That a boorish, crude, poorly made video could set a whole region on fire with righteous rage and cause the death of a highly respected American diplomat and his staff is a sign of the dangerous new world we live in.
I asked my media studies class yesterday to think about whether we are better off now than we were before the internet age, or whether the amount of time we all spend on the Web is dumbing us down by making us restless, superficial consumers of so much raw information and half-truths that we no longer have the time or inclination to sift through it all and figure out what really matters.
My students, digital natives all, were enthusiastic about the interactivity of the internet, the unparalleled opportunities it offers for entertainment and lightspeed communication.
But we all sobered down some when we contemplated the dark side of the internet promise, given form this week in the jump from You-Tube to Muslim Main Street.
We watched a few minutes of “Innocence of Muslims,” the purported “trailer” for a full-length movie that may very well not exist. Actually we watched less than two minutes of the film, all that we needed to understand why it has angered religious Muslims.
The film makes a mockery of the Prophet Muhammed, and presents the religion he founded as bloody and uncouth.
I’d like to see how evangelical Christians would feel if a similar film was made about Jesus Christ and his religion.
The Egyptian government issued a statement today recognizing that American filmmakers have the right to freedom of speech, and therefore cannot be prosecuted for their insulting production.
But they can certainly be condemned. Hate speech is not allowed in the U.S., and this film walks a fine line; it is certainly insulting and intolerant, if not outright hateful.
The film only made waves in the Middle East when someone translated it into Arabic, and then reposted it on You-Tube.
Maybe they thought Muslims would think it was funny.
No one is laughing, not at all. And the rage comes out against America and all Americans, even though the majority of Americans would be just as turned off by this film as anyone in the Muslim world.
Even as I write that familiar phrase, “the Muslim world,” I know it’s false. The internet has shrunk our globe so much that the old boundaries between cultures and nations no longer hold.
Out there on the internet, we’re all part of a vast interconnected universe of humanity, a distributed digital brain hosted by the global Cloud.
We have the capacity to send images and words around the world at lightening speed, but on the ground we’re still the same old people we have been for hundreds of years, weighed down by our enmities and prejudices, our pettiness and our greed.
The freedom of communication facilitated by the internet is marvelous, and few of us would want to see it censored.
But we need to understand the power of words and images to manipulate and twist our perceptions of the truth.
We need to learn how to become responsible producers and informed, discerning consumers of all the representations we send up to the Web.
That ugly film does not represent America, any more than the savage reprisal on the Libyan Embassy represents the Muslim community.
The internet should be used to connect us, not tear us apart. We need to be smarter than that.