Sunday, February 05, 2006

Exercising the Freedom to Offend

The Muhammad caricature controversy raises some interesting issues. We can begin with the obvious: newspapers have the legal right to print "offensive" or "blasphemous" materials, and ought not to be censored. But the moral question of whether they exercised this discretion laudably, remains open to debate. For those who oppose the publication, peaceful protests are quite legitimate. Threats of violence most certainly are not. The most immoral behaviour on display here is clearly from those extremist Muslims who have responded aggressively. They deserve universal condemnation. The more interesting moral questions concern western newspapers:
  1. What to say of the Danish press: was the original publication of the cartoons morally questionable?

  2. 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.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. >The DP seems to be suggesting that the threats of Muslim extremists provide us with new and additional reasons to spite them (Question for the DP editor: if a Muslim told you not to leap off a cliff, would you therefore jump?)

    Imagine if there is a bully at school and he tries to steal money from every new kid.
    Let’s say the new kids either "give him the money" or ignore him. The problem remains that it is a profit making exercise for him to hit you JUST IN CASE you will give him money.
    Now if the new kids either "give him money" or "prosecute him to the full extent of the law" or "break his nose" his bullying will cease to be profitable.

    a more simple example would be if a theif was caught the punishment would only be to take the stuff he stole back.

    The DP knows that people like the herald will surrender to threats and as long as some people will do that others have to make up for them to make sure incentives remain on the side of behaving civilly.

  3. (General Notice: I'll be moderating this comments thread, and deleting any comments that I think are inappropriate for this blog. I'm especially wary of outbursts from anonymous commentators. You may, of course, start your own blog and say whatever you want there.)

    Genius - the Herald was quite explicit, as was I, that we should not "surrender to threats". They made clear that their decision was based on independent reasons. The question is whether threats to the contrary should motivate us do something we don't have any prior reason to want to do in the first place (namely, cause gratuitous offence to a bunch of people). It is quite unlike the schoolkid bully scenario for that reason. (Most of us have prior reason to want to keep our lunch money.)

    Now, perhaps this point is too subtle, and so the extremists would get the mistaken impression that threats were a successful tactic (when in fact we chose not to republish for entirely different reasons). That would be a worry. So perhaps to avoid this, we should spite the bullies, just to make it perfectly clear that they won't deter us. But I think we can do that in less offensive ways, as suggesting in my post's conclusion.

  4. Another analogy: imagine the bully threatens to pulp you if you insult his little sister. Is that really any sort of reason for you to insult his little sister? (Assume you have no other reason to insult her.)

  5. Richard, I'm not sure exactly where I stand on this whole cartoon issue, but here are some thoughts & reactions to what you've written.

    I don't understand your dismissal of the moral relevance of the fact that many people were offended. People who are offended are having their desires frustrated, and they're unhappy. You can't just dismiss their disutility by saying that it's their fault for being offended (unless you want to argue for one of those modified forms of utilitarianism where certain desires just don't count), and you can't dismiss their offense by saying "well, anyone could claim to be offended about anything" (unless you want to argue that they are not really offended, but are just claiming to be). There is a strong argument against direct utilitarianism here (since it would give potentially-offended people too much power and encourage people to get more and more offended in order to get their way, at great cost important values like open debate) but you get there by emphasizing the other values at stake, not by minimizing the importance of millions of offended people.

    The distinction that you make between offense that is caused by objects that really are offensive and offense that is not does not seem to me like the most promising way to build the indirect utilitarian argument. For one thing, cultural traditions and community norms play a large role in determining what people find offensive. Consider, for instance, the deeply felt religious beliefs about purity and pollution that would lead Hindus in India to be highly offended if someone violated those norms (like by entering a temple when she shouldn't). There is an enormous amount of structure and stability to those cultural standards of what is offensive, which shows that getting away from objects that really are offensive in themselves does not leave you in the anything-goes space where "anyone could claim to be offended about anything." There is also the deeper problem of how to define what objects or activities are intrinsically offensive, and even if there is a solution to that, it seems unlikely that intrinsic offensiveness would track most of the morally relevant properties of offense-producing occasions.

    Part of the problem with the Muhammad cartoons is that they occur at the junction between two cultures, with different values, different standards about what is offensive and what is not, and a fair amount of hostility between each other already. Even if we can agree that the Muslim world needs to adapt to more liberal norms of free expression, and to learn not to be offended at things like cartoon images of Muhammad, it may be better (in multiple ways) if the Western world doesn't try to force that change confrontationally. It is important for us to hold strong to values like free expression, but the impulse to act to send a message affirming our values can be a dangerous one, especially when dealing with people who come from a different cultural perspective, because the message that they hear is often very different from the message that we intend to send. Here, for instance, many Muslims who saw the original publication as offensive are liable to see the re-publication as the West rallying the troops against them.

    I'm not sure what we should be doing, but those are some thoughts.

  6. "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."

    I may just be repeating some of what Blar said above, but this looks to me to be suspect. Firstly, because I'm not convinced by your distinction between things that are offensive-in-themselves and those that are offensive-because-we-think-they-are - how on earth would the former exist? It's surely not a natural property of objects out there in the world! If anything is a tertiary property, I think offensiveness is.

    Secondly, and, I think, more obviously, I would've thought you'd be committed to depictions of Muhammed being 'offensive' in your second sense if Islam was (by and large) true. That is, I think you're assuming atheism as the kind of default position that we're working from here. I'm perfectly happy with that as an ethical stance, but, lets face it, politics has to make a few more concessions to varying belief systems.

    Still, largely an excellent post, which I mostly agree with. I'm not even sure the above issues impinge on your final conclusion anyway.


  7. richard,
    My point is that the threat is a negitive in itself. You want to discourage peopel making threats - if you never discourage them then as soon as one person caves in then they get advantage- a bit like one person buying somthign from spam justifies everyone getting it.

    Still not sure of your point even if the herald is not "giving in" the problem is that someone will be - afteral the cartonists are in hiding and the cartons were written because peopel were scared to write about islam!

    the bully clearly exists and has been bulying for some time. (not that this is an unusual case but that doesnt mean it isnt worth puting the incentives in the right places)


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