I have seen some of the Danish cartoons and their irreverent portrayal of Mohammed and of Muslims in general. They are crude, racist, tasteless, and not very funny. As examples of the editorial cartoonist’s art, they are pretty low on the quality scale. In my opinion, they are also a shoddy collection to have to defend from a freedom of speech standpoint. Surely the right to express ourselves comes, like all rights, with some responsibilities as well. Just because we ideally are free to voice our criticisms of others, that does not mean that we should go out of our way to scandalize and outrage their sensibilities. It’s an issue of respect.
Having said this, though, I also strongly believe that those of us who are committed to freedom of speech must defend the right of these artists, tasteless though they may be, to have their say. The thing about freedom of expression is that it doesn’t work to pick and choose for others which issues can or cannot be discussed. All censorship, as far as I can see, is a slippery slope. As much as I despise the messages of violent video games, misogynistic rappers, and narrow-minded bigotry in whatever forms it takes, I am perpetually aware of the fact that there are plenty of people out there who find my views and those of others I respect, equally outrageous and distasteful. When I see that some newspapers, then, have come out and denounced the decision of publications such as the Calgary-based Western Standard to reproduce these cartoons, it makes me worry that we are entering some fairly Orwellian territory. Today, some journalists argue for acts of media self-censorship to protect the sensibilities of a particular religious group. What if tomorrow they do the same thing in order to protect the stability of the Bush government, the military-industrial complex, or the Catholic Church?
Interestingly, I made this point during a discussion with some friends recently, and the issue stirred up some pretty heated discussion. At one point, it was argued that the sort of racism evident in the Danish cartoons was an example of the sort of dangerous lies and hateful propaganda that helped the horrors of Nazi Germany to become a reality. With due respect to the person who made this statement, I would argue that those atrocities were due, at least in part, to the control and manipulation of public opinion through the suppression of free speech. When only certain views are allowed to be expressed, when dissenting voices and alternative outlooks are discouraged by threats of violent reprisals, thought control and totalitarianism are only a hair’s breadth away.