Thursday, February 28, 2008

Freedom of speech and the cartoon controversy

In my Media, Information and Law tutorial at uni I managed to get some fairly intense heat directed at me from people on both sides of the Mohammed Danish cartoon controversy. I don't know whether that indicates my independence of thought from all entrenched interests or if it just means I'm an irritating and argumentative bastard who annoys people of any political persuasion.

I did feel extremely defensive at one point when a guy in favour of publication was complaining about what I suggested was an inconsistency in his believing that publishing the cartoons was okay but publishing a phrase like "jews are the new nazis" should be illegal. His response was that talking about Nazis was an order of magnitude worse than mere publishing of caricature.

My response to that was incredibly poor: I thought not rationally, but combatively. My remark in retrospect was incredibly lame as I said something stupid about that being a subjective judgement. It's not. Or I don't think it is. Yet my response was motivated more by a desire not to let the other guy "get one over me" rather than any reasonable attempt to get at the truth.

I'm tempted to let myself believe that I did nothing wrong and that it was the other guy's combative approach that's to blame for me refusing to concede a point. But I don't think I should. And I think that the question of who's to blame for not adopting a reasonable attitude is extremely relevant to the question of the Danish caricature, and it's a question that's completely neglected by most commentators.

I wrote one of my essays last year on freedom of speech in an attempt to challenge my own extremely favourable attitude to free speech and see if there was something wrong with it. I came away from it still being extremely pro-freedom of speech, but I've gained a few insights along the way.

The first one is that in order for freedom of speech to have any meaning at all, there must be an audience for the speech. If a tyrant claims his subjects have freedom of speech because they can say whatever they like in the privacy of their own homes, is that really giving people the benefit of the freedom? Speech that no-one can hear is not really free speech at all.

Accepting that freedom of speech requires an audience immediately shows another way of looking at the cartoon issue: stop looking so much at the opinions and actions of the publishers and start looking at the opinions and actions of the audience.

This is where the dispute really lies when it comes to whether or not to publish the Danish cartoons: on the extreme pro-publication side, it is axiomatic that the members of the audience who feel offended by the cartoons are themselves responsible for "taking it too personally", with no real responsibility for the publisher. On the extreme anti-publication side, it is just as axiomatic that the audience members who feels offended and hurt can justly place the responsibility for that hurt, and for subsequent reactions to that hurt, on the publishers for "deliberately attacking Muslims".

I suspect that most people wouldn't be found on either extreme, and would only lean one way or the other. But I think that's a better starting point for the discussion of the issue: who is responsible for the feeling of harm and/or offense caused by the publication of the cartoons, and why? The answer may not be as straightforward as people think. My own experience above, where I was tempted to think it reasonable to blame my own poor actions on somebody else's speech, makes it harder for me to come down on the pro-publication position of believing the Muslim audience is "taking it too personally" than it otherwise would. I still strongly lean in favour of publication, though.


Anonymous said...

You are extreemely missinformed about the parents and the day of silence. They are about education and they are not about hate AT ALL.
Talk to someone who isn't militant and you will find out this is true.
Putting that family's picture on your site was way out of line. And they are not a Hutch fan club. They just dissagreed about their children seeing adults expecially teachers being rude. And by the way at the last board meeting an adult also booed a high school kid about the way he was treated at the DOS. The reason that There parents are not for the DOS is not that it is a GSA day, its because it interfears with the cause of the day, "School work", and many kids have been saying that if they choose to express themselfs by just being nutural they are treated badly. No one is against Homsexual people or their right to be heard, but not at the expense of everyone else. Joy

Z said...

Joy, I think you posted this in the wrrong place. In any case, I didn't put any photos of any family on my site. Phillip Garding put a photo on his site, where anyone can see it. I simply pointed out that it was there.

As this is a very poorly-trafficked blog (the people showing up from the CoDE Google Group is the most traffic I've had in, well, ever), I don't think you need to worry too much about exposure. As a gesture of good faith, I'll remove the hyperlink. I should point out though that this simply hides the problem, as literally anyone on the planet can find it just as easily as I did. Burying your head in the sand about responsible net use isn't going to help anyone.

The rest of your comments will be addressed if you can find your way to putting them on the post to which they actually apply.