The explosion of controversy surrounding the “Innocence of Muslims” film and the supposedly “senseless” violence that ensued in Libya and elsewhere after its reception, point to a significant hole in the American worldview. That is, many Americans still cannot comprehend that their nation's values are not universal, nor even entirely logically sound.
In an insightful article, literary critic Stanley Fish evokes how many Americans cannot imagine that others have values which conflict with the catechism of Free Speech, “the assumption is that if they (the rest of the world) had heard of it (the first amendment) and read it and gotten its message, they would have understood that you don’t target or attack people because of what they have written; you don’t respond to words, however harsh and wounding you take them to be, as if they were physical blows.” But the issue here is based on a clash of two civilizations, one in which our concept of religion is privatized and compartmentalized (if not secularized), and the other where, as Fish goes on to say, “religion is not an internal, privatized matter safe from the world’s surfaces, but an overriding imperative that the world’s surfaces should reflect”. In the context of this other civilization, “a verbal or pictorial assault on their religion will not be received as an external and ephemeral annoyance, as a ‘mere’ representation; it will be received as a wounding to the heart, as a blow, and as a blow that is properly met by blows in return. No ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ for them.”
There appears to be radically different worldviews coming into collision here, but in fact, we are as equally defensive of our First Amendment ideals as those in Libya are of their religious convictions. Fish ends his piece with a provocative comparison between belief in “Free Speech” and belief in “God” or “Truth”. For many of us in the West, Free Speech is a value imbued with religious fervor – it is an abstract and invisibly entity that we cathect with meaning and “believe” in – this is why “secular humanism” is called out by some as a “religion” in itself.
The paradox of Free Speech is that we tolerate intolerance. We tolerate those explicitly blasphemous scenes in “Innocence of Muslims” all in the name of Free Speech, but yet we are wholly intolerant of their intolerance – we think the calm rationale of Free Speech sets us apart from the inflamed “sensitivity” of the “Muslim World.” This is where we expose ourselves as hypocrites. We point out “Muslim Rage,” while we too are intolerant of having our most foundational beliefs denounced ...and perhaps we are even more “sensitive”, for those in Libya are reacting to slander, while we react with outrage when our worldview is simply not accepted by people half way across the world. This whole controversy reveals the that the West is somehow still incapable of seeing over the rims of its own worldview. This near-sightedness may be what is most “senseless” here.