Through an improbable series of events, the international uproar that began in a Danish newspaper and spread like wildfire (or, more accurately, like gunfire) through the Muslim world has settled firmly in New Haven today.
Coming on the heels of Yale University Press’s decision not to publish the cartoons that shook the world in a book entitled “The Cartoons that Shook the World,” separate appearances on campus by Jyette Klausen, the author of the book, and Kurt Westergaard, the author of one of the instigating cartoons, give students a unique opportunity to grapple with a real-world controversy with real-world consequences.
While there is the possibility that something will go dreadfully awry today and I will have spoken too soon, Yale and its students have thus far stood as a paragon of restraint amid the chaos. Unfortunately, through this international brouhaha, restraint has been the exception, not the rule.
This begins with the cartoonists. Kurt Westergaard and Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published his work, made the wrong decision. If they did not know the cartoons would result in violent uprisings, they should have known. If they did know and published them anyway, this disregard for human life is condemnable.
This is not to say that they did not have the right to publish the images. Speech intended to inflame (like a speaker at a KKK rally outside of a black church on a Sunday morning) is categorically different from making an unpopular political argument that will make others so mad that they will resort to violence. The former clearly should not be protected, but I think the latter, which describes Westergaard’s case, should be protected. Free speech includes the right to offend. But just because you have the right to do something does not mean you should do it, and Westergaard and the paper should have shown better judgment.
Yale Press made a different decision. No one disputes the fact that the cartoons’ publication would have been protected by the First Amendment. But in deciding whether to publish the images that would offend many, John Donatich, the director of the Press, carefully considered with University President Richard Levin and Secretary Linda Lorimer not whether they had a right to publish, but whether they had sufficient reason to publish.
Upon soliciting the advice of many, they made the judgment that including the images in the publication was not worth the risk of violence, which many believed was present. This seems reasonable, especially considering that anyone who wants to see the cartoons can search Google Images for “danish muhammad cartoons.” Yale Press is not censoring a particular viewpoint from the public; it made the right call.
It is important to make clear that acting while attempting to avoid violence resulting from one’s actions does not in any way condone or legitimize that violence. The violent uprisings that exploded in every corner of the Muslim world in response to Westergaard’s cartoon have no place on the international stage. Just as free speech includes the right to offend, living in a world with free speech includes the responsibility to not kill people when you are offended.
While Westergaard should have shown more restraint, culpability for the more than 100 deaths that resulted from the violence lies with the perpetrators of the violence, not with the people who angered those would-be perpetrators. In this case, not only did two wrongs not make a right, two wrongs killed lots of people who would not have died if even just one of those wrongs had not been perpetrated.
Just as Yale Press acted responsibly compared to Jyllands-Posten, the Yale Muslim Students Association is acting responsibly compared to those who instigated violent demonstrations. The group’s recent statement says that its members are “deeply hurt and offended” that the offending cartoonist was invited to speak. They are completely within their rights to voice that offense, and they have every reason to, as MSA President Tariq Mahmoud ’11 says they plan to do, ask “critical and probing questions” of Westergaard. That is what the exchange of ideas is all about at a great university like Yale.
My criticism of Westergaard and the perpetrators of violence and my praise of the Yale administration and students can be encapsulated in two simple rules and an explanatory note: 1) Don’t hurt or kill innocent people. 2) If you think that something you do might result in innocent people getting hurt or dying, don’t do it, even if you have a right to do it. Explanatory note: Follow rule 1 even if someone else breaks rule 2, and the fact that people shouldn’t be breaking rule 1 doesn’t mean it’s okay to break rule 2. Yale gets it. Too many others don’t.
Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.