Freedom to offend

This should not need saying.  Where did anyone get the idea that they have the right to "respect" for their religion? 

The right to religious freedom is the right to have and express beliefs and to worship as believe your religion demands.  But there is no right to be free from criticism or ridicule for what you believe.  Nor is there any right to require others to share your superstitions, or behave as if they did.

If you want to believe that wine turns into blood, that it is wrong to turn on a light on Saturday,  that it is immoral to draw pictures of prophets, that virgins give birth, or that Taurus should not marry Pisces, that is fine by me.   Gather on hillsides waiting for the second coming, get together and sing songs, or throw salt over your shoulder if you want.  Such are your rights.

But do not think that, just because you hold those beliefs dearly, that they are immune from criticism or ridicule.   You do not have the right to expect others to respect your beliefs, even if you label them as your religion.  You may be insulted by the knowledge that other people do not share your beliefs, or by their behaviour; but that is their right.  You do not have the right not to be insulted.

I am offended when the Pope argues against using condoms in Africa, even though they would help to prevent the spread of AIDS.  I am offended by the treatment of women by Christian and Islamic religious traditions.  I am offended by the way that Judaism treats homosexuals.  But just because I am offended by these things does not give me the right to prevent others from believing them, or to try to stop them from acting in accordance with their beliefs.

The limitation on free speech is that there is no right to incite violence against you.   This limitation protects you if you have religious views, or if you have none.  It follows from respect for you as a person, not respect for your beliefs.

So what was Jack Straw thinking of when he said this?

Let me say this about these cartoons. I make no comment about their
original publication, that is a matter for the Danish public,
parliament and Danish law. But there is freedom of speech, we all
respect that, but there is not an obligation to insult or to be
gratuitously inflammatory
, and I believe that the re-publication of
these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has
been disrespectful and it has been wrong. And if I may say so, I place
on record my regard for the British media who have shown considerable
responsibility and sensitivity in this regard.

What we also have to remember is that there are taboos in every
religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of
all aspects of Christian rights and rituals in the name of free speech,
nor is it the case that there is open season in respect of the rights
and rituals for the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the Sikh
religion, and it should not be the case in respect of the Islamic
religion either. So we have to be very careful about showing proper
respect in this situation.

(my emphasis)

It would be ludicrous to say that there is an obligation to insult or be gratuitously inflammatory. But there is a right to insult or be gratuitously inflammatory.

Straw’s metaphor of "open season" is unfortunate.  Open season is a hunting term denoting a time of year when it is lawful to hunt or trap.  It is never right to harm people, whether religious or not.  But as far as I am concerned, it is always "open season" if that means being able to criticize or ridicule rituals and superstitions, whether they are Christianity, witchcraft, Moonies, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, astrology, belief in Santa Claus, or faith in homeopathic medicines.  I feel no tinge of regret about insulting people who hold these superstitions.

People who have been offended by the publication of cartoons have every right to boycott whatever products they like.  They do not have the right to call for violence against those who have published them.

I think it is a pity that the British newspapers have not reproduced the cartoons.  There is a charming myth that when the Nazi authorities instructed that Danish jews should wear a Star of David armband, the King of Denmmark appeared the next day wearing a Star of David himself, in solidarity.  I hope that every newspaper that believes in free expression of ideas will publish the cartoons, and that we challenge those who are offended by that to boycott products from every one of those countries. 

Update: The US State Department has joined the debate:

We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it
must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds
in this manner is not acceptable.

So much for our allies in the fight for freedom.

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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20 Comments

  1. I really don’t see why upholding the right to free speech has to mean abusing it by publishing crude, stereotyping, deliberately offensive cartoons. I value that right, and I will defend it if I think it is under threat, but I don’t feel it necessary to prove my commitment by reproducing cartoons depicting Mohammed as a bomber, any more than I feel the need to prove it by reproducing cartoons of Jews (or Christians or any other group) as, say, money-grubbing child-murderers. Sorry, but this whole non-debate leaves me feeling sick from every angle.

  2. Thank you for the well-stated position, especially as regards the things that offend you. I’ve been looking for a way to say much the same thing, and now I feel like verbalising a few things myself. The cartoons are nearly irrelevant in this brouhaha, but if they are what it takes to reveal the hypocrisy of people who demand respect on one hand and preach intolerance on the other, then they should be published every day until the people who react violently to gratuitous offence acknowledge that their actions – and some of their beliefs – are offensive to some, maybe even many of us. In other words, the cartoons can be seen as a European reaction to an earlier offence against   our own sacred ideals. If I support the separation of church and state, the freedom of women to participate in public life on their own terms, the freedom of people to take lovers of any sex or gender, then it’s an offence to hear of people who think misogyny is okay, who think it’s okay to kill women rather than let them lead independent lives, and so on. Maybe I am offended that such things are permitted in any society. In that case, I can understand why someone would want to give offence in return, and think cartoons are a very low key way of going about it. I wonder what would happen if people in Western liberal democracies decided they were well and truly angry with people of some other nation. (I don’t see that happening, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.)Rant over. Thanks again. Oh, and Jim, the thing about being deliberately offensive is that it’s highly valued by – among others – teenagers and people who feel put upon in some way. It’s fine with me if they work it out by doing stupid and violent cartoons. Better that than Columbine.

  3. I wonder if Jim has seen the 12 cartoons.  If so, how many of the 12 cartoons he thinks are crude, stereotyping and deliberately offensive (as in his  money-grubbing child murder category)? 1, 6, 12? How many of the cartoon does he think actually refer to the risks/fear of producing the cartoons? Does Jim expects everyone to agree with his "artistic" appreciation of the cartoons? (…not happening).  Should Danish public prosecutors  reverse their decision and prosecute the "cartoonists" or the newspaper? Does Jim know how many of the cartoonists have received dead threats? I guess, a fair punishment for producing crude, stereotyping, offensive cartoons, Jim…Is Jim only sick by the non debate (to which he is enthusiastically contributing) or also about the burning of embassies and threats of terrorism because "crude" cartoons?                          

  4. link from slate from one of the cartoons above (full version)http://www.humaneventsonline.com/images/islm_cartoon_8.jpgalso other cartoons with translation   

  5. Well, ‘blog’,I have seen the cartoons, some of which are non crude, stereotyping and offensive, and a few of which are. I do not expect everyone to agree with my "artistic" appreciation of them, but I would expect people to expect others to be offended by some of them. I don’t think the journalists should be prosecuted, but I do think they need to consider their positions for choosing to defend free speech, as they put it, in such a wilfully offensive manner. I don’t know how many have received death threats, I certainly don’t support any such kind of threat, and I have no idea how you could have construed from my comments that I thought such threats "a fair punishment"- perhaps you would like to explain how I implied that? Lastly, I am indeed sickened by the burning of embassies and threats of terrorism you mention, which is why I said I was sickened "from every angle".

  6. Owen, as you know I approach this argument from the perspective of a Christian faith. (If you recall,you called me crazy in one of our previous discussions!) I agree with your opinion here. People who hold to a particular faith or worldview (or none) should expect to be challenged, criticized, disagreed with and even insulted. Religious people should not be surprised that others do not share their worldview, and should be even less surprised that others sometimes misunderstand, distort or caricature their faith or beliefs. In fact Jesus Christ said that this would be a real daily experience of his followers, but called on them not to retaliate. Marks of a mature faith are the ability to hold robust debates and dialogues with others who do not share your faith or opinion, but to treat people with respect, even if you find their views insulting, and not to threaten others with violence. And I’m not just criticising Islam; Christianity has its share of fundamentalist hotheads, both through history (think the inter-denomination violence in the 16th & 17th centuries) and today. I cannot identify with that strand of intolerant and absolutist faith.

  7. John

    Thanks.  For the record, I want to make it absolutely clear that while I do not agree with a single word of your religious beliefs, my respect for you as a person is undiminished by this disagreement; if anything, it is enhanced by the sincere and intelligent way that you live your life in accordance with your ideals. 

    Owen
     

  8. Owen, the respect is mutual. And I don’t mind being called crazy by someone who runs half-marathons before brunch.Although we disagree over religious belief, there are also sufficient areas of common ground that we can and do agree on, motivated by our different worldviews to arrive at the same conclusions.

  9. I absolutely agree with every word you wrote Owen. Very powerfully put. And the subsequent dialogue in the comments shows that people of opposing views can have a civilised debate.Hilariously, one of the protestors against the cartoons in Britain, who dressed up as a suicide bomber for the day (no, I don’t know either) has been revealed as a crack dealing convict… 

  10. Owen and others, do you understand that your upholding of the right to free expression is part of a post-Enlightenment, secular ideology which is not shared everywhere in the world?
    Your argument that this ideology should apply everywhere in the world reveals your assumption that we set the rules, that others must follow them (presumably if they wish to receive the benefits of our aid); in other words it’s couched in imperialism, and unfortunately for your argument, our civilising mission is not yet complete, so it’s invalid.
    Where different ideologies exist in the world, relations between them must be conducted with respect. We can’t insult others and then say, oh you’re not playing by the rules, when they react (because we have set those rules; other rules may apply for other worldviews, and we have to respect that).
    The reactions of a minority of Muslims in many places around the world have to be understood in the context of imperialist military aggression by Western secular states (those which espouse free speech – =insults; free trade -=exploitation) against Islamic countries.
    It’s not their fault if others have not become enlightened enough to smile when we add insult to their injury.

  11. Ob fusc, some people would say that you were apologising for tyranny and theocracy. Let’s give people around the world the chance to enjoy democracy and freedom before suggesting it’s a ‘Western thing’ and that the oppressors are liberals rather than Generals, kings, Ayatollahs, and state-sponsored media bosses.

  12. A friend tells me that the Danish cartoons are racist (comparable to Nazi cartoons about Jews)…Is this true? I can not see this but maybe I am not sensitive or "respectful" enough? Can anyone help? Owen?

  13. FT today: But they also asserted that while that free speech was a right, it was
    one that entailed “responsibility and discretion”, and “should respect
    the beliefs and tenets of all religions. Statement by UN, EU and OIC

  14. B4L,
    I presume "democracy and freedom" are going to be delivered at the tip of a Cruise missile?
    Your argument points up neatly the false assumptions I was trying to get at – many countries in "the rest of the world" *have* tried democracy, and their democratically elected rulers have been toppled when they are not deemed congruent to Western interests (Allende in Chile for example; and watch out Ahmadinejad); meanwhile many of the generals and kings you refer to are propped up by the U.S. (the House of Saud, Mubarak).
    We do *not* live in a world in which the dominant power is an enlightened "liberal" democracy which is trying to spread positive values; we live in a world dominated by an imperial power which explicitly and entirely unapologetically has an amoral foreign (not to say domestic) policy; which deploys military force and economic coercion to safeguard its sources of energy and other resources. See the Project for a New American Century, and many other sources available on the internet. There’s no excuse for ignorance on this.
    If you entirely flipped your argument round, it’d be right – and if you had been born in any one of many Muslim countries, that flipping of the argument would have been forcibly enacted for you.
    Sorry to be combative on what is a friendly blog, but I guess I’m just enacting the polarity or invertedness of our viewpoints – I do so in a friendly spirit tho.

  15. Ob fusc,You did give the distinct impression that while freedom of expression (as part of a post-Enlightenment, secular ideology) might work for some – in the West – it might not work for others, i.e. that these principles might not be universal, and that people in other countries might well freely choose an alternative system. Where has this happened? The fact that Western governments have, in the past, taken away these choices for geopolitical or economic reasons (alongside Communist regimes that couldn’t even claim to offer these rights), might well be classed as hypocrisy, but it doesn’t support your argument that basic liberal human rights are inapplicable worldwide.If people have been systematically twisted by totalitarian and religious manipulation (give me free trade any day), then maybe we should turn our attention to those manipulators rather than say, "Oh, you’ve suffered enough, freedom of speech and a free economy would be too much of a culture shock."PS. If I had to sum up, Ahmadinejad, I don’t think ‘incompatible with Western interests’ would be the first thing I mentioned, funnily enough…

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  17. Blimey; sorry about those trackback spams Owen, didn’t realise when I switched it would auto ping all the links in my old posts as well.  Ah well.

    Hope the move is going well and new job is ok.   

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