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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Cartoon Controversy: Free Speech at a Moral Price


The idea that freedom of speech is always an absolute right in Western democracies is wrong. Whilst people in most cases in Western democracies have a legal right to speak their minds, the legal protection afforded to freedom of speech is sometimes merely coincidental to the morality of speech acts.


February 6, 2006

The idea that freedom of speech is always an absolute right in Western democracies is wrong. Go to a football match, and it is permissible to scream obscenities at opposing teams, but there is a line drawn – today almost as tangible as the white chalk that marks the pitch – on one side of which it is readily accepted (even expected) to attack a player's ability, sexuality, or haircut. On the other side of the line, however, when you start attacking players on racial grounds, you will be hauled from the ground by stewards, banned from matches, and even forfeit your right to a passport when international games are taking place. When England's coloured players suffered monkey taunts at a match in Spain in 2005, the British press and politicians were – quite rightly – outraged at the abuse, and proud that the gut reaction of the English fans was horror, when not a decade ago the same trait had run through the sport in England. In this corner of our cultural life, the right to free speech has been restrained, with commendable results. Contrary to the continuing stereotypes that are its legacy from the 1980s, English football is less violent, more family orientated and more entertaining than the national sport in Italy, Spain, France or Turkey.

In circumstances more significant than games, freedom of speech is not, and has never been, an absolute given. In Britain, incitement to racial hatred is illegal; in Germany and Austria, Holocaust-denial and anti-Semitic acts or speeches are outlawed; only after 1960 were Penguin permitted to publish Lady Chatterly's Lover in the United Kingdom. Freedom of speech is not an immobile, absolute, rock-solid foundation of contemporary democracies; rather, it is the tectonic plate on which all democracies are based, but whose influence and application nevertheless slides and moves the public media and government policy depending on the hot flow of the moral and cultural moment.

In contrast to the varying limitations imposed on rights to free speech – limitations which are notoriously difficult to define in courts, as evidenced in the case of BNP leader Nick Griffin – there is an essential given that theft is always illegal. However, whilst it is apparently fundamental that people in civil society respect the property of their fellow citizens, this act has a highly variable morality underlying its seemingly non-negotiable legal standard. A philosophical mind-game often used to test a child's moral perspectives asks whether it is right for a poor man to steal medicine to save his dying son. The property of “right” here is ambiguous. Judged by law, it is still theft, and still illegal. Judged on moral terms, a person's life has more value than a bottle of medicine, and it is intuitively always better to take the latter to preserve the former. Were this hypothetical case to be tried in court, the verdict would be guilty, and the sentence would be lenient. This is the test of a democratic system which has built into it the ability to make complex adjudications, to balance the underlying morality of the act which varies with context, acknowledging that the legal rightness or wrongness of the act is sometimes absolute only superficially. In Stalinist Russia, by contrast, had I stolen oil from an apparatchik or oil from my neighbour's stove in order to keep myself warm, I would in either case probably have been delivered to the Gulag.

Whilst admitting that people have a legal right to speak their minds, the legal protection afforded to freedom of speech is sometimes merely coincidental to the broader morality of the act. To an audience of one like-minded individual, I have every right to condemn Muslims as terrorists, Islam as brutality under the guise of religion. To an audience of millions – some of whom may be cast under the stereotyped category of people I am condemning – I still have the right to do this; but I also have to admit the moral dubiety of what I am doing. If I need to justify my actions based on a legal principle of democracy (which, as I have suggested, is not so absolute as many claim), this implies that I am less than certain about the ethical status of what I have said. If the poor man who steals medicine refuses to admit to the guilt of his crime at the same time as he asserts the moral righteousness of his actions, he loses something in my estimation of his broadly-defined “goodness.” Inversely, for the newspapers to have asserted the legal right of their publications is equally to concede that the morality of those actions was not self-evident.

Voltaire is often misquoted as saying "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In fact in his Essay on Tolerance he made a more complex, more ambivalent statement, from which the above was posthumously paraphrased: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too." Under this variant epithet – in which it is thinking, not publicly speaking those thoughts, which ought to be preserved – it is not an absolute given that we have a right to expression to which we should make the absolute sacrifice. Rather, it is a question of enjoying the privilege, and enjoyment is a qualitative measure, not an absolute definition. Consequently, the extent to which we allow ourselves to enjoy the privilege should also affect the ways in which we act when using it. To recognise the privilege that your thinking for yourself is, must also be to recognise the importance of using it in ways that shore up that enjoyment of the privilege for future generations, or for others elsewhere who at the present moment live under less liberal systems. I may be a football fan, and if I want to ensure the continued support of my club, I should be willing to avoid making racist remarks, in order to ensure that the children who will be the fans of tomorrow will be allowed by their parents to enjoy the game now. Less flippantly, to an Iraq just entering a democratic era, if the cost of freedom of expression appears to be that it is permissible (and even encouraged so as to prove that it is permissible) to challenge the Islamic religion that lies at the heart their culture, freedom of speech may become something they may not wish unhesitatingly to enshrine constitutionally.

Voltaire also urges people to think for themselves, something the continental papers that have published the cartoons have not done. There has been a general consensus that since the images have been published once (and are now readily available online) there is no harm in publishing them again. They have claimed that, since the damage has been already been done within the religious framework of the Muslim world, it is necessary to publish in order to avoid a mirroring harm being done to the liberal, secular code under which the Western world operates. But the right to freedom of speech would never have been lost by not publishing; it does not need protection so badly that it requires the lives to be cost in its defence. Yet as I write this, the newspapers' actions have (albeit indirectly) resulted in deaths in Afghanistan, in the course of the assertion of a right neither imminently threatened from within by the Western states nor without by violence spreading from the Middle East. Unlike the father stealing the medicine and breaking the law to save his son, as the newspapers have asserted that the law protects us to say what we like, they have caused people to die by enacting through that law. Voltaire, even had he said the phrase which has now entered Western philosophy as the somewhat clichéd expression of the principle of freedom of expression, surely would not have approved.

That the British press avoided printing the cartoon in the newspapers was thus a responsible move. However, as evidence that there is no clear-cut ground on which it was unambiguously wrong to publish the article, the BBC can be said to have been acting equally responsibly when it did show brief snapshots of it on their news bulletins. It is woven in the newsprint on which they are printed that newspapers will take an ideological stance on political issues; to inscribe the cartoons onto that influential daily fabric is also therefore to promote and publicise some emotive belief. By contrast, the BBC has a manifesto to maintain impartiality in its news reporting, and it succeeds as best it can (although just as friction cannot be eliminated entirely from an engine, in any human organisation the force of personal ideology cannot be prevented from affecting the way words flow). Nevertheless, when the BBC presented the cartoons on the fleeting screens of television (they are not available on its somewhat more permanent online media), seen through the perspective of objective reporting their display was not a statement of opinion about Islam, but a statement of fact about the nature of the images that had catalysed a furious global reaction.

Indeed, the difference between opinions and facts is precisely why the Muslim protesters have played into the hands of the newspapers, however reasonable their motivations for protest may seem to them to have been, governed as they are by the untransgressible terms laid down anteriorly by their religion. The cartoons, rather than making a stereotypical, a priori judgement on the nature of Islam as some fanatic and suicidal cult, now seem now to have been endowed with a posteri legitimacy, as having made a hypothesis which has subsequently been proved to be correct as Muslims – carrying placards demanding death to the West, to butcher those who mock Islam – have fitted its predictions. As the protests have spread to the United States and the United Kingdom, countries in which the cartoons have not been printed, this view receives further evidence in its support. The response has thus become wider than the immediate issue, and historically (one can imagine these being a "source" in G.C.S.E. history textbooks fifty years hence), the cartoons will seem to have been less challenging assertions of opinions and more standing as objective statements of the facts of their era. Conversely, in the Muslim world, the fact that protesters bearing hateful placards will now be monitored by the police, whilst Western politicians simultaneously have insisted that the state has no role to play in censoring the media, will be perceived as evidencing a double-standard at work in the slippery right to free expression of opinions.

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This page was published on June 15, 2008 | Keywords: Islam, cartoon, free speech, liberalism

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