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February 19, 2006

More cartoonery

The excerpt below is by the editor of Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, writing about "Why I Published Those Cartoons." I don't buy it. Censorship or self-censorship is part of human communication. We don't say some things as individuals to other individuals because we know we can cause them psychological or emotional harm, whether directly or indirectly. Sometimes we do say such things when we intend harm.

Jyllands-Posten is defending the cartoons once again on the basis of free speech. They're not terribly defensible in other terms; say, as providing crucial information or on aesthetic grounds. The cartoons were intended to provoke, as political cartoons often are.

But if there's a principle underpinning other liberal principles such as free speech, or perhaps a proviso that qualifies liberal freedoms, it's the principle of not causing harm by our actions. The cartoons, as intentionally provocative, cause harm. This weakens any claims for protecting freedom of speech against encroaching "self-censorship."

The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously -- and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.

At the end of September, a Danish standup comedian said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten that he had no problem urinating on the Bible in front of a camera, but he dared not do the same thing with the Koran.

This was the culmination of a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship. Last September, a Danish children's writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship. European translators of a critical book about Islam also did not want their names to appear on the book cover beside the name of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding.

Around the same time, the Tate gallery in London withdrew an installation by the avant-garde artist John Latham depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces. The museum explained that it did not want to stir things up after the London bombings. (A few months earlier, to avoid offending Muslims, a museum in Goteborg, Sweden, had removed a painting with a sexual motif and a quotation from the Koran.)

Finally, at the end of September, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with a group of imams, one of whom called on the prime minister to interfere with the press in order to get more positive coverage of Islam....

By the way, sound familiar?

[cross-posted at Phronesisaical]


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NYTimes on Judith Miller : defender of free speech.

hah. deja vu.

how about for once, defending "speech" that benefit the public and the truth, instead of statusquo guised in some high horse idea.

pure media stunt.

I don't think it's so simple--would you make the same argument about this satirical piece by Richard Dawkins comparing all religious believers to brain-addled drug addicts? It would be hard to argue that this piece is not "intentionally provocative." Of course, the context is somewhat different because Dawkins is mocking all religious belief while Jyllands-Posten was only mocking a particular faith that is mostly held by a minority group that faces a lot of hostility from the rest of Danish society. But I don't agree with the general argument that being "intentionally provocative" is morally wrong, we'd have to condemn virtually all satire if we took this position. If an intentionally provocative statement causes a violent reaction, much or all of the responsibility may lie with the person who reacted in such an out-of-proportion way (although again, the exact context is important). Suppose Dawkins' article had been accompanied by cartoony illustrations of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed as drug addicts, and it provoked a similar reaction among radical Muslims--would you be so quick to condemn Dawkins and the illustrator as irresponsible?

Hmm... I'm totally missing what's supposed to "sound familiar" here. But that's beside the point, I suppose.

My first question: Do you have any genuine reason to doubt the sincerity of the editor of the Jyllands Posten in this passage? Surely he's telling the truth that he did not intend to provoke violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. How could he have forseen that?

My second question: Are those who are actually rioting doing so in response to the cartoons published in Jyllands Posten, or are they doing so in response to the fakes circulated with them by a group of radical Danish imams? Prof. Jamie Tappenden at UMich makes a strong case for thinking it is the latter.

My third question: are the cartoons really so indefensible on the grounds of artistic merit? Several of them are pretty clever, such as the one of Muhammad with a cresent above his head that may be seen as either a halo or as horns.

of course it is. Just like how Foxnews keep showing "those muslims' are barbarian, western world should unite against them.

it's agitpro job. Just another day in wingnut disneyland. (whatever religion they are)

Jesse makes a good argument. Deliberate provocation has given us great art throughout the years. Why should Islam get a pass? And why are my fellow liberals siding with the most illiberal notion that one religion should be protected above others? I don't get it.

Sorry, but your disagreeing with what the Danish paper published should never mean that the paper therefore shouldn't have published it.

Free speech means free speech.

Muslims have every right to protest, write letters, and burn flags -- but we should never consider regulating the content of political or religious speech in western countries to make some group of radicals happy. Then the terrorists really do win, no joke.

--Free speech means free speech.--


The story within a story here is how so very many " liberals " have abandoned free-speech principles re the Mohammad cartoon story.

Please don't think that the protagonists of the Religion of Peace will give these liberals one iota of good guy credit should they ever come into power.

Sean - you make the implicit identification that is at the root of the cartoons: that Muslim = terrorist. Sorry, that's false. And I pretty much don't have patience for any sentence that ends with, "...and then the terrorists win."

Jesse - Dawkins, contrary to the pro-evolution bandwagon going around the blogosphere at present is just being stupid. I'm not religious and all of my own research and teaching entails an evolutionary perspective or background. But it's inane to make the claim in the article, however satirically. He may be a decent scientist, but he's a philosophical hack. There's actually quite a bit that's deserving of great respect in religion in general, including pretty much all of the historical science that Dawkins' own work takes from. I'd rather live in a world that builds cathedrals than one that puts us in boxes. Dawkins' extreme positivism and materialism is philosophically untenable and potentially just as dangerous as religious fanaticism. So, yes, quick to condemn the guy the liberal blogosphere generally takes to be their own version of a saint (and apparently entirely without irony). I suppose that makes me a heretic. But it's bad scientific (and Darwinian) thinking to be an absolutist about anything, including Dawkins' own take on science.

As for intentionally provocative, sure. I don't say that it's morally wrong. I just say that you have to face the consequences for provocation. It's one thing to tell a joke that offends people; it's another to publish intentionally provocative cartoons in the midst of a very politically and culturally charged environment. To express surprise and regret for the consequences of publishing the cartoons is disingenuous, a lie, or just makes out the editor to be incredibly stupid given the preexistent probability of harm. Freedom always comes with responsibility or its meaningless. That is a core tenet of liberalism.

Brock - what's supposed to sound familiar: attacks on the non-religious, intimidation, politicians who have to use religious language whether they're religious or not, possibly conscious self-censorship about the Iraq War and other BushCo fiascoes, a media that's cowed by government positions, the demand by the administration for more positive coverage of the War, etc. Lots of parallels....

Brock - the second question is a good one. This just isn't clear to me since the information about the other pictures that were circulated is contradictory at points. But, if it occured, it's quite the same thing as the Danish editor publishing the original cartoons - the point is to provoke. There's nothing here that intends to provoke in some kind of constructive or thoughtful way.

Sean - I don't get the line "free speech means free speech." The entire liberal tradition is built on the notion that liberty always has limitations. That's what makes it a great tradition. The central one of those limitations is that one ought not to cause harm. Free speech is emptied of content without that tradition and becomes a meaningless slogan. In this particular case, it's a meaningless slogan. Libertarians are wrong on their odd insistence on a kind of absolute liberty (and can't even live it), and even the greatest of libertarian thinkers, Robert Nozick, conceded the philosophy's limits. How about a drawing of someone shitting on the Danish flag? You think that would be published, even if artistically done?

SL - yes, agitprop.

I'd rather live in a world that builds cathedrals than one that puts us in boxes. Dawkins' extreme positivism and materialism is philosophically untenable and potentially just as dangerous as religious fanaticism. So, yes, quick to condemn the guy the liberal blogosphere generally takes to be their own version of a saint (and apparently entirely without irony).

OK, I didn't really mean for my question to be too specifically about Dawkins (although I would say you're caricaturing his position--disagreement with the idea of placing faith in revealed religious truths does not make one a logical positivist, and although he presumably is a materialist, I don't see why materialism would entail 'putting us in boxes', whatever this rhetoric is supposed to mean), I was trying to make a more general point about the context and intent behind harsh satire being important, to illustrate why I disagree with talking in vague generalities like "The cartoons, as intentionally provocative, cause harm." Instead of Dawkins attacking religion in general, fill in any particular belief system or ideology which you view as pretty much unambiguously wrongheaded and something the world would be better off without--scientology, ufo cults, neo-nazism, whatever--and imagine someone satirizing this belief system in a particularly harsh way, which in turn leads to a violent response on the part of some True Believers. Would you say it's always better for satirists to practice self-censorship if there is any risk of such a response?

"The cartoons, as intentionally provocative, cause harm."

If you grant this, then free speech is a meaningless right.

Harm doesn't mean "gets people pissed off." Harm is being referred to as physical harm, and "caused" doesn't mean "Some fanatics got sufficiently pissed to set things on fire" it means "caused."

Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses were "deliberately provacative" as was Mapplethorpe.

Your claim that these cartoons were empty of content is refuted by the reaction. If the cartoons were meaningless, then people couldn't get offended by them.

As for your claim that their provocation wasn't "constructive," you are comfortable with the government censoring people because what they say isn't sufficiently "constructive?" Doesn't sound very liberal to me. Sounds kinda totalitarian to me.

You need to show that the cartoons caused harm, not that people's reactions to the cartoons caused harm. Those reactions are already illegal.

Unfortunately, the way the Muslim protests are spun being agitprop is true - but so is the fact that the Muslim protests are also being whipped up by agitprop themselves. I am so conflicted about this whole awful escalation I am unable to verbalize it. I did think your post was thoughtful and useful to trying to get a grip on the issue.

I think the cartoons did cause harm. They targeted teh religion of a disenfranchised and angry minority in Europe and worsened relations of that minority with the majority in many European countries. They definitely made it even worse for European Muslims than it was before in terms of facing discrimination. Never mind the riotsi n the Muslim world here if you don't want to, but just in terms of Europe itself those cartoons DID cause harm and were sort of deliberately designed to do so.

As a Muslim I don't really get exercised by the cartoons representing Muhammad the prophet or that his face was shown, as I have too much of a Western upbringing to really have internalized thse taboos. However I personally think they were deliberately targeting a local minority in a racist way. And that did cause harm.

It would help tremendously if people kept some distinctions clearly in mind.

First there's the distinction between morality and legality. While in many circumstances it is considered immoral to intentionally provoke, just for the sake of provocation, that doesn't make it illegal. What the Danish editor, and various journalistic supporters, did might well have been immoral. What various imams have called for is legal sanctions -- i.e., they want morality to be legally enforced. That's a huge no-no for any liberal society.

Second, there's a distinction between offensiveness and material harms. The traditional liberal constraints on liberty concern material harms, one of the most serious of which is the needless restriction of other people's liberties. Offending somebody's sensibilities (unless it's done with the explicit intent to cause such apoplexy that the offended party has a stroke) is unlikely to constitute a material harm.

So condemn to your heart's content -- on moral grounds -- those who published the cartoons. But defend the legality of their provocations. And don't forget to also condemn the efforts to manipulate the law so as to needlessly restrict your liberties.

Good comments, folks.

Bob - it is indeed imortant to keep the legal/moral distinction in mind. Not to dissent, but only to add... the legal/moral distinction also has fuzzy boundaries. If law is a codification of morality, jurisprudence is an ongoing project just as is moral inquiry and the sphere of moral considerability. The US used to be a slaveholding society, now slavery is not only illegal, but morally execrable. That happened not because the law somehow changed on its own, but because of the development of powerful moral arguments against slavery that were ultimately seen as so strong as to insist on changes in the law. Hate speech is similar and tests the boundaries between so-called free speech and what causes harm. It does so because there are powerful moral arguments and a broad moral intuition that harm includes not only physical harm, but also other forms of harm - psychological, emotional, etc. The liberal philosophical tradition always intended harm explicitly as both bodily and mental. The issue regarding the cartoons is whether they amount to hate speech, bot legally and morally. I think they do because there doesn't seem to be any other reason to publish them other than to say, like the Danish editor, that there's a concern about self-censorship (which, I've said, always exists). But then we can come up with all sorts of counter-examples to screw up that point (shitting on the Danish flag, etc.). Or the intention to provoke outrage. In the latter case, we have to come to terms with the boundaries of hate speech. And that is not simply to be determined by the speaker, but by those who are the objects of the hate speech. Otherwise, it is indeed meaningless.

...And here me out on this one: THAT is, yes, a question of content. Determining offense or harm caused to other by the agents of that offense or harm is an act of oppression in itself. Slaveholders argued that slavery didn't cause harm because the objects of slavery, slaves, were better off than in their otherwise "barbarian" state and that black slaves were not the same species as white humans. This attitude continued through the civil rights movement - that somehow Jim Crow was justified because blacks were less than human and thus not deserving of the same rights. That is a case of the agents of harm/offense determining for the objects of harm/offense what the content of harm/offense is. And that, folks, has nothing to do with liberty. Trivializing the Danish cartoon affair as "pissing some people off" is a way of avoiding that issue and teeters precariously on the edge of being pretty antiliberal.

Remember, I said nothing about placing legal limits on the Danish editor's freedom to publish whatever. I am claiming that this particular situation is obvious enough that there are other good reasons to limit what one says. Called to justify the decision to publish, the editor's supposed justification is disingenuous or stupid, in this sense. Again, we can come up with plenty of examples and counter-examples about how we self-censor constantly. We, in our private lives, don't call our fathers "motherfuckers." Why not? Freedom of speech, after all. In our public lives - and a newspaper is public - we place even more stringent limitations on speech because our actions don't only affect ourselves but others as well. In the US, we don't print cartoons any more with Sambo figures. Hell, the US press hardly even criticizes the right in even the most benign ways.

Libertarian proponents of "freedom of speech" at all costs simply have to explain why self-censorship is appropriate in some cases and inappropriate in others. The best way to explain this is the liberal one having to do with harm since libertarians can't do it themselves in the end, as I mentioned above in the remark about Nozick (who, brilliant mind and all, got this point). But, to quote Irving Kristol (neocon enemy who's right on this point), "none of us is a complete civil libertarian." We then have to determine what harm is. Morally and legally, harm is not simply about physical harm. This enables us to speak of psychological torture, emotional distress, etc. Discussion about the limits of what counts there is an important discussion. But "freedom of speech" at all costs is the thing that gets dangerous here. If harm doesn't include psychological torture, and freedom of speech includes the ability to torture psychologically, then the at-all-costs claim supports ruining entire lives through psychological torture. The cartoon case isn't this extreme, but what is wrong in this kind of counterexample has to be explained by the libertarian proponent of free-speech-at-all-costs. Both morality and legality, due to practical contingencies and real cases, are not so simple as to sum it all up as "freedom of speech means freedom of speech."

Look, Patrick's "totalitarian" comment above notwithstanding (which is ridiculous, by the way - we're not discussing all-or-nothings here; we're discussing gray zones), a liberal society is one that allows both for the testing of limits of legality and morality, where the boundaries between morality and immorality are always open to revision. This allows for the Mapplethorpes and Batailles of the world to flourish. I believe this is a good thing. On the other hand, given such freedoms, we have to take up responsibilities, respect and concern, and tolerance. "Freedom" on its own is a myth, one propagated in the US by inquiry-censoring libertarians on the right and fuzzy-minded liberals on the left. Freedom always comes with responsibility. The mythical version, as if freedom is endowed with supernatural qualities (like natural rights), is what I refer to as meaningless and empty. I get really worried when I see freedom discussed in those terms.

Liberals will never have the upper hand if they continue to trivialize the realities of freedom. Neocons understand the problems here and pretty much freely shape the entire discourse on freedom at present while we liberals while away our time presenting ourselves such cliches as "freedom means freedom."

Well, Helmut, I didn't say that freedom is in any sense supernatural, nor that it constitutes a natural right. There are pretty strong arguments of a purely practical sort for valuing freedom of expression more highly than we value the peace of mind of religionists. Do we need to rehearse these arguments?

Bob - the supernatural/natural rights remark isn't directed at you or anything you said. I simply riffed off of your comments at the beginning of my comments. It's directed at the notion that freedom has some kind of quality or even essence that makes it definable in purely tautological terms or as an otherwise absolutist principle in need of no further elaboration as to its content. I see freedom as an ongoing battle for - for lack of a better term at this point - liberation (rather than some kind of finished product) with practical results and in light of practical contingencies. I don't know what it would mean in the purely abstract, divorced from practical results entirely. Otherwise, we end up justifying it in the mythical terms of a special endowment or natural right. That places discussion of freedom squarely in the camp of those who would seek to define it for us.


I definitely didn't mean to imply that Muslim = terrorist. I meant to implicate anyone who advocates violence to stifle free speech (and there are a bunch out there in the protests to these cartoons who are doing that). They are wrong, wrong, wrong.

And yes, there are limits to liberty, such as crying fire in a crowded theater or engaging in sexual harassment or hate speech (i.e., directly inciting violence). However, nothing at issue here went that far. It was satire. Bad satire. Stupid satire. But satire.

And anyone who want to regulate the content of political or religious speech is ALWAYS wrong. It's just that simple.

Sorry about the "terrorists win" line -- bad joke.

My bottom line is that we should not for one minute legitimize attempts by any fringe (I hope!) Islamic groups to stifle free speech in Europe. We certainly would not back down from any attempt by a Christian group to stifle free speech here at home.

I appreciate the thoughtful comments.


"Look, Patrick's "totalitarian" comment above notwithstanding (which is ridiculous, by the way - we're not discussing all-or-nothings here; we're discussing gray zones), a liberal society is one that allows both for the testing of limits of legality and morality, where the boundaries between morality and immorality are always open to revision. This allows for the Mapplethorpes and Batailles of the world to flourish."

And who makes that determination? You? George W. Bush?

You are making one of two claims:

1) People who publish newspaper cartoons should make a real effort that their contribution be a "constructive" contribution to the public dialogue on the issue?

2) Governments should regulate free expression to ensure that all contributions are sufficiently "constructive."

It seems to me that (1) is trivially true and (2) is obviously false.

It is nice to say that "with freedom comes responsibility." Everyone who is reasonable believes this (including most libertarians: Hayek and Nozick both believed it).

The crux of the issue is whether the government should be empowered to enforce those "responsibilities." The right to freedom of expression is not preconditioned on using that right wisely.

To say otherwise is to argue that there is no right to free expression.

My personal sense of the whole affair is that the actual cartoons were well within the traditional western bounds of satire within that medium. To suggest that the figureheads of one world religion should be held sacrosanct simply because of the tenents of its adherants is rather disturbing. It creates an exclusionary, exceptionalist mentality: "the muslims are different from us," it seems to say, "so let's treat them differently".

Secondly, with regards to the confrontation with aniconic tradition, rather than racism within the images-- Literally illustrating one's disagreement with an iconoclastic philosophy that would stifle such depictions parallels nicely with George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine. People should be free, even encouraged, to forcefully assert their independence from moral taboos which they find abhorrant.

Finally, given the embassy burnings, the pastry renamings and the ongoing disturbance, I think we can safely say that the actual offensive content of these cartoons was entirely irrelevant. There are deep sociological forces at play here, and the cartoons were, at most, a pretext for the unleashing of long simmering rage.

That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. A society that values Free Speech values the right to offend people. No one has a right to not be offended. That's what Jerry Falwell learned when he tried to sue Larry Flint. My mom was offended by Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre but did she burn down an embassy because of one Three Little Pigs story? No. Nor should anyone burn anything when they read BADASS HORROR even if a character is called White Bitch. It's just not worth it to get offended.

Several of you have missed the point. nowhere do I mention government regulation, for starters. To suggest that this follows is to collapse this whole thing into a dualism that serves to sustain the conflict.

The tradition that brought you free speech is also the one that brought the principle of harm as a qualification to any liberal freedoms. That just is the foundational doctrine of Western liberal societies: you're free to do what you like as long as it doesn't cause harm to others (sometimes including irreparable harm to oneself). If you toss that out in the name of some God-given principle of free speech that somehow stands alone, you've missed the liberal boat. A right, unless you're a natural rights believer, is not something that stands alone either. A right is only a coherent thing if it comes with obligations on the part of others as well as the feasibility of carrying out those obligations as duties.

Obviously, liberal societies value free speech. It's crucial, for one thing, for any democracy to function. This is beside the point here. The point is where free speech comes up against limitations, whether self-imposed or legislated. Liberal societies also all have constraints on liberties (the harm principle). Danish society is putatively liberal. Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. are not. Danish society is also pluralistic. Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. are not (or border on anti-pluralism). So, we're also not talking here about expecting Pakistanis to act like good liberals, and constant reference to the riots being illiberal is a red herring.

The point is that Denmark has a large population os Muslim CITIZENS. People are imprisoned in liberal societies for denying the Holocaust or engaging in hate speech against Jews and others. If you're a liberal, and you think that the basis for this is the qualification of no-harm to the principle of liberty, then you have to ask yourself to what extent the cartoons count or do not count as hate speech since they apparently cause harm. One way to think of this is purely practical and consequential: the cartoons exacerbated an already explosive situation, including within Denmark. The journal in question is a rightwing journal with, we could speculate, particular interests in exacerbating the situation, given that the anti-immigration platform is one shared by rightwing parties in Europe (and in the US). For the editor to say he didn't see it coming - which is what he said - is to either lie or be pretty damn incompetent.

The question here, again, is what counts as hate speech. Now, you may be a libertarian and believe free speech is a foundational principle - as in "freedom of speech means freedom of speech." But in individual daily lives, in laws, in our moral spheres there are always always limitations on speech. There is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. Saying this is not the same thing as saying free speech isn't good or that we ought to radically curtail free speech through government action. By making that leap some commenters appear to view the problem here in black-and-white terms, which, I think, serves to perpetuate the problem.

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