“There comes a point where making a point is pointless. And reckless.” – Philip Gilmore
The University of the Philippines (UP) banned the screening of the “Innocence of Muslims” to ensure the safety and security of everyone on its campus. But a human rights lawyer and constitutional law lecturer at the UP, would have none of it. He defied the ban and screened the movie for his class, as a teaching tool on the freedom of expression. Damn the torpedoes!
Or as he put it, “As an academic, as a lawyer, I cannot allow rights to be infringed upon. I am in perfect discharge of my duties as a law professor and I’m willing to take whatever consequence.” Eh damn the torpedoes nga!
Alright, so he wanted to make a point about the freedom of expression. But there’s a point where making a point is pointless. And reckless.
So what if he had no intention of adding to the Muslims’ rage, that he was only standing up for the freedom of expression. The purity of his intentions does not matter because there is an equally important issue that cannot be ignored.
There is an offended party involved and he is very angry. He cannot be put aside, asked to hold his anger in check, while the lawyer-professor, to make a point about freedom of expression under our Constitution, screens a movie that slanders Muhammad.
He knew that Muslims in over 20 countries reacted violently to the movie. So why did he have to risk riling local Muslims who have displayed admirable restraint so far? Why test the limits of their tolerance?
The thing is he won’t even concede that the movie is offensive to Muslims. The first sentence of his Philippine Daily Inquirer column last Friday –Free Expression and mob rule — was, “An allegedly anti-Islam trailer has reopened the debate on where the limits to freedom of expression should be.” Allegedly anti-Islam? In the next sentence he wrote that the movie depicts Mohammad as “a fraud, a womanizer, and a pedophile.” What further proof does he need to say unequivocally that the movie is anti-Islam?
He then warned that banning “’expression that prods members of a religious group to violent reaction is a ‘slope’ as far as freedom of expression is concerned.’”And he went on to prescribe, “the remedy in a democratic society is not to ban such a film, but for Muslims to prove in both word and deed that the affront is apparent and real. Certainly, the resort to mob rule is not the means to prevail in the free marketplace of ideas.”
Wait a minute. Let’s analyze the prescription.
The Muslims have to prove in both word and deed that the affront is apparent and real? They torched an embassy and killed an ambassador, is that proof enough that the affront was apparent and real to them? Or was the lawyer saying Muslims must first prove that Muhammad was not a fraud, a womanizer, and a pedophile before they can rampage? Or was he in fact saying if I call your mother a whore the proper response is to show me I’m wrong and not to kick my teeth in?
Certainly, the resort to mob rule is not the means to prevail in the free marketplace of ideas. But certainly as well there are people who believe that mob rule is the only way they can liberate themselves from the free marketplace of ideas dominated by what some American conservatives proudly refer to as “the Judeo-Christian moral code.”
They have their moral codes, we have ours. What many fail to understand is that the world became interconnected faster than people’s capacity for mutual adjustment. In such a situation, the first instinct is to impose one’s self on the other in order to maintain one’s comfort zone. It takes a while to learn that the only way to have peace is to co-exist and not to impose one’s peace on the other.
We are still in the culture clash stage. And so when one does something that offends the other, intentionally or not, one cannot expect the other will respond in a like manner, as if only a reversal of roles were involved.
More importantly, one cannot, like the lawyer thinks he can, dictate to the other how he should respond. He will respond in the way he responds. That’s it. You’d better be prepared to live with that state of affairs because that will be it until such time as we all get to know each other well enough to agree on a code of conduct.
For Muslims freedom of expression does not extend to criticizing their faith. In Islam you cannot blaspheme and expect to get away with a slap on the wrist. That’s their way. It was also the way of Catholics and Christians for many centuries. So if it was okay for us then why is it not okay for them now?
There is no right or wrong involved here, we have secularized, they have not. Who has the moral authority to say our way of professing our faith is right and their way is wrong?
The secularized go to war over politics, the religious go to war over faith. Saying one is better than the other is like saying that the cannibal who eats with a knife and fork is superior to the cannibal who eats with his hands. Both are still cannibals, right?
The lawyer could have screened the movie in a rented auditorium or at home and it would have been only him and his invited guests to face “whatever consequences” they were willing to face. They would still be making a point about freedom of expression but they would be doing it without involving those who really don’t give a rat’s ass about defending a bigot’s right to lie about another religion.
Some people believe that freedom of speech is better served by condemning bigotry and lies than by standing up for the right of bigots and liars to mouth off. They will defend the right to free speech in their own way just as the lawyer will in his own way. Unfortunately, his way put everyone in the UP campus at risk. Nang damay pa.
The thing is, until we can all agree on the extent and limits on freedom of expression across cultures and religions, we must settle our differences in places where there is minimal risk of collateral damage. That’s what the lawyer failed to grasp, believing as he did that his idea of freedom of expression is the one size that fits all. He took his fight to the UP campus, a “civilian” zone, instead of a battlefield where only combatants would face off.
Come to think of it why didn’t he screen the movie at the Quiapo mosque? That’s where he will find people to persuade. That’s where he can prove he has the courage to defend freedom of expression regardless of consequences. His students already share his belief so he does not have to preach to them, right?
Anyway, after the screening, the lawyer-professor proclaimed, “Now that we have seen it, we can confidently say it is trash.”
Christ Almighty or Alahu Akbar, does one have to taste-test every foul-smelling mound on the sidewalk before he can confidently say “It is dog shit!”?
Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).