Saturday, February 18, 2006

Freedom to offend

I don't like everything I hear, but perhaps I have a responsibility to listen. The current conflagaration around the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed(peace be upon him) reveals the very real sense of outrage felt by the people of Islam regarding the portrayal of their ultimate spiritual leader.

The opinions in the western media have been divided, partially because unsavoury elements enjoy using this debate to insult ethnic and religous groups. Oh, yes- skin heads and neo nazi's support their own freedom of expression but not that of other's.

The notion of unconditional freedom of expression comes partially in response to the west's own history of supressing ideas that were perceived as offensive, seditious, and blasphemous. For example, Galileo was threatened with torture and immolation for blasphemy- He argued that the earth orbits the sun, in opposition to the Church of Rome's doctrine that God had placed earth at the center of the Universe.

Even earlier, the Athenian philosopher Socrates was condemned for blasphemy and corrupting the youth(he taught them how to be critical thinkers). His trial bears some parallels to our debates about the cartoons of Mohammed currently arousing such anger. At Socrates' trial, virtually any adult male in athens could give his opinion but some opinions were frowned upon. Similarly, we take for granted the right to criticise cartoonists for being irresponsible, offensive and disrespectful. Socrates was ultimately executed for speaking his mind. Similarly, politicians in Canada, the U.S and Britain have criticised cartoonists for abusing free speech.

The problem with liberty of discussion is we only really have it when the discussion is heated, the stakes are high and there is no agreement. Freedom of expression only exists when censorship and force are curbed.

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"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster