Protecting the Idea We Hate

I hate to beat up on the United Nations. I’m one of those “can’t we all get along” people who would just like to hold hands (metaphorically speaking) with people everywhere while singing kumbaya.  Plus, our increasingly interrelated world desperately needs an effective international body. The problem is, the U.N. keeps demonstrating that it isn’t up to the job.

Most Americans know that the Constitution’s First Amendment protects free speech—“free speech” being shorthand for the right to access information, form our own opinions and express those opinions verbally or symbolically. Fewer of us know that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—passed by the United Nations sixty years ago—also protected freedom of opinion and expression.

Passage of the Universal Declaration, toothless as it admittedly was and is, was a high point in the history of the United Nations. The Universal Declaration might be merely aspirational, but it identified basic rights that all nations agreed were the due of all human persons. Since its passage, however, the U.N. has periodically passed resolutions or taken other actions that demonstrate how few of its members understand what “freedom of opinion and expression” means.

Recently, it happened again. By a vote of 21 to 10, the U.N. Human Rights Council endorsed a document prepared by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, calling for members to pass laws prohibiting the expression of “racist and xenophobic” ideas and “religious defamation.” The document expressed “deep concern” over the  identification of Islam with terrorism, a concern prompted by the Danish cartoons, among other provocations. Saudi Arabia was a strong proponent of the measure; a Saudi delegate told the council that “no culture should incite religious hatred by attacking sacred teachings.”

(I must have missed the news that the Saudis are closing down their notoriously anti-Western, anti-Jewish madrassas. As one blogger put it, “I’ll take lectures about freedom from the Saudis right after I take lessons in logic from Bill O’Reilly.)

The problem with this resolution, of course, goes well beyond the hypocrisy of the nations that proposed it. It mirrors a similar debate that Americans have been having, between self-appointed guardians of civility and people who express unpopular or hateful opinions. Most of us, I suspect, cringe when someone uses a racial or religious insult, or otherwise denigrates people based upon their race, religion or gender. But in a free society, the appropriate response is education, not suppression. It is more and better speech—not censorship.

Well-intentioned as some of these efforts to avoid hurt feelings may be, what they signal is a profound lack of respect for the rights of others to hold wrong opinions, or opinions contrary to our own. Even if we could agree upon what constitutes “defamation”—is it disagreement? Lack of proper reverence? Adherence to a different point of view?—protection of dissent and disagreement is essential to the search for truth.    

A government empowered to decide what ideas are acceptable is much more dangerous than even the most despicable idea.