Monday, February 06, 2006

Cartoon Carnage

Two views of the reaction in the Muslim world to the Danish cartoons.

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes a hardline stance against the attack on free expression (and the very idea of the Enlightenment) that the rioters and embassy-burners represent:
Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.
There can be no negotiation under duress or under the threat of blackmail and assassination. And civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient.
On the other hand, Warren Kinsella brings a different perspective (Feb. 5th post):
Firstly, I am a censor. I believe there are reasonable and proper limits on human expression.

Secondly, I believe that words and images have power. Words and images have the power to wound and hurt and, sometimes, kill.

Thirdly, I believe that we are entitled, as a society, to sanction (civilly or criminally) those who use words and images to deliberately or recklessly inflict harm on others - as with laws relating to the propagation of hate, or laws prohibiting child pornography, or defamation codes, or laws designed to sanction pornography that promotes violence against women and children.

And, yes, yes, yes: I believe we are entitled as society to place reasonable limits on the expression of actual hatred towards religious faiths. I believe that words and images that expose the tenets of a person's faith to hatred should be condemned and, where appropriate, punished. Expressing hatred about someone else's spiritual beliefs is not free speech. It is hatred, and it is almost always calculated to cause pain and hurt.
That's pretty much where I end up on the cartoons that depict Islam's prophet as a murderer. You might not find such things hateful or even hurtful, but many others do. Deeply, truly, honestly.

And, when all is said and done, what Muslims seek from the rest of us is not anything we do not already seek from them. Which is, mainly, a modicum of respect for the things they hold closest to their hearts.

I say they deserve that respect. And, if that makes me a censor, I'll wear that insult with pride.
Now the fact that Hitchens in British and Kinsella is Canadian hardly matters in this context, since what is really at stake is a larger issue of free expression within the realm of the Western Enlightenment tradition.

While I see some value in Kinsella's point of view, in the end isn't the alternative in this case just to have expression held under the thumb of the threat of violence -- which is really nothing more than extortion? And if the only expression allowable is that which doesn't hurt anyone's feelings what, in the end, do you really have left?

I heard an argument made on the radio this morning that the West (Europe, specifically) is completely hypocritical w/r/t this because many European countries have laws on the books criminalizing the denial of the Holocaust. Even granting that this may be true, two wrongs don't make a right. The same answer is true here. The answer to Holocaust-deniers is not jail, but education. More speech, not less. Argument, not embassy burning.


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