Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cartoon Violence: This weekend’s Holmes Report included some “free advice” from leading U.S. public relations professionals for Danish companies who found themselves caught up in the crisis resulting from the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

It doesn’t contain much of my personal perspective, which (since it’s overtly political) I’m much more comfortable sharing here in my blog than in the columns of a newsletter people pay for. So, some points:

1. The right to free speech means nothing if it does not include the right to offend. French president Jacques Chirac (“Anything that can hurt the convictions of another, particularly religious convictions, must be avoided”) and the Bush administration (“Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief”) are both equally wrong on this point.

2. There is huge difference, it seems to me, between ridiculing someone’s race—American cartoons of the early 20th century depicting blacks or cartoons in the Arab word that caricature Jews—and ridiculing ridicule someone’s religion or politics. Individuals make an affirmative choice when it comes to politics or religion; their race is innate and immutable. Beliefs and convictions must be open to scrutiny and criticism

3. There is no difference, however, between ridiculing someone’s political beliefs (communism, liberalism, any other kind of ism) and ridiculing their religious beliefs. Individuals choose their value systems, political or religious, and should be prepared to discuss, debate and justify them, to accept that they are not shared by everyone, to understand that some people might even find them offensive.

4. Our willingness to criticize beliefs and ideologies should not be restricted by the violence of the reaction such criticism is likely to provoke. That would suggest that the more fanatically people believe something, the less valid it is to criticize, question, or challenge that belief. In a sane world, would not the opposite be true?

5. It is impossible to defend the right to produce “good” art (art that is intelligent and sophisticated and provocative, such as Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses) without also defending “bad” art (art that is crude and witless and provocative), because good and bad are by necessity subjective judgments and because art is, by its nature, open to interpretation. (Some people, for example, interpreted the depiction of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban as a suggestion that Islam is by its nature violent; I assumed it was designed to suggest that Muhammed’s teachings had been hijacked by terrorists.)

6. Jyllands-Posten published these cartoons in the pursuit of a legitimate news story about self-censorship in the media. The approach it took was provocative. Nothing wrong with that: good journalism should be provocative.

7. It is hard to escape the conclusion that newspapers refusing to re-publish the cartoon are simply proving the point Jyllands-Posten was trying to make. They are applying a double standard. CNN, for example, illustrated a story about anti-Semitic cartoons by showing those same cartoons. Many media outlets have in the past shown images of artistic works considered blasphemous by Christians (in the U.K., the BBC was quite happy—and rightly so—to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera, which depicts a gay man who believes he is Jesus). We would think nothing of cartoons ridiculing the wiccan religion or Scientology. The media are censoring themselves not because they are sensitive to offending religious people, but because they fear Muslim rage.

8. Just as Jyllands-Posten had a right to run these cartoons, angry Muslims have a right to protest and to express their anger. They have a right to boycott the publication, and its advertisers.

9. The extension of that boycott to cover the entire country of Denmark and Danish products raises other issues. It changes this from about a protest about a specific example of the exercise of free speech into a protest about the very concept of free speech. It suggests the protestors will not be satisfied until the west abandons the single most important defining characteristic of a free society. It means these protestors cannot be appeased except by abandoning our commitment to liberal democracy.

10. Companies caught up in this can legitimately distance themselves from the cartoons and repudiate those publications that chose to reproduce them. They can—and perhaps should—withdraw their advertising from those publications. But any company that chooses to repudiate Danish products—as Nestle and Carrefour have done—is repudiating a bedrock principle of western democracy and should be made to pay a price. Anyone who values freedom should refuse to do business with those companies until they restore Danish products to their shelves and compensate their Danish business partners.


  • At 7:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Very insightful (as opposed to incite-full), Paul. Thanks for sharing.


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