The National Catholic Review
The chasm between the Muslim world and the West yawns still wider as a result of the furor over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Some of the protest, particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, was government instigated; some was fomented by radicals keen to whip up animosity against the West. But much reflected genuine outrage at what Muslims regarded as blasphemy. Along with those who directly incited the violent demonstrations, Fleming Rose, the Danish editor of Jyllands-Posten, must bear some of the blame. He solicited the cartoons in a deliberate attempt to defy publishers’ deference to Muslim sensibilities.

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.

Comments

Jason LoMonaco | 2/18/2006 - 1:06am
While I generally agree with the thrust of your editorial of February 27, 2006 which critiques the "absolutist commitment to self-expression" that is pervasive in western society today, I must take issue with your claim that "The question raised by the cartoon controversy is not whether speech should be restricted by law. . . “

To the contrary, this is precisely what the rioting and protests suggest, and sometimes explicitly advocate. There can be no doubt that a great portion of Muslim sentiment behind the riots and protests is bent on intimidating western journalists. This seems to have been achieved more efficiently than by any law. Such blatant thuggary can never be condoned or even tolerated in a free society.

Hopefully as tempers ease, responsible Muslim leaders will shift the debate to the terms eloquently set forth in your editorial. But we must never allow such legitimate concerns to blind us from the aims of those who would gladly legislate blasphemy.

Robert V. Levine | 2/21/2007 - 3:08pm
The “Culture Clash” (2/27) editorial on recent “insensitive” cartoons offers much to consider. I would propose that the issues involved might profitably be framed in a slightly different paradigm: not “rights versus values” but “rights and courtesy.”

The ability to criticize freely another group’s “values” is a great American tradition. Our maturity as a people enables us to enjoy such syndicated cartoons as Doonesbury and The Boondocks. Even when we disagree with the views they present, we are sufficiently secure that we can enjoy their sometimes outrageous humor, and exult in their right to insult us.

Of course, such a right can be taken too far. Most of us no longer feel the need to resort to dueling when our “honor” is slighted. The possibility of litigation for libel is arguably a more effective restraint than the threat of violence. A variety of organizations protest affronts to their constituent interests, most effectively done with civility rather than with strident rhetoric or provocative response.

And, of course, the right to free expression is not absolute. It must be balanced not only by other rights, but also by respect, prudence and, above all, courtesy. Courtesy is a virtue, a gift of the Spirit and an acquired taste, both in its demonstration and in its reception. Courteous treatment is not one of our inalienable rights, nor is it constitutionally guaranteed. It is part of our heritage of maturity as a people, a heritage that needs to be nurtured constantly and advanced.

Lest we forget, our Gospels paint a disparaging “cartoon caricature” of Pharisaic Judaism; the Evangelists had no opportunity to read Nostra Aetate or to foresee the millennia of unfortunate consequences of unnuanced publication. We need to learn from the past, and from the present.

Jason LoMonaco | 2/18/2006 - 1:06am
While I generally agree with the thrust of your editorial of February 27, 2006 which critiques the "absolutist commitment to self-expression" that is pervasive in western society today, I must take issue with your claim that "The question raised by the cartoon controversy is not whether speech should be restricted by law. . . “

To the contrary, this is precisely what the rioting and protests suggest, and sometimes explicitly advocate. There can be no doubt that a great portion of Muslim sentiment behind the riots and protests is bent on intimidating western journalists. This seems to have been achieved more efficiently than by any law. Such blatant thuggary can never be condoned or even tolerated in a free society.

Hopefully as tempers ease, responsible Muslim leaders will shift the debate to the terms eloquently set forth in your editorial. But we must never allow such legitimate concerns to blind us from the aims of those who would gladly legislate blasphemy.

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