Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Welcome to the agora

The following is a Point/Counterpoint that appeared in the Daily Illini on February 15, 2006.

Billy Joe Mills

Here is a great archive of historical depictions of Muhammad
POINT: Welcome to the agora

Last week the editor in chief of this paper decided to republish the controversial Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in many insulting ways.

The cartoons are offensive to Muslims in a way greater than our normal conception of "offensive." They go beyond offensive; they are disgusting and blasphemous. Nearly all editors throughout the world who have printed the cartoons are white Christians who cannot possibly grasp the depth of Muslim sadness espoused by their decisions. This hateful speech is an attack upon a predominantly peaceful religion.

Even so the decision to reprint the articles was correct.

The Danish cartoons caused an asymmetrical response of violence to sweep through the Middle East, people were killed and buildings were burned down.

The cartoons pitted the West's faith in free speech against some of the Middle East's faith in radical Islam. This is exemplified by the Associated Press photo of a Muslim demonstrator carrying a banner reading, "Freedom of Expression is Western Terrorism."

Before being republished, many students on campus did not know the cartoons existed. The simple fact that we are discussing unnerving issues of free speech, censorship, Muhammad, Islam and the West sufficiently proves the newsworthiness of the cartoons. They are inspiring us to debate and to openly exchange controversial and disquieting ideas. Speech that attacks other races or religions should also be printed, so long as that speech can reasonably be said to have some political, intellectual, artistic or emotional value.

If we censor ourselves out of respect and fear of offending, we risk chilling future speech. We must err on the side of speech. If we do not, we allow politeness to domesticate the freedom to speak. If all valuable speech were inoffensive, there would be no need to protect it.

We must allow error and truth to collide, to wage war upon each other. If we are rational, then over time truth will prevail. We should not fear disgusting or offensive speech, because its logic is inherently weak and unable to defeat the logic of truth when honestly challenged by a community of free minds.

But, if we choose to ignore these cartoons then we leave them looming in purgatory, its arguments neither fully alive nor fully defeated. If we elect to censor we allow the erroneous influence of the Dane to remain.

Rather than fearing the speech of this cartoonist, let us confront and torture his ideas. Let us join, Christians, Muslims, Jews and all others, to make his arguments succumb to the better logic of mainstream human progress.

When we allow publication, we allow the Danish cartoonist to freely express himself as an idiot. Allowing the fool to speak is the greatest threat to his ideas.

The cartoons test the limits of our tolerance and commitment to free speech; it can be difficult to see the value of speech that makes good people sick. But, those who seek to censor must show that the harm or offense from publication will be so grave that no remedy can undo the harm, not even more speech.

Censoring speech temporarily silences the symptoms of Islamophobia, but allowing speech will cure the disease. So long as everyone has the opportunity to speak, the marketplace of ideas is self-correcting. Given time, the marketplace itself will censor rotten ideas by triumphing over them.


Brian Pierce

COUNTERPOINT: Rights and responsibilities

The actions of violent protesters of the Danish cartoons reprinted in the DI recently range from hypocritical to blasphemous to deranged. But while the wrongdoings of Islamist radicals outweigh the wrongdoings of this newspaper's editor in chief, Acton Gorton, they do not excuse them.

Those who would argue that Gorton's decision was a brave defense of free speech argue that an editor of a student newspaper who chooses not to reprint these cartoons is inhibiting future free speech. They argue that if the newspaper is afraid to reprint these cartoons, then the newspaper will also be afraid to engage in some other controversial form of speech in the future that might have value.

By this logic, any time controversial speech arises, an editor of a student newspaper should automatically publish it. There can be no considerations over respect or sensitivity, because such considerations run the risk of inhibiting free speech, a value too important to be compromised.

But this very line of reasoning inhibits free speech. If I were an editor and wanted to write a column about why these cartoons are despicable and ought never to be reprinted, I would be restricted from doing so by this principle of automatic publication. Free speech is not just the expression of an idea, it can also be the free choice not to express an idea deemed objectionable.

Some will argue that this situation is different because it involves allowing the newspaper's readership to decide for themselves what's objectionable and what's not. After all, Gorton himself called the cartoons in the accompanying editorial "bigoted and insensitive." He simply wanted to let his readers see the cartoons that had provoked such a furor around the world.

I will not question his motives, though I do believe they are suspect. Taking him at his word, I still call into question the journalistic value of publishing these cartoons. Nothing is lost by linking to the cartoons online and giving readers the choice to view them.

My friend and colleague, Billy Joe Mills, argues that the journalistic value lies in the fact that the reprinting of these cartoons has engaged a number of students and enhanced public debate on the issue. On its face, the argument seems a little silly to me. We should print controversial items so that we can debate whether or not we should print controversial items?

Apathy among much of the student population is considerable and disheartening, and we should always engage in efforts to spark participation and discussion. But we should never be so tempted to shake unengaged people from complacency that we slap an entire religion and community of believers in the face.

Still, some will argue that it is in the nature of a student newspaper to engage in more radical speech than other newspapers. While it is true that different standards apply, it is not in the nature of a student newspaper to reproduce hateful speech simply to spark a debate. And make no mistake, this is hateful speech. These cartoons break an Islamic prohibition against depicting Muhammad, then equate Islam itself with violence and subjugation.

Just as this newspaper has a legal right to publish these cartoons, it also has a moral responsibility not to insult an entire religious community. Both concepts should be vigorously defended.


Anonymous ak said...

I acknowledge the author’s point of view in regards to this issue having been completely out of ethics and blasphemous; but in any given argument there are always two sides, and it seems that Mr. Mills is only looking at one side of this whole equation per say.

• First and most important, any one could have printed these cartoons. They do not have to be white or Christian to have created such type of work and such generalization of ethnicity or religious background is a common mistake many will make.
• Is Islam a predominantly peaceful religion? Ask your self and relate the happening of last hundreds or years to this issue. Israel for instance, Iraq very recently, Iran, and much more.
• If Logic and fairness and ethics are the subject, and the western world is so completely out of it who then explains;
o Danish Embassies; burnt in many middle eastern countries; what did the embassy staff had to do with this just a group of people trying to make a living.
o Western Brands such as MacDonald’s and KFC's broken into and burnt; yesterday 2 more people died in Pakistan
o Many people wounded and killed through out the world; take a minute, sit back and think who is responsible for this? Why is there so much irrationality
Mr. Mills; I admire your courage once again to have written such an interesting article, but as you have mentioned in your article, if a statement is logical it will surface by time. It seems to me that you are in many ways invalidating other valid data and forcing your thoughts and opinions.

12:37 PM, February 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't really understand your second point regarding whether or not Islam is a predominantly peaceful religion. Each of your three examples of Israel, Iraq and Iran show case a different varient of Islamic violence. May it be Muslims killing Jews in Israel, Sunni's killing Shia's in Iraq and Iranians killing Danes in Iran. Based on your own evidence, we see that Islam is an inherently violent faith.


2:03 AM, February 19, 2006  
Blogger jack fulasofy said...

"If we censor ourselves out of respect and fear of offending, we risk chilling future speech"--wise words--maybe just simple rhetoric from simplemind but if not you might enjoy this...
Would papers that publish the cartoons of Muhammad also publish cartoons that show the hypocrisy in Christian and Jewish cultures and risk offending their audience and advertisers? NO.
Check the taboo out at

7:26 PM, February 22, 2006  

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