Our silence is hypocritical – we conflate bigotry with ‘free speech’ and celebrate ourselves, while refusing to fight the more uncomfortable, difficult and problematic acts of ‘free speech’ itself as in this case of the young British citizen. Free speech laws and rights are most in need of defense when speech is problematic and disturbing, not when speech easily joins a wide public discourse that is tinged with bigotry and self-congratulations. It takes no courage in Europe to humiliate and mock Muslims for example, because this is the easiest, most trite, and most acceptable form of fraudulent ‘free speech’ we know. It is merely an echo of widely held prejudice in our societies. Only cowards and hypocrites confuse it as something bold. It isn’t free speech if you are hurling abuse against the already demeaned, humiliated and reduced. It isn’t free speech if you are simply parroting the main stream. Our rights to genuine free speech are most obvious when something difficult is uttered about ourselves and our societies, something that stops us in our tracks, and reveals something sour in ourselves.
The prosecution and indictment of this young man is an act of racist generalization and bigotry. It is the kind of sweeping ‘collective’ thought model that has been repeatedly applied to any and all things Muslim and in particularly, to any and all things Muslim political. What has been prosecuted here is a Muslim / America’s citizen’s political speech. This has repeatedly been done in the USA as well where we can no longer tolerate a politics of dissent and opposition to American wars and conquests. As Greenwald argues:
To put it mildly, not all online “hate speech” or advocacy of violence is treated equally. It is, for instance, extremely difficult to imagine that Facebook users who sanction violence by the UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who spew anti-Muslim animus, or who call for and celebrate the deaths of Gazans, would be similarly prosecuted. In both the UK and Europe generally, cases are occasionally brought for right-wing “hate speech” (the above warning from Scotland’s police was issued after a polemicist posted repellent jokes on Twitter about Ebola patients). But the proposed punishments for such advocacy are rarely more than symbolic: trivial fines and the like. The real punishment is meted out overwhelmingly against Muslim dissidents and critics of the West.
So where are the defenders of ‘free speech’ now? What compels them to remain silent at a moment when their voices are most needed? If the most difficult of political speech is not what they fight for, then what sort of ‘free speech’ are they fighting for when it is really not even dissenting, challenging, troubling or difficult?