Freedom without Responsibility

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 Britons’ 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 “grow up” 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 – 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.

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54 Responses to Freedom without Responsibility

  1. Patrick says:


    I don’t believe that is what I am doing. Please correct me if I’m wrong but I am assuming that most posters here are from the US (I only just stumbled upon this site via a random google search).

    I think that the very nature of the US as a nation-state means that the US inherently takes into account the view of the public when repoting news. Then again, the US is highly diverse, much more so than Denmark.

    As I mentioned, Denmark has a Muslim minority (3% of the population), and like most European states there has been a great deal of self-censure, meaning that feelings and sentiments get bottled up among the public.

    No-one has so far dared to debate how far we should go in this self-censure. Nevertheless, it is a very important debate, especially in Denmark where the VAST majority of the population think this self-censure has gone beyond its limits. Add to this that the Danish state is more so than other states run by the people, through numerous national votes, public opinions etc. and you will find that it is not at all uncommon for ‘controversial’ subjects to be discussed here.

    Responsibilty in other words has different meanings to different cultures (and here I am making a distinction even between Scandinavia, the rest of Europe and the US)

    Another thing to note is that the main problem is one of identity.

    Conceptualising Western identity is a tricky business, involving factors such as age, gender, geography and education, and only secondarily religion.

    In Muslim communities in non-westernised societies, identity is shaped by religion, and religion overrules law (in that Sharia law has predominance in some communities).

    This means that Islam and western society have certain compatability issues, but it is not necessarily a ‘clash of civilisations’ as Huntingdon put it.

    What it does require, however, is a debate within the western societies in question. This has to some extent taken place, at least on an academic level. But it is not until now that a full-scale public debate is rolling without restrictions, as it should be.

    I think it was responsible of the Danish paper to publish the drawings. It wasn’t responsible of the others to do so for the reasons the gave; had they justified the publications by saying the public has a right to know (and the press an obligation to inform) about what is shaping these tensions, it would have been a different matter.

    In the meantime, given Danish norms for the press, it was a responsible act to provide a foundation for a long-needed debate.

    My personal view in the debate itself, by the way, is that everyone should be free to follow their own religion. But by no means should it impinge on others.


  2. Scott Reynen says:

    Patrick, I think you’re wrong that the debate isn’t happening. I see it happening all over the place. I think maybe it’s just not turning out how you would prefer. And I think you’re wrong that it’s an important debate. It’s not a debate that will bring about any material benefit for anyone (as opposed to debating, say, health care or war or poverty). And I think you’re wrong that a bunch of vaguely antagonistic cartoons were the best way to ignite a debate. Even if you’re right about two of the three, the third still makes it irresponsible.

  3. Patrick says:

    Scott, I think the debate IS happening many places, but it wasn’t happening in Denmark, which is where the cartoons originate from.

    And are you labelling me racist? I don’t think it is right that the religion of 3% of the population has implications for the remaining 97%. I do, however, believe that it is important that as much is done as practically possible to accommodate those 3%, provided it doesn’t constrain the rest of us too much. This is a debate that has not taken place in Denmark, but unlike the US it HAS to take place, because we have a completely different societal structure, history and press.

    And sure, debating healthcare, war and poverty is more benefitial, but unlike the US, Scandinavia is not a melting pot of ethnicities or religions (we only have very small minorities, as I have pointed out again and again), and so debating how to handle integration, and at what cost to national heritage and culture, is mightily important at this stage.

    And finally, from an outside point of view I am not surprised to find that you think the cartoons were stupid. I would too, if it wasn’t because I understand how criticism works in the Danish press.

    I don’t expect anyone outside of Denmark to understand this, but please do me, yourself, and everyone else a favour and do some google searching: see if you can find the comments made by the Danish paper’s (Jyllands Posten) editors. See if you can find comments from social analysts that have a good knowledge of Danish conditions.

    You will find that all is not as black and white as you make it out to be.

  4. Shawn says:

    I support these cartoons and am tired of Muslims attempting to control my own freedoms of religion or speech. I am especially concerned about how Muslims (mainly those that follow strict Islamic laws) treat woman. Personally, this last points makes me feel that a great majority of Muslims are bigots and ignorant to the rights of others. When most Muslim women are given the “choice” to do X or Z, then I will be more open to listing to Muslims concerns about cartoons.