As the debate continues over the use of free speech to draw cartoons of Islam’s prophet, it appears that both left and right will be arguing about this for a long time. Like nearly all civil discourse in our day it has become a battle of rights—the right to free speech versus the right not to be offended. One would think that with all this rights talk, we would have a clear understanding of rights—what they are, what they are for and what they come from. But because our thinking about rights is muddled it just becomes a battle of wills. Before we lose our heads (both figuratively and literally) over this issue of freedom of speech any further, it seems absolutely necessary that a clearer understanding of what rights are in general must emerge. Otherwise we will continue to argue the merit of “my rights” versus “your rights.”
In his encyclical Caritas en Veritate, Pope Benedict reflected on the great ambiguity when it comes to rights language and calls for a “renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties.” . He mentions the appeals to “alleged rights” that are “accompanied by the demand that they be recognized and promoted by public structures” severely muddies the waters. This makes it necessary to understand the distinction between natural rights and civil rights. Natural rights stem from our common human nature and are predicated of all men while civil rights (like the right to vote) are granted by some authority that are obtained by contract or convention to citizens. The State may grant civil rights, but it only serves to promote and protect natural rights. It acknowledges them, but is not the one who grants them. These duties that the Pope Emeritus is referring to come from our obligation to seek those things that are perfective of us as human beings. This is the basis of the natural law.
In his examination of human nature, St Thomas Aquinas described four goods by which man is perfected. Because man is naturally inclined towards these goods he has a duty to obtain them and a corresponding right arises to pursue these goods. First, all men have an inclination to conserve their being. From this inclination every man naturally does those things which preserve and enhance his life and avoid those things which would be harmful to it. Second, because man is a physical creature he possesses the natural inclination to procreation and education of children. Third man is by nature a political or social animal and therefore lives in society. Finally because man is a rational creature he has a natural inclination to know the truth, especially about God (see Summa Theologiae I-II, q.94, a.2).
Whatever pertains to each of these goods directly would be considered a natural right. Because life is an intrinsic good there is a right to life. Because marriage and the rearing of children is a single intrinsic good, there is a natural right to marriage and children have a right to be raised by their biological parents which are bound together by the oath of marriage. Since man is by nature social, each person has a right to contribute to the common good. Finally, from the duty to seek the truth the natural right to freedom of speech follows.
Freedom of speech is a natural right and should be both promoted and protected through civil and positive law. But it is only a natural right insofar as it serves the truth. This means that freedom of speech does not mean I can say whatever I feel like saying, whenever I feel like saying it, to whomever I want to say it. It must always be in service of making the truth known to those that need to know it. This means that freedom of speech is not an absolute right and has limits.
This is an important point that needs to be further fleshed out. We speak of freedom of speech as a Constitutional right and it is. But that seems to imply that right comes from the Constitution. The Constitution merely protects and promotes our exercising of this natural right; a right that we would have regardless of whether it was acknowledged by the Constitution. American jurisprudence in the last one hundred years has forgotten this and we have all suffered morally because of it. The Supreme Court has refused to acknowledge any law (i.e. natural law) above the Constitution and made itself in essence the only authentic interpreter of the natural law. This of course will always lead to a clash between the State and the Catholic Church, who really is the only authentic interpreter of the natural law. This is why the totalitarian state will always see the Church as its opponent. While we see glimpses of this already in our own society, what is more pressing is the fact that we require more and more civil laws governing our behavior. We should not need laws declaring what is offensive and what is not—our consciences should serve as a law telling us not to deliberately offend someone. Of course, once we are divorced from the interior force of the natural law, we require the exterior force of more laws and more police.
Do we have a right not to be offended? This of course is a loaded question especially coming from a Catholic, who is a member of a group regularly in the crosshairs as part of the last acceptable prejudice in the United States. The truth in and of itself is offensive. It is meant to offensively (think in terms of offense and defense in sports) change me when I am not in conformity with it. While that is true, I think as a matter of civility we should always make sure that it is the truth itself that is offensive and not our actual presentation of it. Your next door neighbor may be offended if you tell her she is fat, but invite her to walk with you in the evenings so she can feel better and have more energy and you may not offend her at all. I think we do have an obligation to present the truth in a way that it is going to be best received, although we cannot have civil laws (even unwritten politically correct ones) that govern how we do this.
Now, let’s see if we can frame the current issue in terms of what was said above. Is it the case that Pamela Geller and friends are properly exercising their rights of free speech or should they be somehow censored for being offensive? They may be labeling themselves as crusaders for freedom, but I don’t think that helps to address the question. The question is whether or not they are acting in service of the truth and I would say they are. But could it be done in a less provocative way? This seems to me to be the foundational question and one that the focus should be on.
In my mind, there is a certain spirit that surrounds Islam such that it beguiles people into labeling it a “peaceful religion.” But anyone familiar with it knows that is not the case. The only peace that it promotes is when everyone is subject to the Islamic state. In the meantime it is meant to be a system of war. To see this beguiling spirit at work, look at this example: why are Catholic priests who were convicted as pedophiles not labeled as “misrepresenting” Christianity while terrorists are labeled as misrepresenting Islam? If you return to the sources of Islam you find it is the individual Muslims who are of good will and seeking peace that are the ones who are misrepresenting Islam.
It seems then that what they are doing is an attempt to shake us free of this beguiling spirit and see that Islam is not compatible with the American way of life. But provoking radical groups in a way that you are reasonably sure will result in a violent and disproportionate response is imprudent at best. Their point is well founded that “radical” Islam has declared war on us but the approach needs to be how best to respond in a manner that is in accord with the Just War Theory (see CCC 2309 and Geller’s interview with Time where she said “We are at war“). In particular, provoking Islamic elements to respond on American soil puts many non-combatants at risk. The response this time was two armed gunmen, the next time it could be a dirty bomb. There are other elements of the Just War Theory as well that should be examined such as whether a group of citizens, rather than those who have responsibility for the common good, even have the right to provoke Islam in a manner that they view as an act of war, but I will leave that for another time.