09/17/2012 12:32 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Do They Hate Us for Our Freedom of Hate Speech?

If the trailer is anything to go by, the Innocence of Muslims movie is repugnant on several levels. It has a veneer of artistic expression, but its real purpose is perspicuous: mean-spirited, anti-Islamic bigotry that is calculated to insult and inflame. It is, in short, hate speech.

Hate speech, however, is protected under the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. Almost all speech is, in fact: defamation is one exception, and incitement to riot is another. Innocence of Muslims has besmirched the Prophet Mohammed and Islam in general, and it has ignited violent protest -- albeit indirectly -- at U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya, the latter resulting in the tragic killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens. But it is notoriously difficult to legally prove exceptions to protected speech. Besides, in the midst of an unusually combative election campaign, there is little political stomach for reappraising one of the most sacrosanct of enshrined American rights.

Attempting to defuse rising tensions in Egypt over Innocence of Muslims, a tweet from the American embassy in Cairo condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." An uncontroversial statement, perhaps: but presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- characteristically oblivious to semantics -- excoriated it as an apology for American values and principles, "the right of free speech" in particular. (It is difficult to fathom what message he envisaged as an alternative: "Bite me, freedom haters!" perhaps, diplomatic language not being his forte.) Even by Romney's standards, it was a rare meld of brazen electioneering and a boorish approach to foreign policy. The right-leaning media, dutifully shrill, piped along. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, flayed the movie as "disgusting" and "reprehensible", but insisted the U.S. government had neither the authority nor the desire to stifle free speech, and the film was no justification for violence. The Obama administration, presumably satisfied it had distanced itself from the Cairo statement by eschewing violent protest, promptly parked a couple of warships off the coast of Libya.

But the underlying sentiment of the original tweet from the Cairo embassy -- vaporized in the ensuing political firestorm -- rather bravely assails an uncomfortable contradiction when it comes to the first amendment. There is a certain arrogance -- or perhaps ignorance -- in holding that hate speech is constitutionally protected, and then professing astonishment that those who are its targets have the temerity to take offence. It is a stunning piece of tautology: by definition, anyone who feels insulted by free speech is un-American, especially if they happen to be foreign.

The prevailing attitude seems to be an odd blend of American exceptionalism, ethnocentrism, and a rather one-sided cultural relativism. It is axiomatic that anyone may use whatever language they choose to insult whomsoever they please, and the rest of the world is expected to respect this core American cultural value. It is seemingly irrelevant, however, that Islamic culture strictly forbids the depiction of any living being, much less its most revered prophet -- and especially not, as Innocence of Muslims allegedly does, as a philanderer and child molester. Freedom of speech is an apparently universal right, one that trumps the right to freedom from offensiveness. What is a culturally-specific value is to be accepted by everyone else, while the cultural norms of Islam are cast as parochial superstition. Yet, without apparent irony, free speech is not a courtesy universally extended: heaven forbid that Egyptians or Libyans exercise their own freedom of speech, namely the right to protest against a film that they perceive -- and its producers intend -- to be a gross affront.

The counter to this is, quite rightly, that the protection of free speech is not an approbation of violence, and the right to protest is not an unequivocal right to sack an embassy. But then one has to question whether this is not itself a somewhat sanctimonious assertion. U.S. military intervention in Libya dismantled a relatively stable -- if brutal -- state. U.S. support of the Arab Spring has reduplicated this situation in Egypt and Syria and elsewhere: Religious fundamentalism has flourished in the place of secularism; the removal of the foundations of law and order has led to mob rule, which is no great respecter of international treaty or etiquette.

The repression of dissent by illiberal political regimes is a perennial justification for the American civilizing mission of liberating the peoples of far-off lands. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander: giving a voice to aggrieved populations risks their saying things that one might not like to hear. Perhaps that is the collateral damage of spreading democracy.