The Freedom to be Offended
"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Many Islamic countries have withdrawn their diplomatic staff from Denmark, besides demanding that the Danish government apologize for the insult to Muslims and to punish the newspaper editor and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.
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.
The Freedom to be Offended
- » Published on February 02, 2006
- » Type: Opinion
- » Filed under: