Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Freedom of Speech

Recent discussion of the cartoon published in European newspapers has become something of a magnet for freedom of speech rhetoric. And yet it is woefully misapplied. The freedom of speech protects individuals from government censorship or punishment; it does NOT dictate what *should* be said – that is, simply because you can legally say something doesn’t mean you should. Think about it, just because it would be legal to create a political cartoon glorifying the lynchings of American history, wouldn’t it be utterly distasteful to not do so? A newspaper can decide what content it will or will not publish, and such inflammatory rhetoric will only be harmful (there is no *benefit* to its publication); it would be irresponsible to publish such a cartoon. The instance in Europe is far worse.

Another website recently created a cartoon of Hitler and Anne Frank in bed together with Hitler saying “Write this one in your diary, Anne” in response, to illustrate this very point. As offensive as that is (and it’s damn offensive), it doesn’t compare to an attack on one’s religion, on one’s reason for being. Though I cannot understand, the Islamic proscription on depictions of Allah and the Prophet are especially deep, lacking direct comparisons in contemporary Christianity (but here, I overstep my bounds of knowledge, so I leave further discussion to my esteemed colleague).

As French President Jacques Chirac stated, the reprinting of the cartoon is an exercise in provocation, not free speech. Free speech may protect the newspapers from government sanction, but they do not justify the decision of the newspapers to publish the cartoon. Chirac put it aptly when he said, "[f]reedom of expression must be exercised in a spirit of responsibility.” The decisions of the European media have thus far been quite the opposite.

Another perspective: The freedom of speech is certainly not absolute. Particularly illustrative here is that the third Geneva Convention, which forbids the publishing of pictures of POWs and, arguably, the dead (subjecting them to “public curiosity” is the precise wording). The principle behind that is one of respect. Applying such a principle to the contemporary case is a worthwhile exercise.

7 comments:

David Morgan Jr said...

i missed the cartoon and have NO idea what you're talking about.

Travis said...
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Travis said...

Karl,
I find myself agreeing a lot with what you're saying. Kofi Annan said something similar that freedom “should always be exercised in a way that fully respects religious beliefs of others." Perhaps you should seek office in the UN.

When it comes down to it, the people who run these cartoons aren't being respectful. Maybe it's out of ignorance. What worries me, however, are those who are running these things deliberately to offend Muslims.

Kate said...

Okay, I'm definitely not with you on this one. Of course the cartoons were offensive, I won't disagree with you there. But they were commentary on a very serious situation, and were also very serious in nature. They weren't meant to say "Haha, I drew Mohammed even though it's against the rules!" They were meant to add to the dialogue, to have some agree and some disagree, and to point out a topic of great importance to the people of Denmark.
These are not respectful political cartoons, but what is, really? Is drawing W. as a monkey respectful? No. Does it anger a lot of people? Yes.
Does blatantly criticizing Chrisitianity and the Bible anger a lot of people? Yes.
Your freedoms end where mine begin, but it is not this cartoon that started riots and killed. It is an extreme situation of mutual distrust and prejudice that two groups have towards each other. If it weren't these cartoons, then something else would have started this war.

Alex Kim said...

I think Kate is right that greater factors of historical exploitation and cultural distrust are in play that led to the violence we see going on related to the cartoons. But it is very difficult to convey the wholly different scale of inflammation and offense we're talking about when Muhammad (pbuh) is drawn. You can see my own post on the matter.

Kate said...

I love your picture, Alex! Very debonair.

Selma said...

I think he looks like a monkey.