Wednesday, February 08, 2006

*Danish Cartoon Controvesy*

I hadn't really realised it but I've actually came across this issue and made some comment on this before in IHT: Cartoons ignite cultural combat in Denmark, where I had the following to say:
"What else would you call a situation whereby the self same laws that allow for the publication of a (technically) blasphemous cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, also allows for the operation of Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, which preaches its ideology of the creation of an Islamic caliphate and the unification of all muslim countries under one leader who would then implement the Sharia?" (addendum: This is a group that is banned in most of the Muslim world as well as Russia and Germany. But it is allowed to operate in Denmark and Britain).

I think that by now, my views on this matter should be pretty well established so I'm not going to go into it. But what I do want to do is to figure out what is so wrong with the cartoons that provokes the response, and whether it was justified.

1. It is insensitive and makes a mockery of others and is thus offensive and bad.

Fair enough. No one likes to be mocked or ridiculed and it doesn't help to change anyone's mind or perception anyway. But so what when weighed up against the right to free expression and speach? The general good must be outweighed by the hurt feelings of some. The right to offend must be at the cornerstone of the freedom of speech and expression for the attacking of any view is bound to 'offend' the holder of that view.

The alternative to this would be to allow the state to determine what is or is not allowed speach. This is all well and good if you're part of the club that is afforded protection, but not if you are outside the purview of the law. As a result, it leads to a horrid situation whereby it's perfectly alright to call a homosexual an abomination and unnatural in the press. Or the oddity where a female could verbally abuse you but the moment you speak a vulgarity against her or flash her a vulgar sign, it constitutes an insult to modesty. This law is still applied today although it tends to be tagged on as a secondary offence. Colin Chan v PP, the Jehova's Witness case anyone?

And I think this is particularly true of political/editorial cartoons which generally do satire, which is a form of mockery and by nature is offensive to the target audience (unforunately it seems that people wrongly identified themselves as the targets). They by nature tend to be sarcastic, snarky and offensive. If you flip through the ST and look at the cartoons of that editorial cartoonist, he's very free to associate Bush with all manners of horror (and arguably untrue associations). And yet we would think it very odd if the US were to demand an apology much less, protest and destroy property or to send CIA agents at the dead of the night to 'talk' to the cartoonist.

Now, one could legitimately say that he 'deserved' it because of his foreign policy (hmmmm, has everyone forgotten we were part of the coalition of the willing?) but what about the cartoons targetting the USA instead of Bush simply?

2. It is insensitive and offensive towards religion.

The sacred trumps the secular. And religion is immune from all forms of criticisms, particularly provocative ones. It just IS. Don't think about it.

But what exactly are the cartoons that were published that caused so much offence? Oddly enough, the most offensive cartoons were not the ones published by the paper but were additions by certain Dutch Imans who seemed to want to provoke such a reaction. See today's (080206) Reuter report in the ST.

The original three cartoons actually specifically touched on this issue i.e. the massive overreaction by the radical, extremist, fundamentalist fringe. The author was giving voice to the fact that he was unable to find illustrators who would portray the Prophet for fear of reprisals by said extremist. And they proved him right.

If one looks at the other cartoons, can we say it is so wrong to lampoon the notion of suicide bombers getting their 72 virgins in heaven?

The upset feelings were over the fact that the likeness (well the cartoon is kinda fuzzily drawn) Prophet was portrayed on paper and therefore it was blasphemous. Well, it isn't a universal prohibition. But even if it were, should religion get a free pass simply because it is religion? Most other religious figures have been caricitured or worse in the course of history, but most of the time it resulted in sound of fury rather than actual destructiveness. This overreaction and the subsequent reaction is at the heart of this issue.

At this juncture I suppose I should mention that the Arab press prints way more virulent anti-semitic stuff than was portrayed in those cartoons accusing them of much worse stuff. And we don't see Jewish populations rising up anywhere in the world to invade the embassies of these nations (most of whom are tacitly involved in this campaign to undermine Israel in the popular consciousness).

So it would seems like this is a clear case of what's sauce for the goose not being sauce for the gander. I don't really like this argument because two wrongs don't necessarily make a right BUT it is indicative of the knee-jerk mentality of violence and irrationality portrayed by the fundamentalist here. Which leads me to my final point...

3. It's bad because it causes more good than harm

True enough and being a subscriber to a consequentialist form of morality, there is much force in this argument. I previously argued that it was foolish or sloppy or both for Newsweek to print the debasement of the Koran by US troops in interment camps without the ability to withstand pressure form the Executive to maintain their stance because they know or should have known of the violent uproar that would occur.

Furthermore, it would appear that it even alienated the moderate elements of the Muslim populace that is vital to the fight against radicalisation and extremism.

But conversely, 'reckless' though the actions of the newspaper may be, should not we be worried that this is indeed happening? No one is denying them the right to protest peacefully as is being done in New Zealand and Indonesia, but where's the corresponding condemnation of the violence that broke out elsewhere?

Furthermore, a distinction could be made between hate speech and provocative speech. One has the deliberate purpose of creating resentment towards a particular group with the expectation of violence. The other has a desire to elicit a response but not a murderous nor destructive one. I agree that the line is fine but it is one that has to be drawn.

For my biggest problem with this consequentialist argument is that it legitimises violence as a tool and an effective one at that at censorship. In which case, for any debate to be settled or any view to be quashed, one simply needs to have more force and the ability to use it.

It is one thing to pander to sensitivities of whatever sort. But I must emphasize that demonstrations and marches are not necessarily bad, they just demonstrate deeply held beliefs (whether valid or erroneous) and sometimes have good effects like toppling dictatorships. It is, however, quite another to pander to violence and to allow them to censor those who do not hold similar beliefs. That is the problem.




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