All the world’s a stage, Jaques comments in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Shakespeare, however, could not anticipate how literally that statement would be taken centuries later following the establishment of the United Nations. World leaders love to strut upon that particular stage—none more than Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Given yet another 15 minutes of fame at the UN General Assembly on September 23, Ahmadinejad offered that most of the world believes that the United Sates staged the horrific attacks of September 11. Slaughtered its own people to reverse a declining economy and save the Zionist—“Israel” remains a proscribed word—regime.
Over thirty delegations, led by the United States, walked out. Their protest did not halt Ahmadinejad’s speech. It wasn’t meant to.
Whether deliberately hateful remarks should be allowed in such a world forum raises continuing questions regarding free speech, a value the Iranian regime does not uphold. Restrictions on speech that falls short of inciting violence—drawing that particular line presents no easy task—lead down a very slippery slope. If the United Nations believes in free speech—and it does so at least in corporate theory—then vicious speakers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be offered the podium year after year. Yet I wonder if the UN and the cause of peace it espouses might not be better served if it required world leaders to forego geopolitics and focus on issues addressing the world’s basic problems of poverty, hunger, disease, education and human rights.
The Torah offers wisdom to consider. It commands us not to “place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). The Rabbis interpret “stumbling block” not as a physical item but as temptation placed before the morally blind. Leave your wallet on a restaurant table while you go to the restroom, and someone might take it—although the thief might never have considered removing it from your pocket or purse let alone threatened the use of force. Therefore we are not to aid and abet the morally weak.
Ahmadinejad and his like know that the world is their stage because the media does aid and abet. It welcomes their venom even when it is spewed for no other reason than to gain media attention. Hate speech may be bad news for those who cleave to Leviticus’ commandment to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). But it’s good news for ratings and readership.
In truth, the media places stumbling blocks before the blind with alarming frequency. (See my previous post, “Burning Books for Fun and Profit.”) Its willingness to report hate speech invites such speech. Thus the media doesn’t just respond to the news, it helps initiate it.
What to do? I don’t propose any easy answers. To a great degree, life isn’t about answers. It’s about questions. And I’m just asking.