Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Vilk's caricatures

About a year after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark in 2006 the Swedish artist Lars Vilks published a drawing depicting Muhammad as a dog. This led to a death threat and a heated debate about artistic freedom and free speech.

The arrest a week ago of a woman who allegedly plotted to murder him has led to a renewed flurry of newspaper articles. Lars Linder, for instance, writes (in Swedish here) about the "necessity of defending the right to be stupid". In his view, what Vilks did was regrettable and artistically trite, but his right to do what he did, no matter how stupid, must be defended. Unavoidably, he quotes Voltaire.

Almost everyone (with an refreshing exception here, also in Swedish) seem to think of rights as a purely juridical problem - as if everyone had the right to do anything that's not illegal. Surprisingly few are ready to state in public that things that are right can be illegal and vice versa. To understand why, one needs to look at social dynamics. Laws are necessarily crude and inflexible, while moral norms are formed in ongoing social interactions which make them supple and sensitive to context. If we try to lead our lives merely according to standards of juridical correctness we will end up as stupid robots.

I have a legal right to blow cigarette smoke in the face of a person who hates cigarette smoke. Suppose that person gets hysterical and starts yelling at me, perhaps even looks ready to slap me. What should onlookers do? Enter the fray on my side to a man, cigarette in hand, so that we can all blow smoke in the person's face together, in solidarity, to defend our rights?

In the wake of the Jyllands-Posten caricatures, several European newspapers made a point of publishing the caricatures to manifest support for the freedom of expression. By that logic, if I provoke a person to anger by insulting him, onlookers should start insulting him as well to defend my freedom of expression.

Please note that I’m not saying caricatures are wrong. A nasty caricature is a legitimate way for me to express my anger if I’m upset with a certain politician, institution or political system. But in these cases my anger precedes the caricature. I’m attacking something because of what I feel to be a legitimate cause. I am using the caricature as a weapon in an already ongoing struggle. Which is of course fine. Nothing wrong with that. But Vilks was not upset with Islam - or at least so I want to believe. The question then is: is it right for me to publish a nasty and insulting caricature without that anger, out of the blue, against a group of people who have never done me any harm whatsoever, just in order to prove some principle such as my ”right of expression”?

Vilks may of course have been upset with something else - the political correctness of Swedish critics who failed to defend the freedom of expression of Jyllands-Posten perhaps. The structure we get would then be the following: A says you shouldn't provoke B, and C then provokes B solely for the purpose of trying to provoke A. The problem is that if you think that this is solely a quarrel between A and C, then you've forgotten that B is in fact human and not an instrument you can use as you please.

On the one hand there are laws and jurisprudence, on the other there are norms and social dynamics.

Here's a travesty of guess whom:

I don't share your anger, but I'm ready to die for your right to vent it.

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