OPINION

The Freedom to be Offended

February 02, 2006
Atanu Dey

"If a nation or an individual values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony is that if it is comfort or money it values more, it will lose that too."
- W. Somerset Maugham

The story is pretty simple. A Danish newspaper, Jylland-Posten, published in September 2005 a dozen cartoons depicting Muhammad after a writer complained that nobody dared illustrate a book he was writing on Muhammad. The newspaper pointed out "that the drawings illustrated an article on the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world. Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure - unconditionally!"

It took some time but the predictable is happening.

"The editor of "Jyllands-Posten", Carsten Juste, and the cartoonists who did the 12 illustrations have received several death threats, say RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Juste has hired bodyguards to protect his journalists, and the cartoonists have gone into hiding. Similar threats have been made against "Magazinet". [See the International Freedom of Expression article for some details.]

Many Islamic countries have withdrawn their diplomatic staff from Denmark, besides demanding that the Danish government apologize for the insult to Muslims and to punish the newspaper editor and the cartoonists. The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Rasmussen, declined to meet with the ambassadors from 11 Islamic nations saying that he had no control over what the Danish press published and further that he had no wish to have such control.

Mr. Rasmussen's stand contrasts sharply with the craven lack of support from any of the leaders of the liberal democracies of the world who would talk very loudly about freedom of expression from the comforts of their own home.

Expressing oneself freely within the confines of the law and without duress is one of the cornerstones of liberal societies. That freedom, like the notion of self-ownership, is non-negotiable. There cannot be and must not be any attempt at censoring of any views and their expression provided it does not violate the law of the land.

The Danish government understands that point and as long as the newspaper has not broken any Danish law, they are powerless to censure those responsible for the publishing of the cartoons.

Now it is undeniable that millions of Muslims are offended. Just as it is the right of the Danish to exercise their freedom of expression granted to them by their society, the Muslims are free to be offended by whatever they wish to be offended by. Irrespective of how many people take offense at something, the right to express oneself within the limits set by the law of a society cannot be trampled upon.

Muslims have taken offense because Islam forbids the depiction of Muhammad or Allah. Muslims are bound by this restriction but non-Muslims living in their own liberal lands are not since they are not governed by Islamic laws. Attempting to impose Islamic restrictions on non-Muslims living in secular or non-Islamic states is silly and pointless.

My position is that the freedom of expression is an inalienable human right. Societies that deny this right are despotic, barbarian, and regressive. And people who don't value the full exercise of the right to free expression are not fully evolved.

Societies impede their own progress when they tamper with the right to free speech and expression. The Christian church barbequed quite a few free-thinkers in its day and tried to shut up a lot more. Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei come immediately to mind. What these two said was offensive to Christians.

Of course, one may argue that those matters dealt with views on the natural world, and not about artistic freedom to caricature religious leaders. I don't see the material difference between the two. Freedom to speak and write freely cannot be based on the content of the expression.

Certainly, it is not hard to find someone who will be offended by the most innocuous of objects. Piglet (of Winnie the Pooh fame) is no longer allowed as a decoration on one's desk in one county in the UK because it could offend Muslims who consider pigs to be unclean. Not just objects, even symbols offend some. Every now and then, some group or the other takes up a call to ban the symbol sacred to the majority of Indians, the swastika. Why? Because the Nazis had used it.

My advice to anyone who is offended by the lawful expression of free speech is simple: don't watch, hear, or read whatever it is you find offensive. Nobody is forcing you to read or watch what you find offensive. Reach for the remote and switch the channel. If you cannot find the channel you want, start your own channel. Or newspaper. Or whatever. But for the sake of sanity, keep your sensibilities to yourself if you find free expression offensive.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Related links:

Read Part 2 of the Freedom to be Offended
.
Where's the anger? (Albion's Seedling) The comments are revealing as well.

This cartoon about Piglet is priceless.

An old item from Nov 2003: "BC" cartoon seen as a slur on Islam. This one is pretty unbelievable.

Atanu Dey currently hangs his hat in Pune, and works in Mumbai, but his heart is in Berkeley. An economist by profession, he scribbles occasionally on India's Development.
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The Freedom to be Offended

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Author: Atanu Dey

 

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#1
Shanti
URL
February 2, 2006
12:54 PM

Fantastic read, Atanu! My feelings, exactly! As long as you are not held at gunpoint to read, hear or say stuff you find offensive - you don't have to read, hear and say stuff you find offensive. Simple!

#2
temporal
URL
February 2, 2006
01:26 PM

wish life were as simple

try questioning the numbers who died in holocaust under the pretext of free and fair discussion and let us see how many of us chose not to read or hear about it

the freedom of the press has existed for years...why these sudden efforts now?...it smacks less about freedom and more about bigotry and intolerance towards their fellow immigrant muslims whose skin is also of different colour

#3
indiacorporatewatch
URL
February 2, 2006
02:03 PM

Temporal has a valid point that I myself have seen instances where anyone who questions the holocaust numbers is branded an anti-semite.

Freedom of speech has been taken to ridiculous levels in denmark on both sides.

While the danes make jokes of allah
the muslims are free to form radical outfits like the Hizbul-ul-tahir
that openly talk's about converting europe into an Islamic state


#4
dkaps
URL
February 2, 2006
02:54 PM

Atanu.. my friend! You stole my thunder! :-)

I had queued up another blog on the same topic (also on my personal blog: http://www.drishtikone.com/?q=node/970).... and ended up asking the same question - Yes, Muslims are offended by anything thats against their belief.. but are (indeed SHOULD) even the "non-believers" bound by the same beliefs??

I had pointed it out to Deepti on another post where she came up with the phallus-yoni explanation of how Shiv Lingam depicts Aryan-Dravidian scenario.. had she done it with respect it to say the Prophet or Jesus... man.. this blog would have been shut off by now and she would be with four bodyguards!!

There is a beauty in discretion.. but then the attachment to Guru/Master/Deity/Prophet/Saints - is nothing but way away from realizing the Universal Truth!

Cheers,
dkaps
Drishtikone.com

#5
Niraj
URL
February 2, 2006
02:57 PM

In my opinion, freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. Popular speech need not be protected.

Nevertheless, if offensive cartoons is what ires Muslims, there is plenty of anti-Hindu, anti-christian, and anti-Semetic cartoons to be found in the Islamic press.

Want some examples go check out MEMRI:

http://www.memri.org

#6
Mr X
February 2, 2006
03:14 PM

Its all very well to point fingers elsewhere...VHP, RSS,BJP,Shiv Sena et al are in the same category as these Muslim fanatics...they were the ones who threatened MF Hussain for his paintings...protested against Valentine's day, protested against the film "Fire" etc
We are quick to support freedom of expression in other countries..how about supporting genuine freedom of expression in India too...

#7
Shanti
URL
February 2, 2006
03:36 PM

Mr.X - the VHP-wallahs are as big idiots as are the others. I am an equal-opportunity condemener :)

#8
Atanu Dey
URL
February 2, 2006
03:39 PM

Shanti: Thanks for the approval.

temporal: Here goes--"I doubt that the Jewish holocaust ever happened. I think it is just a Zionist conspiracy to malign the most peace-loving of all people the Nazis. I also believe that the acts of Islamic terrorism we suffer with sickening regularity is actually done by Israelis." Now let me see how many Jews will call for my death.

indiacorporatewatch: If you watch the news, you may figure that the call to convert non-Muslims predates the publication of a bunch of cartoons in an obscure newspaper of a tiny little state.

Niraj: There is one standard for them, and there is an entirely different standard for us. Can we say 'hypocrisy'?

#9
Atanu Dey
URL
February 2, 2006
04:04 PM

Mr X: Absolutely right. Freedom of expression in India is something I hope I can see in my lifetime. But I doubt it. In India, not just two-bit parties, even the government gets into the business of banning stuff. Remember that the Satanic Verses was banned first by the oh-so-holy Govt of India. The Ayatollahs of Iran were aghast and upped the ante and put a fatwa on that guy Rushdie.

#10
Shanti
URL
February 2, 2006
04:20 PM

Atanu, don't forget the banning of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" :)

#11
Mr X
February 2, 2006
04:54 PM

We need a US style first amendment in India I guess.

Freedom to blashpheme is the hallmark of a truly enlightened and free society.

#12
gazelle
URL
February 2, 2006
05:08 PM

Pardon me i'm a free speech-thought-expression-privacy defender. and lament its low levels in many countries and communities, muslim or not. But I'm afraid you have it the wrong side up.

I suppose it would be okay then to be offended and simply to not see or hear, that is ignore, when this was going on:

Der Sturmer caricatures

I think a better sense of media responsibility is called for. btw i have the toons in my blog. If however the intention is positive, that is, to constructively deal with problems in the muslim communities, (rather than to instill through shock a sense of freedom of expression), much more sophisticated ways than this need to be employed.


#13
Shanti
URL
February 2, 2006
05:41 PM

Gazelle, check out my last comment in your post about the issue. Apparently, the Muslim delegation added some additional cartoons that were even more offensive to the 12 published ones to inflame emotions. That was the reason why the controversy is erupting now even though the cartoons were initially published in September.

#14
gazelle
URL
February 2, 2006
05:54 PM

what is your source.

I read something like this in a bbc report[?] but what it mentioned was that some other cartoons (not the danish paper ones) were also circulating in the general populace.

I think it was not in dispute for the Danish muslim delegation about which cartoons were published, because you could just see the paper.

The point of the other ones was to show, i imagine, how things get exagerated and distorted, and which needed to be contained and clarified.
[but i wonder what these other ones were -_o ]

best

#15
Shanti
URL
February 2, 2006
08:32 PM

Hi Gazelle, here is the link I got the info from.

#16
gazelle
URL
February 3, 2006
04:27 AM

niraj, memri is a propagandist group closely allied with the neo-cons, as can be gleaned from this page.

about Memri

about neo-cons

#17
gazelle
URL
February 3, 2006
04:44 AM

thanks shanti,
but i cant trace this to any authoritative source, especially about the guy who spread the wrong cartoons. That particular blog does not cite a source! just states this. I expect them to put the booklet withe th extra cartoons on the net. They say another danish paper gave it to them [?].
best.

#18
AkaRoundPeg
URL
February 3, 2006
08:18 AM

Hats off to Jordon which published these cartoons in their paper with an edit urging people not to have such violent reactions to what is after all just cartoons in a newspaper.

#19
Niraj
URL
February 3, 2006
11:31 AM

Gazelle:

I know MEMRI is associated with neo-cons, but what does that have anything to do with it?

All MEMRI does is translate newspaper articles from the Middle East. It's not a commentary site.

Is their something wrong witht their translations?
If so, please let me know and I won't read them anymore.

#20
gazelle
URL
February 3, 2006
01:58 PM

niraj,

You wrote: "if offensive cartoons is what ires Muslims, there is plenty of anti-Hindu, anti-christian, and anti-Semetic cartoons to be found in the Islamic press."
and you then suggested MEMRI.

I dont see the connection. rather than being pro-islamic and anti-hindu/christian/semitic, memri is the pro-likud american setup - the exact opposite in some ways.

It is definitely not Islamic press as you suggest. It wants to give u selected info with a slant - always a story to tell you how degraded Islamic society is - you know just pick out the worst - and how only they have the right solutions - carve up the middle east to suit their purposes such as oil - in the name of democracy ...

What you will get there is not objectivity or neutrality but a certain angle always, not a diversity of points of view like a good/authoritative source of info. I would suggest IPS News, Guardian as insightful balanced sources and of course DesiCritics.

best

#21
Shanti
URL
February 3, 2006
02:11 PM

Gazelle, even if the commentary in MEMRI is slanted as you say the cartoons and the material they translate are actual stuff published in ME-countries. Not in obscure newspapers, but in state-sanctioned ones in most cases. They provide their sources, so regardless of their bias I tend to believe atleast the content of their argument.

As for Guardian - unbiased? I highly doubt it. I guess it depends on the POV, but I prefer sources who openly declare their bias so I am forewarned about taking their words with a grain of salt than those who pretend to be unbiased.

Even Desicritics is biased - not as a site, but every single critic writing here is biased one way or the other. It is a mix of all these biases that provides a balanced picture to the reader.

#22
gazelle
URL
February 3, 2006
02:29 PM

I totally agree o_o

the state sanctioned ones are the worst.

#23
Shanti
URL
February 3, 2006
03:48 PM

Completely agree :) They have to work hard to keep their vote banks...

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