Cartoons, censorship and civility

Like a good humanist and liberal I have always been opposed to censorship, however in the 1980s I stirred up a debate in the Humanist literature, pointing out that there was a newer wave of pornography about and it was very different from the kind of harmless stuff that prompted censorhip of things like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In the end I agreed that censorship is not the answer, but what is?

So I shifted my ground slightly, not in the direction of censorship, but in the direction of asking opponents of censorship to do their bit to maintain standards of civility and good taste. This means taking issue with artists who use bad taste, shock and horror in the belief that the primary responsibility of the artist is to shock the ordinary, boring people. Congratulations to Nicholas Gruen for maintaining the theme of art reviewing on the Troppo site.

This piece is really about the Danish cartoons. In case anyone is wondering about the cartoons that detonated the current agitation, here is a copy from a British libertarian/anarchist site. They are attributed to a Danish site that has been down since 31 Jan.

There is a rumour that some really gross and offensive cartoons on the same theme were put into circulation by mischief-makers who wanted to stir up an exaggerated reaction. More advice on this would be appreciated.

In my view it is generally undesirable and bad manners to lampoon other people’s religions, although I would be pushed to define where good humoured satire stops and offensive lampooning starts. However you can tell when it has gone too far and this means that people who produce works of art like the Piss Christ should be subjected to polite but firm criticism from all fair-minded and reasonable people who think that art and civility matter.

There is no place for legislation or violence in response to lapses in taste. As Hayek pointed out, in a free society we have to put up with a lot of things that we don’t like. That is also my rejoinder to the generally sound comments by our learned friend on the Bench. There is nothing new about rancid behaviour by parents at junior football games and it is absurd to suggest that additional legislation is required to improve our manners. In fact it sends precisely the wrong message.

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Evil Pundit
18 years ago

Here’s a quote from the normally anti-Western Guardian newspaper:

At this point a group of ultra-conservative Danish imams decided to take matters into their own hands, setting off on an ambitious tour of Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a dossier containing the inflammatory cartoons.

According to Jyllands-Posten, the imams from the organisation Islamisk Trossamfund took three other mysteriously unsourced drawings as well, showing Muhammad with the face of a pig; a dog sodomising a praying Muslim; and Muhammad as a paedophile. “This was pure disinformation. We never published them,” Lund complained. But the campaign worked.

Similar accounts have also surfaced in more reliable sources such as blogs:

However, the Danish Muslim delegation showed much more than the 12 cartoons published by Jyllands Posten. In the booklet it presented during its tour of the Middle East, the delegation included other cartoons of Mohammed that were highly offensive, including one where the Prophet has a pig face. But these additional pictures were NOT published by the newspaper, but were completely fabricated by the delegation and inserted in the booklet (which has been obtained and made available to me by Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet). The delegation has claimed that the differentiation was made to their interlocutors, even though the claim has not been independently verified. In any case, the action was a deliberate malicious and irresponsible deed carried out by a notorious Islamist who in another situation had said that “mockery against Mohamed deserves death penalty.”

18 years ago

A Danish newspaper has obtained and published a copy of the booklet distributed by The Islamic Society in Denmark (Islamist organisatio) in the Middle East with the additional pictures.

Links on my blog, post titled ‘more caricatures’ (click on my name above) More in previous posts titled ‘morning danish’ and ‘i’ve been meaning’

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
18 years ago

I couldn’t care less what the images were. The reaction was completely over the top. Rioting on the basis of blasephemy is the sort of thing that “the west” eventually gave up in the messy wake of the Reformation.

I’m not saying that we’re particularly far ahead of anyone in today’s world, but religious violence is out. Protest, whine, threaten with eternal damnation all you wish; but attacking embassies because you don’t like a picture is just bonkers.

18 years ago

Man, if you thought 80’s porn was going too far, what would you say of today’s porn?
As for the cartoons: Voltaire, we need you once again.

Eric Ralph
Eric Ralph
18 years ago

Rafe—What are these lessons from the past?

Also, can I ask you, for the sake of arugment, to briefly put aside what was, in my view, but obviously not others’, uncivil, but fairly common, behaviour (we’re all aware of worse visual and verbal sacrilege against a great number of different religions, let alone the far worst sacrilege against illiterate people’s beliefs and livelihoods by greedy governements and large mineral extraction or timber operations), and answer another question.

Quite what should one do when folk want to be uncivil? Should I tut tut something that, to be frank, in an different circumstances would not have raised an eyebrow (indeed, I’ve seen all sorts of offensive cartoons aimed at Muslims in mainstream US papers, and no doubt, there are much worse things being said & printed the moment you move toward the red press)? Should I tut tut now that this particular case proved otherwise? Surely, ex post tut tut-ting makes no sense, and ex ante tut tut-ting is just about impossible undertake with any prospect of correctly guessing when nastiness will emerge?