- What to say of the Danish press: was the original publication of the cartoons morally questionable?
- How the rest of us should respond: should other newspapers reprint the cartoons?
General principles: There is little question that the cartoons would foreseeably upset a lot of people. That provides an immediate (but weak) reason against publication. For publication to be warranted thus requires sufficient countervailing reasons to be presented. (As the NZ Herald note, "Muslims are a small minority of the population and we are free to offend their religious sensitivities if we want to. The only question to consider is, why would we want to?") However, a free press cannot let fear of "causing offense" deter it from speaking the truth, challenging ideas, and so forth. Thus, so as long as there are some genuine reasons to favour the publication, I think these might fairly easily make such action morally permissible.
Further, if the freedom of the press is seriously at risk, then I think it could be morally admirable to assert this right through its exercise, in hopes of undermining tyranny.
Finally, we must distinguish two senses of "offensiveness". First, there is the purely subjective property of causing someone to feel offended. This property has little moral significance; the problem lies in the observer, and not the object. Anyone can claim to be "offended" by anything at all, and if we gave significant weight to such arbitrary sensitivities then the effect would be to shut down debate and the free exchange of ideas. However, in the second sense, it may be that the object itself is offensive, in that it is an appropriate and reasonable emotional response for others to be offended by it. This objective property seems a more legitimate moral consideration.
(Interestingly, Stumbling and Mumbling appears to deny that such ego-emotional responses are ever warranted. Rather, he suggests that rude actions may offend against standards of decency, and so forth, but not against people per se. In any case, it makes no difference to my subsequent arguments.)
Some relevant facts regarding the Danish question:
The drawings, which include a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, were meant as satirical illustrations accompanying an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. [Danish paper] Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published the cartoons in response to the difficulty of Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen to find artists to illustrate his children's book about Muhammad, for fear of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Islamic teachings forbid the depiction of Muhammad as a measure against idolatry; however, in the past there have been non-satirical depictions of Muhammad by Muslims.
Self-censorship due to fear of violence is a serious and legitimate issue to discuss. It could (potentially) be a genuine threat to the substantive freedom of the press (without which the formal freedom granted by law is worthless). So I think it was reasonable for Jyllands-Posten to highlight this. However, they could have done it more appropriately. The bomb cartoon just seems gratuitously offensive stereotyping, and I don't see any good reason for its inclusion. Others were more justifiable for their biting social commentary:
An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women... In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke."
One shows a nervous caricaturist, shakingly drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.
There is nothing objectionable about those ones, at least. When Muslims complain that all depictions of Muhammad are "offensive" in the morally relevant sense, they are simply mistaken. Perhaps they feel offended by it, but they ought not to. They are being unreasonable; the fault lies in them, and not the depictions.
To answer the first question then, I think the Danish paper deserves some criticism on the basis that they ought to have been more selective in their choice of which cartoons to publish. Their article could easily have been morally blameless, if only they'd done it slightly differently.
Now, what of the rest of us? We may inherit whatever reasons the original publishers would have had, so (ceteris paribus) we can swiftly conclude that a more selective (re)publication, along the lines recommended above, would be fine. But a more interesting possibility arises: might we have more reason to republish them? Even supposing that the original publication was in moral error, might it in fact be right to repeat this "mistake" in full, in defence of free speech? [Update: Nigel Kearney explicitly endorses this idea.]
Possibly. I must say I greatly respect the Jordanian paper that republished the cartoons, urging fellow Muslims to "be reasonable", and asking: "Who offends Islam more? A foreigner who endeavors to draw the prophet as described by his followers in the world, or a Muslim with an explosive belt who commits suicide in a wedding party in Amman or elsewhere." The editor was subsequently fired, alas. But his bravery is surely laudable, as was his message. [Update: turns out the poor guy is being charged with blasphemy. How utterly contemptible Muslim society is! Though, as No Right Turn notes, similarly archaic laws are still on the books here in NZ. Shame on us too.] Though the message does put the publications in quite a different light, so it isn't clear that this example confirms the principle that affirming free speech provides new reasons. Perhaps the reasons in this case arose from other features of the situation.
What about places like New Zealand, where press freedoms face no real threat? The Herald, linked above, concluded that they lacked reason to republish the cartoons. The Dominion Post thought otherwise, claiming: "not to publish because of fear of disturbing the sensibilities of Muslims would be to give way in the face of bullying threats. That is what Muslims are seeking to have the Western democracies do with their threats of bombs and trade boycotts."
I wholeheartedly agree that the press must not be deterred by "fear". However, respect and decency count against causing gratuitous offence, as already noted. The DP seems to be suggesting that the threats of Muslim extremists provide us with new and additional reasons to spite them, even if we had no prior/independent reasons to so act. (Question for the DP editor: if a Muslim told you not to leap off a cliff, would you therefore jump?) No, I retract that, my parenthetical joke is unfair. The point is not to generally spite the bullies. It is rather to symbolically affirm that our commitment to free speech will not be deterred by their threats. And even if the New Zealand press faces no real threat itself, still a show of solidarity with the Europeans might be appropriate.
I think there is something to be said for this. It may be a pretty weak reason, in our case, and I'm not sure whether it's enough to outweigh the offense (though at least a careful editorial might make clear why it is no longer gratuitous). Certainly we ought to defend the right to print offensive materials, and strongly condemn those who threaten violence or advocate censorship. But we can do all that without exercising our right to reprint the Muhammad-bomb cartoon. Indeed, we can do that even as we criticise its original publication for poor taste.
One way to reinforce this message would be to publish different cartoons satirising Muhammad (and this whole "controversy"), without tarring all Muslims as terrorists. For example, Plantu's cartoon in a French newspaper cleverly represented Muhammad using copies of the sentence "I may not draw Muhammad". Now that's just plain cool.