Free Speech and Moral Accountability

By Miroslav Volfprofessor, Yale Divinity School When Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard gave a lecture at Yale last week he triggered … Continued

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.

Written by

  • PSolus

    Mr. Volf,You had every right to write and publish this article.However, this article offends me as an American, and as a non-believer.Therefore, you were not right in exercising your right to write and publish this article.Beginning to sound pretty stupid, no?

  • norriehoyt

    “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?”So drawing a cartoon is equivalent to destroying the World Trade Center and killing thousands?Besides, the cartoon wasn’t “mean” to any balanced mind.

  • norriehoyt

    “Muslims around the globe cringed at the site of the drawing.”Professor, I think the word is “sight”.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    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. Denmark has a long history of in your face satire, caracturing Christian and Jewish figures, subjects, etc. Never to the best of my knowledge did these pieces result in the murder of two hundred people. The same holds true for the US, where Jewish and Christian figures, texts, etc., have been targets of humor. Never did this bring about worldwide violence. A few years ago, at the Brooklyn Museum, a painting highly offensive to Catholics was displayed. Yes, there was protest. Violence, no.Personally, I don’t see the necessity for these sorts of texts, representations, etc. However, they are not hate speech.A few years ago, a Muslim club at NYU circulated via email selections from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A Jewish club protested and was informed that the Muslim club was protected by the first amendment. It was not, of course. The Jewish students, after some consideration, elected not to send out their own hate messages.By your reasoning, they were wrong. They should have gone further, rioting, perhaps.Poor essay, poor reasoning. Poor Yale.

  • acebojangles

    The reaction to Mr. Westergaard’s cartoon proves his point. Even though not all Muslims are violent, there is enough of a violent strain to justify the satire. Strong reasoning ability doesn’t seem to be a requiremnent to attend Yale.

  • yasseryousufi

    Thank You Miroslav Volf for your balanced article on this subject. Small wonder that it is at once pounced upon by the usual Islamophobes of On Faith, trying to kill off any debate which even has an iota of fovorability for muslims.The question of gratuitous offending and freedom of speech which was at the core of the cartoon debate, is the one Europe needs to find an answer to specially keeping in view its violent history of hatred for the minorities. Publishing those cartoons while European soldiers were participating in committing carnage against two muslim countries was obviously an astutely timed provocation aimed at riling up the kind of reactions it did. Thankfully that controversy has died down, but there are many who will keep attempting to reignite that debate in order to create more hatred of muslims in Europe. As I said, its a dangerous game considering the history of Europe

  • acebojangles

    Yasseryousufi:So questioning violence as a response to a cartoon is Islamophobic? Which comments exactly were you referring to?

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Until and unless Europe decides it will tolerate no persecution of minorities, this debate about the cartoon is pointless. As matters stand, the EU has informed European Jews of what actions THEY should take to protect themselves against attacks from Muslims, as you know, Mr. Volf. Did this come up at your conference?Did the cartoons about Jews and Christians, poisonous “articles” that appear not only in newspapers in Muslim countries, but in Europe and even in the US come up at your conference? Sorry. The cartoon was not meant in the spirit of hate speech but the Muslim publications to which I refer are. What did your conference have to say about them?Again, I refer to the NYU incident in which a Muslim club circulated via email exerpts from the PRotocols of Zion, which, they evidently don’t know, was intended as satire, but that is beside the point. When a Jewish club protested, they were told that the Muslim Club’s right to spread hate was protected by the First Amendment. Of course, it is not, but that is beside the point.One cannot have it all ways. In this country, just a year ago, Cooper Union ran an exhibition in which, again, a painting was exhibited which offended Catholics. Was it removed? No. Should the Catholics have rioted? When people live in nations in which certain practices are accepted, and the Danes take aim at Christians and Jews, as does this nation, satirically, then those people need to get a grip and assimilated. I don’t like this sort of “art,” never have, and given the treatment of Jews in Europe and, in fact, the bigotry here, I have every right to become enraged. Should I organize a riot?

  • lepidopteryx

    Caricature is a form of satire. One of the beautiful things about satire is that EVERYTHING and EVERYONE are fair game. Only practitioners of a particular religion are bound by the dictates of that religion.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Kosher food restrictions are only applicable to Jews. The rest of us can have all the bacon cheeseburgers and shrimp cocktail we want.The issue was not only due to the prohibition against depicting images of Mohammed, but to the way in wish he was depicted.There is a prohibition against images that predates Mohammed, goes back to Moses. Yet, I notice that the Christians notwithstanding the prohibition do depict pictures of Moses.The Virgin Mary is important only to Christians. Therefore, the artist who depicted her bedecked in human feces was free to do so, although he was a Christian.Whenever we fear that one group may become violent we exclude them from the requirement of cultural assimilation?! Then what? Every group stages riots when some are offended?Not a good way to run a society.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Point of clarification to preceding post: Judaism deplores ‘images,” has for thousands of years. The visual depiction of Moses, David, et al, are unacceptable, the Christian/Greek “heroic” renederings of Moses add insult to idolatry. Many centuries of protest should have occurred by the authors’ reasoning, let alone rioting. Yes, I understand that he did not “condone” the rampage, but he blamed the artist, illogical, and by Western standards, unethical.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    On the other hand, any group is free to protest peacefully. And the question of what good these sorts of satires do us, and only us, the US, could certainly be raised across the board. The same questions could be raised in the Middle East, in parts of Asia and Africa, and in Europe.This would be a very good UN issue, goes to their interest in worldwide education, which, is being felt in the US, and almost everywhere else.

  • lepidopteryx

    Any group is free to object to its depiction, or depiction of people or concepts it holds sacred, by other people. As long as that objection does not involve bodily harm to other people, or barring those who wish to see it from doing so, knock yourselves out. Object to your heart’s content.But just as a Jew does not have the right to take my bacon cheeseburger away from me because HIS religion forbids the eating of it, a Christian does not have the right to prevent a sculpture of the Virgin made from elephant dung or a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine from being displayed at an art gallery, a Muslim does not have the right to decide that I cannot draw or look at drawings others have made of Muhammed. There are plenty of works of art that I find utterly pointless, or downright offensive. I simply don’t waste my time on those works. I find works I enjoy and find meaningful, and focus on those. The artist gets to express him/herself, I don’t have to look at art I don’t like – win win.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Just as Jews and Muslims are free to say that a cracker is a cracker and holy water is water, and, perhaps, to render it visually, with maybe, a drunken Christ, fornicating, perhaps, with another man or mangod, so Christians may depict Moses visually, sculpt him, etc. They may depict Mohammed in cartoons, too, of course. Maybe, Christ with a couple of men…in a threesome, perhaps, or with the Virgin Mary. Dunno, not an “artist.”

  • yasseryousufi

    “The prohibition against depicting images of Mohammed are only applicable to Muslims. The rest of us are perfectly free to draw, paint, or sculpt him as we wish.” If you see the childishness of your argument, it implies that since your mother is only your it gives me the right to call her the five letter name and you would have no right to object to it~!

  • yasseryousufi

    Farnaz Mansouri;A Kaffiyeh wearing terrorist is a regular occurence in most western daily newspapers cartoons. It is basically implying that all Arabs are terrorists. Do muslims go out protesting every time a cartoon depicting muslims as terrorists, Satan, beggar etc is posted? No! Our grievance is that we have never published anything that puts Jesus, Moses, Virgin Mary, Rama, Buddha in an objectionable state. Why do you depict our prophet who had NOTHING to do with terrorism as a terrorist? And than you print them again and again throughout every country in Europe pouring kerosine on a fire that needed to be dealt with prudently at a time innocent Iraqi’s and Afghanis were dying in unjustifiable wars aided and abetted by Europeans! Dont tell me you dont see a point why it blew out of proportions the way it did. Muslims revere Prophet Muhammad more than they love their chiildren or parents. I will say it again, it was an astutely timed provacation, a cowardly attempt to kick in the soft underbelly. And yes there are people in Europe itching to reignite that fire again, thankfully their efforts havent borne fruit yet.

  • norriehoyt

    Yasseryousufi wrote:”Our grievance is that we have never published anything that puts Jesus, Moses, Virgin Mary, Rama, Buddha in an objectionable state.”Have you forgotten THE BUDDHAS OF BAMYAN?From Wikipedia:The Buddhas of Bamyan (Persian: بت های باميان – but hay-e bamiyaan) were two monumental statues of standing buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, situated 230 km (143 miles) northwest of Kabul at an altitude of 2500 meters (8,202 ft). Built during the sixth century, the statues represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art[1].The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. This coating, practically all of which was worn away long ago, was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller one was painted multiple colors.[2] The lower parts of the statues’ arms were constructed from the same mud-straw mix while supported on wooden armatures. It is believed that the upper parts of their faces were made from great wooden masks or casts. The rows of holes that can be seen in photographs were spaces that held wooden pegs which served to stabilize the outer stucco.They were intentionally dynamited and destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government declared that they were “idols” (which are forbidden under Sharia law). International opinion strongly condemned the destruction of the Buddhas, which was viewed as an example of the intolerance of the Taliban and of fundamentalist Islam.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    yasseryousufi, First, you are writing as if you had not read my last two posts. Second, do not write “you.””Why do you depict our prophet who had NOTHING to do with terrorism as a terrorist?”Jews had nothing to do with this. If you have a problem with the Christians, take it up with them.As for your never representing Moses (Musa), etc., this, to the best of my knowledge is true. However, the Christians do, and WE DONT”T LIKE IT. Ever. No riots, regardless of the circumstances. And, believe me, Yasser, their have been “circumstances.” What can you do.Do you think we like it when we see grotesque caricatures of Jews in Muslim lands? NO, I don’t understand the rioting. It started before the picture was circulated. As I’ve already said, if you read any of my posts, I don’t approve of this sort of caricature, even giving the equivalent for the Christians. Riot? Rampage? No. There are better ways. As for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I opposed them both from the start. Our born again president bush had a mission, you see.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Norrie,If you want to go there, we can add the destruction of synagogues, torah scrolls, etc. Jews lived in Afghanistan 2700 years before the destruction of the temple.We can discuss the destruction of sites sacred to Judaism all over the Middle east, some thousands of years old. I’m not sure all this goes to the point. I don’t mean to be argumentative; I just don’t see the connection. Can you explain?

  • yasseryousufi

    FarnazMansouri,Ok I think a clarification is needed, I was speaking in general when I said “you” and it wasn’t particularly directed at you or Jewish people because to the best of my knowledge this had nothing to do with Jewish people~!On the question of whether the Islamic world is perfect or speaks with one voice? The answer is no! Its such a huge demographic entity that there are bound to be differences of opinions. I would never support the rioting that happened after those cartoons. There were hundreds of shops and kiosks that belonged to poor people burned in the city I live in. It hurt nobody but ourselves. I did my rioting on the blogs like this one taking on proponents of those cartoons. That was cathartic for me instead of burning and looting. But yea people were angry because of the “circumstances” but I would say not even half a percent were out on the streets. The deaths mostly occurred in Nigeria, I believe, that the rioting that happened after Miss World Paegent also occured only in Nigeria. Now Nigeria is a bit of a powder keg where Muslims have a slight majority but Christians mostly control the government and military and fighting between the two people happens often, so maybe the 200 deaths need to be seen in that context too. On the Benedict comments, I dont know about others but I saw it as a continuation of the cartoon controversy where the Pope wanted to do his part in taking on the religion that is on course of taking over Catholicism in the next few decades. Thankfully the reaction wasn’t as aggressive as the in the Cartoons case because I think a lot of people started to understand this provocation “game” and even most religous figures believed we went overboard with our reactions to the cartoons.And thankyou for your response to Norrie, I think my response would have been on the same lines, and yes I have read your other posts in the thread and appreciate most of what you say~!