Maybe we crossed a line

Padraig Reidy wrote about rights as opposed to responsibilities at Index on Censorship a few days ago.

How does one avoid being a potential target for murder by a jihadist? If you’re Jewish, you probably can’t, unless you attempt to somehow stop being Jewish (though I suspect, much like the proto-nazi mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, IS reserves the right to decide who is a Jew).

Everyone else? Well, we can be a little quieter. We can, perhaps, not hold meetings with people who have drawn pictures of Mohammed. We can, perhaps, recognise that the right to free speech comes with responsibilities, as The Guardian’s Hugh Muir wrote. The responsibility to be respectful; the responsibility not to provoke; the responsibility not to get our fool selves shot in our thick heads.

This seemed to be the message coming after last weekend’s atrocity in Copenhagen.

And here we are now, with a new atrocity. Should Avijit and Rafida have been more “responsible” as in “silent”? No. The people who attacked them with machetes are the ones who need to be more responsible, and ethical, and law-abiding.

[A]lready, amid the condemnations and what ifs? and what abouts? that have dogged us since this wretched year kicked into gear with the murders in Paris, already, the pattern seems set. Young Muslim men in Europe get guns, and then try, and for the most part succeed, in killing Jews and cartoonists, or people who happen to be in the same room as cartoonists. Then the condemnation comes, then the self-examination: what is it that’s wrong with Europe that makes people do these things?

It’s too secular, too interrogative, too disobedient.

Maybe we caused offence. Maybe we crossed a line when we allowed those cartoonists to draw those pictures. Maybe that’s it. We’ve offended two billion or so Muslims, and of course, some of them are bound to react more strongly than others. So we’d best be nice to them in future (we leave the implied “or else” hanging). And being nice means not upsetting people.

This is, as I’m fairly certain I’ve written before, a patronising and divisive way of looking at the world. Patronising because of the casual assumption that Muslims are inevitably drawn to violence by their commitment to their faith, and divisive both because it sets a double standard and because it entrenches the notion that Muslims are somehow outside of “us” in European society.

And the notion that all Muslims think the same thing, and that same thing is the most reactionary and repressive possible. Neither of those notions is true.

However much cant we spill about “no rights without responsibilities” (that is, the preposterous “responsibility” not to offend), the fact that people are being murdered for who they are rather than what they did should make us realise that there is no responsibility we can exercise that will mitigate the core problem: a murderous totalitarian ideology has taken hold. It has territory, it has machinery, it has propaganda, and it has a certain dark appeal, just as totalitarian ideologies before have had.

And no amount of submitting to its demands will make it stop killing us.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    “We can censor ourselves.”

    That’s the entire goal, apart from our ceasing to exist altogether (since we won’t convert).

  2. Anne Fenwick says

    I think the 2 million Muslims probably could get a grip on themselves if they tried because look how they offended us and we’re not… Oh wait, some of ‘us’ are and it just doesn’t get reported the same way. So where’s all the articles saying that if they don’t want their mosques burned down, they should just join a church? Oh wait… WND isn’t it? So the mainstream press and WND are making the same argument?

  3. quixote says

    I think a huge issue is our missing rights (apologies for linking to myself, but I don’t see this laid out much otherwise). I think if we were clear on that, it would be easier to think straight about what is actually missing here. Because it’s true that something is.

    That’s not the “right” to be responsible for not offending anyone. That nonsense can’t even begin to be forced into compatibility with free speech.

    I think it’s the right not to hear what people exercising their free speech are saying. The test is whether, as a devout Muslim who wants to avoid blasphemy you can avoid it or not. If not, you have a case. For instance, if images of Mohammed are up on billboards next to the highway. If all you have to do is not look at issues of Charlie Hebdo, or Western media for that matter, or anything that takes an explicit action on the viewer’s part to see, then you do NOT have a case.

    And all the blasphemy shit, both in the West and in South Asia and god-knows-where-else all fits into the second case. Nobody is forcing these loons to look at anything. They choose to do so and then to get riled up.

    Upon which idiot commentators say it’s up to everyone never to speak, instead of understanding that it’s up to the loons to mind their own business.

  4. theobromine says

    The test is whether, as a devout Muslim who wants to avoid blasphemy you can avoid it or not. If not, you have a case.

    No. You do not have a case. A person does not have a right to control anyone’s “blasphemy” other than their own. They do not have a right to complain about the blasphemy of billboards (or tshirts) depicting Mohammed. They do not have a right to complain about the offense against god to have openly homosexual couples, or women showing their hair or faces, however blasphemous and offensive they may personally consider that to be.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    They do not have a right to complain about the blasphemy of billboards

    They absolutely do have the right to complain. We all do. You see a billboard that offends you, you have a right to write a sternly worded letter to the appropriate authorities and ask for it to be removed. That’s just civilised. You also have the right to buy that advertising space and replace it with something more to your taste. That’s just capitalist.

    You don’t have the right to remove it yourself, deface it, destroy it or otherwise interfere with it. You especially don’t have the right to KILL someone over it. That we have to keep explaining this shit says far more about the people we have to keep explaining it to than it says about us.

  6. theobromine says

    sonofrojblake: I stand corrected, thank you.

    I agree, they do have a right to complain. I should have been more clear in saying what I meant (which is in agreement with you in #5): That they do not have the right to *demand* that the things that offend them be removed, even if they are unavoidably confronted with them.

    And if I understand correctly, quixote is saying in #3 that people should be able to go beyond complaining to legitimately *demand* removal of things that they are unavoidably confronted by, and find offensive. (And apologies to quixote if I have misintepreted your statement.)

  7. John Horstman says

    @quixote #3: I think your formulation of various rights is dangerously naive. Take privacy, for example – you assert that people SHOULD be able to control information about themselves. That’s a terrible suggestion. It means all of us are perfect ethical creatures as far as anyone knows, unless someone has direct experience with us behaving terribly. We are a social species that, especially with the ever-growing size of the communities of people with whom we might regularly interact and the possible reach of one person’s voice, rely heavily on a lack of privacy, an ability to spread information about other people without and even in violation of their consent. We very much should be able to let our friends know that that member of our social space is a rapist, even if ze was never convicted. We very much should be able to warn people that another person has a violent temper when drinking. Allowing people to control the information about themselves that is made public has benefits for some, but those benefits can also come at the cost of any possibility of safety by eliminating any possibility that vulnerable people can protect themselves from potential assailants by denying public knowledge of such assailants’ violent histories. Do we really want pedophile priests to be able to bounce from parish to parish without their congregations knowing why they’ve suddenly moved (presumably none of the priests for whom this happened wanted anyone to know, else they would have outed themselves).

    No, the solution to the problems posed by a lack of privacy isn’t to protect privacy, it’s to craft social values whereby people aren’t maligned for unproblematic behaviors. People mostly seek privacy becasue of the negative consequences associated with some kinds of information being made public. In some cases, there absolutely should be negative consequences – see my examples above. In other cases, there shouldn’t, as with naked/pornographic images or criminal behavior that doesn’t harm anyone and thus shouldn’t be criminal in the first place. Privacy is good only in certain contexts, and only then as a function of broken social values; it necessarily should not be treated as a fundamental right but instead contextually mediated, applied only in circumstances where the information is of no relevance to the safety/well-being of others.

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