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Free speech, intolerance and stupidity
I know I've been promising a piece on free speech for a while, and I was about to get around to it when I realised that, visionary that I am, I dealt with issues of free speech well before a Danish newspaper published some inflammatory cartoons. For those who haven't read the piece, I heartily recommend going back over it. It is assumed knowledge for this post!
For anyone who has been living under a rock, the basic story is this: A Danish children's author wanted to write a children's book promoting tolerance and other laudable stuff, but couldn't find any illustrator to put their name to the work because of depictions of Mohammad; One thing led to another, and the Danish newspaper initiated a competition for cartoons of Mohammad; A few months later, some senior Muslims went on a tour of the Middle East showing the inflammatory cartoons and some even more offensive cartoons they had obtained somehow...
Long story short, on one side you have people claiming this as an issue for free speech, pitted in a death struggle against people claiming that tolerance should win out and the cartoons shouldn't be published.
I will put a disclaimer at this point: I was about to click a link to the cartoons when I first heard about it, and then stopped myself. I would only be looking out of curiousity, but this would encourage the free speech side (clicks are power). So I have not seen them, but will say that they are offensive because Muslims have been offended.
Anyway, over the rest of the post, I will name some of the key players, and give some unsolicited advise:
What a stupid thing to do! No matter how free-speechy and appropriate you might have thought the cartoons were, now you have basically set yourself up with an obligation to be offensive because otherwise you open yourself up to be accused of racism against Muslims for not publishing anything, and racism against other groups for anything offensive you may publish in the future. Learn from it, apologise to readers who were offended, and try not to do it again. DO NOT reprint
Free speech advocates
I played pool with an ex-army guy once, and he told me that the Australian army would only fight battles when they thought they had a 4-1 chance or better. I've played enough tactical games to know that if you can avoid a difficult battle, it is usually a good move. I may not apply this to real life, but that's my business. Anyway, why fight this battle? I know you genuinely believe that if you can win this, you can win anything, and I know you genuinely believe that you can win this. You can't. You have too many usual-allies who won't stand with you on this one. Be quiet, let it fade away and pick a winnable battle.
Violently Protesting Muslims
While I haven't seen the cartoons in question, I am led to understand that one of the main gripes is the depiction of Mohammed as a terrorist. I can understand why you would be upset about this. Burning down embassies, rioting, making death threats and killing people is NOT a good way of disavowing the connotations of the cartoon, and doesn't do a lot for either image of Islam as a peace-loving religion or of Muslims not as terrorists.
Other Muslims, as with any other people, have expressed views across the range. I appreciate the upset and hurt. It would help generate just a little more sympathy if Islamic newspapers didn't publish anti-semitic cartoons so soon after. Indeed, disavowing racism of any kind is probably a much better way to go about things.
When I first heard about the cartoons, my immediate response was sympathy for the offended Islamic peoples. This rapidly diminished as I read reports on all sorts of different Islamic newspapers from Europe and the Middle East publishing cartoons victimising Jews. If nothing else, this is a fantastic way of alienating people who not only would probably sympathise with you, but, through a long history of victimisation by the European press, have institutions to deal with these cartoons. Ask for help. Don't attack people who had nothing to do with it.
Additionally, you don't win friends or support by weaving anti-Israel sentiments into your statements against the cartoons. We didn't do it. Don't blame us.
Poor, poor, Michael Leunig. Had one of your cartoons submitted to the Iran newspaper's holocaust cartoon competition for you. You have been so slighted. Just like Adam Kelno in QB VII. Well, Mr Leunig, time heals all wounds. You were given a fresh chance, years after writing the cartoon, to disavow racism, to apologise for any perceptions of anti-semitism, to make a positive statement. You blew it. In your moaning wave of self-pity, you forgot to mention one fact: The Iranian newspaper, well known for its love of Israel and tolerance for all things Jewish, thought your cartoon was perfect. Doesn't this suggest that, just maybe, it carries the perception of anti-semitism, and rather than imagining some pro-war conspiracy out to get you by...umm...sending one of your cartoons in to a competition, you could actually...ummm...maybe address the issue at hand.
Take pride in your work. I know it was just a freelancer, not one of the regulars, but this is exactly what satire should do: It should take swings at people, and occassionally make salient points. The idea is to educate through humour. The point illustrated beautifully by submitting the cartoon is that it is possible to be offensive even if you don't mean to be. Stereotypes hurt. Downplaying events like the holocaust do too. So to the Chaser boys, keep it up.
Set up more issues like this and take on more staff.
My favourite procrastinations
The Head Heeb - Jonathan provides a balanced view on various Israeli and (former) colonial states in less developed regions of the world.
The Bladder - a sports satire site. Well worth a look.