I’ve recently become a contributor for a website called A New Voice. It’s a commentary site with its focus on pop culture and politics (especially the intersection of the two), with a right-of-center point of view and an additional goal of outreach for a youth- and minority-oriented audience. What follows is a piece I wrote for A New Voice a few weeks back (hence the now-somewhat-dated subject matter). In it, I discuss the relationship between the Benghazi incident to free speech mores, and why it’s so important for us to get accurate narratives from our government and media.
Here’s a spoiler alert for the ongoing Benghazi hearings:
It’s going to be a tie.
Yes, those on the right will say that the testimony did significant damage to the administration’s credibility, as well as to the credentials of Hillary Clinton in her performance as Secretary of State.
But, without a media willing to “corroborate” that point for the American public, the revelations from the hearings will do only modest good.
To the extent that most major media outlets choose to cover the story at all, the verdict will be that this is just a round of partisan bickering, with Republicans’ true motivation being a preemptive strike on the unseemly prospect known as “Hillary 2016.” These sources will either tell us that there’s no new information to be had, or that the waters are too muddy to be conclusive.
“Let’s just move on,” they’ll hint.
But the story does matter, for many reasons. The reason that interests me most is the final evisceration of the narrative that emerged in the days following the attacks. Namely, the idea that the attacks were the result of a YouTube video that mocked Islam, and not, as it turned out, a premeditated terrorist operation.
Narratives are the launching pad for political arguments. They are the background facts that set the metes and bounds of debate. If we believe in a false narrative, that means that our starting point is incorrect. We proceed from faulty assumptions and draw flawed conclusions about what action to take next.
The immediate response from several left-leaning commentators after the 9/11/2012 attacks was not only to embrace the “an offensive YouTube video caused this” narrative, but, furthermore, to use that premise as a jumping-off point for an anti-free-speech argument. Editorials arguing that Western speech is “too free” began popping up in a variety of outlets. In particular, the American idea that what some call “hate speech” should also be protected speech came under heavy fire.
The most notable of these anti-free-speech articles was a piece at Salon written by legal scholar Eric Posner. In it, Posner made the case that this attack was another example of how Americans “overvalue” free speech. Specifically, he contended that:
Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Even other Western nations take a more circumspect position on freedom of expression than we do, realizing that often free speech must yield to other values and the need for order.
Emphasis mine. He went on to add that “[M]any people around the world may see America’s official indifference to Muslim (or any religious) sensibilities as similar to its indifference to racial discrimination before the civil rights era.”
Making the argument that free speech should be restricted using a tangential connection to a rhetorical silver bullet like “indifference to racial discrimination” is as unconvincing as it is distasteful.
Here’s why getting the narrative right matters.
If we’re dealing with a situation in which this violence was “caused” by a video, then people like Posner can point to this attack as “evidence” that we should sacrifice a fundamental American value for the sake of tiptoeing around the sensibilities of the most-easily-offended. We can counter that free speech norms are worth protecting even in the face of violence like this, but it’s still an argument we have to go to the trouble of making.
With the correct narrative in place, the position of the anti-free-speech crowd is an even tougher sell. Without a rhetorical bloody shirt to wave in the form of Benghazi, the already-suspect argument seems downright weak. That means that fewer people will buy it, and, in turn, fewer people will support anti-free-speech ideas. That’s hugely important.
We see suspect narratives all the time in politics. Ideological commentators have no trouble whatsoever retrofitting a fact pattern to make the case for an agenda they want to push. But agendas that include curtailing free speech are particularly frightening due to the underlying cultural touchstone in play. If “other values” and “the need for order” begin to trump free speech, then what does that new value system look like? If we allow “hate speech” to be banned, but also give the power to define “hate speech” to the most-easily-offended, do we really even have free speech at that point? How far do we go before our society is no longer an open one?
Thankfully, we’ve sussed out the truth when it came to Benghazi. No matter what the media says or does from here on out, we can take solace in the fact that at least much of the anti-free-speech momentum of last fall has been derailed indefinitely.
Sometimes a tie can feel like a win.