Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Cartooniad: The Epic Continues!

In case you have been sojourning lately at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft, here's the situation: A while ago, a Danish newpaper published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. After a delay of half a year, involving much hard work on the part of extremist Muslims in publicising the drawings, they sparked arson, murder, and mayhem at various spots in the Muslim part of the world. For a long time, they went unpublished in the print media of England and the United States. Finally, very recently, three college newspapers published some of the drawings: The Harvard Crimson, the Illinois Illini, and the Badger Herald here at the University of Wisconsin.

At Illinois, reprisals were swift: both the general editor and the opinion page editor were put on suspension by the newspaper's publisher. Here at the UW, Chancellor John Wiley has so far shown restraint.

On Monday (Feb. 18) the Herald will publish an op-ed piece which will be signed by several people, but the actual authors are two friends of mine, Don Downs and Ken Mayer of the UW - Madison Poli. Sci. Department.

Here is their essay:


The Freedom to Offend

Controversy has beset the Badger Herald for publishing an editorial accompanied by a cartoon of Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as bomb. Critics have hurled several accusations at the Herald, including questions about the timing of the speech act, the motivations of the editorial board, and the claim that the board could have achieved its purpose by describing the image rather than publishing it. Such charges often attend the publication of contentious or offending comments or portrayals, and are a proper part of the critical examination of any controversy. Human motivation is often complex, and the decision to publish something controversial is no exception to this fact of life.

But the most prevalent elements of this criticism – that the Herald editors should be punished for showing the cartoon, or condemned because the cartoon was blasphemous – are ones that no democratic society should accept. We must resist the idea that the expression of a political idea, or a statement of criticism, or satire, should be subject to sanction or prohibited, simply because one group or another finds that idea, criticism, or satire offensive.

Many examples of historically important expression caused great offense in their time. Socrates was put to death for blaspheming the Greek and Athenian gods. Galileo was threatened with torture for claiming that the earth was not the center of the universe, an idea that conflicted with the established position of the Church. Martin Luther King was arrested and spied upon for his opposition to Jim Crow. To be sure, most offensive expression does not rise to the level of these paragons of intellectual and moral stature, but there is no principled way to know, in advance, what will ultimately be of value. Indeed, Socrates was considered dangerous precisely because of the strength of his arguments. Galileo’s heretical claims were, in fact, scientifically valid. And Martin Luther King’s moral truths are self-evident to us today.

The Supreme Court has rightly ruled that offense may not be the basis for punishment because there is no principled way to draw a line that distinguishes ideas from the offense that they might cause. The alternative is to reinforce orthodoxy, and to encourage tepid expression rather than the kind of probing that sparks serious thought and counter-thought.

Allowing offense to be the basis of reprisal or censorship, moreover, simply gives groups or individuals the power to suppress the speech of anyone with whom they happen to disagree. In our liberal democracy, no group – however virtuous or religious – may claim an exemption from criticism or scrutiny, nor may any religion demand that secular society adhere to its own definitions of heresy or blasphemy. When such policies are attempted, they lead to bullying, favoritism based on power, and the end of meaningful freedom of speech and thought. The inevitable result is that certain issues and ideas become off limits to any discussion at all, based on a subjective and always-moving standard of who might take offense. We suspect that few people would want to live in an environment where the mere expression of an idea could lead to punishment.

The question is doubly important when we are speaking about the press. Newspapers – including the Badger Herald – routinely publish articles, cartoons, satire and commentary that one group or another will find offensive or even dangerous: consider how the campus might react to editorials disparaging affirmative action, supporting a boycott of Israel, or mocking fundamentalist Christians. Insisting that newspapers not publish anything that might be deemed offensive or blasphemous is an untenable and hazardous standard, one that subjects public discussion to a heckler’s veto.

Today, the question of the role of religion in American and international life is as important as it has ever been. In wrestling with the difficult questions of religion and politics, we need more freedom of speech and the courage to speak our truths, not less. For this reason, despite questions concerning timing, motive, and form, the Herald could be said to have performed a service for the community.

Let us now take advantage of this controversy to examine these questions. Criticism of the Herald is necessarily a part of this important process. Many people have made principled arguments that the Herald exercised poor judgment, and the editors can claim no exemption from criticism for their action. But such criticism must accept the basic tenets of free speech in a liberal democracy.

Donald Downs and Kenneth Mayer are professors of political science, UW-Madison. They express these views as members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, a group of UW-Madison faculty members who advocate academic freedom, and whose members join in supporting this essay.


I think Don and Ken have deftly identified the main issue, the one that indentifies it as a free-speech case, separating it from a whole school of red herrings. The question is: Should the editors of the Herald be punished for running the drawing? My own view is that the answer has to be the one that the prime minister of Denmark gave when certain Muslim clerics demanded that he punish the newspaper that originally ran the drawings: he said that he did not have the power to do so, and did not want that power. I hope and expect that Chancellor Wiley will have the courage to give the same answer.

Contrary to what some American politicians have suggested (including Bill Clinton, who should have known better), the cartoons did not cross any line drawn by any of the less brutal, more sensible sorts of censorship standards. They obviously did not offend simply for the sake of offending, they were not blasphemy for its own sake. They expressed opinions, whether right or wrong, about issues central to current public policy debates. To censor them would be to censor political speech and criminalize thoughts.

On the one hand. On the other hand, there are questions like: Are the drawings racist? Are they morally odious? Where the motives of the original publisher ignoble? Here I am inclined to give a very different sort of answer. While "racist" seems to be the wrong word (Islam is a religion, not a race), three of the drawings were very objectionable. They clearly alledged that Islam is, in general and apparently universally, violent and oppressive.

It is very important that we realize that there are Muslims who believe in liberal democracy and understand fully that free speech belongs to infidels as well as the faithful. They are unfortunately a small minority in their own countries, but this makes them all the more deserving of recognition. Some of them have risked their lives to defend the right of the Danish newspaper to publish the drawings.

These people should be cherished as heroes. You do not do this by suggesting, like the above-mentioned American politicians, that their defense of free speech goes too far.


Mark M said...

i really liked this piece when it was in the BH.


Lester Hunt said...

Thanks! I hadn't seen that one.