I touched on this issue a few days ago, focusing mostly on the stupidity of criticizing Muslims’ boycott of Danish products as an assault on free speech. But given the fact that this situation is much broader than just that, I should probably clarify what I actually think.
1. Running the cartoon was racist, bigoted, and stupid. The editors and the paper staff absolutely knew that this would cause an uproar; they would have had to be incredibly dumb not to. If they had any taste or common sense, they wouldn’t have run the cartoon — not out of fear, but for the same reasons that we generally try and avoid running editorial content that is explicit bigotry. However,
2. Their right to run a cartoon like this should not be infringed upon, and the fact that I have to be clear on that point is a little sad. That right should include the ability to run the cartoon without legal punishment, as well as without intimidation by way of violence. And,
3. The people who are rioting, burning embassies and consulates, and demonstrating their discontent either through violence or tacit approval of that violence (hello, Syrian government) deserve full and thorough condemnation. But,
4. It would be a mistake to write them off as “crazy Arabs” and not seek to understand, at least a little bit, why this cartoon has spawned such a reaction. That isn’t to say that in the future newspapers should review their editorial content based on what they’re sure won’t make anyone angry, or that this kind of violence is at all justified by trying to understand it. I just think that major boil-overs like this one are never the result of a single incident; like the LA riots after the Rodney King trial, they’re usually the result of a long-brewing frustration and anger over many little events, which finally explodes after a final straw. When we don’t bother to look at all the smaller issues underlying these boil-overs, we miss valuable opportunities to prevent them in the future. Finally,
5. A simplistic view of this issue — either “The Europeans brought this on themselves” or “Anyone who thinks this cartoon shouldn’t have been run is like an anti-choice zealot” — is a big mistake. For the record, I agree more with Steve on the basic idea that Europeans should be more respectful of multiculturalism and their fellow citizens. I don’t think he’s even coming close to saying that European newspapers should be legally barred from running cartoons like this in the future, or that their right to free speech should be infringed in any way. I also partially agree with this (edited) comment of Jeff’s:
The point is, there is a balance you have to strike between fidelity to your faith-based beliefs and living in a pluralistic society.
Which is why many Muslims resist pluralism… But when they start making demands that violate the letter and spirit of the social contract that allows for actual tolerance, things get hairy. Ditto when they use their religion as a doctrine of expansion.
I think the issue is how one goes about making these demands. I’m not sure that it is problematic to demand that your faith, race or other characteristic not be thoroughly disrespected, as Islam was in that cartoon. I think it’s perfectly valid when Jews call people/publications out on anti-Semitic content; I think it’s pefectly valid to call homophobes and homophobic companies out when they institute anti-gay policies; I think it’s perfectly valid to criticize racist editorial content. The line, of course, gets drawn at the point where you are no longer just criticizing or calling attention to or shedding light on — it gets drawn when you’re trying to legislate your own morality/offensive level, or when you’re trying to forcibly remove someone elses’ rights in order to suit your own. That’s why Jeff’s abortion analogy in the post fails. And that’s why, if people had simply criticized these cartoons — heck, if they had raised hell and written in thousands of letters to the editor, if Muslim leaders had gone on TV and renounced this kind of bigotry, if they had organized a protest outside of the newspapers’ office, if they had used their own right to free speech to raise a big stink — I’d be all for them making their demands, as members of a free society who deserve to be respected. I have little patience for those who exercise their own free speech rights, and then complain when their speech is answered by others’.
But violence crosses the line, big time. Let there be no mistake about that. I just think it would be foolish to write the whole situation off as “Crazy Arabs” and not examine the deeper discontents and how we can all deal with them.”
UPDATE: Amanda says it perfectly.
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