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On Jyllands-Posten and Free Speech Stuntwork
posted October 2, 2007

imageAlthough it's actually not been one but two years -- almost to the day -- since the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the infamous 12 caricatures of or touching on the subject of the Prophet Muhammed, this interview at Reason with the editor Flemming Rose is more than worth your time this morning. I agree with much of what Rose has to say. He makes a matter-of-fact case that many politicians acted in embarrassing fashion, that there was an abdication of the responsibility to inform and educate by members of the Western press that chose not to reprint the cartoons (I'm probably more angry about this than Rose seems to be), that the situation was manipulated to political advantage by certain forces in a way that changed this from a dramatic incident to a deadly one and they should shoulder the blame for these machinations, and that there were fundamental values of free expression at issue. I look forward to his book.

I still think Jyllands-Posten has a lot to answer for, and I wonder if anyone in the press will ever pursue what I think is a pretty basic line of inquiry.

As much as they are protected by the rights we afford to free expression, free speech stunts are not journalism. When Jyllands-Posten stepped away from their journalistic mandate to argue this point, really to pick a fight, no matter how ultimately just a fight, they stopped being journalists and acted, at least in part, as a member of the cultural and political community in which they operate. This brings with it a different weight, a different set of expectations and consequences, than when such speech is brought to bear by artists making art, or emerges in the course of journalists pursuing a version of the truth. That element of public standing is why the protest against that publication gained its initial traction and whiff of legitimacy. It's why a massive newspaper full of very smart people quickly lost control of a debate it instigated while a single artist, Lars Vilks, in doing what an artist does, seems so much more capable in his case of taking all comers in the resulting skirmish of ideas. I don't think this has been explored enough, if at all.

Related to that, I also don't buy the "we couldn't see it coming" defense. No one in Fall 2005 could have seen 100-plus deaths on the horizon from the resulting riots and political turmoil, but any adult could have and should have seen major potential for a negative outcome of some sort. In fact, I'd suggest it's that risk of a negative outcome that provided the action with the gravitas that made it worth doing. When you begin to make points that you know will have a negative outcome, an outcome you may not be able to control, you begin to step away from the exercise of free speech and start to stumble towards its abuse. Just because expression is protected doesn't make it a good idea. I hope that we may one day become comfortable enough in the absolute righteousness and necessity of the first notion that we can soberly consider the second.