AT A National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday, Barack Obama made the point that Islam is hardly the first religion to be hijacked and perverted by murderous extremists. Indeed, groups have been distorting religious faith for nihilistic ends for centuries. By way of example, he mentioned the atrocities committed by Christian Crusaders in the name of God. This reference to Christianity, historically accurate though it was, earned him quite a bit of criticism, mostly from Republicans. What has received less attention, however, is the way Mr Obama went on to call for Americans to refrain from insulting the faith of others.
It was an odd statement. He began by praising the wisdom of America’s founding fathers for their sophisticated understanding of the relationship between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. (“For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both.”) “But,” he continued—and it was a big “but”—in “modern, complicated, diverse societies”, Americans must “exercise civility and restraint and judgment.” The president didn’t exactly deny the right to free expression. His message was more along the lines of, just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.
But that’s not quite how freedom of expression works. Excercising judgment over what one says or does makes some common sense, but this is a matter of personal desire, not public command. Rights are not about civility or manners or being sensitive; they’re about unbending individual freedoms. What is the worth of a right if people feel obliged (or subtly compelled) to not exercise it in practice? It’s disturbing, only a month after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, to hear the leader of the free world advocate what is essentially a kind of self-censorship. Yet Mr Obama’s statements reflect an increasingly popular sentiment: that diversity of culture, instead of increasing diversity of expression, should actually constrain it. The objective, it would seem, is not to become more tolerant of opposing ideas but more wary about how we discuss them.