Magazine article The Christian Century

No Offense Given

Magazine article The Christian Century

No Offense Given

Article excerpt

EARLY IN OCTOBER, Yale was abuzz with passionate debates about the freedom of expression. Participants included Yale students and professors, as well as prominent alumni such as John Bolton (former U.S. ambassador to the UN) and David Frum (economic speechwriter for former president George W. Bush). Also present was Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew a famous caricature of the Prophet Muhammad with his turban morphing into a bomb with a lit fuse--one in a series of cartoons on Islam published in a Danish newspaper that set off a worldwide reaction. Another voice was that of Jytte Klausen, author of The Cartoons That Shook the World, a just-released Yale University Press book on the caricatures.

Why all the commotion? The controversy was sparked earlier this summer when Klausen asked Yale University Press to include in her book the original caricatures. The press initially agreed, but after consulting many experts, the Yale administration decided that the caricatures should not be reprinted. Some, including Bolton and Frum, disagreed, seeing the decision as a case of self-muzzling triggered by fears of terrorist reprisals, and accusing Yale of a kind of advance caving-in to terrorist demands. Many Muslim students at Yale, on the other hand, thought that reprinting the cartoons would be giving a Yale platform to those who engage in hate speech. Some of them even objected to Westergaard's presence on campus.

Flemming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that published the controversial caricatures, justified his decision by arguing that in liberal democracies people have many rights, but they do "not have a right not to be offended." For Rose, the right to offend, which is a corollary of the absence of the right not to be offended, includes the right to desecrate. Let's assume that he is right: in liberal societies there is an open season for offending and desecrating. The question, then, is this: Should we, as citizens of liberal democracies who embrace liberal ideals, do everything we have the right to do? Should Yale University Press have reprinted the caricatures?

It should not have. I was one of the "experts" consulted by Yale. Here is a brief summary of my advice and my reasoning. First, the reprinting of the caricatures would likely have provoked violence on the part of some who felt offended. That violence would have been unjustified and indefensible, of course, but that would have been of small comfort to any victims. The concern is not a matter of wanting to spare Yale a bit of trouble that a few extra police could easily prevent, as Bolton suggested. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.