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Marc My Words: Respect arguments not threats

Marc My Words 9 February 2006

Political comment By Marc Alexander

We should respect arguments not threats

It seems the world has gone berserk over a bunch of cartoons and the media are getting the blame. A collection of Western leaders are doing a 'Chamberlain' by appealing to sensitivities that we do not even accord ourselves. Plea's to restrain 'freedom of expression' when it is inconvenient is no freedom at all.

That is not the same thing as a wanton disregard for consequence. Child pornography for example, cannot claim the right to free expression on the grounds that its manifestation of necessity creates flesh and blood victims. The same argument does not hold for cartoons about a set of beliefs. Adherants may feel their faith tested, undermined - even mocked. But there is a real difference between attacking a person as opposed to critically assessing a particular idea.

There are many things we find offensive. The Klu Klux Klan for example, clings to a repugnant set of beliefs - yet we defend their right to hold them. The idea of burning our national flag is particularly offensive - so too the women being circumcised and treated as less than animals by denying them the right to drive, to work, or be educated.

We find it equally abhorrent that children are brainwashed into blowing themselves up, or that an an adulterer should have battery-acid thrown in their face or be stoned to death. Christians regularly find offence over many things but they don't burn effigies, threaten lives of innocent people, or issue commands to kill. We routinely find some of the language on TV and radio offensive but we register our protest through letters to the editor, talkback or more formally to appropriate agencies rather than stomping on the streets rioting and causing mayhem.

In an open and free society we may not always like what someone else will say, write or draw, but we defend their right to do so every bit as much as our right to speak against these things. We value the right of individuals to process information through unrestrained perspectives without an imposed ideological or theocratic intellectual straitjacket. We value the innate privilege to think as we choose (or to choose how we think). We attach an importance to the idea that we are masters of our own thoughts with a corresponding entitlement to share them with others. What others make of them is of course up to them.

This latest clash of cultures is less about religion than it is about intolerance for tolerance. The Muslim reaction has bordered on hysteria which I imagine would be found embarrassing by many Muslims who have taken up the option to embrace Western ideals of openness and liberty by living in countries which warmly tolerate their religious choices. The same could not be said of their countries of origin. We allow Muslim children to wear their veils and avoid parts of the school curriculum that clash with their religious obligations.

But while we make allowances for the cultural traditions of others we never insist on reciprocation. Why did we even bother to debate whether a woman could come into our court under our law in our country to testify covered in the burka? Or allow for drivers license photos to show more than a pair of eyes through a slit in the cloth? What would happen to a young Kiwi woman who walked in downtown Teheran in a pair of shorts and a tank top?

The Western democracies have bent over backward to accommodate non-western cultures. We should at least expect the same reciprical courtesy. We pride ourselves on respecting the traditions of those we meet. But they have an equal obligation to respect our social conventions. We need not elevate their cultural demands above ours.

Real tolerance is about allowing people to think, write, draw and speak independently from our own chosen self-imposed limits - the only legitimate constraint being our shared obligation to uphold and respect the law. When that tolerance is strained by those who claim a right to impose their judgements on others - especially if they are citizens of another country - then that is an aggression we should never tolerate. There is no tangible difference between claiming immunity from discussion and criticism with censorship. The riots, threats, and open incitement to kill are proof enough of the aggressive disregard of our tradition of openness.

The protests were sparked simple drawings. They represented a way we in the West sometimes like to look at issues; with irony and humor. It is our right to do so and we take our freedom of expression every bit as seriously as the mullahs take their religion.

Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of civil society and is already under threat from the politically correct within our national boundaries - the last thing we need is another adversary who shares a converse perspective undermining it from without. And frankly, any set of beliefs whether religious or otherwise, that is so fragile that they are beyond discussion, debate or even drawing, has no reason to expect serious regard.

Islam is bigger than that and will not be undermined by a bunch of silly cartoons. And we should resist the temptation to roll over just because its too inconvenient to stand up for our principles of liberty and the loss of some business dollars. Surely our values are worth more than that?


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