Western ideals and the freedom of speech

We should understand different cultures before we criticize.

Trent M. Kays

The right to freedom of speech in the U.S. is a fundamental one. It’s inscribed in the Constitution, and it provides Americans the opportunity to speak their minds. In a way, our dedica­tion to freedom of speech allows me to write these words without general fear that I will be black-bagged and hauled away in the night by the government. This is an important thing, yet in some ways, it is a uniquely American thing.

Like many, I closely follow the news in the Middle East, especially the recent surge in protests and demonstrations. However, I’ve always been more interest­ed in the actions of speech being hurled about in an effort to affect some aspect of change. Assuredly, change does not always come, but it does provide an op­portunity for the U.S. to proselytize its democratic agenda.

I’ve always been proud to be an American. Despite our faults, I believe in my country. But, I also understand that American democracy isn’t the best form of government for every culture. We often forget that the U.S. is an infant in age compared to other countries and cultures around the world. Yet, we live in a culture that has been and continues to be obsessed with the application of our way of life to the rest of the world. Like many cultures before us, we are accus­tomed to acculturating those who are different from us.

This focus on acculturation extends to free speech. It appears the U.S. feels that its understanding of free speech is one to which every culture should hold. This is especially true of non-Western cultures. The recent events in the Mid­dle East are enough to secure this point, particularly with regard to religion.

Unfortunately, the American under­standing of free speech woefully miscal­culates the importance of other cultural contexts. American culture has spread around the world in various incarnations thanks to conflicts and other expansions in recent history. Yet, in doing so, one culture must dominate. So, which cul­ture should rule another?

The importance of American author­ity around the globe is waning. Perhaps it is because we’ve stuck our noses in too many places. Or, maybe it’s because we feel our way is the only correct way of understanding the world. It doesn’t real­ly matter. What matters is that we’ve be­come intolerant of those with whom we do not agree. This is not surprising as the U.S. was founded on the principles of intolerance as much as tolerance.

We look at the protests erupting in the Middle East due to the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, and we sit aghast that some would dare protest an­other’s exercise of free speech. Yet, it is that very act of perplexity that shows how culturally insensitive the U.S. and other Western cultures can be.

While I am not Muslim, I do under­stand that Muhammad is a holy fig­ure in Islam, and he is a figure revered by those who adhere to that faith. But, since I am not Muslim, does that give me the right to draw images of Muhammad wherever I like in my culture? Yes. That right is granted to me under the U.S. Constitution. However, does it mean it’s in good taste? No. Does it mean that I am being culturally sensitive? No. What it does mean is I am portraying the stereo­typical American: A citizen who is selfish and cares for nothing but his trifling un­derstanding of the world.

I know for a fact that this stereotype is often wrong. But, this is a typical opinion that is heard when non-Americans speak of Americans. I’ve heard it on the streets of France to the alleys of Turkey. This is something we must fight. We must use our free speech to better understand the importance of cultural diversity. We may be able to blaspheme and insult religion all we like, but we should understand the consequences we bring down on our­selves.

This is not kowtowing. This is not ap­peasement. This is understanding. We live in a global village now. As we once were, we are no longer isolated from the rest of the world. There’s plenty enough room for multiple perspectives on this planet, and we should not be so arrogant to think ours is and must be supreme. Even so, our infant culture cannot and should not compete with the thousands of other cultures with their own histo­ries.

Even though we cannot compete with older cultural contexts, we have become the world’s mediator and police force. Both of those jobs require understand­ing, yet our population continues to spurn such adulations. For some, the fact we must admit there are other ways of doing things is painful. Free speech and respect of other cultural contexts should not be mutually exclusive.

The U.S. was born into our under­standing of free speech. We have not had to deal with its evolution in the same way as cultures far older than ours. We have taken this for granted because it’s the norm. As such, we see any encroach­ment on this right as an attack on our value system.

We cannot work toward a peaceful future by insulting those cultures in des­perate need of peace. We would do well to remember: We cannot force one to walk through a door; we can only show them the way.