Thursday, February 28, 2008

Freedom of expression

Note: this started its life as a Facebook note, given my recent blog policy change, I'm reposting here.

I am disgusted and extremely angry that there are people so blinded by religion, so pathetically ignorant and insecure in their opinions or their faith that they want to murder those who disagree with them. I am talking, of course, about the recently uncovered plot to murder the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard who drew perhaps the most controversial Muhammad cartoon back in 2005. And what was this immensely controversial cartoon? Here it is:


Look, I understand this image "offends" people. I understand some Muslims think (without Koranic authority, I might add) that representations of the Prophet Muhammad are not allowed. I understand many Muslims feel persecuted. But none of these considerations come close to justifying censoring Westergaard, let alone killing him summarily. The cartoon - whether you agree with its implication or not - is an entirely legitimate comment on the relationship between Islam and violence. It is the sort of thing that any enlightened society would not only allow, but encourage. Freedom of speech, let's not forget, is an absolutely non-negotiable part of liberty - I direct those who disagree to ch. 2 of On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.

So what of "tolerance"? What about "respecting people's beliefs"? I think the matter is simple: people, not ideas, deserve respect. (See this wonderful Greta Christina post). And tolerance is a political not a cultural desideratum, it is the commitment not to use violence to settle intellectual disputes. It is the the idea that people are free to make up their own minds about every issue, even the big ones like religion and morality and justice. There certainly is no case that tolerance means people shouldn't disagree, or argue or criticize one another. Disagree we will, and disagree we must and disagreement must be protected: even the nasty, insulting kind of disagreements that may make us uncomfortable.

It is the following sort of mentality that we should find deeply offensive and commit ourselves to stamping out, not the scribblings of a cartoonist:

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