In this ‘cartoon’ imbroglio, most people seem to have focused on the issue of freedom of expression. The Europeans have declared that they have a free press. Europeans, generally, point out that there are no government controls on what may of may not be published in their media.
The world’s most powerful man – George ‘Dubya’ Bush himself – has come out in broad support of the right of all newspapers to publish freely; but he has also supported the idea that it is not right to offend the sensitivities of other peoples.
Dubya doesn’t seem to get much right nowadays. In fact, the only thing that he seems to do right is get out of the right side of his bed each morning. I don’t often side with Dubya, but on this one, I’m prepared to be seen as a Dubya supporter.
In a free and democratic society, the press is free to investigate what it wants and to publish as it sees fit. The only limits are those placed by the laws of libel and slander and by the need to maintain credibility for the future. This triumvirate is sufficient to ensure that editors and publishers consider consequences before they publish.
Equally, ordinary citizens, from Julians to Walters, have a right of expression. They, too, are limited by the same triumvirate of consequences. Those who remember him, recall that the Royal Gazette’s editor emeritus, David White, ignored one of the points, and paid the price by losing credibility.
Hidden in all of this is another reality. It’s the reality of change.
Whether the violence of the reaction protests is orchestrated or not, one thing is clear. Some people are mightily offended. These people’s angry protests are aimed, certainly, at Denmark, but also generally at that amorphous thing known as the “West”. One common bond that these protesters have is that they are followers of the religion of Islam. The other is their sense of individual offense.
I was looking through a 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica [you know, one of those big books with small writing on its pages] when I chanced upon this entry describing the games of the 1904 Third Olympics: “The sports of the savages, among whom were American Indians, Africans of several tribes, Moros, Patagonians, Syrians, Ainus, and Filipinos, were disappointing. Their efforts in throwing the javelin, shooting with bow and arrow, weight-lifting, running, and jumping, proving to be feeble compared with those of the white races.”
Today, the word ‘savage’ is no longer used like that. Many other words have gone out of common usage. So have certain caricatures. Despite all the freedom that modern cartoonists publishing in western public media do have, none would depict black people or Asians as they were so commonly depicted many decades ago. Why not? Because times have changed and values have shifted.
Yesterday’s ‘savages’ are today’s OPEC Ministers, UN Secretary-General, and providers of nurses and nannies to the western world.
What this cartoon controversy is demonstrating is that all of us on this globe are now more closely connected than ever before, and that all of us need to be more sensitive to everyone else’s point of view. As my Mother dinned into me [and yours into you] – we all need to ‘mind our manners’ and watch what we say and do. We all need to be more thoughtful about the self-censorship of ordinary good manners.
As a youngster, I took a chance if I publicly embarrassed my Mother. If I did, I knew I could expect painful consequences. If I embarrassed my Father – well, I might not have lived to tell.
For now, Denmark and the Danes are getting a painful ‘slap in the chops’ because they are considered to have behaved badly. Dubya is tut-tutting and saying that there has been bad behaviour. We’re all learning that in the new global world, what we say and do in our own backyards is heard next door. So all of us are learning, and this cartoon drama is showing us, that we need to be far more mindful of people whose existence and whose feelings we once used to ignore.
It’s not 1906. It’s 2006. Time has passed and things have changed.