February 3rd, 2006


Free Speech and When To (Not ) Use It

I'm somewhat torn over the recent events with the Islamic comics. In case you haven't been following it, the story goes something like this:

A Danish newspaper, covering a story that a writer had been unable to find an illustrator for their children's books about Mohammed (for fear of Islamic extemists), asked a group of cartoonists to draw something about Mohammed. They then published the resulting cartoons, as part of a piece on freedom of speech and the problems of people fearing reprisals for said speech.

This had the expected effect of causing mass uproar across the Islamic world, because (a) Islamic tradition is against images of any of the prophets and (b) one of the images implied Mohammed was a terrorist.

Now, on the one hand, I firmly stand behind people's right to any speech that isn't directly causing harm (i.e. shouting "fire" in a packed cinema, giving out the addresses of people to those that want to kill them, descriptions of how to construct nuclear weapons, etc.). On the other hand, just because you have the right to free speech doesn't mean that you ought to go around insulting people.

I have several comics that are deeply offensive - Preacher is deeply offensive about Christianity, for instance. Many Northern Irish people of the Unionist persuasion wouldn't be impressed with Troubled Souls. Obergeist is unlikely to go down well with people who lost family in the German concentration camps, and Faust is pretty much offensive to anyone in a 50 foot radius. Should I give them all up and toss them on a pyre?

I was deeply offended that people campaigned against Jerry Springer the Musical. And I'm deeply offended that they are trying to suppress the cartoons. Should the Muslims stop trying to get them banned because _I'm_ offended that they want to?

Should it matter that many Islamic newspapers routinely publish pieces referring to Jews as dogs and eaters of shit? Should we really care if they're offended by other people's imagery when they're publishing their own? Or is that like saying that all British people are responsible for the terrible nonsense published in the Daily Mail?

I think, in the end, that in one sense I wish they hadn't published the cartoons, largely because they mostly aren't any good - they're not that clever, and they aren't saying anything that couldn't be said in a less offensive way. In another sense, I think that not doing something _purely_ because someone out there will be offended will lead to people doing nothing. Everything will offend someone, and people should publish what they feel is right, without worrying too much about their audience.

Free speech includes the right to offensive speech, and much as I'm against the recent attempts to make "reckless" (i.e. accidental) incitement to violence illegal, I'm against any restraint on speech just because it will offend someone. Doing things _just_ to be offensive is generally the resort of the childish, and it doesn't interest me, but I'd rather that people were allowed to be childish than that they weren't.