Muhammed Cartoons, Free Speech, and International Relations
Predictably, the enormous fuss over the publication in Denmark of Muhammed cartoons found offensive by many Moslems has caused them to be viewed by many more readers as they are republished across Europe and held up as a free speech cause. The pattern is familiar and brings to mind Rushdie and "Banned in Boston" experiences. An audience is deeply offended, but is unable to express its indignity without bringing on more of what it finds offensive, and often without generating new opponents who flock to the cause of free speech. I do not mean to suggest that all cases are alike; depictions of the Prophet (though some of the cartoons have more to do with a fictional young boy of the same or similar name) may or may not be tame compared to cartoons involving Jesus, for example, though there is more of a Moslem tradition of finding any depiction blasphemous, but the common features are fairly obvious. The Danish response is also predictable; the government might or might not express some sort of regret, but it is hardly in a position to tell newspapers what to do.
So that's what makes cartoons and other speech different from discrimination and physical violence. If one country's citizens hurl rockets across borders or discriminate within their own borders against people who are related to potent groups living in another country, the offended country can put pressure on the offending one to control its citizens, which can normally be done by legislation, police action, or other tools. An economist would say that if the offense taken is much greater than the benefit derived from giving offense, it will be easy to strike a deal in which the offensive behavior comes to an end. Other observers would say that one simply has the right to be free from discrimination and violence, but that sometimes international pressure is needed to enforce these rights. On the other hand, the argument proceeds, where speech is concerned, we are much more hesitant (even) to permit internal control.
This hesitation makes great sense but it does expose the tradeoff between free speech and other values, or simply one of the costs free speech imposes. Most of us would probably not draw cartoons or give speeches that ridiculed religious figures dear to other cultures or our own. We recognize that it is easy for us to underestimate the pain we impose on some listeners, and perhaps we fear the hatred that would come back to haunt us or people associated with us. But if someone has different inclinations, and especially if that speaker has an effective means of communication, then however much we may value dissent and a number of just such defections from the norm, there is the "problem" that the costs imposed outside might be much greater than the benefits generated inside. The cartoonist need not take these costs into account, and because of the special position we accord speech, we are not easily able to respond to these outside costs, or perceived offenses, with internal controls. We can easily pass laws banning employment discrimination against people of a minority nationality or religious group, but we cannot do so nearly so easily for speech ridiculing that group or its sacred figures. It goes almost without saying that we distrust our own ability to restrict speech because restrictions done in the name of tolerance or respect for other religions can easily be exploited to suppress valuable political speech and much more.
The boycott of Danish goods that has taken hold in parts of the Moslem world may be a fairly good response. I do not mean "good" in the sense that I approve of it, but rather in the sense of people's ability to express their preferences in a way that might influence behavior in another part of the world and in a place where the more direct route, of holding the host government responsible and expecting domestic restraints, is unavailable. No cartoonist or publisher feels this boycott, but in the long run it might lead some interest groups in the boycotted country to exert pressure on its newspapers - or to the contrary to decide that the costs are small compared to the benefits of free speech. That is one method, albeit awfully inexact, of internalization. I'm not sure I see any other "solution."