Of taste and right

Portrait of James MadisonWhen a Dutch cartoonist drew the prophet Muhammad, the world split between those who thought that was a serious crime that deserved death, and those who thought freedom of speech was more important than anybody’s susceptibility.

The cartoons in question might have been of poor taste, maybe. But taste is by definition subjective and shouldn’t be made into law.

Only in a theocracy is speech against Scripture repressed (by definition). Even if you pursued the bizarre claim that all speech against all sacred texts should be repressed, you wouldn’t go very far with it. Why? Because those texts are contradictory and exclusive. The Qur'an is explicitly saying that both Jews and Christians are wrong (for example Al-Baqarah 2:120). So just by being a Christian or a Jew, you are contradicting the Qur’an and expressing opinions that go against a sacred text. Before you think you can talk yourself out of this one by saying that as long as religious practice remains private that’s not a problem, also remember that all those texts also have extensive sections ordering their followers to proselyte (sometimes through the use of force).

In consequence, unless you want to live in a theocracy, you have to realize that prohibiting the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion is a necessity. This is not repression against religions. To the contrary, this is protecting religions against each other and guaranteeing that all religions can coexist.

Now if you’re a follower of the dominant religion in any country, you might be tempted nonetheless, thinking you’ll be fine. Well, first that’s not a very charitable position for those who aren’t, and it goes a long way to show your ideas of tolerance and social life. Second, any given religion is in reality split into a multitude of currents (especially here in the States). What makes you think it’s your particular current that will be in power? Given how the people who seize power in the name of a religion are rarely the moderates, aren’t you just a little afraid?

It should be obvious then that the reasonable position is that we should live in democracies rather than theocracies (I’m not mentioning other grotesque forms of power here) and that those democracies should guarantee freedom of speech, including against religion.

Given that, you may or may not find caricatures of a prophet distasteful, but that does not entitle you to anything. It is your problem and nobody else’s.

Now move this out of the religious sphere into the political sphere. Let’s talk about Wikileaks. That is another case where we should refrain from desiring laws that would prevent such leaks into the public sphere lest we want to live in a dictatorship where the government is judge and party. There is no fundamental difference between Wikileaks and a press outlet. In many ways, Wikileaks is one of the modern evolutions of the press, for good or bad. Freedom of the press is another fundamental promise and guarantee of democracy.

We may find Wikileaks revelations distasteful or irresponsible, but that does not entitle us to anything. It’s our problem and nobody else’s. What I do find in very poor taste are the threats of legal action for espionage or terrorism. In even poorer taste are calls for assassination.

Careful what you wish for...

Archived comments

  • Ludovic said on Sunday, December 5, 2010

    A few people (including Amazon's own statement for refusing to host Wikileaks) pointed out that, unlike a newspaper article that undergoes an editing process, Wikileaks _may_ have published without any redaction lots of documents potentially exposing people engaged in diplomatic/political actions in foreign countries (countries in which they could face harm for doing so). I guess it will take a long time going through all the leaked documents and figure out if it's the case... If it is the case, sure, it falls outside the scope of your article (which deals primarily with censorship/freedom of speech), but it may indeed mean consequences of legal action against Wikileaks. I don't know the legislation for this, so I don't know if such legal action would fall under the umbrella of espionage, terrorism, privacy, or what. I know that in the past, on at least one occasion, a newspaper exposed foreign agents in a similar manner -- I don't know if they ever faced a lawsuit?