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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Free Speech and the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

I guess this is a sequel to my previous post about Sony and the Interview, in which I questioned why our politicians (in that case Barack Obama) get so worked up and personally involved in our right to make fun of other countries.

In the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we have a situation where making fun of another people's religion has very predictably resulted in people taking offense, and has very predictably resulted in an extreme subset of those people taking violent action.  I saw "very predictably" because even the most obtuse Westerner has known for some time that many Muslims take the rule against depicting Mohammed very seriously, and there is a subset that think that violators of that rule need to be punished.  Here's a paragraph from Wikipedia on the Jyllands-Posten (the Jutland Post) Muhammad cartoons controversy on the topic:

The Qu'ran condemns idolatry, and this has led some Islamic scholars to interpret it as prohibiting figurative representation; this is known as aniconism. However, since Islam has many centres of religious authority, opinion and tradition about this is not uniform.[142] In popular practice today there is no general injunction against pictorial representation of people outside of religious contexts.[143] Generally, images of Muhammad have been prohibited throughout history. In practice, images of Muhammad have been made on many occasions, generally in a restricted and socially regulated way; for example, they are often stylised or do not show Muhammad's face.[144] Within Muslim communities, views about pictorial representations have varied: Shi'a Islam has been generally tolerant of pictorial representations of human figures while Sunni Islam generally forbids any pictorial representation of living beings, albeit with some variation in practice outside a religious context.[145] Some contemporary interpretations of Islam, such as those followed by adherents of Wahhabism, are entirely aniconistic and condemn pictorial representations of any kind.
The Wikipedia article touches on some of the same points I am trying to make -- the interrelationships between self-censorship, political correctness, common sense, corporate profits, the "value" of free speech, and the ways different governments "enforce" that value (in the U.S., the first amendment).

In the U.S., even though most of us don't like the thought of KKK or Nazi marches, we tolerate them, because enacting a law against them would mean that the government is suppressing speech.  Some countries have laws against holocaust denial and other forms of hate speech; we don't.  But that doesn't mean that we as a society approve of holocaust deniers, Nazis, or the KKK.  It just means that we believe in a nearly-absolute right to free speech.  That right is also why corporations can now donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates that they think will be most hospitable to their bottom line.

But there seems to be an undercurrent that suggests that there's something wrong with somebody who engages in "self-censorship," which is arguably what Sony was doing, and is also arguably what Charlie Hebdo should have done.

In other words, right now I might have ten great ideas for Mohammed cartoons that I think are truly hilarious.  Oh, in fact, I just had another idea -- maybe I should hold a contest for the best Mohammed cartoon.  I'd give a million dollars -- or perhaps just a lot of recognition -- to the one that ranks highest in both offensiveness (to Muslims) and hilarity (to non-Muslims).
Am I being a coward for not implementing any of those ideas?
Would I be some kind of a free speech "hero" if I were to implement them?
I don't think so.  Just as in normal conversation, many of our thoughts need to be kept to ourselves, public discourse also can benefit from self-censorship.

In the Jyllands-Posten controversy, many Muslims peacefully protested the publication of the cartoons.  That even included a lawsuit against Charlie Hebdo, which had republished the cartoons in France.  Those peaceful protests led nowhere, in view of the strong free speech rights in the countries where the protests were brought.  Of course, there were violent protests and credible death threats as well, and this is what led to members of the Charlie Hebdo staff receiving police protection.

Wikipedia also reports on this instance of self-censorship:
In 2009, when Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen wanted to publish a book about the controversy titled The Cartoons that Shook the World, Yale University Press refused to publish the cartoons and other representations of Muhammad out of fear for the safety of its staff.[104] In response, another company published Muhammad: The "Banned" Images in what it called "a 'picture book'—or errata to the bowdlerized version of Klausen's book."
There is no question that there is "free speech" value in publishing these cartoons, especially in an academic book like that proposed by Jytte Klausen.  But there is also considerable offense to Muslims.  In the big scheme of things, I'm not really sure that the "free speech" value in the book outweighs the offense that it causes, even to peaceful Muslims.  It's certainly easy enough to describe the pictures without reproducing them.

To go back to the Nazi example, most of us would agree that hate speech by Nazis has no inherent value, and, if anything, causes more harm than good.  We protect it only because of fears that if the government starts interfering with free speech in one area, there's nothing to stop it from suppressing free speech in other areas where the message might have real value.

In other words, "free speech" should not be a no-brainer exercise where the only answer is that the speech should go forward.  Instead, each of us should -- as we do in everyday life -- consider first whether any "value" associated with the speech outweighs whatever offense it might create.  And then if we think that our speech really has a valuable message, we should consider whether there are less offensive ways of conveying the same message.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Krauthammer sees a double standard:
Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that there was a double standard in many protesters' demands for religious sensitivity in this case, but not in others. He asked, "Have any of these 'moderates' ever protested the grotesque caricatures of Christians and, most especially, Jews that are broadcast throughout the Middle East on a daily basis?
The answer is "no, why should they?"  The whole point is that different cultures and religions will be offended by different things.  I'm sure that if one questions the moderate Muslims protesting the images of Mohamed about caricatures of Christians and Jews, they would probably agree that those images are insensitive to Jews and Christians.  But why should they protest about that?

And let's talk about Christians for a minute.  As with Islam, there are Christian splinter groups that are intolerant and can be violent.  There are those who condone murder of abortion providers.  There are those who defend "faith healing" even when it causes children to die.  There are those who feel that assisted suicide is a sin against God.  There are those who think there is a war on Christmas going on.  Remember the Branch Davidians -- David Koresh and his gun-toting "Mighty Men"?  And of course, not so long ago, Christians were killing both each other and members of other religions based solely on their differences in religious beliefs.  We recently had a devout Christian school-shooter.

The question of whether engaging in the free speech might actually be dangerous -- because the Muslim extremists will target you -- is a separate question.  That makes the choice NOT to engage in offensive speech all the more logical -- why risk your own life just to be offensive?  If I decide to tailor my speech or conduct so as to not offend someone like that -- be it a crazed Christian or a crazed Muslim -- then I'm simply engaging in self-preservation.  There's no need to incite violence just because one disagrees with the other's basis for becoming violent.

But the problem is that people seem to be mixing these concepts up.  They seem to be almost saying that just BECAUSE Muslim extremists or the North Koreans might react violently, that's ALL THE MORE reason that the offensive speech must go forward.  To me, that's absolutely backward.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not totally blaming Charlie Hebdo.  Those cartoonists were quite courageous, and it sounds like they believed that their message was important.  I personally just don't think the message was so important that it needed to be expressed in a way that would offend hundreds of millions of people, and would predictably provoke a few misguided adherents to the point of extreme violence.

The real problem, as I've said before, is that we are not attacking radical Islam at its roots.  Instead, through our actions over the years, we have been simply fertilizing it.  The wars, the civilian casualties, the torture, the abuse of prisoners, and our self-righteousness throughout it all.   It is no wonder that radical clerics are able to direct the post-adolescent fury of aimless young men against the "rest" of the world, especially with the promise that they can "die as martyrs."  Instead, we should simply strive to all be of one world, with or without religions.

I'm not sure that cartoons making fun of a major world religion are really going to help get us there.



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