I am rather appalled by the continuing aftermath of the publication of a few single-frame cartoon images of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper nearly half a year ago. A natural question has gone unasked: how many, if any, of those protesting have actually seen any of the cartoons in question? There is a further irony of course in trying to protest imagery of Islam as a violent and oppressive religion through violent riots and a call for suppression of free speech. What point are they trying to prove in embodying the nightmares of the Danish cartoonists they protest? What is the objective of these gatherings and flag burnings?
What has become clear is that the vocal part of the Islamic world believes it should be illegal to critique, slander, or make fun of Islam or Muhammad in Europe, the USA, or anywhere. They point to various European laws forbidding Nazi-like speech or the denying of the Holocaust. They are right that a double-standard is wrong, but the answer is not to further restrict speech, but rather to lift existing bans on speech. Am I saying that people should be allowed to say the Holocaust never happened and extol Hitler’s virtues? Yes, absolutely. People should be able to say whatever they want, however bigoted, misinformed, or unjust it is.
Free speech is a powerful and dangerous thing to believe in. If you believe in free speech, you know that that will absolutely include misleading, insulting, and patently wrong speech. But if everyone is allowed to speak, then the kooks will be shown for kooks in plain view and those with wisdom will be self-evident. The believer in free speech says that people can figure out for themselves what is truth and what is a lie and that all possible information should be available as evidence. The best way, long term, to prevent and diminish prejudice and false views in not to try and ban them or shove them into some dark corner but to bring them into the open by allowing their full publication and rebroadcast. The harsh sun of public scrutiny will wither and burn foolishness over time.
The believer in free speech thus accepts a world where their deepest beliefs (perhaps even their beliefs in free speech!) are challenged, mocked, and caricatured. But through the humility of accepting critique, we are made stronger. By acknowledging the truth that our adversaries speak, we can have a chance at least to right our own wrongs. This is the very strength of a multiparty democracy, of capitalism, of a group of people to evolve through debate to a better understanding of the world and themselves. It prevents stagnation. I’m proud of the fact that one of our nation’s finest news shows runs on a comedy network and is largely focused on lampooning the foolishness of our leaders; I’m proud that a show like that is not only legal but popular.
So for a group of people, however embattled and disenfranchised, to demand a cessation of critique is dangerous not only to free speech everywhere, but to themselves. If a cartoon showing a man with a bomb-turban were to be illegal, would it break the law to mention in a news report that a suicide bomber was a Muslim? The slippery slope of enforced political correctness is terrifying; I would much rather live in a world of open dialogue, replete with people making terrible cartoons insulting my mother, than to live in a stifled and stagnant world.
So go ahead, insult me, insult each other, and let’s move on.