• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Anti-Islamic Movie and Cartoons: Let’s Not Defend Literary Litter

What is the point of the cartoon?

The “journalists” at Charlie Hebdo published cartoons insulting the Prophet Muhammad. They’re stupid cartoons, uninteresting in their art, message, humour, you name it, and fit for only one purpose: to make the point that nothing is sacred, no target is safe, and Muslims deserve no special treatment.

Well, hurrah. For this freedom of speech and of the press (which I shall combine here), our foreparents fought and died? To protect this kind of utterance, we have supported movements for freedom around the world that have cost millions their lives?

Freedom of speech is often characterized as a “right.” That loaded term “right” is then understood to be absolute: “I know my rights! I can say whatever I want!”

—Except, you obviously don’t know your rights. You really can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. You can’t incite a mob to violence. You can’t slander or libel. You can’t sexually harass a co-worker. You can’t reveal secrets you have sworn not to reveal. You can’t even utter threats in a wide range of circumstances. So let’s be clear that freedom of speech is properly curtailed in a variety of ways.

But, one might retort, the French cartoons—and the anti-Muhammad movie before them—aren’t any of those things. They’re vulgar and insulting, sure, but if you don’t protect speech you don’t like, you’re not serious about protecting free speech.

—Except, the classical defense of free speech isn’t about protecting the right of louts to spout off, or cartoonists to insult whom they like, or moviemakers to deliberately upset other people for no other reason than a weird quest for vengeance. No artistic merit, no important civic message, not even a valid personal statement: this is not why we protect free speech.

Free speech is about letting ideas play out for the ultimate benefit of everyone and the common good. Free speech is about experimentation, critique, imagination, possibility, thinking new thoughts (or old ones unhelpfully forgotten or exiled)—all to provide the widest opportunity for mutual benefit. Only secondarily is it about my being free to say what I like, about what I like, when I like, to whom I like.

Free speech, then, doesn’t protect an advertiser who wants to place sexually explicit images at bus stops. Free speech doesn’t protect child molesters or drug dealers who want to contact pupils at school or online. Free speech doesn’t protect the protester who wants to disrupt any meeting of his choice just because he wants to have his say, no matter what anyone else at the meeting is there for.

So what about the movie and the cartoons? We in the West have done away with blasphemy laws. We do not any longer share a common religion and therefore a common commitment to what is sacred, what properly lies beyond the reach of contemptuous speech. But we still have obscenity laws, and I wonder now if we need to have their religious/ideological equivalents: obscenity laws that forbid anti-religious speech (including anti-atheistic speech, since atheism is, in this context, just one of the ideological options among the others) that has no other point than to offend and inflame.

Let me be quite clear that I do not think we have a right not to be offended. Risking offense is the price of encountering important difference, and it’s a price one has to pay in Grown-Up World. It’s a price worth paying, too, because by remaining vulnerable to ideas I initially find upsetting, I might find a radically better way of seeing something. Without that vulnerability, by contrast, I am doomed to whatever set of ideas I happen to have now. And if I have grown up in a particularly stupid family or under a particularly repressive regime, that is a terrible doom indeed.

I should, however, have the right not to be needlessly offended, vulnerable to offense at every turn for no socially significant reason. I should not have to enter a public place and find my values pointlessly trashed by my ideological enemies. If they have an important message to project in an appropriate forum, then yes, I have to put up with it—and maybe even learn from it.

But if they are trivially simply poking me with a stick because they hate people like me or ideas like mine, or if they are heedlessly offending me in order simply to sell something to someone who likes that sort of stuff, then they are simply polluting the common space. We forbid people from littering with objects: We might now stop people from littering with offensive advertisements, let alone deliberating targeting their fellow citizens to no end other than their unhappiness. That really is not what the protection of free speech is about.

To me, this is what is actually valid about initiatives to outlaw “insulting the Prophet or Islam” and the like. Criticizing the Prophet or Islam must be allowed. And the form of criticism might well be highly distasteful. But if it is actually criticism, it’s not a mere insult. Because the line between genuine criticism and gratuitous, malicious injury-seeking is not always clear, we ought to err on the side of freedom. And I’m as nervous as anyone about authorities touchily and heavy-handedly outlawing anything they don’t like and especially anything that questions their legitimacy. Yet in the West we properly haven’t then opted for the other extreme and let just anything go. And I think Islamic criticisms of how we manage free speech are worth trying to listen to, rather than reflexively dismissing them as if we have it all figured out. We do trust our official authorities to police speech in certain instances. I am cautiously, cautiously suggesting we have something to think about in this current global conversation as well.

Here in the West, then, we have come to genuine free speech only recently, historically speaking, and we certainly haven’t ironed out all the wrinkles in our theory or our law. We must appreciate that many Muslim-majority nations are in transition toward recognizing what pluralism could look like, and why and how they should protect unpopular but still valid forms of speech. Moderates and liberals in Muslim communities are trying desperately, and with great courage, to encourage their fellow citizens to be tolerant of speech they don’t like, even speech that is critical of what they hold most dear. We do not help their cause by defending the likes of these wretched cartoons and this vulgar film.

Nor do we help our own.

“Free speech,” “the public has a right to know,” “censorship is always wrong”—slogans are for children learning to get a grip on the complexities of the world. They are not for adults who appreciate that these matters are indeed complex and cannot be resolved merely by reference to this or that pet saying. It’s time for us to take another step forward in our thought and practice about free speech, if we’re really serious about welcoming quite different people into our own countries and getting along properly with people in others.