Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Free Speech and the Culture War

For a kind of similar, and yet mostly different free speech issue, consider the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed as a violent terrorist debacle. "Free speech" inviting a "culture war" (I'm not making that up, that's what the Danish Interior Minister said) has ignited waves of violence, resulting in several deaths. I think every law professor's take on this (and I agree) is that the speech is completely free and should not have been prohibited or retracted. There should be great deference to the idea of freedom of the press (also not absolute). In this case, the cartoons are very clearly valid free speech (just stupid, offensive, in poor taste and judgment speech). The Newspaper editor should have thought of the effects though (not being forced to by the government, he should have just exercised personal judgment) before publishing them, as he did when he refused to publish anti-Jesus cartoons. Whe the discretion for one religion and not the other?

Also, the ensuing protest of the cartoons should not have been handled in this manner--that is, flippantly. We are not afraid to criticize Islam, as the Minister says. We criticize it all the time. And while criticizing a demographic (Moslems, Jews, Evangelical Christians, Mormons) seems completely within the pale of ordinary (albeit not very polite) discourse, criticizing the emblematic figures of each religion can be considered quite incendiary. Saying "Jews are parsimonious" is bad enough and invites outcry, try saying something about Yahweh. Saying Evangelical Christians are blindly self-righteous and small-minded--kind of offensive. Saying "Jesus was the ultimate false prophet" and you're inviting a mob with pitchforks. People are mad enough at the Rolling Stones' depiction of Kanye West as a crucified Jesus--but that's not a personal attack on what Jesus stood for. Moreover, it's not TWELVE attacks on what Jesus stood for.

I'm not saying the Danish newspaper shouldn't have printed the cartoons--it was their right. But inviting a culture war, knowing that they would incite violence among the more extremist and militant Islamic groups and in so doing punish by association the millions more moderate, peaceful Islamic citizens in their country--that was wrong.

The remedy? There is none. What's done has been done, and it's beyond the stage for a public retraction/apology (not that it was ever coming)--Denmark has erupted into violence, and people have died. The cartoons came out four months ago, and there's almost a fatwa against the newspapers. Unfortunately, this is not a case that is easily solved by a commercial boycott (the proper response in most situations; it's not prior restraint, rather it's ex post counter-protest achieved by economic persuasion). So what works in the Abercromibe case (don't shop there) or a more common media case (ask advertisers to withdraw support, boycott all products that support that media until a public apology/withdrawal occurs) obviously isn't working in Denmark. Rather than peaceful, countering speech/commercial protest, words taken as an assaultive and violent on the prophet of Islam have been countered with real violence. Newspapers across Europe (the dumb-ass conservative ones) are reprinting the cartoons to express solidarity with the Danish newspaper (that's dumb, newspapers shouldn't be platforms for politics). Yet to not print them would smack of bending in the face of opposition, and bad reporting. U.S. newspapers aren't printing them for example. Without seeing them ( have, most of them are pretty offensive) it's hard to understand why moslems would take such offense--and you'd lack the insight of learning what it takes to give great offense (Mohammed with bombs)

In this case, I don't think it's any longer a case of free speech v. repression of speech. It's literally a war between two different groups, up in the air are notions of democracy, religious pluralism, national identity. It's not just about newspapers or speech any more. The mainstream, government-supported newspaper is not the minority voice here. It's an all out culture war, and I can't see who's going to "win" this one, if there can be winners at all.

For far more insightful and useful comments, go here, here, here, and here.

PS: For all of you snarks who are wondering why I didn't post an image of the offensive cartoons when I am arguing that newspapers should feel free to (so long as it's not a political agenda): I'm not a fucking newspaper. But I can, as blog editor, decide what to include in this publishing medium. What I feel is essential to the post goes in, whats not essential, I leave out (in the previous post, the offensiveness of the t-shirt image was the platform for my comments on the offense I took to the t-shirts, yet my support for free speech). In this post, I'm blogging about culture wars and religious pluralism in an increasingly heterogeneous Europe, and how free speech issues are but a screen for the truly unspoken issues that plague Europe (and America). Plus, I can decide who I want to offend. Clearly, I do not wish to offend my female readers by joking about rape--and I'm not, so the image there was not intended to offend women, but rather to tell them that there is something offensive out there. Thus, showing the picture isn't offensive per se (especially in this context) but buying and wearing the t-shirt would be.

I personally don't want to offend Moslems, particularly my friends, so I do not elect to have my blog be yet another platform for these stupid cartoons, and I feel the act of including the cartoons is offensive in and of itself. I am staging a "commercial boycott" as it were. Yet, in the interests of more than pontificating, I want you to give readers the opportunity to see the cartoons for themselves--hosted on someone else's site--to form their own opinions. End of disclaimer.