Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On inflammatory inkblots - Part One of Two

Okay, so Muslims in the Middle East have been rioting over the publication of several editorial cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that showed likenesses of the prophet Mohammed, which is forbidden in Islam. Most recently, grenades were thrown and three Afghans were killed while marching on the NATO base in Kabul, and violent protests have occurred in India, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria and the Philippines. An Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri, asked for submissions of cartoons satirizing the Holocaust, to see exactly how far Western newspapers are willing to go to defend freedom of expression. Notably, while Danish Muslims protested peacefully when the cartoons were originally published last fall, the violent protests didn't start until they were republished in European newspapers - in the name of freedom of speech.

It might surprise you to know that I think that is the absolute stupidest reason to do something. Toddlers, overindulged teenagers and dictators use the because I can excuse. Exercising your rights simply because you have them is perfectly legal, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Nose cut; face spited.

I think this hits particularly close to home for me because of my love of and respect for my First Amendment rights. They make it possible to do my job during the day and then go home and blog at night (or during the day when I'm supposed to be doing my job). My freedom of expression is what allows me to post as I do, to be as critical of the president as I want to be, to be shocking or outrageous or un-PC as it serves my purpose. I really, really like that.

When you have something that you truly respect and appreciate, you neither leave it unused in the box or throw it around like a baseball. When I post something inflammatory or controversial, whether I'm being sincere or sarcastic or being a Devil's Advocate, I have a reason for doing what I do and a message I'm trying to get across. I don't post controversial messages for the hell of it, because I know that pushing at the boundaries of my rights just for the sake of pushing is a lousy way to treat something I love. It's an infantile, "I'm-not-touching-you-I'm-not-touching-you" approach to freedom of expression.

When the Danish newspaper originally published the controversial cartoons, the question was of taste and judgment. They had every right to publish what they did, they had a message to convey, and they made the choice to publish the cartoons with the knowledge that some people would object. And people did object - peacefully. That’s the purpose of editorial cartoons, to incite thought and thoughtful response.

The problems came when European papers decided to do the same, not for the sake of the message but in defense of free speech. Thus the message changed from a commentary on Islam to a "fuck you" to Muslims.

People don't generally respond well to "fuck you."

Don't think for a moment that I'm defending the rioters who are killing people and burning down buildings. Just as I think that it's stupid to riot after a sporting event or get into a shooting over east-coast vs. west-coast rappers, I think that rioting over a cartoon is a bad way to express your disapproval. But while I can't condone their methods, I can understand their anger. I've seen various cartoons, articles and TV shows satirizing the Catholic church; the only ones that have really pissed me off were the ones that expressed true ignorance of and hatred toward the Catholic church. The difference? I write letters and blog postings; I don't set things on fire.

So the rioters don’t have the right to do what they’re doing, and the newspapers had every right to do what they did. Does that make it a good idea? I’m going with “no.” I will support any publication’s decision to print a controversial or inflammatory editorial, as long as there’s a reason for it. Expose government corruption? Make people think? Espouse a cause? Reveal a lie? That’s what editorials are there for. But the editorial section of a paper has never been there for “fuck you,” and that’s what these papers did. They were well within their rights to do so, but it wasn’t terribly smart.

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