Monday, 11 October 2010

Freedom of speech

On the 4th of October I had the opportunity to attend the symposium Identity, Fredom and Violence, that brought together at the municipal library of Santa Maria da Feira Iranian lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, author of the Mohammed cartoon that caused a huge wave of violence in 2006.

(Photo: NFactos - Expresso newspaper)
I confess that my expectations were high. Freedom of speech (and its limitations) is something I think about frequently, without being able to reach definite conclusions, that may be applied to every case. It seems that when we discuss this issue each case is a case. Thus, I was very curious to see what direction would be given to this debate between an artist that ‘dared’ to represent the Prophet Mohammed and a muslim and human rights advocate.

My expectations were not fulfilled. Shirin Ebadi and Kurt Westergaard gave two parallel speeches. And both the convenor, journalist Carlos Magno, and the audience (including some journalists) did not notice (or did not understand) a statement by Shirin Ebadi that could have created a touching point between the two presentations and resulted in an interesting debate. Shirin Ebadi clearly said: “The Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of speech for everyone, but there are exceptions: when it refers to racist propaganda, hatred or incentive to war. Thus, a cartoon representing Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in the place of the turban constitutes a human rights violation. The same with the reaction of part of the muslim world towards the cartoon.” This statement was somehow ‘ignored’. Both Carlos Magno and Kurt Westergaard referred to the clash of civilizations, the conflict between christianism and islam, the need to defend our way of living (the european).

Since then, I´ve been thinking that, instead of taking advantage of incidents like the one of the cartoon in order to take a step further towards meeting the ‘other’, we continue to opt for simplistic and convenient interpretations and to talk about the clash between cultures. Am I, a European and a Christian, in conflict with Shirin Ebadi, Iranian and muslim? Isn´t she fighting for freedom of speech much more than I am? Isn´t this a value we share, one that defines and unites us?

I read again excerpts from a book I had read last year and enjoyed a lot, because I thought it was enlightening and balanced. It´s called
The Fear of the Barbarians: beyond the clash of civilizations and it was written by Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian philosopher living in Paris. The chapters of the book are: Barbarism and civilization; Collective identities; The war of the worlds; Steering between the reefs (here he analyzes events such as the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the publication of the Mohammed cartoons by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten or Pope Benedict´s speech at Ratisbon University); European Identity.

So, Todorov says in his first chapter: “A civilized person is one who is able, at all times and in all places, to recognize the humanity of others fully. So two stages have to be crossed before anyone can become civilized: in the first stage, you discover that others live in a way different from you; in the second, you agree to see them as bearers of the same humanity as yourself.” And he continues: “Getting those with whom you live to understand a foreign identity, whether individual or collective, is an act of civilization, since in his way you are enlarging the circle of humanity; thus scholars, philosophers and artists all contribute to driving back barbarity.”

Knowing the ‘other’ means at the same time respecting him. And to respect is to exercise self-regulation. It doesn´t mean denying our rights (such as freedom of speech), but learning how to exercise them responsibly. “Responsibility limits freedom”, says Todorov. Between having and exercising a right there is a long way, in which one must consider possible consequences within a certain context.

The cartoons published by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 had been commissioned by culture editor Flemming Rose, a kind of a manifesto against self-censorship caused by fear of the Muslims. They came at a time where xenophobic, and especially anti-muslim, feelings were becoming more and more obvious in Danish society. Four years earlier, parliamentary elections had led to a coalition supported by the Danish People´s Party, which proclaimed “Denmark to the Danes”, “Islam is a carcinoma, a terrorist organization”, “There´s only one culture, ours”. Thus, we have on the one side the right of a cartoonist to provoke through his art (what is the art of the cartoon if not criticism through provocation?) and, on the other the responsibility the exercise of the right of freedom of speech brings to the editor of big newspaper within a certain context.

Does this discussion demonstrate a clash between cultures? Could we ever say that among Europeans and/or Christians there are no acts of barbarism and among Asians (in this case) and/or Muslims acts of civilization? Wouldn´t it be, thus, more correct, considering Todorov´s definition, to talk about a clash between civilized and less civilized people, regardless of their nationality or religion?

By way of epilogue: I read on the internet that in February 2006 that same culture editor, Flemming Rose, told CNN that his newspaper was going to publish satirical cartoons with reference to the Holocaust that were going to be published by an iranian newspaper. Jyllands-Posten was trying to get in touch with that newspaper so that the publication would take place simultaneously. Later that day, the editor-in-chief of the danish newspaper informed that under no circumstances would Jyllands-Posten publish the Holocaust cartoons and the following day he announced that Flemming Rose was taking an indefinite leave.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post made me remember a case decided by a South African Court about a t-shirt that parodied the label of the Black Label Carling Beer with the word Black Labour White Guilt (see t-shirt here). Despite the problem concerning the trademark, what is really interesting is one of the conclusions about this case, and I quote, “A society that takes itself too seriously risks bottling up its tensions and treating every example of irreverence as a threat to its existence.” The Court classified it as Parody and as relying on freedom of speech even though the apartheid is an extremely sensitive problem in South Africa and it had been alleged that the t-shirt bordered hate speech that could instigate violence.
The fundamental rights may only be reduced in their scope if on the other side there is another fundamental right that can be aggrieved by the former. Therefore I think that as the right to freedom of artistic creation is also a fundamental right the criteria to find where the Art contents have to stop is where it begins to offend another constitutional right. When we are talking about freedom of speech and freedom of artistic creation we have also to understand that both come from the democratic regime that also forbids, for instance, in Portugal formal associations with racist or fascist ideology. That is because it may incite to civil commotion and bring about the dangerous possibility of changing universally recognized human rights and values in a community’s mentality.
The post also made me remember a Priest I heard once saying that if God is infinitely good He wouldn’t mind if we laugh a little about him.
In conclusion because this must be a comment and not a post:
- my opinion is that artistic creation must be as free as simple speech which means it must only be silenced only if it is able to put in danger the respect for the Human Rights in such a way that it may change a community´s values or provoke, in a realistic probability, civil commotion;
- if an artistic creation includes chocking contents another question is how to protect “consumers” and sensitive classes (as the under 18s) from reaching it (or getting exposed to it) if this not desired or appropriate, but the right to create exactly what the artist wants with one’s own limit is obviously a matter of freedom of speech and artistic creation, which must be, in all other cases, respected.

M Sebasti√£o