(Working on a fresh new history trivia post, delayed in completing by … whatever. Real life, completing the next book. This reprise post is from 2011.)
I started following what I called “The Affair of the Danish Mo-Toons” way back at the very beginning of that particular imbroglio, followed by the ruckus last year over “Everybody Draw Mohammad” and now we seem to have moved on to the Charlie Hebdo fiasco – a French satirical magazine dared to poke fun at the founder of Islam … by putting a cartoon version on the cover of their latest issue, with the result that their offices were firebombed. I think at this point it would have been fair to assume that representatives of the Religion of Peace would respond in a not-quite-so peaceful manner, so all props for the Charlie Hebdo management for even going ahead with it – for even thinking of standing up for freedom of thought, freedom of a press, even freedom to take the piss out of a target. (The following is what I wrote last year – still relevant to this latest case)
What do you call it when you – theoretically speaking – have a certain designated freedom bestowed upon you, such as freedom of speech or thought . . . but you are afraid to exercise it, for whatever reason? What then, oh wolves; are you then truly free if you are constrained from exercising that right because . . . ? If honest discussion of certain topics is essentially forbidden because it is infra dig, or rude, or may cause hurt feelings to another, or offend a segment of society, then can we still claim that we have freedom of speech, or any sort of intellectual openness, even if convictions for sedition or blasphemy are relatively rare in the West? That speech is still unspoken, those thoughts un-aired are still un-aired, whether it is fear, social pressure or the rule of law what keeps them so.
Which brings me back to the matter of the Danish Mohammad cartoons – even after four years, the matter is still resonating: at the time I wrote this:
(It) depresses me even more, every time I think on it. For me it is a toss-up which of these qualities is more essential, more central to western society: intellectual openness to discussion and freewheeling criticism of any particular orthodoxy, the separation of civil and religious authority, and the presence of a robust and independent press. The cravenness of most of our legacy media in not publishing or broadcasting the Dread Cartoons o’ Doom still takes my breath away.
They have preened themselves for years on how brave they are, courageous in smiting the dread McCarthy Beast, ending the Horrid Vietnam Quagmire and bringing down the Loathsome Nixon – but a dozen relatively tame cartoons? Oh, dear – we must be sensitive to the delicate religious sensibilities of Moslems. Never mind about all that bold and fearless smiting with the pen, and upholding the right of the people to know, we mustn’t hurt the feelings of people . . . The alacrity with which basic principals were given up by the legacy press in the face of quite real threats does not inspire me with confidence that other institutions will be any more stalwart.
The latest iteration in this farrago of freedom of the press is the fatwah on American cartoonist Molly Norris, who originally created “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.” The fatwah originated in Yemen, a place which I am sure a great many members of the American public would have difficulty pin-pointing it’s exact location on a map of the world. But the tentacles of the murderously offended reach a long way. She is now in hiding, and in various discussion threads, a dismayingly large number of commenters are blaming her for provoking Moslem ire.
But that is my point – what good is it to have brave principles about open, intellectual discussion, freedom of the press, of thought and expression, if in the end they are not exercised out of fear? A freedom not exercised out of fear … is not a freedom at all; like muscles, they have to be used, lest they atropy.
Here’s the thing – the other half of the intellectual freedom thing; there is no right of the individual never to be offended. In a free and open discussion, there will be differing opinions and interpretations, and there may even be people offended by the exercise of it. God knows, the artistic set have been cheerfully offending the bourgeoisie for decades, on the principle that it is good for us to be shaken up now and again, just to make us all consider or reconsider our preconceptions, or expand our consciousnesses or whatever twaddle they will use to justify themselves with. And the good bourgeoisie, even if offended, usually wasn’t motivated to do much more than grumble and write a letter to the editor; they didn’t go around chopping off heads. One might therefore have grounds for suspecting that in the case of the Danish Cartoons o’ Doom, and ‘Everybody Draw Mohammad’ that a good part of this sudden unwillingness to offend is plain old fear.
Compounding the irony is the fact that those who are the most fearful of repercussions are also afraid to openly admit their fear in the first place – that some Islamic radical nutbag would come after them with a knife, or a car-bomb, or even just get their asses fired for ‘Islamophobia.’ So much easier to transfer the blame, and never have to admit that intellectual freedom has been stifled – not by law, but by fear.