The media have depicted the conflict as a struggle of the enlightened West with fundamentalist Islam. But if fundamentalism consists in adhering to a doctrine without any nuance or qualification, then the West practices a fundamentalism of its own. For according to the enlightened view, freedom of expression, no matter how trivial, degraded or provocative, is treated as an absolute right that trumps every other value. Because religion is a source of society’s restraints as well as its ideals, breaking religious taboos comes almost naturally to the press. But as Cardinal Achille Silvestrini commented in Corriere della Sera, freedom of satire that offends the sentiments of others becomes an abuse.... He went on to explain, One can understand a satire about a priest, but not about God. The question raised by the cartoon controversy is not whether speech should be restricted by law, but whether under any circumstances we can and ought to expect responsible exercise of freedom of expression.
The media are at the forefront of that particular version of Western culture called expressive individualism. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were first advanced as rights against authoritarian rulers and repressive church hierarchies. In the 19th century, however, John Stuart Mill popularized the notion that liberty concerned freedom for self-development; and in the 20th, Isaiah Berlin opposed any notion that the exercise of freedom should be linked to an ideal pattern of valuessomething Pope Benedict XVI and the late Pope John Paul II speak of as the ordering of freedom to truth. Berlin argued that the only freedom is negative freedom, the absence of obstacles to the fulfillment of an individual’s life choices. It was wrong to adjust freedom to others’ values.
Like Mill and Berlin, many artists and journalists believe there is never any reason to restrain one’s sentiments or have them restrained, whether out of social conformity or by force of law. But Berlin, at least, understood the costs of a social policy premised on the absence of restraint. Assertions of freedom without consideration of other values, he admitted, result in injustice, violence, cruelty and the enslavement of others. The rioting of the last three weeks underscores the point: the unlimited exercise of freedom can lead to violence; and, as in this case, it can incite others to violence too, when they believe that in the name of freedom other values have been violated.
In practice the media are not unswervingly committed to freedom of expression. The Rocky Mountain News and The Philadelphia Inquirer reprinted the cartoons; The New York Times and The Washington Post did not. Editorial staffs wrestled with whether to print photos of torture at Abu Ghraib and of the desecration of American bodies near Falluja, or to broadcast video clips of the beheading of kidnaping victims. So in fact, contrary to journalistic orthodoxy, newspeople routinely make choices that involve setting standards. Why shouldn’t the media restrain itself in the interest of Muslim sensibilities, or Catholic ones, at least when basic matters of belief and devotion are at stake? Self-restraint in speech does not necessarily represent bad faith. It can indicate a legitimate balancing of values.
The British historian Geoffrey Garton Ash has remarked that this controversy has pitted self-expression against multiculturalism. It has certainly pitted an absolutist commitment to self-expression against the continued coexistence of several cultural traditions in European and North American society. But unless we insist, in a fundamentalist way, that freedom of expression is an absolute good, then what we have is not a necessary conflict, but a war of choice. One way to escape this forced dilemma is to insist, with the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, that there is no general right to liberty, but only such rights as are consistent with equality of respect and concern for all. A pluralistic society can maintain its cohesion only if its members exercise their freedom with attention to the sensitivities of others. Globalization has made ours a multicultural world. Fostering peace among cultures will depend on attuning ourselves to the values and feelings of others and sometimes restraining ourselves from expressing what we otherwise may feel we have a right to express.