Just as nothing that is said justifies violence, nothing that is worn excuses rape or harassment, says Hugo Schwyzer.
One of the great global debates of the 21st century concerns what, for lack of a better phrase, might be termed “provocation and its limits.” Last month, violence erupted in various parts of the Muslim world in response to a YouTube video that insulted the Prophet Muhammed. Four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador, were killed in an attack on a Libyan consulate that at the very least, used the defamatory video as a pretext for the assault. At the United Nations, several Islamic countries re-launched a push for an international “blasphemy ban.”
Speaking at the UN last week, President Obama rejected the calls for blasphemy laws, offering a vigorous defense of the principle of free expression. “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech,” the President said. It was a message that resonated with Americans, raised to see our First Amendment guarantees as among our most precious of all rights. (It was a statement greeted with much skepticism in other parts of the world.)
One reason why the President’s words make sense to most Americans is that we live in a society that doesn’t believe violence is a justifiable response to blasphemy. Though our ancestors were not always so tolerant, we’ve developed a proud legacy of respect for religious diversity, a legacy that includes a complete rejection of the idea that spiritual beliefs are both so sacred and so fragile that violence is in any way justified when those beliefs are demeaned.
President Obama, a professor of constitutional law before entering politics, knows full well that there are limits on speech. We have the right to insult, but not the right to lie under oath; we have the right to mock, but not the right to threaten. There’s a difference between making a false claim of imminent danger (the famous “fire in a crowded theater” cry) and making a rude claim about someone else’s faith (“the Prophet was a pedophile.”) Plenty of case law distinguishes these two categories of speech.
“People are going to call me awful things every day, and I will defend their right to do so,” said the President last week. He was speaking for himself, but also for all Americans. The message was unmistakable: Part of being a civilized adult, particularly in public, is learning to live with insults directed at one’s appearance, one’s sexuality, one’s faith. As a self-described “black man with a funny name,” Barack Hussein Obama came of age on the receiving end of more than his share of hateful words. We don’t have to like having our race, our beliefs, or our looks insulted, he suggested, but we can never use words as an excuse for violence.
Modern Americans are accustomed to the demands of living in a pluralistic culture. Blasphemy laws appeal only to a tiny few; we tend to believe that religious people ought to turn the other cheek in the face of provocation. Many of us hold the right to be intellectually, politically, or spiritually offensive as sacred. We hold that position not just because of our First Amendment tradition, but because we expect people to exercise self-control in the face of provocative words and ideas.
There is another kind of “provocation” of which modern Americans are considerably less tolerant: women’s clothing. It’s October, a season for cooler temperatures—and the now perennial hot debates over revealing Halloween costumes for girls. While we can wish that sexiness wasn’t a requirement for most of these costumes, much of the debate about Halloween attire is driven by a familiar concern: the dangerously stimulating effect that we believe women’s bare skin has on heterosexual men. We may not accept the argument made by many (frequently but not exclusively in the Muslim world) that words and images can goad the deeply religious past the point of self-control. Too many of us do accept a similarly indefensible argument: that short skirts can drive men to rape.
Just a year ago, the NYPD warned women in Brooklyn against walking alone while wearing revealing clothing, lest they tempt a predator. The global SlutWalk movement began after a similar 2011 remark from a Toronto constable. Secular Westerners may reject the idea that insults to faith can provoke violence, but plenty of us still believe that miniskirts can provoke harassment or rape. The right to offend—as President Obama made clear at the UN—may be very nearly sacred. The right to display the female body doesn’t enjoy the same status. Not only do we fail to recognize dress as a form of protected speech, but we see men in much the same way as the Muslim world sees the very pious: so easily goaded beyond the point of self-control that the onus for avoiding violence falls entirely on those who “provoke” them with insulting words—or cleavage.
Those who argue for blasphemy laws do so not only on the grounds that insults to religion violate the human rights of believers, but also on the premise that certain kinds of speech will inevitably incite a violent reaction. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last month, Sarah Chayes suggested that the “The Innocence of Muslims” was not protected speech because it was “deliberately tailored” to cause “intentional” violence. In other words, the filmmakers preyed on Muslim hyper-sensitivity. Speech that pushes fragile people past the point of self-containment isn’t protected, or so Chayes argues. Hers is a variation on the same argument used by the parents, pastors, pundits, and police officers that argue that scantily-clad women share some responsibility for the reaction their bodies provoke.
The “myth of male weakness” suggests that at least some men cannot control themselves in the presence of a sexually attractive woman. Women must cover up, the myth says, in order to protect these overgrown boys from their own impulses—and to protect themselves from rape. Defenders of blasphemy laws peddle a comparable “myth of Muslim weakness,” suggesting that Islamic religious sensitivities are so delicate that a schlocky YouTube video can push adult human beings into spontaneous and uncontrolled acts of violence. Each camp shifts responsibility from those who are offended or aroused to those who (intentionally or not) are doing the offending and the arousing. That argument infantilizes heterosexual men and pious Muslims by implying that neither group is sufficiently mature to resist sexual temptation or theological provocation.
We should be grateful for President Obama’s robust case for free expression—a freedom that of necessity includes the right to offend. As he told the UN, this isn’t just an American idea, but ought to be a “universal” principle. The right to offend trumps the right not to be offended. What goes for defamatory religious speech also goes for women’s clothing. Just as nothing that is said (or posted online) justifies violence; nothing that is worn (or in some instances, not worn) excuses rape or harassment. The universal principle of free speech—a principle our constitution centered and the President celebrated—means that the burden of self-control rests not on those who tempt or provoke but on those who are aroused or offended. It is bigotry to suggest that Muslims are any less capable of that self-control than members of any other faith. And it is similarly insulting, to men and women alike, to insist that it is women’s responsibility to exercise self-control on behalf of the men who supposedly lack it.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.