Stevenson: When a right isn’t right


Commentary by Jack Stevenson

Commentary by
Jack Stevenson

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution gives us the legal right to freedom of speech, and that includes the right to criticize anyone or any institution.  There is no requirement to be truthful or prudent or reasonable.  Our right of expression gives us the license to ridicule, belittle, mock, or disparage another person’s religion.  But is it wise to exercise that right?

When a French magazine published ugly, disparaging cartoons about the Islamic religion and generated a criminal response — murder — perpetrated by people who were offended by the cartoons, American journalists immediately rose to the defense of freedom of insult.

Can you imagine what would happen if a Muslim published vulgar cartoons attacking the Christian religion or the Jewish religion?  I think that the indignation by American media would be endless.  The perpetrator of the insults would be exercising a legal right, but not good judgment.  We don’t always speak the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” because, if we did, we might not have any friends.

People once fought duels over insults.  Alexander Hamilton, an architect of the United States government and a principal assistant to George Washington, died fighting a duel.  The expression, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” isn’t entirely true.  Words can cause emotional pain and anger.  Words, falsely spoken, can send a nation to war.  Religious beliefs are among the most intense beliefs held by humans.  It makes no sense to deliberately insult a person’s religious beliefs even if we have an unchallengeable right to do so.

There is no evidence that diplomats resolve issues by insulting their counterparts.  When we address our fundamental differences with mutual respect and, in a civilized manner and tone, we do not always resolve those differences, but, at least, we do not provoke violence.

Cartoonists and comedians can sometimes lessen the tension around contentious issues by invoking humor, making us laugh and not take ourselves too seriously.  But humor isn’t universal.  A comedian’s delivery that makes one audience laugh may fall flat with a second audience and genuinely offend a third audience.  When the intended humor mocks another person’s religion, the victim isn’t going to be laughing.

Freedom of speech is necessary for elimination of tyranny and maintenance of a free and democratic society, but deliberate religious insults for profit are unnecessary and an undesirable use of that freedom.

Jack Stevenson, now retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer. He retired from military service and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. Mr. Stevenson also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). He currently reads history, follows issues important to Americans and writes commentary from his Florida home.

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