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I'm with Abdelwahab!

Drek's recent post about a couple of offensive video games raises interesting questions for me about the possibility of moral limits on the claims made by social movements. With respect to a game called Kaboom! The Suicide Bombing Game, Drek writes:

[D]o I think that we should protest it...? Absolutely...The thing is, while I think we should feel free to criticize these games, we shouldn't go any further than that.
Going farther, in this case, means censorship, and here we find an implicit but clear reference to the Great Cartoon Controversy of 2006. This, I take it, signals Drek's agreement with that portion of the globe that considers free speech a virtue. It also signals, I think, his agreement that organized protest the likes of which have rocked the Muslim world are in order. Social movements are the progeny of liberal democracy, a product of the very countries that forged this new form of politics (England, U.S., France). Movements are expressions of "the people," of popular sovereignty, and are a challenge to an elite-led politics of kings, presidents, and parties. They offer an entry point into national decision-making for anyone who can muster a group and a banner. This is democracy at work. But there is an interesting quandary for a democratic institution like the social movement. What do we do when protest calls for curbs on free speech, advocates exclusion, or denies other liberal democratic virtues? Indeed, our very own country (a bastion of free speech, right?) has a long history of anti-democratic social movements, from the nativist movements of the nineteenth century to the anti-immigration Minutemen of today. Should we support women's organizations that call for boycotts of offensive products and their producers? Should we support Muslim organizations that demand recognition and an apology from the Danish government?
But Jeff! Wait. They're not just asking for an apology. They've raised a social movement against our right of free speech! For democracy to survive - indeed, for social movements to survive - we must respect and preserve a few fundamental principles of democracy. Muslims may have a right to protest, but I'm not about to join their narrow-minded movement. We must defend the virtues of democracy!
We could, however, join the movement against a racist or Western ethnocentrism, no? In other words, this need not be a democracy-versus-Islamic fundamentalism debate. Consider the the following:
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, who was quick to condemn the burning of Danish flags and urge Muslim leaders to do the same [did someone say free speech? -jeff]...refused to condemn the cartoons...[O]ne does not have to respect the beliefs of extremists...in order to defend their rights to express them. "We despise [these beliefs]. What we respect is [the] right to be despicable." Rasmussen could have said publicly that what the Jylland-Posten [the Danish newspaper] did was despicable, while defending its right to be despicable. He did not do that....
This comes from a recent column in Al Jazeera by Abdelwahab El-Affendi entitled, Democratic Solutions for Cartoons. Rather than taking a reactionary, defensive, indeed conservative posture, as so many Westerners are wont to do, he frames the controversy as "a question of respect for other people." In his mind, the Danish Prime Minister and the European governments that have enthusiastically thrown their support behind him, have side-stepped the offensiveness of the cartoons by defending, rather than castigating, the publisher. What?! Castigate the publisher, in a free society? Lest we slip into that false belief that our beloved representatives don't regularly chide the media:
The president criticized the media for reporting on the NSA surveillance as well as the officials who "improperly" provided the information. "As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk," he said. (Washington Post, 12/18/05)
Rather than restrictions on speech, El-Affendi is asking for what amounts to more nuanced diplomacy on the part of Western governments in a very hostile, very real, climate of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments. What signs do our governments give that they are aware of and concerned about this often racist climate? I see little. We can't very well censor the social movement that calls for censorship if we give a damn about democratic principles. But neither should we sit idly by while vigilantes along the Arizona border hijack the debate over immigration, or when the defenders of democracy turn a cold eye on their own xenophobia.

It is in the interest of Muslims not to make calls for restrictions on free speech as their main demand. Muslims should identify more with democratic principles and, in fact, call for even more free speech. Muslims, especially minorities living in Europe, are likely to be the first victims of new restrictions on freedom. They should, instead, make use of democracy to build coalitions which would isolate the hate mongers and extremists and cause them to be condemned by all. In calling for more, not less, freedom of expression, they should also try to reach a consensus on using that freedom in a more responsible and constructive manner. (Abdelwahab El-Affendi, 2/27/06)

And we should join them.

“I'm with Abdelwahab!”

  1. Blogger Drek Says:

    I think, Jeff, that you'll find my position is essentially identical to your own. I do believe in more or less unbridled free speech, but that also includes the right of other people to criticize what you say. Hell, for that matter, I don't believe you have the right to compel others to listen.

    A part of me would love to shut down the folks who make games that are in such poor taste BUT I don't think such a move is wise. It's the same with flag burning and a number of other issues. This isn't so much out of a love for democracy, though, as a desire for facts. You never learn anything if the only people you allow to speak are the ones who tell you what you want to hear.

    Nice post.

  2. Blogger Jeff Says:

    Drek: Let's shut them down without censoring them! Drive'em out of business using social approbation, boycotts, and other means fully compatible with democracy. That's in fact what many social movements aim to do.