Not long after I wrote my last post on insulting the prophet, I heard a debate on the radio that raised my free-speech hackles a bit. One participant took the position that people should be criminally liable for speech or symbolic acts that they know are likely to result in violence, such as burning a copy of the Koran. She articulated the principle in terms of causality, which is what I found troubling, because it seems to me that to assign moral blame to the speaker for how an audience reacts is to deny (or at the very least dilute) the responsibility of audiences to react appropriately. Even if an inappropriate response is predictable, I am reluctant to blame the speaker, except in cases of fraud or deception.
As if to make that point clear, last week the Taliban attempted to assassinate a fourteen year old girl, Malala Yousufzai, for her audacious and heretical suggestion that girls should be educated. The Taliban have made it very clear that they intend to respond with violence to such advocacy; it was therefore reasonable to anticipate that if Malala were to continue speaking out in favour of girls' education, she would be targeted. And yet we view her (rightly in my mind) as blameless in this, and in fact we praise her for her courage. The blame, all of the blame, falls squarely on the shoulders of the ignorant zealots who tried to kill her. They did wrong, not she.
The same week, a successful attempt on the life of a different fourteen year old girl was made, unfortunately by someone less inept than the Taliban: Amanda Todd committed suicide after ruthless bullying.
The juxtaposition of these two girls and their circumstances leaves me greatly conflicted. On the one hand, I feel very strongly that Malala did nothing wrong, and that nothing she said justified any act of violence whatsoever. At the same time, though, I have great sadness and sympathy for Amanda, and anger at her abusers. And there's the conflict, because ultimately she was the one who decided to kill herself, in response to abuse which at its core was speech. (I know she had been punched and blackmailed, but I will go out on a limb and speculate that it was the insistent display of hatred and moral condemnation more than anything else that drove her to such misery.) Did I not just conclude, before being confronted with this case, that speakers are not to be held morally responsible for the inappropriate reactions of their audiences, even if they are predictable? If Malala was blameless for the attempt on her life, even though it was predictable that Taliban zealots would react with inappropriate violence, how do I still feel anger at Amanda's bullies, for her inappropriate reaction of self-directed violence?
I've struggled with this, and for a while I thought I could explain it this way: The bullies are not to blame for her death, but for something very nearly as evil. They are to blame for treating her with such devastating cruelty as to make her miserable enough to want to die, and that's plenty blameworthy enough.
But I'm not sure that rationalization really does the trick, either. After all, Malala's speech clearly caused great distress to the poor sensitive Taliban, hurting their delicate feelings or their religious sensibilities or whatever badly enough to provoke them to violence, and yet I have almost no sympathy whatsoever for them and their reaction, whereas I do have sympathy for Amanda.
The real answer, I think, is uglier. I said above that only in the case of fraud or deception can we blame speakers for the actions of their audience, and I think we have all deceived Amanda and each other. Malala spoke truthfully and frankly; she said she believed girls deserve to be educated, and the Taliban assassins could have tried to reason with her and her audience, to explain why she was wrong and to convince us all that no, after all, girls ought not to be educated. But they didn't do that. They surrendered the moral high ground and shot her instead.
In contrast, Amanda's bullies told her, through their words and actions, that she was worthless and bad and deserved to die. Some creep manipulated her into showing her bare chest to him online, but we told her, collectively, that was something for her to be ashamed of. We empowered him to blackmail and humiliate her, by making a federal case out of "wardrobe malfunctions", by making it a big deal, a grave moral concern. In short, we told her a lie that she believed, and on that basis killed herself. We've got to stop telling that lie, and I suppose the first step there is to stop believing it ourselves.