Friday, February 17, 2006

The Silent Treatment

I've blogged previously about why free speech rights absolutely protect the publication of the Danish cartoons, but real politik principles, common sense and decency would argue against it.

Justice Brennan would say "I may disagree violently with what you say--but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I'm sure he would also say "And I would use my own free speech rights to argue vehemently against you and point out what an idiot you are for saying such things."

So here's an Op-Ed by the New York Times saying all that I said, but more elegantly and coherently:

Even many Americans who condemn the cartoon's publication accept the premise that the now-famous Danish newspaper editor set out to demonstrate: in the West we don't generally let interest groups intimidate us into what he called "self-censorship."

What nonsense. Editors at mainstream American media outlets delete lots of words, sentences and images to avoid offending interest groups, especially ethnic and religious ones. It's hard to cite examples since, by definition, they don't appear. But use your imagination.

Hugh Hewitt, a conservative blogger and evangelical Christian, came up with an apt comparison to the Muhammad cartoon: "a cartoon of Christ's crown of thorns transformed into sticks of TNT after an abortion clinic bombing." As Mr. Hewitt noted, that cartoon would offend many American Christians. That's one reason you haven't seen its like in a mainstream American newspaper.

Or, apparently, in many mainstream Danish newspapers. The paper that published the Muhammad cartoon, it turns out, had earlier rejected cartoons of Christ because, as the Sunday editor explained in an e-mail to the cartoonist who submitted them, they would provoke an outcry.

So why not take the model that has worked in America and apply it globally? Namely: Yes, you are legally free to publish just about anything, but if you publish things that gratuitously offend ethnic or religious groups, you will earn the scorn of enlightened people everywhere. With freedom comes responsibility.

Of course, it's a two-way street. As Westerners try to attune themselves to the sensitivities of Muslims, Muslims need to respect the sensitivities of, for example, Jews. But it's going to be hard for Westerners to sell Muslims on this symmetrical principle while flagrantly violating it themselves. That Danish newspaper editor,along with his American defenders, is complicating the fight against anti-Semitism.

Peace prevails in America, and one thing that keeps it is strict self-censorship.
And not just by media outlets. Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious. Some might call this dishonest, and maybe it is, but it also holds moral truth: until you've walked inn the shoes of other people, you can't really grasp their frustrations and resentments, and you can't really know what would and wouldn't offend you if you were part of their crowd.

The Danish editor's confusion was to conflate censorship and self-censorship. Not only are they not the same thing — the latter is what allows us to live in a spectacularly diverse society without the former; to keep censorship out of the legal realm, we practice it in the moral realm. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but worse things are imaginable.


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