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Free speech should soar above insult and injury

The real clash of ideas is within each culture - over who best represents us.

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And to this history of insult we would add more insult? As to insult, a test for the defenders of the right to offend: Presumably you have exercised your free speech to the maximum protesting the bonafide offenses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, this near-unforgivable insult of torture that America has visited on the Arab world? It's my Voltairean right to ask and your responsibility to answer. (Mr. Bennett and Mr. Dershowitz fail this test: While citing the media for not republishing the Danish cartoons, they excoriate them for publishing the images of Abu Ghraib.)

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Provocation, insult, giving offense: When the target is deserving, these are powerful tools, and the West has a glorious history of using them. Henrik Ibsen outraged audiences with his play "A Doll's House" when Nora slammed the door on her infantilized existence - and forever altered our consciousness about woman's place. With his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. argued the case against the Establishment that the Negro could no longer wait for freedom but must claim it now - and unlocked the prison for all of us. This is the highest - and most responsible - use of the right to offend: to enhance human dignity.

But in these last decades this right, which Voltaire in the 18th century wielded so forcefully against tyranny and intolerance, has degraded in the West to mere offensiveness, with no higher purpose but to shock and titillate, leaving us empty products like "The Vagina Monologues" and, most recently, the Oscar-winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." What impoverishment of the Enlightenment!

Just as Islam risks hijacking by extremists, Western civilization faces similar risk - from free-speech extremists - and what we are losing is meaning, mattering, beauty, wit, a sense of the sacred. The real clash is within each civilization - within the West and within Islam. And the real agenda is about representation: Who finally represents us - the best in us or the extreme? The insult-artists, those who brandish the right to offend, fail on all levels: They do not represent the best of the West, nor enlightened free speech, and they do not point the way to better relations with the Muslim world. For them, expression of a small, splenetic self is all.

Responsible speech cares - about the world, others, consequences. It is capable of self-critique. And, by definition, it is answerable, accountable. As such, we need lots more of it - on all sides. Arab leaders and the Arab press should stop their anti-Semitic, anti-infidel rants. Our president should desist from insulting entire peoples as part of an "axis of evil"; evangelist Franklin Graham should stop referring to Islam as "a wicked religion"; and our insult-artists should grow up.

Only through responsible speech can we transform the clash of civilizations into a round table. And, ultimately, only through responsible use can we retain that most precious of rights: free speech.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and is working on a new play, "Prodigal."