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By Miroslav Volf
professor, Yale Divinity School
When Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard gave a lecture at Yale last week he triggered a storm of controversy. He had acquired world-wide notoriety in 2006 when, in response to a request by the editors of Jyllands-Posten, he drew a caricature of the prophet Muhammad “as he saw him.” He pictured him in a turban with a bomb with a lit fuse.
Muslims around the globe cringed at the site of the drawing. Most of them believe that it is inappropriate to portray the prophet Muhammad at all, and in a number of countries there are laws which explicitly prohibit the depiction of the Prophet. Just about all felt insulted that the person who defines the deepest core of their identity was depicted as a terrorist. With a few lines of his pen, Westergaard desecrated a cherished religious symbol and deeply offended more than a billion people. Critics of Westergard’s visit to Yale accused the professor who invited him of giving a platform to a hate monger.
Westergaard saw himself and his caricature differently. During the lecture he echoed the position of Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten. Rose defended his decision to solicit and print the offensive images with the following argument: In liberal democracies people have many rights, but the one right they do not have is the “right not to be offended (by others).” As far as the rights guaranteed by laws are concerned, for better or worse in liberal societies there is a “24/7 open season” for offending and desecrating. From this perspective, not allowing Westergaard to speak at Yale would have been to deny him a basic right–a right to free speech.
America is a liberal democracy, and Yale is deeply committed to the freedom of speech. But the relevant issue is not the possession of the right to free speech, but the responsible exercise of that right. Should we, citizens of liberal democracies who embrace liberal ideals, do everything we have the right to do? We should not. One of my proud moments as a teacher at Yale was to listen to students as they engaged in a moral debate with Westergaard about the rightness of his action.
They raised two weighty considerations against Westergaard’s caricature. The first concerned safety. More than 200 lives were lost in the violence that ensued after the publication of the Danish caricatures, not just in the Middle East but above all in Nigeria. Though this violence was utterly unjustified and indefensible, it was still a consequence of the publication of the caricatures, the most offensive of which was his. Would he have published the caricature had he known that lives would be lost? Westergaard remained unrepentant. Others, not he, committed the violence. Exercise of his right trumped any consideration of the real-world effects of his action. To some students this seemed strangely self-absorbed.
The second consideration was that of civility. Though gratuitously offending others may be our right as citizens of liberal democracies, the exercise of that right hardly counts as a mark of a well-lived life. At issue is not the appropriateness of expressing one’s opinion and arguing for one’s position; at issue is, rather, respect or lack of it with which we express our opinions and argue for our positions. One student put the point
unforgettably. Addressing Westergaard he said: “I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. My father taught me to be honest with others but never to be mean. Your caricature was honest, in that you said what you thought. But did it have to be mean?” Westergaard responded that he was provoked by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. So it is morally acceptable for one reprehensible provocation to elicit another, asked one student incredulously?
The lesson of the encounter between Westergaard and Yale students was not just that he had the right to draw his caricature but that students have shown him to be in the wrong in exercising that right. The lesson was rather that it makes sense to uphold the right of free speech only if we are prepared to engage in a vigorous moral debate about the proper exercise of that right.
Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor at the Yale Divinity School and Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture.