Friday, February 9, 2007

Flags and Free Speech

Here at Society and Money, the vast majority of our posts, comments, and links refer to the money half of our title. Why this is I can only speculate, but for my part I believe it has something to do with the impersonal nature of economics which allows me to point to a chart and tell someone they are wrong. The society part must include more detailed, nuanced arguments which are difficult to convey in a blog. However, today I bring you a post that has nothing to do with economics or money.

San Francisco State University is investigating a group of students for burning a flag. I know this is a contentious issue. There are arguments with merit on both sides of this issue. I recognize that the flag is a symbol of our country, and that an insult to the flag is an insult to our country. However, if someone wants to insult our country, our freedom of speech traditions would seem to protect their right to do so. In the polarized political landscape we inhabit, "conservatives" have been in favor of making flag burning illegal, while "liberals" have defended the act as a first amendment right, although many exceptions exist. Personally, I think that it is usually better to err on the side of freedom. If someone wants to burn our nation in effigy, that is a freedom we should respect.

But what if someone burned another flag? The flag of an organization that most of the world considers a terrorist group, responsible for acts of war and murder on an international scale? What if someone burned the Hezbollah flag?

College Republicans are under investigation for disrespecting the flag of Hezbollah. "After students filed a complaint claiming they were offended because the flags bore the word “Allah,” SFSU initiated an investigation into accusations of incitement, creation of a hostile environment, and incivility." This will be interesting to watch. Burning a flag is an insult, no question. But is that insult something that should be punishable? If the school decides that it is, it will have amazing repercussions across the country as people on both sides jump in to "end the insensitivity and insult" to their symbol of choice, banning any act they find offensive (Note that Nazi flags have a cross on them. Indeed they consist of nothing but a cross and circle on a field. Should the Church sue to prevent the desecration of Nazi artifacts? Discuss).

I doubt that any actual punishment will result from this investigation, but the fact that there is an investigation seems to show a double standard in respect for the United States of America and Hezbollah.


Dane said...

While the hypocrisy is delicious, I do have to admit some benefit to a double-standard. While not necessarily just, we do take a moral high-ground, or rather a generous stance, by showing respect for others while protecting disrespect of ourselves: something of the 'turn the other cheek' thing. This certainly is big of us, and should be impressive (at least to the kind of people I'd like to live next-door to).

On the flip side, however, are barbaric power-based cultures (I'm obviously thinking of Islamic terrorists) which will see this as weakness: not standing up for ourselves while being afraid to show any disrespect for others.

Maarek said...

I think it is very important to distinguish between persons and society, and society and the government. While being polite to someone who insults you is an act of virtue, and should be encouraged in a Christian, it is not a virtue for society, since society cannot have virtue in the same way. It is virtuous for the victim of a crime to forgive their victimizer, but would be a sin against justice for a judge to simply pardon a criminal out of charity. In the same way society cannot hold insults against itself to a different standard than insults against others. Either they are acceptable or they are not.

In addition, it is important to recall that "society" is very different from "government." While the article is about a (semi-)private organization, when the government starts passing laws, it should be for the protection of its citizens. A law that would forbid an action directed against others as "inciting to violence" cannot allow the same acts directed toward its own people. A government acts for its citizens, not "society," nor "humanity."

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