Free Speech is a Double Edged Sword
Leon Klinghoffer was murdered by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1985. He was an elderly retired Jewish man and confined to a wheelchair and on a cruise. The cruise was hijacked by the PLO and Klinghoffer was shot in the head and then thrown into the sea.
In 1991, the event was turned into an opera called the Death of Klinghoffer by the composer John Adams, the experimental theatre director Peter Sellars, and libretto by Alice Goodman. Alice Goodman has since converted from Judaism and become an ordained rector in the Church of England. The Opera has been controversial since the original production. Interestingly the criticism comes from both sides of the Israel and Palestine debate. The opera is considered anti-Semitic because of the beautiful music given to the hijackers. A filmed version was banned from a Palestinian Film Festival for being too pro-Jewish.
The protests are erupting again because of a revival production at the Metropolitan Opera. Sides are being taken and lines are being drawn. You can either stand with the Met or you can stand with the Protestors.
My problem is that I find that defending free speech demands siding with both the Met and the Protestors. I guess this is a divided loyalty. The Met has the right to produce whatever Opera they want in whatever style. They can do a traditional Barber of Seville or the modern Klinghoffer. They can also do a modern Marriage of Figaro. They should not be censored, fined, or jailed for any production. That being said, the protestors also have a right to object to Klinghoffer and try and shame the Met for producing a production. Free speech and civil liberty also demands that the protestors be allowed to interpret the play as anti-Semitic if that is how they choose to interpret it. There are certainly interesting aesthetic and ethical questions about giving a murderer a beautiful voice.
Yet this sort of stance seems outdated today. I am told that the real goal of the protestors is to silence pro-Palestinian voices and I find this presumptive. It is rather wrong in my mind to tell people what should and should not offend them. I also think it is not being against my people to support the rights for the Met to produce whatever they want.
Why is it that it is hard to recognize the double edged sword nature of free speech? We don’t live in magical happyland where the only existing speech is the speech we want. Any regime that cancels speech it deems offensive can one day find the speech it supported to be banned under the same justification.
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