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Cartoons, free speech and a world of prickly ‘injured parties in waiting’.

spiked-politics | Column | Those cartoons: a caricatured argument

I’ve been following the global saga of the ‘cartoons that insult Islam’ with a mixture of amusement, horror and increasing exasperation. Increasingly it resembles an argument on Trisha where it’s clear that any slim points of difference are an excuse for people who dislike each other to go hammer and tongs.

Why is it that major issues on liberalism (free speech, tolerance, respect) are so often triggered by events which are somehow unworthy? I believe in free speech, commentary, tolerance and respectful behaviour: why therefore should I have to fight for this ground on the basis of some juvenile, purposely-provocative and slightly pointless cartoons. They are irrelevant at best and unnecessarily offensive.

This said, Mick Hume’s piece on Spike is a good read and covers the underlying issues well:

So, at the risk of stating what might once (ie, about a fortnight ago) have been considered the obvious, it is worth reminding ourselves that a dozen obscure, unfunny (unless something major has been lost in translation) badly drawn bad-taste cartoons are…

1. Not the start of a slippery slope towards an Islamophoic Holocaust in Europe, as Muslim groups and at least one Labour MP has suggested;

2. Not the bedrock on which principle of free speech in our societies stands or falls, as implied by some in the West.

As secular liberals, whose cultures have spilt blood, tears and gallons on ink on religious reform, separate of church and state, emancipation and universal suffrage, it’s worth remembering how recently this “nirvana of free speech” has been reached. The history of Europe is one of religious zealotry, reform, counter-reformation, repression and finally a level of religious and social emancipation. We have had barely 50 years of classlessness, equal opportunity, free markets, open government… indeed, even listing these terms conjures recent examples of our own failures in each of these areas!

In order to either live with Islam or importantly (imho) to play to the broad, moderate majority within the ancient, peaceful and tolerant religion, we need to act with a bit more sensitivity and humility, while remaining strongly opposed on principle to the macho, jihadi voices of violence, repression and extremism (this applies to Islam as well as the Christian Right in the US).

This means it is incumbent upon us all:
* not to give offence carelessly or without purpose: since when is provoking someone to no end an expression of ‘freedom’ or an exemplification of values we hold to be universal and dear?
* not to take offence. Accept that there are occasions when we are sensitive to slight, even where there is none, or certainly none intended

I must be deluded though: if it were that easy then surely we wouldn’t have these arguments and deliberate misunderstandings.

Quote of the day though to Mick Hume:

The only restriction there ought to be on free speech is that it is the preserve of adults. Neither side has passed that test in this infantile spat. Instead of shouting at one another to shut up, it would be better if we all resolved to grow up.