Charles Lane of The Washington Post wrote recently in defense of some cartoons that were published in a French magazine Charlie Hebdo, claiming that freedom of speech trumps everything else like common sense and decency. The cartoons apparently poked fun a the prophet Mohammed, and there were significant concerns that the publication of the cartoons could spur more violent protests and riots in the Middle East.
Perhaps that claim that freedom of speech trumps everything is a good policy when the only thing at stake is someone who has their feelings hurt or otherwise object to what is said or published. However, when the safety of many people are at stake, perhaps the policy doesn’t have to uphold a person’s right to make fun of another person’s religion just because they can.
We in the Western world understand satire and spoofs, but not all mid-east cultures do. They see those cartoons as a direct insult, and their reactions are not even in the same ballpark as ours. They don’t have a constitution that supports freedom of speech or an understanding of what that means. What they have is a long legacy of retaliation against anything they see as an insult.
So maybe we need to be more mindful of that.
Back when Voltaire made his famous remark, “I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” he was speaking to people of a like mind. In the Western world at that time, most people acted and reacted with a sense of civility and decency. Direct attacks on religion or culture were not commonly made, and when they were, for the most part, responses were tempored with that same sense of civilty and decency.
That doesn’t happen anymore, and I cerainly would not like to see another 9/11 just so someone can make a film or draw a cartoon, or write an article that some radical extremest will take issue with.
On the other side of the issue, Charles Lane says that if we stop publishing the type of cartoons that the Islamist found offensive we are giving in to a “small handful of extremists who want to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave.”
I don’t think that asking people to stop and consider the consequences of what they say or write takes away from freedom of speech. They can still choose to go ahead, or they can make the decision not to because of the potential grave danger.
What do you think? Should our basic freedoms trump everything else?