• Politicians in the world's most powerful nation are trying to outdo themselves in showing they feel more offense even than those people who claim to be most offended.

If a film flops in the middle of the internet and nobody hears it, can it still be "offensive?"

"Anti-Muslim film" is by now probably one of the most Googled terms on the net. As a result, millions of people have once again been treated to the familiar thrill of looking up something we were told would be shocking and becoming, instead, bored and irritable.

Of course no round in the free speech wars ever starts in the place you wish it would. Defenders of Salman Rushdie still wish the Satanic Verses were a slightly more flowing read. Defenders of the Danish cartoons might wish that they were funnier. And there can be absolutely nobody who defends the rights of somebody to make a film without being killed without wishing that "Innocence of Muslims" weren't so completely and unremittingly terrible. But there we are: we live in a world where politicians in the world's most powerful nation are trying to outdo themselves in showing they feel more offense even than those people who claim to be most offended. As a result a principle must be defended in spite of the US government's desire to be offended.

It is true that every frame is gruesomely inept, but simply not in the way the US Secretary of State has claimed. "To us – to me personally – this video is disgusting and reprehensible," Hillary Clinton said during one denunciation last week. This is wrong in any number of ways.

"Innocence of Muslims" is simply terrible film-making: like Benny Hill on a less lavish budget. But rightly or wrongly, the maker of this film is being blamed with starting the latest round in the "Offense Against the Prophet" wars, and to date there have been protests across much of the Middle East and North Africa as well as Sydney and London. The only reason now to see the film is if you believe it is as "offensive" as everybody is saying. Because if you do then you should see what passes for "offensive" these days. I tend to find the resulting difference between imagination and reality instructive.

Some years ago I did a talk on censorship in London and in the middle of it screened – I think for the first time there in public – Theo van Gogh's film, 'Submission'. It was perhaps a couple of years since van Gogh had been murdered on the streets of Amsterdam for making the movie. Fearful of the ramifications of showing the movie, the London venue laid on some security and there was a slight samizdat frisson in the room as the lights went down. Better than the talk, indeed better even than the film, was what happened afterwards.

Because despite the film being – like this latest one – fairly easily locatable on the internet, almost nobody in the audience had actually seen "Submission" before then. Despite being an unusually cultured and well-read audience, it was something they had mainly picked things up about from the occasional politician's comments here, the odd press-summary there.

What was interesting was they all had a fixed idea in their minds of what was in the film. So intense had been the outcry and denunciations from Western politicians as well as Islamic leaders, that – even more so after van Gogh's murder – when people talked about the naked bodies in the film and the writing of Islamic scripture on the body of a woman, peoples' imaginations turned it into the sort of thing Ken Russell might have achieved if you'd let him loose with a copy of the Koran, a felt-pen and a girl's hockey team.

But that is not what "Submission" is about. On the contrary, it is a deeply serious and sobering account of a woman's experience of misogyny suffered at the hands of people who believe they find justification for their behaviour in scripture. But at the end of the evening what struck me most was the number of people who came over and said words to the effect of, "He was killed for that?"

And that is the reason why it is so important that people do not just listen to the condemnations of politicians but find these things out for themselves. If you are an American citizen or British subject, familiar with the nightly fiesta of our television schedules, your bar for what is "disgusting" and "reprehensible" is pretty high. Our cinemas and film culture have now produced a branch of movie-making which is known as "torture porn." Is the "anti-Islam film" worse than that? If it has the condemnation of all these leaders who allow the licensing boards to release all these other things, then – many people will think – it must be really bad.

If on the other hand you are in the Middle East or North Africa and have not seen the movie, but you hear people like Clinton speaking this way, then your imagination could well go in an even more extreme direction. There will be people who will think: here is the most permissive, the most louche society in the world, famous for its lax morals. And this woman Clinton is saying that this film insulting our prophet is "disgusting" even to her? It must be an outrage!

It is in just this way that the gap between reality and the popular imagination widens ever farther. The only immediate answer to it is for members of the public to inform themselves, and for politicians to consider how little will be gained from this game of offense one-upmanship. It may benefit them now, but their successors will damn them for it.

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