A few days ago I attended a talk by Caspar Melville the editor of the New Humanist magazine at a London ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event. The topic of the talk was ‘taking offence’ and in it he outlined the varied ways that ‘offence’ impacted New Humanist from what received the most complaints to his editorial policy on when offence is permitted. Caspar certainly seems to have given the topic some thought and has even produced a book discussing the topic called “Taking Offence: Manifestos for the Twenty-First Century“.
The talk and the discussion afterwards were very interesting and while I disagreed with Caspar on a number of points I think he did a good job overall of explaining and defending his positions in the face of some difficult questioning.
However, the topic and surrounding discussion I found most intriguing was Caspar’s editorial decision to not republish the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad which caused a worldwide frenzy back in 2005/2006.
The cartoons consisted primarily of satirical depictions of Muhammad were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on the 30th September 2005 and were printed alongside an explanation that:
The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. […] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.
Caspar explained that he had been less than impressed with the Dutch cartoons for a number of reasons. Chief amongst these were that he felt they were designed to provoke a negative reaction and that they seemed to have been targeted at the largely powerless and vulnerable Muslim immigrant population of Denmark. He stated that he did not really believe that they were intended to ‘start a debate’ as the editor responsible later claimed. Consequently, he felt that republishing them would simply be reprinting bad cartoons he did not agree with and would only serve to intentionally create further offence and to contribute to the atmosphere of polarisation surrounding the issue.
This stance seemed to be in line with Caspar’s general position on offence which can be summed up as ‘it is more acceptable when it is an unintentional by product rather than the intended goal’. When explaining this general position he also outlined how there was a kind of unwritten rule that if satire is to be used it should ideally be targeted at those in positions of power rather than at marginalised individuals or groups. Similarly, he recommended that satire should always be applied evenly and advocated that a special effort should be made to target the communities and positions you are a part of or in agreement with.
There is much that is sensible in Caspar’s arguments and it is hard to disagree that in general people feel much more comfortable with satire when it is about something they dislike rather than something they support. Notably, New Humanist does strike a good balance in this respect with Dawkins being just as likely to be on the receiving end of a satirical portrayal as the Archbishop of Canterbury. In a similar vein New Humanist is also quite admirable for publishing challenging critical articles written by critics of humanism, atheism or various leading figures from secular and rationalist movements.
However, when it comes to the Danish cartoons and New Humanists decision not to republish them there is much I disagree with about Caspar’s position:
1. The maxim that only the powerful should be targets for satire is not sustainable in my opinion. Satire is excellent for exposing absurdities and for making light of subjects whose seriousness is often suffocating to any useful discussion. As such I do not see why it should be restricted only to individuals and organisations with ‘power’. Many groups and individuals who are not in positions of power still possess beliefs and positions which are harmful, dangerous, absurd, deserving of criticism and yes, maybe even a little mockery.
One such example would be Fred Phelps Westboro Baptist group the extremist Christian sect who pickets the funerals of soldiers and homosexuals with placards saying that the recently deceased will burn in hell. Charming indeed, but certainly that group is a marginal group with little real influence over anyone but their members which is mainly comprised of one extended family. Should they be off limits to satirists? I don’t think so. And I think there are many other examples one could give that make the ‘only target the powerful’ maxim seem unnecessarily restrictive.
2. The Danish cartoons were published in a relatively obscure Scandinavian newspaper and yet they caused protests and riots in a large number of predominately Muslim countries as well as a fair number of countries in which Muslims make up only a small minority.
How did they achieve such fame globally? Certainly the cartoons being republished in other publications and international media coverage played a significant part but the role played by two imams who had been granted sanctuary in Demark travelling to various Islamic states with a ‘dossier’ on the cartoons (including cartoons that were not published by the newspaper) is hard to ignore.
I mention this to point out that Caspar’s suggestion that the Danish cartoonists were necessarily targeting vulnerable Danish Muslims by publishing their cartoons is short sighted. Islam is a worldwide religion and as such to satirically portray its founder is to make a statement that can apply to any branch of the religion. Arguing that because Muslims are a minority in Denmark Danish cartoonists should not be drawing satirical cartoons of aspects of Islam ignores the global influence and power of the religion. The true influence and power of Islam in the world was indeed illustrated very clearly by the worldwide Islamic backlash that followed. If the Danish Muslim community had been targeted specifically then Caspar might have a good point but the cartoons were satirising Muhammad and the general ‘no go’ status of criticising Islam- those are universal rather than regional issues.
3. The Danish cartoonists responsible faced serious death threats (one planned assassination was foiled last year), bounties worth millions being placed on their heads by Islamic preachers and vilification from not only from extremist preachers but also from many leftwing liberal commentators on the issue. Their crime was drawing a cartoon.
Islamic states boycotted Danish goods, Islamic preachers promoted violence and murder and Islamic delegations tabled motions at the UN to try and pass international laws to prevent and punish any similar future offences. All of this fury was over cartoons.
In light of the above surrounding context and the clear absurdity of satirical cartoons being responded to by death threats and national boycotts I cannot help but think that New Humanists decision to not republish the cartoons primarily due to not being impressed by their contents kind of misses the point. Regardless of whether or not you admire the cartoonist’s satirical skills the fact is that these were cartoonists facing death threats for drawing pictures of a worldwide religious icon. Getting caught up on whether the cartoons had sufficient satirical merit to warrant their republishing is, to my eyes, ignoring the more important surrounding issues of cartoonists facing death threats from religious extremists for drawing pictures.
I also feel that Caspar actually tacitly acknowledged the validity of this argument when he wrote a blog post discussing one of the cartoonists being arrested for drawing the cartoon and commented that despite his dislike of the cartoons he felt that support should be offered to the cartoonists because “Cartooning is not a crime!”. Cartooning is certainly not a crime and it is also certainly not something that justifies death threats and million dollar bounties!
I briefly discussed some of the above with Caspar in the discussion following his talk and he did offer an interesting reply but I still felt it failed to adequately address the above points. This is perhaps because I rather clumsily suggested that a nuanced message was not an adequate response given the surrounding circumstance to which Caspar quite rightly responded that a nuanced position was what made us different from fundamentalists. What I had meant however was not that nuanced positions should be abandoned, as I fully agree with Caspar that nuance is important on complex issues. Instead, I had meant that nuance could be spelled out alongside a clear statement of support for the cartoonist’s plight and common humanistic values like freedom of speech by the simple act of republishing the cartoons.
New Humanist is, to my mind, exactly the kind of publication that with its stated commitment to humanist values should have been there championing opposition to religious extremism and displaying their support by being one of the very few publications in the UK willing to reprint them. The cartoons were not graphically violent or urging violence or oppression instead they were simply mocking the stifling influence of infamous extremist elements of a world religion. That seems like a sentiment New Humanist would respect even if it did not agree with the way the sentiment was expressed. There could even have been extensive articles discussing the cartoons shortcomings and yet still through the act of republishing the cartoons New Humanist would still have voiced as loudly as possible their support for free speech.
Still with all this said, I do respect that there is certainly room for debate on this issue and I also have to admit to a certain amount of idealism as I would not have been the editor responsible for putting my family and friends at risk by publishing the cartoons. The fact that such a risk would exist is however exactly why I think criticism and shows of solidarity with those facing such threatened violence is necessary.
Ironically, I think the position I am advocating was best summed up in another article from New Humanist this time by Martin Rowson who astutely summarised that:
Meanwhile, having been paid 73 quid a cartoon, 12 cartoonists are in hiding in fear of their lives, a babel of weasel words about free speech hangs like smog over vast swathes of Europe, carefully orchestrated spontaneous demonstrations continue to torch embassies and consulates and, so far, around 30 people have died, all of whom have been shot by the police of their own, Islamic countries.
This stopped being about the courtesy you should afford other people’s beliefs almost as soon as it happened, just like religion stops being about God as soon as one, usually self-appointed proselytiser has enough followers to boss about. And it stopped being specifically about cartoons before the ink was dry.