Just as it would be indefensible for a government to claim that “our people do not use and consume water the way your culture does, and so we will not distribute water equitably to the masses,” it’s also unconvincing to support muting speech in a given culture because the society’s fabric is of a different pattern.
And those defending free speech around the world should bear no cultural guilt for doing so—for a society that limits speech is a society that cannot adequately defend its culture. In Egypt, the government regularly cracks down on large public festivals called moulids, Sufi gatherings honoring deceased saints, because Mubarak’s regime fears that large, un-cordoned meetings are places where celebrants might conspire to overthrow the unpopular regime. Freer speech in Egypt would make the moulid tradition more secure, not less.
In a June press conference granted by President Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Washington, D.C., the Saudi king implied that his religion and culture are under attack by American journalism, saying, “I want to also thank our friends, the American people, and I also would like to thank our friends here in the media. May God spare us from all of the bad things they can do to us.” It was meant as a joke, kind of. Saudi kings don’t regularly face bold press gaggles.
Expatriates need to be very clear that the high ground on which free speech advocacy rests is Andes above any petulant charges of cultural imperialism or cultural hegemony lobbed by bureaucrats, government officials, or other sympathizers who cradle the status quo. Reactionary autocrats need to know that, rather than being a tool of cultural imperialism, assailing barriers to free expression promotes cultural reverence. Rather than destroying nations, a snarling press makes them stronger than ever before.