Cartoon Controversy Redux (In Memoriam Charlie Hebdo)

This was the first blog post I ever published, written almost 9 years ago in response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, when I was a sophomoric philosophy undergrad. Not a particularly good piece, and I’ve changed my views about particular things, but it seems depressingly relevant today.

As far as I see it there are only two possible issues worth discussing here: 1) Free speech; 2) Hate speech. But what about blasphemy, you ask? Surely that is an important issue! We’re talking about eternal salvation here!

It is only worth talking about blasphemy insofar as it helps define the limits of acceptable speech, and whether or not satirical cartoons constitute hate speech. I am inclined to think that the Muslims who are protesting the publishing of the infamous Mohammed cartoons are protesting on religious grounds, not racial. Why? Partly because it is impossible to categorize Muslims ethnically. Many Pakistanis, Arabs, North Africans, Indonesians, and others can all be categorized as Muslims, but do not share ethnic or racial commonalities. When Muslims denounce the representation of Mohammed, satirical or otherwise, they are doing so because it is blasphemous, not because it negatively depicts an ethnicity.

The issue of blasphemy can be summarized with the following question: What if I don’t believe that Mohammed is the prophet of God and that creating physical representations of him I may decrease my chances of eternal salvation? And what if I disagree so much with this belief that I think it deserving of ridicule? Are religious beliefs not allowed to be ridiculed? Why not? Because of the sanctity of religion?

This question raises some provocative issues concerning religion which I don’t really feel the impulse to deal with at length. The most general answer I can provide for these issues is this: Anybody who engages in acts of physical violence – towards people who have not made any physically-violent provocations – on the basis of religion (although I think ‘presumption’ would work as well) harbours beliefs that severely hinder any aspirations of a benevolent and (relatively) united human society. There is no acceptable justification for protecting these beliefs from ridicule.

That being said, let us deal with the two issues that I originally laid down.
As far as I am concerned, the degree to which this ‘controversy’ actually surrounds a substantive issue regards how far freedom of speech can be protected. It is always worth remembering, now matter how sacrosanct we hold our banal proclamations of “free speech,” Canada (and many other democratic countries) does not afford absolute freedom of speech. On the basis of hate speech – ideas that promote hate towards a specific group of people – not all expressions of thought are protected by freedom of speech. I think this makes sense. Thus, the cartoons in question should be circulated on the basis of 1) Free speech, unless it can be shown that they demonstrate 2) Hate speech.

This is the embassy-invading question. Is it hate speech? As suggested above, it would be difficult to argue that it is hate speech on the basis of ethnicity. Can speech be labelled hate speech on the basis of religion? I suppose, in some sense, that it can. For example, the statement “everyone that believes that Jesus is the Messiah should be killed in a horrible fashion,” probably qualifies as hate speech. However, “Jesus wasn’t the Messiah,” almost certainly doesn’t, no matter how offended people are by the statement. But, the former should have nothing inherently to do with religion. Inciting terrible violence against a particular individual or his or her particular beliefs is condemnable, regardless of whether or not those beliefs concern deities and regardless of whether those beliefs constitute the basis for an organized religion.

Notice here that hate speech based on racism as compared to hate speech based on religion are not analogous. Race, insofar as it means inherent physical characteristics, is not something that is changeable, nor does it constitute a world view. You can’t disagree with someone’s race. But when people are openly threatening to blow you up merely because you made fun of their alleged prophet, it kind of seems silly to worry about whether they find your jokes hateful or not.


3 thoughts on “Cartoon Controversy Redux (In Memoriam Charlie Hebdo)

  1. Amen brother. I don’t see how wearing turbans and throwing rocks is any way to behave. We should all adopt the religion of “science” and make our number one life’s purpose the understanding of our natural environment.

  2. I think wearing turbans and throwing rocks is okay, as long as the former relates to fashion, and the latter relates to some sort of game in which the object is to throw a rock at a target or in a bucket or similar receptacle. Just not at people.

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