Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I’ve been thinking, and arguing, about the Muhammad cartoons for the last month. Fortunately I have friends on either side of the debate, and since I don’t agree with any of them, it’s been useful -- nothing like taking fire from both sides to really figure out what you think. When my overseas Muslim friends first started talking about the cartoons I was dismissive. Looking at the images online I knew I had seen similar jokes at Christianity’s expense. If it didn’t bother me when I was the butt of the joke, why were they so angry?
Two things changed my first opinion. One was finding out that the Jyllands-Posten was less a champion of free speech than a hypocritical right-wing rag, which rejected caricatures of Jesus three years ago because they would offend readers.

The second was an IM conversation with a Moroccan friend of mine. He was hurt and offended by the cartoons, and I was trying to explain that freedom of expression must explicitly protect offensive speech. In talking to him about the decision to publish the cartoons, I realized that there’s been a conflation of two kind of rules, the rule of law and the requirements of good manners.

I do not want legislation protecting religious figures from satire. But the right to offend carries responsibility. I have a right to criticize the dress or lifestyle choices of my next-door neighbor, but I had better have a damned good reason to do so beyond the desire to demonstrate my freedom of expression. If we’re going to violate the most deeply held sensitivities of a group of people, shouldn’t we be getting something of value out of it? Because after I've had my say, the next morning my neighbor is still going to be right next door.

I see nothing coming from this provocation but (absolutely inexcusable) property damage and loss of life, and a justified, and very damaging, boycott of Danish products. So what was the purpose? To show that you can corral uneducated bigots on both sides into extreme positions?

You can’t legislate politeness. But you can criticize people who violate its rules.

The Jyllands-Posten had an absolute right to publish those cartoons. But they should not have. All the bloviating about Muslim hypocrisy (it’s true, anti-Semitic cartoons are common in the Middle East) does not change the fact that this editorial decision was rude, intentionally provocative, and most inexcusable of all, ineffective.

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