Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Cartoons: Stunning, Irrelevant Revelations!

We've been treated to two seemingly important takes on the Mohammed cartoon controversy during the most recent news cycle:

The original cartoons were published in an attempt to inflame!
The violent response was, itself, provoked and incited!

The only appropriate response to both of these, um, shocking twists(????) is this: So the fuck what?

There is only one question worth asking about the cartoons in a civilized, free country: Can they be published? If the answer is yes, then everything else -- questions of intent, taste, offensiveness, blah blah blah -- is just subjective, thumb-sucking blather. Anyone who addresses whether the paper had the right to publish them with "Yes, but they shouldn't have," is a weasel. If you've been asked whether you support free speech, don't interpret that as an invitation to serve as a critic, too. It's a yes-or-no question.

On the flip side, there is one, and only one, question worth asking about the criminal and violent response to these cartoons: Is it permissible? If the answer is no, then everything else -- whether rioters were "inflamed," or embassy ransackers were responding to a broader cultural climate of American-Islamic tensions -- is irrelevant. Defending free speech means condemning -- and using force of law against -- those who try to abridge it. Whether you disagree with the speech, or even concur with the sentiments of those acting criminally in opposition to it, is irrelevant. Stop the violence. Period. (I'm not saying it's not journalistically and diplomatically of interest if some governments have fueled the protests; I'm addressing this purely in regard to issues of free speech).

Furthermore, from a journalistic point of view, all the hand-wringing today about whether the Danish paper was out to provoke controversy (that used to be a goal of journalism in this country, too, when we still had journalism) or whether the outcry in response (legal and otherwise) was fueled by advocacy, misses the point entirely.

What makes this story so fascinating -- to me, anyway -- and, I think, important, is that it does precisely what the Danish newspaper set out to do: It explores a fundamental difference between two differing cultures.

And let's not make the mistake of thinking this is a question of predominantly Christian culture on one hand, and Islamic culture on the other. It's not. It's a question of a predominantly secular culture on one hand, and religious culture on the other.

Politicians supposedly of the world's free societies miss the point when they apologize for the cartoons by explaining that sometimes free speech leads to offense. No. That's not how it works. Offense isn't a regrettable by-product of free speech: It's the point. Bad ideas, offensive ideas, wrong ideas aren't something we tolerate because free speech is an otherwise good thing. The entire point of free speech is to ensure that bad ideas, offensive ideas and wrong ideas are exposed to the light of day. Free speech is not something we protect because it allows us to share good ideas. Free speech is the mechanism by which we identify good ideas. We can only be sure we are doing so if we vigorously promote not just the right to discuss bad/offensive ideas, but the airing of those ideas themselves.

That's why this is not a Christian-Muslim clash. Because many Christians -- including many in this country -- don't believe in free speech, either. And many Muslims, even in countries that are not free, are considerably more sophisticated and pro-free speech than some "western" theocrats. In this country, the theocons try to decide not just their own viewing fare, but what the entire country can choose to watch, as well. And Christians believe stuff just as dumb as Muslims do. The Bible bans "graven images." Many Jews write "G-d" because YHWH will get mad if they type an "o" in the wrong place. It's all superstitious idiocy. And there are adherents of every stripe willing to die and/or kill to support their own brand of it. So let's not get too smug about how our superstitions are much more sophisticated than theirs. (See this bit of bonding across national boundaries, thanks to the magic of religiously fueled hate).

What this really is is a test of which countries and which politicians have the understanding of human rights and the conviction of democratic principles to both know and say that the only response to people upset by the cartoons is: Too bad. Anyone who doesn't get that really does hate us for our freedoms. And anyone who argues for sacrificing our freedoms in response -- free speech or any other civil liberty -- does, too.


Anonymous said...

Should cartoons depicting adults having sex with young children be published? Is there any line at all? I'm not taking a position here. Just asking.

Anonymous said...

I'm not against the publishing of drawings of child pornography or sexual violence. The dream of exploitation is not the exploitation itself. The amount of underage textual smut and the popularity of underage modeling (even if it is 'barely' legal) are undeniable. Brutal domination and rape are far more rare, but equally far more popular than we all might like.

...and yet, outside of their fantasies it is only an infinitessimal portion of the consumers of such filth that actually make their fantasies reality. They would likely have done so with or without that filth as example.

On the other hand, once some adult has sex with a child in order to produce, for example, a video or photograph of such an act... THAT is criminal. The photographs or videos produced may still be speech protected, but I leave that to more daring philosophers and legislators than myself.

Also, you said "Should". SHOULD cartoons depicting adults having sex with young children be published?

Not if you want to keep your advertisers.

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