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Infrequent transmissions from the Metabunker commenting on issues of import. In common parlance known as editorials.

Words have power. A power to which we have been the witnesses since Jyllands-Posten published its 12 controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The fierce debate the publication of these cartoons aroused, which has now entered its fourth month, has to a large extent centered around the usage of free speech in principle as well as practice, with one often being confused with the other.

Since the story broke, we have thus witnessed a veritable phalanx of sticklers for principle, some of them otherwise exceptionally intelligent people, whom The Cause has suddenly transformed into absolutists. Because 'freedom of speech is non-negotiable', they have entirely forgotten about the healthy reality check one would otherwise assume to be found amongst the political commentator's most treasured disciplines. Since they equate principle and practice, we have had to endure discourse that seems to take for granted that the religious Muslim right wing is a clear and present danger to our way of life. Established commentators have acted as if Danish imam Abu Laban and the Danish Islamic Association wield the real political clout necessary to effect government censorship of the media, despite the fact that their irresponsible but understandable reactions to Mohammad-Gate - most recently their rather hysterical disinformation tour of several Muslim countries - have been motivated by what they consider hardheaded intransigence on the part of institutional Denmark.

Because practice to these commentators has been substituted with principle, there for example been a tendency to equate the virulently anti-Semitic statements of the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir with the strongly xenophobic ones on Muslims by members of the Danish People's Party, the latest example being Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt writing in the weekly newspaper Weekendavisen 30 dec.-5 jan. This comparison makes perfect sense in principle, if one just considers the statements themselves, but it takes on an entirely different character when seen in relation to practical reality. The aforementioned statements come from an extremist group that represents no more than a negligible number of right-wing Islamists, while the latter come from members of parliament, representing the third-largest political party in Denmark, which is a consistent supporter of the government and has considerable influence on legislation on immigration and integration. The sticklers have, generally, had a very hard time recognizing the difference between being part of what one could call 'the Danish establishment', and belonging to a minority. They seem to overlook the fact that it is in the nature of democracy, as well as basic social dynamics, that the opinions, statements and actions of the majority wield more clout than those of the minorities.

Most secularized Danes, be they of Germanic or Ottoman descent, will unhesitatingly agree with the sticklers that freedom of speech is of great importance and that cartoonists should be allowed to draw any major religious figure they should wish to, that death threats are a completely unacceptable way of expressing one's disagreement with something, and that it is absurd to expect the prime minister of a democratic country to interfere in the affairs of the free press, which at the end of the day was what the 11 Muslim ambassadors, Abu Laban, and the Danish Islamic Association did. What the sticklers seem to forget, however, is that this debate is not exclusively about freedom of speech and other basic rights that we happily enjoy in this part of the world. It is about practical reality in Denmark as well as the rest of Western Europe, about how to create as harmonic a community as possible in an increasingly heterogenic society. In other words, this is not just a matter of principle, but one of practice.

As many critics of Jyllands-Posten 's obviously ill-advised publicity stunt and the prime minister's handling of the controversy have pointed out, it is quite natural to see the matter-of-course attitude of the publication of the cartoons on part of the editors as a symptom of the increasingly shrill and aggressive discourse on Muslims these last years. It is of course hard to say precisely how many people in Denmark were offended by the cartoons, but it does not, as some commentators with reference to the silent "accept" of them by most Danish Muslims have posited, seem logical to assume that it was exclusively the Islamic right wing who felt insulted. Could it perhaps be that the reason that so few "moderate" Muslims have reacted is because insults of this type have become business as usual to them, merely the latest of many indications of the Danish establishment's lack of understanding and respect for them? Could it be that the cartoons, rather than being a fundamentally important manifestation of freedom of speech, were merely a boorish and unnecessary expression of the intolerance plaguing our country?

However one chooses to look at it, these questions have led to a discussion of the general "tenor" of Danish discourse on immigration and integration. The sticklers have dismissed this issue with reference to the sanctity of free speech, affixing "bleeding-hearts" and similar sobriquets to the critics raising the question. They have almost exclusively focused on the notion that yielding an inch on the issue will invariably lead to a washout. Classic behaviour amongst people who, in lieu of navigating the murky waters of practicality, seek the hard, high and easily gained ground of principle.

This case is particularly important because it has laid bare and opened up broad debate on essential discontents of integration in Danish society in all their ambiguity in a way that other comparable ones, such as the ferociously racist statements that appeared on the webpage of member of parliament and the Danish People's Party Louise Frevert this summer, have not. Whether this debate will ultimately have proved helpful or just polarized our society further remains to be seen and will in any case probably be hard to answer. One thing is certain, however, the answers will not be found in seeking refuge in the realm of principle.

In the already mentioned article in Weekendavisen , Eriksen and Stjernfelt attempt a very commendable analysis of the meta-debate on the "tenor" of this discourse, but they undermine their own argument by resorting to a couple of rather crude and problematic conclusions as to its importance and the basic values of the Open, secularized society. They lucidly describe the downwards spiral of radicalization the tenor of discourse is suffering, but at the same time assert that the meta-discussion of this selfsame tenor is the cause of this downwards spiral, that its consequence is "a surreal scenario where two opposing parties in an offended tone of voice accuse each other of producing insulting discourse" neglecting the pursuit of pragmatic solutions to the actual problems discussed.

This last point is well taken, and one can only hope the prime minister now that he in his New Years' speech, after months of undiplomatic pussyfooting, has reached a finely balanced position on the issue, will follow his words with action in his policymaking on integration, although it would be inadvisable to hold one's breath waiting for it. The problem with Eriksen's and Stjernfelt's analysis is however that it underestimates the fully integrated aspect of a problem the way it is addressed and discussed is. Words have power and they shape our perspective on the world. When the tenor of a discussion is polarized it is thus not merely a symptom that things are going awry, it is one of the contributing factors. The cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad can therefore just as soon be considered part of the problem, as they can the solution to it. It is, as already, noted hard to determine conclusively, but it remains an important consequence of their publication that people have become more aware how important the tenor of the discourse on integration is.

A further problem of Eriksen's and Stjernfelt's essay is their rather unhesitant embrace of Karl Popper's notion of the paradoxical necessity that the Open society fights intolerance with intolerance. Once again, this is an important insight on Popper's part and history offers plenty of examples of its relevance, but in this context the sticklers have been rather quick to accept it as the appropriate strategy. Their rhetoric has been characterized by a "when in Rome"-style attitude which holds that intransigence be fought with intransigence. They have even gone as far as to state that freedom of speech holds no meaning if its boundaries are not constantly tested in accordance with this principle, and they even temporarily convinced our clueless prime minister of this.

The sticklers' main argument is that a society in which people censor themselves and have to moderate their speech on certain groups in society is unacceptable. Once again an argument that makes sense in terms of principle, but is fundamentally unworkable in practice. Any community is based on mutual consideration. As social beings we constantly consider our surroundings, we live and define ourselves in terms of the considerations we take and that are taken in relation to us. A favourite word of the sticklers' in this debate has been "self-censorship" and it was, of course, an alleged case of exactly that which prompted Jyllands-Posten 's commissioning the cartoons. But in the rhetoric of the sticklers, "self-censorship" has suddenly become applicable to any consideration we might make in relation to our fellow man. This despite the fact that all of us, every day of our lives, as a matter of course moderate our speech and avoid insulting people around us. But apparently it is unreasonable to expect that the editors at Jyllands-Posten operate according to this logic.

Contesting the newspaper's right to publish the cartoons is obviously unacceptable, and the fact that they have the right to do so indicates a healthy society in which free speech is treasured. But this does not mean that they absolutely should publish them, that they should not think before they act, just as we all do in so many situations in life. Free speech is a right to be used responsibly, not a carte blanche to act like a bully. And to criticize people who use it as an excuse to do so is not a symptom of a society in the process of compromising its fundamental values, but rather of one in which we still understand the mutual understanding and respect these values are founded on.


Matthias Wivel 09/01/05


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further reading:
Feature: The Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad
Review: The drawings of the Prophet Muhammad


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