How free is the freedom of expression?

Such a hoo-har at the moment about some cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad that have been printed and re-printed in several European newspapers this week. The media is full of folk decrying this ‘blasphemous outrage’ while others demand that the freedom of the press, and free speech in general, be protected at all and any costs. But how free is the freedom of expression?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

Under that guidance anything and everything goes; we have anarchy. And some might find that attractive. But there has been something of a habit over the last decades to insist on rights but ignore totally the incumbent obligations therein implied. To achieve any sort of balance, rights have to come with obligations. A right of free speech is balanced with an obligation to use that right with honour, to avoid wherever possible, insult.

Political cartoons and charactures are something of a British tradition, going back centuries to Hogarth. But there has always been a relevancy of message, even when depicting the King taking a crap (though my history is too poor to recall what this was now!). The cartoons of Muhammad don’t seem to have that relevancy. I’ve seen them and, although I’m not about to further the insult by printing them here, you can google for them if you wish. By drawing Muhammad wearing a bomb for a turban, the only likely message in the current political environment is that Islam is all about bombing and terrorism. I’m sure it’s not.

I got on my high horse not so long ago, angry at a Mac cartoon that came out after Pagan prisoner were allowed the tools of rite in their cells. It showed an apparent Pagan bowing down before a character so clearly drawn as the Christan devil – the scriptural epitomy of evil and disgusting perversion – that there was no ignoring the insult to Pagans and to paganism in general. I know of no Pagan who considers the deity(ies) they revere to have such ill-balanced attributes, and the cartoon could only reinforce the unfortunate stereotypes that have existed even fifty years after the repeal of the witchcraft act. I complained to the newspaper and to Mac himself, and received an apology of sorts.

I fully understand the insult Muslims feel over these cartoons. I also note with some pleasure that, thus far, no British newspaper has published what Eurpoean newspapers consider valid and relevant graphic editorial. But I also note that righteous indignation can so easily inflame and become irrational mob fury. Let sense prevail; let’s remember that free speech always has a cost.
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8 thoughts on “How free is the freedom of expression?

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  1. I caught on GMTV, this morning… Yes, it was on in the background. That certain British hack-rags will be re-printing the pictures. I’ve not seen them yet, and would certainly like the opportunity to determine if I find them offensive or ill-conceived.

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  2. If you need to see them, google is your friend, but they’re not particularly offensive outside the Muslim faith. I think what rankles for me is the ‘me too’ attitude of some press, currently non-British press, feeling they need to reprint the ‘insult’ in order that freedom is protected. Freedom is not protected by repeated offering of known insult, but needs to be exercised with honour. I may be free to call you an arse, but might be unsurprised if you used your own freedom of expression to smack me in the teeth… 🙂

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  3. However, and carrying the analogy further in line with current news stories, I might be justifiably surprised if you burned down my house, threatened to kill my friends and family and ran amock across my land.

    This fundamentalist over-reaction is, of course, what the media wanted. Nothing better than burning flags and enraged protestors for selling news… What a shame it is that the fools so readily oblige. 😦

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  4. Accepted. But if the responsibilities that adhere to honourable free speech are not applied by the hard-of-thinking, should that mean we do away with both the responsibility and the free speech? Or should we put our efforts into education? Am I arrogance itself, to think it is incumbent upon the free-thinkers to assert the balance of rights and responsibilities, and point out where imbalance exists?

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  5. This is the first and last time I will visit your web site. You know nothing of freedom. You know nothing of responsibility. You can have your constitution — but leave my bill of right’s alone — God gave that to me and plan to keep it.

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  6. Hi Jack, I expect you will come back, if only to see if I allowed your comment past moderation. I had to put it here because you faked your email so I couldn’t reply personally…

    I’m not at all sure how I’ve offended you, so I’m writing back to enquire. I was writing to express a tolerance of other spiritual paths than mine own (is that it?) and for understanding in times of tension. I wrote that I understood how offence can be caused by cartoons and cited an example of my own.

    As it happens (and you might not have noticed) I’m English, and as such I have no Constitution. I applaud yours and believe it also calls for tolerance and freedom of expression, even in Texas (which is where I think you are Jack). I don’t think I ever mentioned your Bill of Rights (no apostrophe).

    Anyway. I welcome your comment. If everyone agreed with me it would be a dull blog. Respects to you, your family and your God.

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