Thursday, February 02, 2006

Supporting Offensive Speech

I suppose everyone's heard by now about the uproar about the European cartoons which have caused great offense among Muslims. I agree with Steve Gilliard that those who speak are responsible for the use of that speech -- but only up to a point. If there was simply outrage at the cartoon(s) in question, then I would agree wholeheartedly that the cartoonist should think about whether what he/she said was wise. If there was simply a boycott of the publication which published the speech -- fine, that seems a legitimate method of protest, if itself of debatable wisdom sometimes (depending on the specifics of the case).

But boycotting the products of a whole country because of offending speech is over the line: it is an attempt to impose one's values on another's society, and is deeply dangerous to the entire notion of free speech or free inquiry. There is no right not to be offended; there is no right not to have one's values blasphemed. You don't need to read (or watch or whatever) what offends you; you don't need to like the person who gave offense. But to try to shut down the discourse by putting pressure on an entire country is beyond the pale.

Even further beyond the pale, of course, is government censorship.

But still further beyond the pale are actual expressions of violence. Once people are threatening murder over speech -- as happened most famously in the case Salman Rushdie, of course, but seems to be happening again in the case of the now-infamous cartoons -- any question of offense go out the window. Then it seems to me the duty of anyone who believes in any sort of free discourse to support the speech in question -- no matter how offensive.

If the speech is bigoted, as Clinton's comparison to antisemitic cartoons suggest -- and I haven't read the cartoons in question, and don't know the context in any event, so I express no opinion one way or the other on this point -- then say so: challenge the speaker: socially shun whoever said them. But trying to force other people to be polite to your Gods or prophets or sacred icons is offensive to our values -- and I would hope offensive to the values of anyone with any concern for free speech. (If someone is actually threatened that's another matter; but there is no question of that here -- except, of course, by the censors, some of whom are threatening kidnapping and murder.)

I find particularly appalling -- indeed, offensive -- the suggestion from many in the Muslim world that there ought not to be offensive depictions of Mohammed. Sorry: you don't get to say that (and you certainly don't get to enforce that). This is no different than the issue about Serrano's Piss-Christ or the allegedly antisemitic film The Passion of the Christ or anything else. -- Except that no one boycotted whole countries, let alone threatened murder, over those issues. In a pluralistic world, people will say things you find offensive. All one can legitimately do is counter with one's own speech, or boycott the specific film/art/newspaper/etc in question. This notion that other people's notion of blasphemy should be respected by everyone is what's outrageous here. Against that, any outrage in the speech itself pales.

Censorship of views one finds offensive is simply wrong. And this attempt by Islamists in Gaza to force censorship elsewhere at the point of a gun is an issue on which we should not retreat.

(Of course this isn't just an Islamic problem. Another cartoon is being attacked this week for being offensive towards American troops by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It's unclear from the letter whether this is meant to be their personal opinion, or their opinion as members of the Joint Chiefs -- a crucial point. But drawing this line is important, too, and I say: err on the side of free speech. The Joint Chiefs were out of line.)

Update: Via Boing-Boing, the cartoons, with English translations, can be seen here.


John Davies said...

Don't the Joint Chiefs have freedom to express their opinions too?

Stephen said...

Of course they do. And insofar as they were acting as individuls, saying they found something offensive, I have no problem with that. It's the sense that this is the government saying that this cartoon ought not to have been published that I find troubling. As I said in my post, I'm not sure where the balance is here.