..: Seat of My Pants :..

Monday, February 06, 2006

OK, now.

Now that I have calmed down somewhat from entirely-justified anger toward islam in general and muslim extremism in particular, I would like to offer here the best opine on the situation to-date. It is written by the lauded cartoonist of The Globe and Mail Brian Gable, a good friend:

The freedom to offend must be used carefully


Special to Globe and Mail Update

On most days in the world of newspaper publishing, editorial cartoons anonymously join in the barrage of information and diversion, and quickly fade into oblivion.

But every once in a while, as the recent headlines on the Danish cartoon controversy demonstrate, satire itself can become the central part of the story. The decision by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten to publish a number cartoons specifically portraying the image of the Prophet Mohammed was taken with the clear expectation that it would be offensive to the religious beliefs of many of its readers.

They were correct and the debate has now become an international one involving recalled ambassadors, boycotts and, in much of the Islamic world, yes, a very strong sense of having been deeply offended. All of this would seem to fall within the definition of what Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, had in mind when he said in 1993 that " ... the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic ... the dominating source of conflict will be cultural."

Clashing is something editorial cartoonists actually do know something about. It's our bread and butter. Every day, our working environment includes clashing editorials, cartoons, columns and letters to the editor, all expressing strong opinions from a wide range of individuals, interest groups, political ideologies and cultures. It was this space for debate and the fundamental value of intellectual clashing that the editor of the Jyllands-Posten felt he was defending. What resulted is the current argument over the rights of a free press versus the rights of a religious believer not to be offended.

As an editorial cartoonist, I've developed a way of thinking about issues of this nature when coming up with cartoons on contentious religious topics. The central tenet of this cartoonist's philosophy is that, for the most part, the world's major religions espouse similar human virtues of chastity, charity, peace, love and a longing for spiritual fulfilment. These are all sentiments I have little trouble supporting and, as a satirist, have no interest in trying to subvert. It's human beings' behaviour in interpreting these guidelines that has endlessly provided the inspiration for satire throughout history.

Samuel Johnson observed "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" and it surely isn't too great a leap to acknowledge that the occasional scoundrel has learned to wrap himself in religious vestments as well as a flag. By definition, a scoundrel's actions in the world are fair satirical game, regardless of the religious beliefs he is proclaiming. If a market is bombed in Belfast during a Christian sectarian struggle and the bomber chooses to explain the motive by quoting a verse from the Bible, then, using this system, tomorrow's cartoon will be on the bomber's hypocrisy and not the scriptures he used as his excuse.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech, by definition, include the freedom to offend. But the freedom to offend has to be used carefully if it is to retain real power. Religion A can mock religion B and vice versa forever, but headway is rarely made. From a satirist's perspective, it's almost always more profitable to observe and comment on the actions of the speakers themselves. If you're proposing death and destruction in the name of your specific deity, then we'll have a problem.

As a cartoonist, I understand and support the editor of the Jyllands-Posten and his action in promoting the fundamental importance of free speech. Democracy has always been a messy business and mistakes in judgment are a constant risk. If there was any error in judgment, perhaps it lies in the fact that the artists were asked to comment on the validity of a specific religion's taboos. Under the rules of a free press, it's fair game - but to what end?

The central fact of human nature is that people will take absolutely any tenet under the sun and, if they so desire, twist it to serve their ends. It's what keeps us in the news business and what inspired the Roman writer Juvenal to observe almost 2,000 years ago: "It is difficult not to write satire."