I read an opinion piece yesterday that reflects much of what I feel about the publication of the cartoons depicting Muhammad. In the piece, Simon Jenkins wrote:
A newspaper is not a monastery, its mind blind to the world and deaf to reaction. Every inch of published print reflects the views of its writers and the judgment of its editors. Every day newspapers decide on the balance of boldness, offence, taste, discretion and recklessness. They must decide who is to be allowed a voice and who not. They are curbed by libel laws, common decency and their own sense of what is acceptable to readers. Speech is free only on a mountain top; all else is editing.
Despite Britonsâ€™ robust attitude to religion, no newspaper would let a cartoonist depict Jesus Christ dropping cluster bombs, or lampoon the Holocaust. Pictures of bodies are not carried if they are likely to be seen by family members. Privacy and dignity are respected, even if such restraint is usually unknown to readers. Over every page hovers a censor, even if he is graced with the title of editor.
We seem to believe that any form of censorship is inevitably evil. Yet we censor our speech every day. I don’t tell the overweight woman in the checkout line that the twinkies she’s buying are harmful; I don’t get into a battle at work with the co-worker who wants to hang a cross in his or her cubicle, not because I don’t have beliefs of my own, but because I pick my battles and I make them work. I practice some self-control.
Sometimes the truest freedom of speech is knowing when to speak, and when to shut up.
I am a huge believer of freedom of speech, but this really isn’t the issue in regards to the recent protests and the continuing publication of these same cartoons in different newspapers. If the issue was freedom of speech, then the same people who support the publication of these cartoons would also support the burning of crosses in Jewish townships; the publication of white supremacist slogans in black neighborhoods; the rising number of Nazi symbols in European countries where once this symbol meant death to those who are different.
These cartoons are nothing more than anti-Muslim sentiment, thinly veneered with the respectability of freedom of speech; in the normal course of events, we would condemn them. Consider the irony that in the UK, while the BBC proudly proclaims its freedom of speech rights and re-publishes the cartoons, Nick Griffin walks free from a court room where he had been charged with inciting racial hatred. This is the same Nick Griffin who accused Asians of wanting to drug and rape white women; blacks of being pedophiles; asylum seekers as cockroaches.
For those clamoring for freedom of speech, how would you feel seeing blacks portrayed as monkeys in your local newspaper? How would you feel seeing Chinese portrayed as ‘evil yellow men’ in your favorite magazine? I would imagine that most of you would be disgusted and would condemn the actions, at a minimum demand that those responsible be fired. Yet you’ll smile and point with superiority at the Islamic people’s reactions to seeing their faith, themselves really, portrayed as a religion based on terrorism.
We say all speech, even hate speech, should be free–but there is no responsibility tagged on to this freedom, and as such, then it is a cheap, toss-away of what freedom of speech truly means. Speech such as this inevitably leads to actions and it is only a tarnished tinsel thin step from words to actions in our societies. Haven’t we learned from our own past that ‘saying’ blacks aren’t really human is almost always a precursor to action? To a rope being wrapped tight around a black man while he is dragged behind a vehicle until his body is torn to pieces? Or that if all gays are perverts, taking hatchets to their faces is just and Godly?
There is no responsibility for the actions that result from these expressions of ‘free speech’. Those who support the free expression of speech either benefit directly from them, or divorce themselves completely from the consequences.
(As for those who condemn all religions, I am beginning to find that those of you who eschew religion are just as blind to the faults of your belief as those who follow some God. Yes, your belief. There is a new religion; it is called atheism and is just as intolerant as any other faith built around being a ‘true believer’. )
I have seen many of the cartoons in question, and they are incredibly offensive. Yet I still, because I must, support freedom of speech–yes even hate-filled speech such as those exhibited by these cartoons. It makes me angry. It makes me angry that I have to defend these cartoons, or give up my belief in this freedom. I will defend the rights of those who publish such works, but I am not going to applaud the actions of the cartoonists, or the newspapers, in publishing these cartoons. They have not struck a blow for freedom of speech; they’ve only cheapened it, and themselves.
More importantly, the irresponsible use of one of our more important rights could ultimately lead to the loss of this right. As Jenkins wrote:
The question is not whether Muslims should or should not â€œgrow upâ€ or respect freedom of speech. It is whether we truly want to share a world in peace with those who have values and religious beliefs different from our own. The demand by foreign journalists that British newspapers compound their offence shows that moral arrogance is as alive in the editing rooms of northern Europe as in the streets of Falluja. That causing religious offence should be regarded a sign of western machismo is obscene.
The traditional balance between free speech and respect for the feelings of others is evidently becoming harder to sustain. The resulting turbulence can only feed the propaganda of the right to attack or expel immigrants and those of alien culture. And it can only feed the appetite of government to restrain free speech where it really matters, as in criticising itself.
As for the violence in certain countries, to extrapolate from this to a condemnation of followers of the religion as a whole only serves to justify the hate–on both sides of this particular fence. Those who gleefully point out the burning of the Danish embassies as some form of justification for their support of hate speech, neglect to point out the peaceful protests in this country and many others; or the fact that many (most) religious leaders in the Islamic community strongly encourage only peaceful protest, and condemn any form of violence.
The second Times article I linked wrote on speech that is deliberate provocation:
The bottom line, say some critics, is that provocation is counter-productive. It feeds the paranoia and influence of small extremist groups who can do disproportionate damage to British society in the name of the wider Muslim population, most of whom do not share their views.
Years ago when we protested the Vietnam war, there were those in the protests who deliberately sought to inflame the others who marched peacefully. They exercised their freedom of speech in order to flame the anger that always exists, deep in the heart of any protest; exists, but is contained for the most part. Then when the inevitable confrontation would occur, they would melt away into the crowd, their goal of creating chaos and disruption having been met for the day.
Did such actions lead to the Vietnam war ending earlier? Not a bit of it. Speech that is deliberately done, in order to provoke a violent response, never leads to anything constructive in the end. Martin Luther King did not cry out, “I have a hate”, he called out “I have a dream”. What we remember from Tiananmen Square is one man standing, silent, in front of the tanks–not with brick in hand, to the side. If we want to remember what’s truly at stake in regards to freedom of speech, this latter image is the one I would rather celebrate, than that mockery of ‘freedom’ that came out of Denmark.
Yule Heibel disagrees, strongly, with Simon Jenkins.
Other webloggers weigh in.
So now we know what it takes to get the Arab Street genuinely angry â€“ print some cartoons. Invade a Muslim nation: Nothing. Invade an Arab nation: Nada. Publish a few unfunny cartoons, however, and suddenly they’re burning Western embassies. From here, the Arab world looks like a bunch of big babies. Dangerous babies with firebombs, but still.
I never wanted this Terror War to escalate into Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” The way I figured it, going into Iraq was our one best chance to give someplace in the Arab World their one best chance to produce a civil society. And I mean “civil society” in a Western way. I mean it with an almost-jingoist, Anglospherical fervor. I mean, they need to learn to fight words with words and not with firebombs. I didn’t expect results overnight, but it’s obvious that we (and they) have a long, long way to go.
As compared to Juan Cole:
Muslims mind caricatures of Muhammad because they view him as the exemplar of all that is good in human beings. Most Western taboos are instead negative ones, not disallowal of attacks on symbols of goodness but the questioning of symbols of evil.
Thus, it is insupportable to say that the Nazi ideology was right and to praise Hitler. In Germany if one took that sort of thing too far one would be breaking the law. Even in France, Bernard Lewis was fined for playing down the Armenian holocaust. It is insupportable to say that slavery was right, and if you proclaimed that in the wrong urban neighborhoods, you could count on a violent response.
So once you admit that there are things that can be said that are insupportable, then the Muslim feelings about the caricatures become one reaction in an entire set of such reactions.