The Freedom to be Offended

“If a nation or an individual values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony is that if it is comfort or money it values more, it will lose that too.”
– W. Somerset Maugham

The story is pretty simple. A Danish newspaper, Jylland-Posten, published in September 2005 a dozen cartoons depicting Muhammad after a writer complained that nobody dared illustrate a book he was writing on Muhammad. The newspaper pointed out “that the drawings illustrated an article on the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world. Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure – unconditionally!”

It took some time but the predictable is happening.

“The editor of “Jyllands-Posten”, Carsten Juste, and the cartoonists who did the 12 illustrations have received several death threats, say RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Juste has hired bodyguards to protect his journalists, and the cartoonists have gone into hiding. Similar threats have been made against “Magazinet”. [See the International Freedom of Expression article for some details.]

Many Islamic countries have withdrawn their diplomatic staff from Denmark, besides demanding that the Danish government apologize for the insult to Muslims and to punish the newspaper editor and the cartoonists. The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Rasmussen, declined to meet with the ambassadors from 11 Islamic nations saying that he had no control over what the Danish press published and further that he had no wish to have such control.

Mr. Rasmussen’s stand contrasts sharply with the craven lack of support from any of the leaders of the liberal democracies of the world who would talk very loudly about freedom of expression from the comforts of their own home.

Expressing oneself freely within the confines of the law and without duress is one of the cornerstones of liberal societies. That freedom, like the notion of self-ownership, is non-negotiable. There cannot be and must not be any attempt at censoring of any views and their expression provided it does not violate the law of the land.

The Danish government understands that point and as long as the newspaper has not broken any Danish law, they are powerless to censure those responsible for the publishing of the cartoons.

Now it is undeniable that millions of Muslims are offended. Just as it is the right of the Danish to exercise their freedom of expression granted to them by their society, the Muslims are free to be offended by whatever they wish to be offended by. Irrespective of how many people take offense at something, the right to express oneself within the limits set by the law of a society cannot be trampled upon.

Muslims have taken offense because Islam forbids the depiction of Muhammad or Allah. Muslims are bound by this restriction but non-Muslims living in their own liberal lands are not since they are not governed by Islamic laws. Attempting to impose Islamic restrictions on non-Muslims living in secular or non-Islamic states is silly and pointless.

My position is that the freedom of expression is an inalienable human right. Societies that deny this right are despotic, barbarian, and regressive. And people who don’t value the full exercise of the right to free expression are not fully evolved.

Societies impede their own progress when they tamper with the right to free speech and expression. The Christian church barbequed quite a few free-thinkers in its day and tried to shut up a lot more. Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilie come immediately to mind. What these two said was offensive to Christians.

Of course, one may argue that those matters dealt with views on the natural world, and not about artistic freedom to caricature religious leaders. I don’t see the material difference between the two. Freedom to speak and write freely cannot be based on the content of the expression.

Certainly, it is not hard to find someone who will be offended by the most innocuous of objects. Piglet (of Winnie the Pooh fame) is no longer allowed as a decoration on one’s desk in one county in the UK because it could offend Muslims who consider pigs to be unclean. Not just objects, even symbols offend some. Every now and then, some group or the other takes up a call to ban the symbol sacred to the majority of Indians, the swastika. Why? Because the Nazis had used it.

My advice to anyone who is offended by the lawful expression of free speech is simple: don’t watch, hear, or read whatever it is you find offensive. Nobody is forcing you to read or watch you find offensive. Reach for the remote and switch the channel. If you cannot find the channel you want, start your own channel. Or newspaper. Or whatever. But for the sake of sanity, keep your sensibilities to yourself if you find free expression offensive.

{Go to The Freedom to be Offended — Part 2}


Related links: Where’s the anger? (Albion’s Seedling) The comments are revealing as well.

This cartoon about Piglet is priceless.

An old item from Nov 2003: “BC” cartoon seen as a slur on Islam. This one is pretty unbelievable.

Author: Atanu Dey


24 thoughts on “The Freedom to be Offended”

  1. “My position is that the freedom of expression is an inalienable human right. Societies that deny this right are despotic, barbarian, and regressive. And people who don’t value the full exercise of the right to free expression are not fully evolved.” – I think that societies and human beings who have no idea how to respect another religion are despotic, barbarian and regressive. Right to freedom of expression is not the be-all and end-all of life. Life is more important than this right. Understanding others and being sensitized to other people is of foremost importance in this world full of a billion different ideas.

    There are certain things people are willing to kill for – to you it might be the right to freedom of expression, to the next person it might be his dedication to his religion.

    A wife might be willing to give up her right to this freedom for the welfare and harmony of her family. Same goes to the world as a whole. At least where religion goes, people should know when and how to express their opinions.

    Within the law of a society and right to freedom of expression – the combination of these two things itself is a joke. In which case make the law of a society such that such foolishness as in Denmark doesnt repeat itself or such dastardly breaking upof the Babri Masjid as an expression of the anguish of Hindus over not being able to have a proper full fledged temple for Sri Ram doesnt ever happen in any other country. Freedom of expression doesnt mean stupidity, or a hardened desensitized nature or such arrogant narrow mindedness as evinced by the journalist of the paper…


  2. Atanu, you discuss the Swastika and the fact it is sacred to many Indians. But in the context of free speech and expression, sanctity is irrelevant; even the Nazis can use it to express themselves. When interpreting the law, people too often get trapped in the morality of the situation. I was offended by the caricatures. They were dispicable, yes; illegal, probably not.

    Atanu’s response: Yes, the swastika is sacred to Indians. And it is a symbol of Nazi oppression to Jews. Jews can lump it if they don’t like Hindus using the swastika as a symbol of good health and fortune.

    That is what it is all about. Symbols and their interpretations depend on the people who imbue the symbols with meaning. Insisting that you don’t use a symbol that is offensive to me is at best silly. If I don’t like the symbol that you use, I am free to go find some other symbol that I want to use. My insistence that you stop using some symbol merely because I go ballistic when I see that symbol is imposing my will on you. My imposing my will on you is not consistent with your freedom.


  3. Expressing oneself freely within the confines of the law and without duress is one of the cornerstones of liberal societies.

    Agreed. The tough part is choosing where exactly to draw the line between legal and illegal.

    Freedom of speech is not limitless. To use a cliched example, you can’t walk into a crowded movie theatre and shout ‘Fire!’. You can’t publicly defame another entity. The primary purpose of free speech (in democracy) is to allow balanced assessment of a government’s policies without fear of retribution, in order to allow people to make an informed decision.

    The Muhammad cartoons are not slander. They don’t create stampedes in movie theatres. Frankly, I don’t even see what’s so offensive about them. However, there’s no denying that they have caused significant harm in Denmark and elsewhere. Should the cartoonists be punished? Of course not — they did nothing illegal. Should there be laws preventing this sort of thing from happening in the future? I hope not, but a case could certainly be made for them.


  4. I guess by the same standard I can burn the Indian flag outside India, or as the Arabs did, boycott Danish goods. So why the furore?

    Atanu’s response: Yes, that is right. Freedom of expression includes the freedom to express oneself by burning flags — they are symbols just like words are symbols. You may need to re-examine your understanding of why a symbol cannot be used. Burning flags to show disgust with something should be protected speech.

    One should be free to burn whatever — including the flag — provided that it is one’s property and if the burning does not impinge on the other person’s right to clean air.


  5. Good piece Atanu.
    A pov from freedom of speech perspective:

    This sort of reaction is certainly not restricted to the Muslim world. Sans the extremism, anything offending we find against the Hindus, we will certainly make a huge outcry about. Of course no death threats would be involved. We would sign petitions over petitions which is a democratic way of going about it. But the question is why do we get offended so easily?

    Remember the incidents like certain offensive scenes in Eyes wide shut which had Sanskrit mantras in the background, Indian gods on toliet seats, and other much minor other incidents?

    I have always wondered why we tend to take anything we see in the foreign media so offensive? Is it because we cannot ever see such things happening in India? Why is not the population in the western world not offended by some cartoons we print in our newspapers slandering Bush or even burning effigies or flags of public folks of the western world? Are westerners able to take criticism/humor much better than asians? Do Asians perceive freedom of speech differently than westerners? Is the western world too insensitized to the eastern world and vice versa? Is it religion?



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  7. Well, most things that could be said about this have been said. Tolerance, or sentivity, of intolerance is certainly not acceptable in a liberal society. As a free individual, the cartoonists are well within their rights to print watever the heck they like, as long as it is within the laws of the land. Anyone heard the mullahs in Iran and elsewhere openly calling Jews the “sons of pigs” and wat not, from the pulpit no less. I don’t see any demonstartions there to be sensitive to other cultures. Wat is right for them, ain’t right for others, that it? Shameless!


  8. There are two issues here that seem to be intertwined in this controversy.
    1) The freedom of speech angle, which the Danish newspapers seem to be harping on. I think it isn’t about that at all. Full Freedom of speech that these newspapers are talking about is not in any of these countries constitutions. Germany and France have laws in the books that criminalize anti-Semitic speech. Try painting a swastika for fun in a wall in Berlin.
    2) Freedom from Consequences: You can say what you want, it is my freedom to get offended by what you are saying. It can also be my choice to ‘teach you a lesson’. So don’t complain when I organize a boycott. People in the middle east not buying Danish dairy products aren’t muzzling free speech, they are making sure that there are consequences to free speech.

    The whole issue was set up for controversy. It is a naive editor who would not have expected death threats from the Mullahs. Those threats would have predictably caused other Europeans to scream ‘Look how backward those Mullahs are’ (they are) and by extension the rest of the Muslim world.
    That was precisely the motive. There wasn’t any sacred ‘freedom of speech’ motive behind those cartoons.
    There was no intention of having any rational debate on the issues on hand, it was just a shrill call for the crazies on both sides to crawl out of their woodwork.


  9. i hav been reading ur articles for quite some time now..good to find liberals like u. completely agree with u. in my mind the question of freedom is simply unarguable. its a basic and fundamental right and ignoring this will only lead to more misery. organised religion based on fear of retribution and the resultant mob mentality is and sadly will be a major bane for the world at large.


  10. I guess a lot has been said about this issue. I saw one of the cartoons that depicted Mohammad as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban. I don’t see how that is different than the anti-semitic statements made by the Mullahs in Iran. It shows how the cartoonist views the Muslim world.

    European nations routinely condemn the statements by the Mullahs, but I don’t see similar expressions of condemnation about that (particular) cartoon.

    Drawing those cartoons isn’t illegal and the paper had all the rights to publish them. But doesn’t that one cartoon (or may be some others too) depict a rash generalization that all Muslims are terrorists. Doesn’t it perpetrate a stereotype that is probably accepted by many Europeans?

    Defending the freedom of expression is fine. How about condemning hatred? You want to draw cartoons of Mohd. or Allah, fine! But is it OK if those cartoons spread hate too! By that logic Nazi literature and all other hateful works should be OK too.


  11. “If a nation or an individual values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony is that if it is comfort or money it values more, it will lose that too.”
    -W. Somerset Maugham

    And for this reason above all others is the neocon notion of a Free Iraq fatally flawed. For Islam and freedom are diametrically opposed by their very natures, and Iraq is an Islamic society.



  12. Nu,

    This is a beautifully written piece, and you are a hero of freedom. Keep up the good work, and beware of the enemies of freedom who might try to thwart your efforts.


  13. nath said…

    “Should there be laws preventing this sort of thing from happening in the future? I hope not, but a case could certainly be made for them.”

    Please do tell what that case would be? To protect societies against the backlash of repressionists who would happily revoke the right of free expression?

    I am an American. There are many elements of American culture which I personally find deeply offensive — Howard Stern, Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh, and the Fox News Network come immediately to mind. But nonetheless, I would come to the immediate defense of each and every one of these offensive individuals’ (or corporation’s) right to free expression. I can’t stand any of them, and I don’t ever watch or listen to any of them except through second-hand accounts, but my personal freedom of expression is nonetheless inexorably bound to theirs.


  14. Atanu
    One question, where are securalist in India when you need them ?
    These secularist were up in arms when Hindus took offense to MF Hussain painting Goddess Saraswati nude. Where is Javed Aktar, Shabana azmi today ? Why are they not fighting for freedom of speech. Freedom is not a one way street.


  15. Freedom does not mean do anything you want, without recourse. Why not yell at an old woman on the street–or beat up a disabled person? We have the freedom to. But with that freedom comes responsibility, and ideally a balance of right, wrong and the sensitivities of the world at large. By saying that this is not right or insensitive or even plain dumb, is not infringing on anyone’s right–it is simply the difference between right and wrong. When people go on about how important freedom is, they sometimes forget what freedom is. Being strong isn’t about pressing weights–just like having freedom isn’t about saying whatever you want whenever you want without thinking about the world around you.


  16. The debate over these cartoons and outrage misses a fundamental point – while millions of muslims have taken offence , the people who are burning buildings and creating mayhem are mostly poor marginalized young people – they have few opportunities and no voice. The only way they can make themselves be counted is by rioting on the streets, and they are easy pray for doddering hate mongering clerics.


  17. You have written a long lecture on freedom of speech, which almost everyone will agree to. But that’s not the issue here: the question is whether racist views are being passed off in the pretext of freedom of speech.

    Articles criticing muslims faith are printed practically everyday and in every magazine across the world. If anything, almost every community in the world spends more time analyzing the muslims rather than themselves 🙂 But muslims are not objecting to any of those articles.

    This was a specific case of intentionally provoking muslims with racist and offensive stuff. It came at a time when Denmark right wing groups had grown rapidly with the newspaper that published the cartoons itself being a christian right wing supporter.

    Note that this controversy cannot be compared to the toilet paper one as this was an intentional provocation, not accidental. A closer comparison to the toilet paper controversy was that of Nike using muslims scriptures on their shoes.


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