LARSON: Speech, violence and revolution

Nothing in Particular

News travels faster than ever. People used to wait for the postman, then the evening news. Now, my iPhone pushes me the latest New York Times headline before I have a chance to look at the newspaper.

This was not the case when I woke up to the news that Chris Stevens, the United States’ ambassador to Libya, had been killed within our own consulate while protesters were massing around our embassies throughout the Muslim world — all due to some video I’d never heard of.

Maybe it was the shock of the news that made it feel far, far worse than the headlines we see and ignore each day, detailing unspeakable atrocities in every part of the world.

But as the days passed after that horrible murder in Benghazi, my shock didn’t dissipate. True, the discussion among much of the more informed punditry turned to the politics surrounding the event. First, there was Mitt Romney’s pitiful attempt to make political hay of the incident. Then talk turned to the politics in the countries where the protests were taking place — was the attack the spontaneous work of violent protesters or was it planned by terrorists? Were the protests organic or highly choreographed by people with specific agendas?

I’m sure politicians have tried to harness anti-American rage at a video denigrating the prophet Muhammad for their own political gain. I also trust our intelligence services that there’s good evidence the attack in Libya may have been planned. Neither of these points, however, can belie the fact that there has clearly been a humongous, spontaneous and very popular surge of anti-American vitriol.

I remember being in England the summer after eighth grade and seeing protests calling President Bush the world’s number one terrorist. Anyone who grew up in the age of Iraq is used to an immense amount of antipathy towards America.

But what’s been most shocking to me about the last few days is not the idea that there are people who are so enraged by a dumb video that they want to see its maker punished. We all know about the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and incidents closer to home where violence has been provoked by mere words. This is something we can deplore but still comprehend.

What is fundamentally more shocking is the collective blame protesters have been leveling on American society for refusing not to consider that violent reaction a legitimate act of social justice. By not infringing upon the free expression of some bigoted individuals, we are, by this narrative, infringing upon the freedom of the Muslim religion.

The very idea that America could have offended Islam by allowing this video to be aired is un-American. Our conceptions of individual liberties and freedom of expression — rights we treat as universal — are very much the result of a few early Americans’ decision to embrace specific Enlightenment philosophies.

The economic rise of China and India, the pro-democracy protests throughout the Middle East, the fall of the USSR — any number of events in most Yale students’ lifetimes — have created the impression that the world is converging to some relatively wealthy and relatively free state of being. No one has second thoughts any more about traveling, doing business or living in vastly different parts of the world, where millions of people still lack basic political and economic freedoms we take for granted.

I’ve generally found the concerns about freedom of speech at Yale-NUS College to be overstated, because it seemed as if the world was on an inertial track towards American liberal values.

Well, it’s pretty clear now that much of the world still does not share our conception of political and human rights.

I still don’t think the way to change that is by refusing to engage with the world or by only speaking with others for the sake of preaching to them. But let’s not delude ourselves that Jefferson, Adams and Madison have become universal over the last 200 years. In some parts of the world, their ideas are just as revolutionary as they were in 1776.

Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at


  • River_Tam

    That last paragraph – I love it.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Inertial? DYM “inevitable”?

  • ignatz

    You make some good points here, and yet, you seem to avoid the heart of the matter. There’s exactly one “part of the world” that slaughters people on a daily basis on 5 continents, and that “part of the world” is (wait for it) Islam. It’s not about this video, or that video, nor was it about Rushdie’s book, or even about “offending” Islam — any more than it was “about” the infamous Danish cartoons that Yale so primly censored in 2009 even as it published a book about them. No, it’s all about Islam itself — the only religion that says you should be killed if you don’t accept it.

    • hlarson

      I disagree strongly with this comment–the violent protesters or the people who attacked our consulate in Benghazi have articulated a particularly backwards and narrow-minded but in no way universal interpretation of Islam. Even apart from the issue of violence itself, I was making the case that the Western (or, for that matter, American) interpretation of freedom of speech and freedom of the individual is much stronger than in most parts of the world (this can even be said, in a much milder form, of the approach many European countries take towards freedom of speech).

      There is ignorance in some predominantly Muslim countries, but even in those countries I don’t believe that violence is expressive of the popular will. Islam as a religion is in no way incompatible with 21st century values (or with peace). Atrocities have been committed in the name of every religion, and one can find backing in most holy texts for truly abominable acts. The key point lies in how you interpret those texts.

      • RexMottram08

        How typical.

        One side wants to side down to discuss polite exegesis over tea.

        The other one beheads innocents and bombs churches.

        Yea, yea. It’s not expressive of the popular will. But it only takes one turd to spoil the punch bowl.