Why Free Speech Is Baffling to Many
The recent protests over a crude and offensive anti-Islam video serve as a lesson about cultural clash in the Internet era — not necessarily between extremists on both sides, but rather between cultural understandings of free speech and the public sphere.
It used to be that you needed to travel someplace new to experience culture clash. But by creating immediate connections between people, the Internet can create a culture clash without anyone leaving their couch.
The chasm I’m most worried about is not the one among the makers of the film and those who might have reacted to it with violence. In fact, one may argue that the hate-mongers who made this video and those who use the provocation as a pretext to kill are in a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship.
The gap I’m most concerned about is the one between the vast majority of people in the Middle East and North Africa who watched the violence in Libya with horror and disgust and yet still find the existence of the video troubling and disturbing, and everyday Americans who see the story as just a few marginal, hateful people putting this video on YouTube.
To understand why this particular narrative of free speech is deeply unsatisfying to many people in the Middle East, you have to keep in mind significant historical differences between the rest of the world and the United States.