In the summer of 2012, thousands of people took to the streets to protest a perceived assault on their religion. Traditional values were under attack, the protestors claimed, thanks to the meddling antics of Westerners seeking to disparage conservative views. But in this deeply divided and staunchly sectarian part of the world, it was not long before a counter-protest emerged. Activists picketed the sites of the original demonstrations, condemning the first group's actions as backward and inhumane. Media pundits from both sides spurred on the controversy, which dragged on for weeks, while politicians exploited it to their own advantage. Meanwhile, people from outside the region looked on in disdain. How could so much outrage be generated over something so trivial?
I am talking, of course, about Chick-fil-A.
Those wondering how the low-grade YouTube clip The Innocence of Muslims managed to incite revolt would do well to remember that America spent the summer of 2012 having religiously motivated protests over a chicken sandwich. On June 16, Dan Cathy, the CEO of the fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A, announced that he opposed same-sex marriage on "biblical" grounds, saying that gay rights advocates were "inviting God's judgment on our nation". Cathy had donated millions in proceeds from Chick-fil-A to anti-gay activist groups, including groups who want to make "gay behaviour" illegal.
In July, gay rights advocates called for a boycott of the chicken chain, companies cut contracts for corporate tie-ins, and politicians contemplated a ban of the restaurant in several cities, with one mayor accusing Cathy of peddling "hate chicken". Americans who shared Cathy's views were outraged. On August 1, over 630,000 people showed up for "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day", an event organised by conservative Christian politician Mike Huckabee to celebrate the restaurant's willingness "to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse". Two days later, gay rights activists held a "Chick-fil-A Kiss Day", in which same-sex couples were encouraged to show affection at the chicken chains.
Advocates of the Chick-fil-A boycott saw it as a matter of civil rights. They were not comfortable giving their money to an organisation that donated it to groups that promoted discrimination. Those who opposed the boycott were largely conservative Christians who shared Cathy's view that same-sex marriage was wrong. But that was not how they framed their argument. Instead, they presented it as a matter of freedom of speech.
The fine lines of speech
According to the Chick-fil-A supporters, Dan Cathy's constitutional rights had been violated. "Calling for the boycott... has a chilling effect on our 1st Amendment rights," said Sarah Palin, adding that Cathy was getting "crucified" for "having voiced support for kind of that cornerstone of all civilisation and all religions since the beginning of time". One Virginia demonstrator, who admitted that she opposed same-sex marriage, said that the protest was "more about people frankly being offended that people are offended".
The United States has been said to have an exceptional free speech environment. From a legal perspective, that is true: Racial insults, flag burning, and desecration of religious materials are all permitted by law. In practice, attitudes toward free speech are more diverse and complicated. The line between advocating free speech and seeming to applaud what people say is often blurred, as is the line between censorship and condemnation.
Chick-fil-A defenders like Palin believe that to call for a boycott against an organisation which promotes hateful speech was to threaten freedom of speech as a whole. But while the politicians who argued against allowing Chick-fil-A in their cities may have overreached, the protest was aimed at getting people to avoid an organisation that encouraged intolerance. It was not aimed at preventing Cathy or others from expressing their intolerant views.
To condemn hateful speech, or call for a protest against those who promote it, is itself a form of free speech. Announcing that you are offended when someone insults you or something you believe in is not an act of censorship. What person would refrain from issuing a rejoinder against those who insult him on the grounds that the right to insult precludes the right to defend? It is worth remembering this in light of The Innocence of Muslims and the hostile rhetoric against those whom it offends.
Shock and offence
On September 19, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, including several in which he is depicted in lewd positions. Their justification: freedom of speech. "Freedom of the press, is that a provocation?" the editor of the magazine said, adding that the images will "shock those who will want to be shocked". The French government banned people from protesting the cartoons. They say they are protecting freedom of speech while denying citizens the right to demonstrate their disapproval.
Shock and offence are not feelings people cultivate. They are spontaneous emotions that reflect a violation of a person's sense of self. When someone is shocked or offended, it is natural that they would express it. Yet when Muslims offended by the movie or the cartoons do so, they are accused of being an enemy of free speech. There is no excuse for reacting to an insult with violence. But many who peacefully express their condemnation of hateful views are lumped into the same category: "Why Are Muslims So Easily Offended?", goes the refrain.
Worse yet, the creators of the cartoon are portrayed as heroes for mocking Islam in a country known for its hostility toward Muslim immigrants and fierce state protection of free speech provocateurs. Editorials around the world have lauded the magazine for its alleged bravery, with one author proclaiming, "If free speech means anything, it's the right to say and publish things that other people find objectionable and irresponsible, even blasphemous."
Such a perspective confuses what free speech does with what free speech means. Free speech allows people to insult, berate, and defame each other, but that is not what most people want, and it is rarely what makes freedom of speech attractive to those who do not have it. Those forced to live in countries without free speech know that one of its greatest values is the ability to speak the truth about one's position, to contest false depictions, to refute bias and slander.
Free speech means not only the right to offend, but the right to defend. When Dan Cathy proclaims his prejudice against homosexuals, or Charlie Hebdo its hatred of Muslims, that is free speech. But when gay rights groups call for a boycott, and Muslims protest a cartoon or a movie, that is also free speech. Free speech does not mean deferring to people's right to abuse you.
The ingredients of free speech
In America, a nation was divided by a sandwich. Across the world, people are dying because of a Z-grade film trailer. The battle lines of free speech are often drawn over the banal. One strategy of those who seek to minimise the argument of the offended party is to scoff at what inspired it. Only a restaurant, only a movie, only a cartoon - why the outrage, they ask.
But such conflicts are rarely about the object in question. They are about the participants and their culture, their ideologies and their faith. They are about sanction and censure, about whose dignity can withstand whose degradation.
Freedom of speech is protected by law, but guided by emotion. We should not mistake legal sanction for personal approval, but we should also not mistake personal disapproval for a rejection of free speech. In free societies, people have the right to say hateful things. And those offended have the right to oppose and condemn them.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.