Manhattan Institute

Free to Be Vulgar

A French free-speech controversy also illustrates the decline of civility in an educated society.

Adolescence is the age neither of good taste nor of wisdom, which no doubt is why some politicians want to lower the voting age even further. After all, what many politicians most value in voters is gullibility.

In France, a 16-year-old known only as Mila—though it is confirmed, because of her social media postings, that she is a lesbian, pouts for the entire country, has iron in her nose, and dyes her hair mauve—made vulgar comments about religion in general and Islam in particular in an online video.

As one might expect, her commentary wasn’t particularly penetrating from a philosophical point of view. “I detest religion,” she said. “The Koran has only hate in it. Islam is shit . . . Your religion is shit, as for your God, I put my finger up his arsehole, thank you, goodbye.” This is the kind of adolescent or barroom talk once confined to the circle in which it was uttered; now it can be relayed to millions in a matter of seconds.

Naturally, Mila soon found herself at the center of a storm. She received hundreds of menacing messages, including death threats. She stopped attending school because her safety can no longer be assured. In effect, she hides at home, where she will now resume her education.

An important functionary of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Abdallah Zekri, said on the radio that he opposed death threats—but added that one who sows the wind reaps the whirlwind. In other words, Mila asked for what she received. Worse still, the Minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubet, said in an interview that “insult to religion is obviously an attack on liberty of conscience.” This comment, in turn, drew much criticism. Mila’s comment might have been crude, but no one’s freedom was in the slightest constrained by it. No right not to be offended exists. It is difficult not to accuse the Minister of Justice of cowardice.

Two police investigations were launched, the first into Mila and the second into those who menaced her online. The first investigation, which should never have taken place, was soon concluded. As the girl herself pointed out, Muslims are not a race, and she did not incite anyone to hatred—except, perhaps, of herself. She only expressed a belief or attitude. As for the second investigation, into those who threatened her with death, I’m prepared to bet that nothing will come of it.

When I was Mila’s age, I was a kind of village atheist, but it would never have occurred to me to express myself as she did. Rather, I would have tried to refute the ontological argument to anyone who offered it. Curiously enough, the widening and lengthening of education in the population since my youth seems to have gone hand in hand with a decline in the civility of discourse.     

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