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The aftermath of a caricature

Religious satire and freedom of speech in the liberal tradition

Cristóbal Bellolio
Doctor in Political Philosophy Á - N.1

Towards the end of 2005 Flemming Rose was the unknown editor of culture in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Everything changed for him after a set of caricatures by various authors was published about Muhammad. His name was added to the black list of Islamic fundamentalism. Rosen hasn’t only been a hero of freedom of speech; he has also insisted on undergoing a profound reflexion on this conflictive category.


«Tolerance doesn’t consist in respectfully keeping silent before what annoys us, but in abstaining the activation of cohesive mechanisms of political power to prohibit or censure what we disapprove of»


The book, The tyranny of silence, by Flemming Rose,1 is a story in first person about the history of a publication of the fateful caricatures —particularly that of the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, showing the venerated prophet of the Muslim world with a bomb in his turban— and its unexpected global repercussions.


And not only that. It is above all a passionate defence of the right to say what to others might seem uncomfortable, unpleasant or even offensive. It’s a long argument —generally consistent although sometimes dogmatic— of freedom of speech in the frame of a liberal western tradition.


In a first approach of this argument Rose says that freedom of expression is not against, but implies the principal of tolerance. This doesn’t consist in respectfully keeping silent before what annoys us. Only in abstaining the activation of cohesive mechanisms of political power to prohibit or censure what we disapprove of. A robust freedom of expression therefore requires an idea of tolerance that is equally as robust, as in social diversities we are exposed to a variety of discourses, some of which we can evaluate positively, others which will be indifferent to us and others that will cause us nausea.


A certain tension

In the case of caricatures published in the Danish newspaper the case is never settled. But it has two interesting particularities for the general argument. The first is that freedom of expression includes —as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin said about the same case— the right to ridicule. Satire, in this context, belongs to a social critical gender. Rose explains that the objective of the publication of the caricatures was not to directly hurt the conscience of Muslims but to focus on the auto censure to which many cartoonists are subjected to when making a parody of Islam in the same way as with other religious symbols.


The problem with satiric humour, warns Rose, is that many people believe that it’s only the members of a culture that have the right to mock it. It’s a tendency in fashion in times of political correctness: only Jews can laugh about Jews, only homosexuals can make jokes about homosexuals, only black people can make jokes about black people, and so on. The opposite would be to perpetuate the discrimination that vulnerable groups suffer in the hands of a dominant majority. Rose takes the other position: the right to social critique —of which humour is the vehicle— cannot be conditioned by the pertinence of a determined cultural identity, ethnic, religious or national. The social critique would be more or less pertinent depending on its acuteness, not that of the moral authority of whoever exercises it.


At this point there is tension between the discourse of a certain leftist progressiveness and the typically liberal discourse: while the first focuses of the defence of the oppressed and shows, therefore, that it is willing to restrict the right to critique (including humour) of the oppressors, the second maintains that freedom of expression is universal, independent of the position that each group holds in the social hierarchy of the moment. This tension has particular relevance at the peak of the so-called politics of group identities in western democracies. In that way, every time a certain group senses an offensive political discourse, it mobilises to censure it. A true “culture of complaint” —as Rose calls it— has been imposed even where it seems useless to demand “safe spaces”: universities, institutions whose mission consists precisely in developing critical thinking, which usually refers to confronting ideas that take us out of our intellectual and emotional comfort zones. Rose complains against this culture of cultural identities on the rise and reclaims instead the respect for the individuality of consciousness.


«Every time a certain group senses an offensive political discourse, it mobilises to censure it. A true “culture of complaint” —as Rose calls it— has been imposed even where it seems useless to demand “safe spaces: universities for example»


A Chilean case

The second question that the case of the caricatures of Muhammad is whether religious sentiments are worth special protection, that is to say protection without political ideologies, philosophical convictions, secular ethics or sports loyalty, to name but a few of those that people often esteem.


The subject directly concerns me: in many places in which the answer is affirmative and the laws against blasphemy or apostacy are Draconian, I wouldn’t have been able to write my Ateos fuera del clóset.1 Perhaps I would have been able to but I’d be paying it with jail time or torture, if not with life itself. With respect to this question the consensus of political liberal contemporary theory is that religious is not credited with privileges and therefore should be treated like any other comprehensive doctrine, in the term installed by John Rawls. Rose’s position is within this school.

The problem of the liberal position is that it assumes, from its protestant origin, that people have the ability to separate themselves from the ideas and beliefs they profess. The Islamic world rebels against this presumption. Many Muslims (but not all) consider an insult to their prophet an insult to their people. It is not such an exotic idea, nor do we have to travel to the Middle East to understand it. In Chile the film The last temptation of Christ was forbidden until the year 2000 because an influencial group of Catholics considered that portraying Jesus living with Mary Magdalen was an attack on their faith, that was in turn an essential and inseparable component in their personal identity. The liberal story is that you can sweep the floor with beliefs of a person while respecting their dignity. The problem is that this story is not universally shared.

Therefore, Rose is a loyal exponent of what we could identify with the standard liberal position. In this way it is in line with the American tradition that allows for the widest range of discourses as a consequence for living in a culturally diverse society. The other tradition is the European one that, as a consequence of the same multiculturality, restricts the range of permitted discourses.

In fact many countries of the old continent contemplate sometimes penal sanctions for those that promote discourses that incite hatred and discrimination. Flemming Rose prefers a model in which there is no right no “not be offended”. In his view the dilemma between these two traditions can be resumed as freedom of expression verses social harmony. However, the European one is not only about social harmony but also as a collective lawful good. It is possible to elaborate other arguments —of a liberal kind, even— to justify the restriction of the systematically hateful discourses.


Although after the first edition to Rose’s book this discussion cannot go without the position that the legal theorist Jeremy Waldron has exposed in The harm in hate speech.2 Waldron sustains that hate discourses are ones that cause objective harm to the dignity of the affected people. From that point of view the limitations of freedom of speech would be destined to preserve a basic guarantee of inclusion for all members of a society. Unfortunately, this does not obtain in its social environment that endorses the proliferation of hostile public stories towards certain groups. If we want to put it into liberal language we could say that all individuals have the right to certain primary rights between which are included the social bases of a equal respect. In again liberal terms of Elizabeth Anderson, we could sustain that all citizens are creditors of a status of democratic equality that is incompatible with a structure of social relations that is so asymmetric that they favour the domination of some over others. That is to say that it seems that liberals shouldn’t oppose themselves to any limitation of freedom of expression in a dogmatic form, but instead examine whether the conditions in which the right of saying what you want is undertaken puts in risk other values of the very same corpus liberal.

Rose exaggerates when he sustains that here we find the dividing line between open and oppressive societies; one that exceptionally limits some discourses in the name of the social bases of equal respect or the democratic equality isn’t automatically an oppressive society.

In any case, about the episode that motivates Rose’s argument, Waldron considers that the caricatures of the prophet Muhammad can very well constitute a case of offense but not necessarily a case of damage in the problematic sense just described. One this is bad taste and a lack of prudence, and another is configuring a penal type that deserves coercive censure. Rose thinks this too: one thing is admitting that certain expressions are not at all constructive and another thing is to curtail the right to legal existence. In this way Waldron reinforces the argument line of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper: the caricatures have to be interpreted as a form of social critique —especially in the context of a tradition of political and religious satire— and not as an exercise of defamation of the Muslim peoples. Neither in the Coran nor in Islam or in any other prophet or sacred book in this perspective can they demand immunity.


«According to the secular activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ex Muslim, the view that certain groups are so sensitive or temperamental that they can’t even tolerate offensive discourses in the public space is a type of inverse racism, a racism “of low expectations”, equally as condescending as infantizing»


Hitler with a jaw

In relation to the general argument in favour of the widest possible scheme of freedom of expression -the limit would be in the ability of words to directly incite physical violence-, Rose still disposes of two possible replicas of the liberal-restrictionist position of Waldron. The first at finding in the interview that Rose did to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. According to the most celebrated of ex Muslims, the view that certain groups are so sensitive or temperamental that they can’t even tolerate offensive discourses in the public space is a type of inverse racism, a racism “of low expectations”, equally as condescending as infantizing. The thesis is that true inclusion is produced when we subject ourselves to the same standard as the rest of the community. That is to say if the satire is socially legitimized with respect to all other religious confessions, asking for exceptions for one of them is a form of exclusion.


It is a provocative argument: we would have to be subjected to bullying as a requisite for entering the community of equals. But it doesn’t work if the victim is systematically and indefectibly the same. Muslims, according to Rose and Hirsi Ali, are not in that situation. In fact, once that controversy goes global, it’s not even a minority. The question that remains in the air is whether some groups —for example those not accustomed to mock the sacred— can resist the type of inclusion of fire that Hirsi Ali suggests.


The second replica on the other hand, is of a consequentialist nature: in practise it is worse to censure than to allow for offensive or harmful expressions. Prohibition is counterproductive, as voices silenced by force usually victimize themselves, acquiring with them more visibility. In this context it is common to hear that if Nazi propaganda had been proscribed from the start, Hitler would have never come to power. But that is not entirely true, warns Rose: The Republic of Weimar did proscribe Hitler’s speech in the 20’s. Its partisans took advantage of the opportunity: they printed drawings of the leader with a jaw and the legend “only him, out of two million people on the planet, do they not allow to speak in Germany”. This does not mean to say that the horrors of the Nazis would have been avoided under the American model of freedom of expression. Not at all. But it constitutes historical evidence that sometimes the remedy —as well intentioned as it may seem— is worse than the illness. This is the critique realized by judge and legal philosopher Michael W. McConnell on the liberal-restrictionist proposal of Waldron: the reason for which freedom of expression is so constitutionally protected by the United States is not because there are doubts that certain discourses can be objectively harmful, but because censure and its effects are more feared. The laws that restrict freedom of expression, McConnell warns, are usually used by the most powerful political factions to supress dissident discourses. In the same way Rose signals that the ones that are most enthusiastic with respect to the laws propagated after World War II to penalize the negation of the Holocaust were precisely the soviets: it provided a legitimised regulatory frame in the Western world to silence uncomfortable voices on the internal front. The libertarian fibre of Rome is proved on this point: although the Danish of Jyllands-Posten and the French in the Charlie Hebdo ceremony were joined from the tragedies that they suffered from Islamic extremism and they have fought the battle for the right to ridicule Europe together, only the latter consider that freedom of expression does not extend to negationism. Rose’s thesis on the other hand is that the recklessly revisionist assertions should be faced openly, as it is the ideal form of exposing their grotesque extravagance. Granting them immunity does not work at all. And if they were reckless, then it’s better for them to form part of the continuous epistemic process through which societies form knowledge. The heritage of John Stuart Mill in its splendour.


  1. Rose, F., 2014. The Tyranny of Silence. CATO Institute Press.
  2. Bellolio, C., 2014. Ateos fuera del clóset. Debate.
  3. Waldron, J. 2012. The harm in hate speech. Harvard University Press.
Cristóbal Bellolio