Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Offensive cartoons
Feb. 9, 2006

Nobody deserves to die over an editorial cartoon. However disturbing a cartoon may be, the fallout should never include riots, police killings and self-immolation.
Still, it’s just as outrageous to categorize the disastrous turn of events this month unleashed by a Danish newspaper as being about freedom of expression.
Such an important right requires an equal measure of responsibility. Any newspaper that thinks it’s OK in this day and age to run a spread of humiliating editorial cartoons about the Muslim prophet Muhammad has clearly forgotten how to strike the balance.
There’s the finest of lines separating freedom of expression from hatred, and a civil society ought to always be paying mind to it. Restrict freedom of expression and a country loses its ability to challenge its own systems and values. Loosen the reins completely and some really offensive stuff gets through under the guise of free speech.
My partner and I have agreed to disagree on this point, because he believes in virtually absolute freedom of expression. You’ll know that argument by the loathsome nature of the cases that set precedent - they always seem to be about unpleasant subjects like yesterday’s war criminals, or people trying to get Nazism going again. Or pornography. For freedom-of-expression diehards, it’s all or nothing.
Me, I view the issue a little differently. Yes, a civil society ought to grant all of us the right to speak out about what’s on our mind. But that’s not to say that the speaker is excused from having to act responsibly. With world temperaments being what they are at the moment, it’s just plain irresponsible to set out to mock the Muslim prophet. Freedom of expression is no defence.
Muhammad was portrayed in one of the Danish cartoon series as having a bomb in his turban, and in another as humorously panicking over the shortage of virgins given the rush of suicide bombers making their way toward a blissful afterlife.
Is that fair comment? Or is it hateful?
We’re not exactly the protester type here in Canada, so I won’t for a minute speculate as to whether any editorial cartoon could ever rouse us to burst from our houses in vast numbers to protest. But I think that’s partly because we’ve already put some voluntary restrictions around freedom of expression in Canada.
Try, for instance, to conjure up any editorial cartoon in your lifetime mocking Jesus in some really mean and humiliating way. Could be that it proves nothing at all, of course, other than Jesus not being a popular cartooning subject. Or maybe a contemptuous collection of Jesus cartoons is an example of the outer limit - the place where it’s not OK for a newspaper to go.
Consider this cartoon scenario if you will: Jesus, provocatively leading a boy up the stairs. His cartoon face is turned to humorously catch the eye of a new priest witnessing the scene. “Remember your vow of chastity!” the cutline might read.
Accompanying the cartoon, 11 more of similar flavour. And all of them in a newspaper with a history already for mixing it up with Christians.
I could see cartoons like that turning people upside down, just like the Muhammad ones are doing now in Muslim nations. I can’t think of a Canadian newspaper of any repute that would even consider publishing such cartoons on their editorial pages. Yes, they’ve got the right to do it if they want to, but they choose not to - which is exactly how it should be in a society that accepts both the rights and responsibilities of something as powerful as freedom of expression.
The hateful writings of the late Doug Collins, a North Vancouver columnist, were always being seized upon by “freedom” groups arguing the importance of freedom of expression. The columns were nasty, spiteful little diatribes against Jews, ethnic minorities, women and gays, and Collins slowly poisoned the well for years with them.
My own opinions aside, you can’t ban a writer like Collins, because the right to say ugly things really is important. But that still leaves newspapers free to choose whether to run those columns, or to give a guy like Collins a forum for his bitter musings. Just because a person’s got something to say doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to.
True, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten couldn’t have known quite how crazy things would go, or that 20 newspapers around the world would feed the fire by republishing the same cartoons. Still, here we are, caught up in a truly global predicament because a right-of-centre newspaper has fed the world hatred masquerading as free speech.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” said French philosopher Voltaire.
Most definitely. But best to keep one eye on that very thin line.

No comments: