Free Speech, Respect, and Tolerance

Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 2:21 PM Bookmark and Share
I like having the right to express myself. I like discussing controversial and taboo subjects, and at times offering up criticisms or support, as I see fit.  Though sometimes painful, I also value hearing others do the same, even when I disagree with them or find their ideas deplorable.  I also like that I live where I and others can do this without fear of being jailed, physically harmed, or worse.

Because of this, I also despise seeing those freedoms used to stir hatred or violence.  When I see such freedoms threatened or abused (see my previous post), I can't stand by idly and do nothing.

So this Thursday, in support of free speech and in support of exercising it with some decency, I'm participating in Everybody Draw Mohammad Day by sharing this post, and just for today using this background image for this website:

To be fair, since this all about freedom of speech, I've tried to include everyone in this drawing business so nobody feels like they're getting picked on: Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and yes even those with no religious beliefs (since we all have a mom) have been included. Yeah that's right -- I may have not included a deity for you, but I drew your mom!  Ha!

Oh, right, and Al Gore too... just because I can.

I've made an effort to go easy on everyone, and not be unduly disrespectful.  Still, if you find the image offensive, I hope you'll share why in the comments below, but only after first considering the following.

Tolerance and Respect

Freedom of expression is a wonderful thing.  It facilitates open discussion about important issues affecting society, including the ability to call out and deal with corruption and abuse inside social institutions like governments and religions. It also allows people live their life as best they can, and to speak up against anyone who tries to force them to live otherwise.  Without that right to criticize, societies run the risk of losing themselves to tyranny, and individuals risk becoming ostracized from the rest of their community (or worse) over otherwise trivial disputes.

With this freedom, however, comes the need to demonstrate mutual tolerance and respect.  Tolerance isn't a one way street.  More specifically, freedom of expression requires that we tolerate others when they say something offensive. It is the small price we each must pay for ensuring our own unpopular or offensive ideas and beliefs are tolerated by those who disagree with them.

That said, I hope it's clear why nobody should feel threatened and freak out about Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.  They're cartoons... yes, cartoons mocking something sacred, but they're still just cartoons. No decent member of a free society should feel anyone is justified in killing or threatenint to harm someone over something like the videos below, or even the videos an images mentioned in my previous post.

Everyone Draw Muhammad Day is about one thing: making clear that cartoons that mock religion must be tolerated in a free society.  It's as simple as this:  in the modern world, where ideas can travel around the globe in seconds, and where people from all cultures live along side one another as neighbors -- there is no room for threats of violence motivated by aniconism:
Aniconism is the practice or belief in avoiding or shunning the graphic representation of divine beings or religious figures, or in different manifestations, any human beings or living creatures. 
Again, to be fair, it's worth mentioning that the concept is not unique to fundamentalist Islam.  It appears in some forms of Christianity (e.g. no "graven images"), in Judaism and in non-Abrahamic religions as well.

The world today is too diverse and too small a place for anyone to reasonably expect everyone else to act as though their religion or culture is somehow immune from criticism. Nobody should be immune from criticism. Nobody should tolerate censorship or the use of terrorism by those who believe otherwise.


Posted by: helen | 5/20/2010 2:59 PM

I agree about the importance of free speech, and I think I can see why "draw Muhammad day" caught on. I really don't want any particular cartoonist to get singled out for attack (I'm looking at you, Matt and Trey!).

On the other hand, mutual respect is a tricky thing. In order to express the importance of free speech, we don't have to antagonize people by poking at their most cherished beliefs, which is kind of what "draw Muhammad day" did.

I'm a little conflicted, and haven't really thought hard enough about it to work out a coherent position. I just wanted to register a little discomfort with the idea of offending people just because we can. Even if it's in service of some important point (which, clearly, your drawings are), there's something unfriendly about it.

Posted by: Paul | 5/20/2010 3:24 PM

Mutual respect is tricky, but mutual tolerance is easier. I know plenty of people I have zero respect for, but that I can tolerate.

As for Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, I was also conflicted. I gave it some thought, and decided the best thing to do was participate but be clear about my motivations.

While I see no real need to be super-offensive, I still think there is no cartoon, video or drawing offensive enough to justify killing or even threatening someone for having created it.

I both (1) object to some of the drawings and videos others have made, but (2) also fully respect their freedom to make them.

Posted by: Russ | 5/21/2010 12:16 AM

İ think the draw Muhammad concept is stupid and is only intended to be objectionable.

The invention of small minds attacking others with small minds.

Posted by: Paul | 5/21/2010 1:07 AM

Hi Russ,

While that was (sadly) the case for many today, it's an oversimplification to say it was "only intended to be objectionable."

Perhaps you are unaware of the events that initiated Everybody Draw Muhammad Day? For a quick overview, see my previous post. For example, there are links to watch videos of Lars Vilks being attacked while showing a movie during a talk on freedom of expression. You'll also find links to the story of Theo van Gogh, who was murdered over a video called Submission (details here) about violence against women and Islam.

I agree with Helen (see comment #1) that "offending people just because we can" is wrong. I think it's sad so many people acted today just to be offensive. That said, today there was a reason for it all: to stand up against those who use violence to silence their critics, and stifle free speech.

Of all the distasteful images and videos I've seen today, none of them justify acts of violence against the people who made them.

Posted by: Russ | 5/21/2010 1:55 AM

İ understand this subject better than most. İ have lived and worked in many countries around the world and presently live in a Moslem country. Personally, İ am an athiest and think the entire subject is nonsense and worse.

This is not all is free speech - Lars Vilks intentionally went after the fanatic bunch just to force his beliefs on them. İs that correct? İn my opinion it is equally distasteful with the idiots who would like to kill him.

These cartoons were done under the guise of free speech in order to offend others. What statement of free speech is involved - rather juvenile it would seem.

When İ lived in Qatar years back the rules were that you didn't display alcohol openly and when the bottle went in the garbage can it was to be concealed in a bag. İf someone went through the garbage and found it then it was their own fault.

Same with religion - be anything you want but no public displays or signs. Of course one English fanatic posted a church sign in his front yard and was deported - next plane out to anywhere.

The rules were not a problem - why not follow them.

As regards the idiots wanting to kill someone for whatever reason or to incite the uneducated masses - they are outside of reason.

Posted by: Paul | 5/21/2010 11:39 AM

Hi Russ,

I think we agree on at least 2 points: (1) cartoons like those made by Vilks are deplorably offensive to many Moslems, and (2) killing someone over such offenses is also deplorable. You say equally so, however I think that #2 is a much, much greater concern.

Think about these two acts - deeply offending someone versus violently attacking or killing someone. I think it's clear the latter is the greater problem.

You're correct: Lars Vilks was indeed intentionally provoking fanatical Moslems, but not for the sake of provocation alone, nor to force his beliefs on them. He did it because extremist threats of violence were inhibiting free speech in Amesterdam, Sweden, etc. He wanted to highlight the subject so people would talk about it.

Again, though I disagree with some of his actions, I respect his right to discuss his and others criticisms against religiously motivated hatred and violence. I respect the protest held outside his talk at Uppsala Univ., but not the few who attacked Vilks and the police during his presentation (video of protesters and arrests, click here).

You can read more about Vilks motives, the attack during the talk, and the subsequent arson attempt on his home here.

We'd all rather live in a place where neither of these two things occurred, but if I had to choose one over the other I'd much rather prefer to be deeply offended than regularly threatened with (or subjected to) physical violence.

Posted by: Russ | 5/21/2010 12:18 PM

We probably generally agree though you are willing to be more understanding of Vilks than İ am.

İ am not about to justify the loonies attacking anyone - that is beyond civilized behavior!

İ am not sure that Vilks furthered free speach anywhere with his little show though. İ will read what Vilks says his motives are but we are all responsible for our actions. He certainly can't say he didn't expect a reaction such as he got.

After reading the Wiki entry İ think he was really trying to be the super cool liberal and make points with his group. İ have no sympathy for him at all.

Posted by: Russ | 5/22/2010 1:11 PM

İf İ walked up to Mike Tyson and told him about his mother or wife (free speech) and he nailed me to the floor should İ be surprised and cry about it?

Or should İ say, 'İ knew better than to do that'?

Not exactly the same but not that far off either.

Posted by: Paul | 5/22/2010 2:17 PM

Good point :)

Certainly, if someone (call this person "John", for example) gets knocked out after childishly insulting Mike Tyson, John should not be surprised. But if John shot someone for calling him stupid, should that third party surprised at being shot? Shouldn't we consider someone like John (or Tyson) - who resorts to extreme violence in response to an insult - a danger to the rest of society?

In your analogy, in most free countries John did nothing criminal, while Tyson would be jailed for assault. John acted stupidly, but Tyson acted both stupidly and criminally.

This is similar to Vilks versus those trying silence him by physically assaulting him. Both parties are acting stupidly, but only one is acting criminally. Vilks may be very offensive to Moselms, but he isn't using violence to prevent others from exercising their basic human rights.

I think that free societies should protect their citizens' freedoms, and stand up against extremist groups who bully others with threats (or acts) of violence.

I'd love to hear any arguments against that stance.

Posted by: Russ | 5/22/2010 2:49 PM

Everyone İ know considers the whole episode as something from another world - though any group İ associate with is rather unlikely to have religious fanatics from any religion in it.

The scales of justice differ depending on where they are looked at from unfortunately. The guy who wants to kill Vilks would most likely be happy to kill his sister to uphold the honor of the family. Not an acceptable action either.

İ simply see no reason for Vilks to purposefully start the entire scenario. He knew full well the reception it would receive. Everyone has watched Rushdie's problems over the years so there could be no surprise.

He went out of his way to insult a group (the radicals) to prove a point and to 'be cool'. Got a bit more than he bargained for - not to mention endangering fellow countrymen and business - all for no real purpose. Anyone hurt in rioting over the mess should send him a thank you note.

When you know the reaction you will cause before making an action it is not possible to claim innocence and wear a halo when the stuff hits the fan.

Posted by: Russ | 5/24/2010 5:33 AM

A noose hung in a public location is certainly not considered allowable as free expression as it should not be. Every time some fool plays that game the stuff hits the fan!

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