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 th