Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Not So Innocent Right to Free Speech

Lars Tønder
  Northwestern University

A new “Muhammad crisis” is unfolding before our eyes. Provoked by the movie “Innocence of Muslims,” and enforced by recent developments in the US, the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere, the crisis evolves around a familiar pattern of arguments and objections, which trouble our established ways of invoking and defending the right to free speech. Like the many other crises that preceded it, the current “Muhammad crisis” signifies a challenge, not only to ideals of democratic deliberation, but also to how we perceive and engage the world of power and politics.
  To see how complex and challenging the current Muhammad crisis is, one only has to consider the mix of ingredients that provoked it: A California-based film producer who previously had worked on adult movies such as “Young Lady Chatterley” and “The Sexpert”; a self-proclaimed movie director who spent most of the year before the film was shot in federal custody on bank fraud charges; an Evangelic pastor in Florida infatuated by publicity and the desire to save Muslims from their own faith; a new fragile government in Libya threatened by remainders of Al Queda’s terrorist network; a growing disappointment with the Arab spring and the lack of democracy in Egypt and elsewhere; the ongoing killing of innocent civilians by US-directed drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and, finally, a good deal of unsettled resentment from earlier conflicts such as the Danish cartoon war. Exceeding our usual models of efficient causality, these ingredients are connected through affective resonances and symbolic equivalences that produce an event like one we are witnessing today: An event where history is covered over by an explosive present, and where the criterion of judgment lies in the future—not in the past.
The complexity of the event helps to explain why the prevailing response among proponents of Western democracy has been insufficient and, perhaps more importantly, why it appears to be dangerously self-defeating. Promoted by a global coalition that includes such unusual bedfellows as Mitt Romney, Salman Rushdie, and the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the response among proponents of Western democracy has been threefold: eliminate any doubt about the right to free speech; depict anyone who don’t share this view as weaklings who at least tacitly accept the use of violence; and, in the spirit of what John Durham Peters, in Courting the Abyss, calls “homeopathic machismo,” proceed by ignoring, repeating, or deepening the original offense (or some combination thereof). Like the parsimonious observer who looks for the parts rather than the whole, the prevailing response promises to reduce the complexity of the world so as to identify the only truth there is to see—that the best way to invoke and defend free speech is to stand steadfast and, if necessary, to up the ante whenever criticized or challenged. As Rushdie explains it in a recent interview about the link between the publication of the Satanic Verses and the current Muhammad crisis: “If you are standing up for important principles…as I have learned the hard way…you don’t defend those principles by compromise or appeasement. In the end, you just simply have to defend them and take the consequences…I’m just going to fight my corner” 
It is hard not to notice here a desire for sovereignty, which, despite Rushdie’s subtle use of language in many of his novels, puts him in close proximity to Mitt Romney and others who have criticized the Obama administration for trying to counter the initial reactions to the “Innocence of Muslims” movie by objecting to the movie’s depiction of Islam. One reason to resist this response by Rushdie, Romney, and others is the absence of a resilient openness to difference as well as the antagonistic violence it inflicts against the purpose of free speech—to expand the range of utterances and to allow more voices to be heard. Another reason to resist the response is the tendency to disavow fundamental changes in the contemporary conditions of free speech. Contrary to the complexity already noted, the response among the proponents of Western democracy posits a center of power (the State or the individual), which places itself above the lived experiences of its subjects or parts, and which claims to have the authority needed to protect itself from contestation and revision. In a complex world like the one characterizing the current Muhammad crisis, such a power center does not exist in any meaningful way. Not only must the United States and other governments compete with a multitude of non-state agents, the connections between the different agents (state and non-state) now develop at an accelerated pace, which exceeds the control of just one center of power. The complexity, we might say, changes the context of free speech, and therefore also the means appropriate for invoking and defending it. Might the tendency to gloss over this shift not explain why the “sovereigntists” seem either tone deaf with regard to various uses of free speech, or guilty of furthering the violence that they accuse Muslims around the world of committing?
None of this is to say that we, as political theorists and as members of different democratic regimes, should not embrace the right to free speech, or that we should refrain from criticizing the “Innocence of Muslims” movie and the violent responses it has provoked. What the changes in the context of free speech do suggest, however, is that we need a different framework for perceiving and engaging conflicts like the current Muhammad crisis. Rather than appealing to a sovereign desire which pretends to be detached from the event it regulates, and in which it remains entangled, the challenge now is to study conflicts like the current Muhammad crisis so as to better counter and pluralize the various lived experiences embedded in it.
A first step in this direction might be to actually watch and criticize the parts of the “Innocence of Muslims” movie that have been released on line as the movie’s trailer. (As it was the case with the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, the tendency in public discourse has so far been to state a general opinion with regard to the legality of the movie, and to relegate to the unexamined background questions about how the movie works symbolically as well as affectively.) As anyone who has looked it up on YouTube will know, watching the trailer can be both excruciatingly painful and tragically funny: The visual effects are amateurish, the acting is horrible, and the narrative is either absent or clumsy. Still, the movie does manage to stir its audience, not only because it takes up a controversial issue, but also because it evokes affective resonances and symbolic equivalences that create an effect similar to the “mirror neurons” detected by researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Since it is at this level that the complexity is subtlest, it may also be here that our critical efforts are most productively spent.
A particularly telling sequence in the movie includes a set of scenes which show the young Prophet as a fatherless “bastard,” who submits himself to female desire, and thereby gradually learns the false lesson of deriving pleasure from dominating others: “killing the men and capturing the women.” What kind of resonances and equivalences subsist below the simplicity of this statement? The first thing to note is how the affects evoked by the statement are not unlike Christianity’s own fear of female desire, something that historically has justified the domestication of women’s sex life through misogyny and repression. A reminder of this historical fact surfaced only a few days after the YouTube video had gone viral, when Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, reported the finding of a papyrus fragment from the 2nd century whose mentioning of “Jesus’ wife” appears to challenge Christianity’s more orthodox view of marriage, sexuality, reproduction, and family life. Like the “Innocence of Muslims” movie, the papyrus fragment was quickly perceived as a challenge to the secure grasp of a religious orthodoxy. Unlike the movie, however, the fragment entered into a different kind of circulation, one that was defined, not by the cheesiness of an incendiary joke, but by the claim to high culture and scholarly work. Because of this difference in circulation, the papyrus fragment appears easier to domesticate and contain, even if it represents a past historicity that, unlike the manufactured one invoked by the “Innocence of Muslims” movie, has the potential to alter the basic presuppositions of a religion.
The fact that the “Innocence of Muslims” movie’s manufactured historicity has come to seem politically relevant is a testimony to the movie’s powerful linkaging of affective resonances and symbolic equivalences. The movie’s political relevancy increaces furthermore if we pay close attention to how the movie, by erotizing the fear of difference, depicting the Prophet as an illustrious sex-maniac who only wants to dominate others, fuels the violent aggressions it pretends to refute. Not unlike a self-fulfilling prophecy, the movie puts the effect before the cause, and thus evokes a mirroring whereby “my” fears become “yours” (and vice-versa), undoing the hopefulness of the Arab spring, stirring up the mob in a more predictable manner than the one we witnessed a little more than a year ago on Tahrir Square in Cairo. The mirroring works, we might say, because the movie’s branding simultaneously reduces the range of possibilities to two antagonistically opposed positions, and reconnects these positions through an intimate bond surrounded by a potent set of affective resonances and symbolic equivalences. As already intimated, the rhythm of these movements is not specific to Arabs or Muslims, but to democracy as a mode of government in which the excitement of the people rising up is always-already entangled with the worry that the uprising will overwhelm the desire for control and management.
Crowd drives al Qaeda linked militia out of Benghazi
To be sure, whether a mirroring of this kind leads to the riots and violence we have witnessed in the past few weeks is not independent of the context in which it is received. In the current case, the American war on terror as well as the socio-political transformations started by the Arab spring have made the context particularly prone to an amplification of the initial aggression, thereby creating a cascading effect in which each offense must be answered in kind. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that both sides of the conflict have come to embody a sovereign righteousness with regard to their own use of free speech: Whereas a majority of Muslims object to unregulated free speech, demanding revenge for the harm inflicted by the producers of the movie, the sovereigntists in the US and elsewhere continue to insist on their constitutionally protected right to speak as they see fit.
If we want free speech to be more than an antagonistic shouting contest in which the winner is the loudest, it is the amplified mirroring of aggression and violence that we need to destabilize in favor of a different set of affective resonances and symbolic equivalences. As a general rule, we might say that it is no longer sufficient to defend the right to free speech against concerns about blasphemy and idolatry; rather, if the goal is to expand the range of utterances and voices heard in public, we also need to experiment with new ways of reimagining free speech within a vibrant democracy that challenges its own presuppositions in an attempt to deepen the citizenry’s commitment to difference and pluralism.
Tahrir Square: Christians and Muslims take turns protecting each other as each group prays.
One way to conceptualize this experimentation is to pursue what Deleuze calls an “ethology” interested in the capacities of finite bodies “for affecting and being affected”. The idea behind Deleuze’s ethology is to begin with the assumption that “no one knows ahead of time the affects one is capable of,” and then proceed to interpret this assumption as a reason to privilege a “long affair of experimentation” in which “lasting prudence” is mobilized as part of an attempt to determine what the most powerful “composition of fast and slow speeds” could be in any given context. While the latter does not preclude an insistence on the right to free speech, it expands the discussion to include a dynamic interest in how the right to free speech is used in this or that context. That is, the ethology envisioned by Deleuze requires us to consider, not only whether the right to free speech is acknowledged as imperative to democratic government, but also whether it fosters affective constellations that can augment the ability to think and to act. The latter does not entail a censoring of free speech, but it may make us more attuned to ways of countering the current tendency to limit the range of utterances and voices head in a context characterized by complexity and pluralism.
With regard to the current crisis, the experimental approach encouraged by Deleuze’s ethology puts pressure on both the Muslims who demand revenge for the harm inflicted by the producers of the movie, and the proponents of Western democracy who insist on their constitutionally enshrined right to speak as they see fit. Like the initial reaction from the Obama administration, the idea is to begin by explicitly acknowledging and criticizing the harm inflicted by the speech found in the “Innocence of Muslims” movie. Unlike the Obama administration’s response, however, the approach envisioned here goes further to expand the range of utterances and voices. At the symbolic level, the approach engages in the kind of critical work that subverts the mirroring invoked by the “Innocence of Muslims” movie, and that helps, not only to create greater sensitivity to marginalized and subaltern groups within society, but also to establish new points of connection between different constituencies on both sides of the conflict. At the affective level, the approach’s “performance” of free speech means cultivating a political sensibility in which the desire to both affect and to be affected is front and center. 
  To this end, consider the following as an assemblage of suggestions that might change the current course of events: (1) embrace the notion that there is more than one proper way to invoke and defend the right to free speech; (2) cultivate an endurance and resilience that deflects harmful speech and enables encounters across religious, cultural, and political differences; (3) mobilize newspapers, television, film, and social media to provide a pluralizing imaginary that subverts the one evoked by movies such as the “Innocence of Muslims”; (4) encourage State officials to fund and participate in communities and grassroots projects that cut across existing binaries between religious belief and secular government; and (5) experiment with genres such as comedy and street performance to create a more joyful sensibility that embraces expressions of disagreement and fallibility as a show of strength rather than as a sign of weakness.
  Whether any of these suggestions will satisfy the parties involved in the current Muhammad crisis is unlikely, and might also be beside the point. In a world like ours, the most important point is not to reduce the complexity that surround issues of free speech, but to experiment with new modes of resonance and equivalence. Without such experimentation free speech may no longer become what it once was—a practice of discovery, resistance, and pluralization.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece, I agree with a lot, but (1) why not call it a "conflict" or a "controversy" rather than a "Muhammad crisis" - I think most critics and defenders of the movie would deny that they are having a crisis, and that description therefore needs to be justified at the least. (2) Why the strange move from speaking about the "prevailing" response among defenders of "Western democracy" to speaking about THE response (in a quite simplistic way)? (3) I dont get the deleuzian point: If we ALL begin to criticize the movie, as Tønder recommends, we would surely get LESS pluralization and not more. In order for the pluralization argument to work, we need someone who argues for the movie, its content, and its place in the public sphere.