is no limit to the possibilities open to any man. However, man not totally independent. The grandiose view of man as a being that is lord of all things with an unparallel ability to dominate the world at the expense of others forms the core of the libertarian mantra. But this self-sufficiency or absolute independence cannot hold true in the face of the infinite needs that each person experiences in the life of both body and spirit: air, water, food, light, friendship, appreciation, love… These are needs that an individual cannot solely acquire alone but must depend on others for satisfaction.

From the foregoing, it means that since man is dependent on others, necessarily his freedom is also limited by the freedom others. Absolute freedom is an utopia. As much as governments should not intervene in the public square, trying to gate-keep in the pretence of promoting public good; same goes with the individual, who must draw the line between free speech and free spite.

Hate speech is obviously an abuse of freedom of speech. To accept anything less is to deify freedom and promote the license to provoke. This is particularly pertinent, since we live in a world that sees no reason why the sacred has to be respected. It appears that an unprecedented race is on, where humanity has assumed the right to suffocate the freedom of conscience and religious freedom.

As much as no one has been commissioned to take up arms as God’s warrior, nonetheless, it is plain clear that there is a sustained and deliberate plan to flare up religious sentiments. Get the fanatics to draw blood and then turn back to blame religion. The secular and the divine are two separate realms that should remain independent. However, we cannot afford a situation where some – knowing fully well the implications – go ahead to inflame fanatical reactions.

Freedom comes with a corresponding responsibility. There has to be a middle course, knowing when not to lay claim to a ‘liberty’ for the sake of others is plain common sense. A mad French man has added more fuel to an already tense situation. And who will bear the brunt, the innocent as usual. The fart was released beyond the Atlantic, but the injury will be inflicted down the Sahara: like my fellow citizens who were bombed in their churches some days ago. Free spite is not free speech but incendiary rhetoric.


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