When I gave a seminar presentation about freedom of speech in a class a few weeks ago, I included one of the Muhammad cartoons as part of the reading material. I thought that since we were going to be talking about the Ezra Levant case, it was only natural that we should see the basis for the complaints. Unfortunately, the cartoon did not sit well with one student, who insisted that, while it may have been alright to publish such material before 9/11, it was not acceptable in the anti-Muslim climate that followed the attacks. When I said I didn't think the cartoons themselves could actually expose anyone to hatred or contempt, he replied that I could never understand, because I am not a Muslim.
Well, that's true. I could probably never understand just what he feels when he looks at a drawing of Muhammad wearing a bomb instead of a turban. The closest I could get to that experience, I suppose, would be looking at something like what they've been showing over in Austria lately. Apparently, an exhibition by Alfred Hrdlicka has caused some major controversy, with some art depicting the Last Supper as a gay orgy. The most offensive of it has now been removed.
When you read this, you automatically think of the Danish cartoons, right? There have been lots of angry calls and letters from Christian groups (many from all the way over in the United States), and even a few threats of violence. Interestingly, the exhibition is being held in a church-owned building across the street from a cathedral. The brass there thought the art was acceptable, but apparently many others feel differently. No deaths have resulted from this controversy, at least.
A situation like this is a good head-check for the anti-censorship crowd. Denouncing prior restraint when the issue is denigration of someone else's religion is one thing; but can you look at something dreadfully offensive to your own creed and be unmoved? Are you willing to stand up for the right to speak of someone who is denouncing what you identify with most strongly?
Another question to ask yourself: Would you want the religious fundamentalists who are currently threatening this artist to be able to bring legal complaints against him for the offence of exposing Christians to hatred and contempt?
UPDATE: I noticed this question to readers on the USA Today site: READERS: So ... is it art or is it blasphemy? Where's the line?
- To answer that with another question: How are those two things mutually exclusive?