The front page of the Guardian today reports a remark from the foreign secretary that would be worrying if he'd said it:
Jack Straw... denounced the decision to republish the cartoons, saying press freedom carried an obligation not "to be gratuitously inflammatory".But this seems to be the result of sloppy editing. What Straw acually said, according to the report here, was:
There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.(See also here.) It is one thing for there not to be an obligation to insult or be gratuitously inflammatory, and quite another for there to be an obligation not to insult or be gratuitously inflammatory. By saying the first, you uphold the right of free speech while asking people to exercise it in a responsible manner. By saying the second, you significantly curtail that right: for people are not now allowed to say things that will insult or inflame others, and therefore what they are allowed to say will shrink according to how likely others are to feel insulted or become inflamed.
It is possible to disagree about whether the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad should have been published in the first place, and about whether other newspapers should have followed the example of Jyllands-Posten once the storm of Muslim outrage broke. I have already posted my own view about this here. But one issue cannot be fudged. If there is freedom of speech uncurtailed by an obligation not to insult or inflame, then there is that right even if you think the cartoons shouldn't have been printed and/or reprinted. (This is unless the cartoons violate laws against incitement to hatred, violence etc.) Respecting it as a right then means that people who wish to print such cartoons may do so even if one would prefer them not to. They are permitted to, and they enjoy the protection of the law in doing so. Respect for this right, in other words, is mandatory.
Calls to respect rather than insult others, and (most pertinently here) the beliefs of others, do not have the same status. They are hortatory. Within certain limits which I'm not going to try and spell out, it is a good general principle of humanity and civility to respect those of another outlook than your own, and not to go out of your way to offend them needlessly when you feel bound to criticize that outlook. But this is something we urge upon one another, not something anyone is bound by. Respect for the right of free speech and respect for the sensibilities of others are not symmetrical and no one should pretend, in the present situation, that they can be neatly balanced. If the right to free speech is under attack it has to be defended. It is not possible fully to respect it except by recognizing that it leaves in place the freedom to be disrespectful to the beliefs and sensibilities of others.
Here are two pieces worth your attention. Matthew Parris in the Times:
Writing yesterday of the decision by this newspaper and others not to publish those now-infamous cartoons poking fun at Islam, my colleague Ben Macintyre suggested that "this is not a matter of kowtowing to pressure". With respect, I think it is.And Ibn Warraq in Der Spiegel:
Publishing the cartoons a few weeks ago, before the drawings had achieved notoriety, would have been defensible, he argues, but to do so now in the midst of all the fuss, would not. With respect, I disagree. In fact giving publicity to a few offensive but rather weak cartoons showed doubtful judgment while they were unknown; but publishing them now they are the centre of a huge storm is more defensible.
The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, "Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being 'pushed to an extreme'; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case."Read the rest for further observations on the 'western heritage'.
Freedom of expression is our western heritage and we must defend it or it will die from totalitarian attacks.