Just a follow up to yesterday’s post (“Life Sucks”). Some of the good people at Butterflies and Wheels seem to disagree vehemently, and I’m not sure what the disagreement is really about. What I said had an ethical component and a factual component.
The ethical component is pretty uncontroversial. I said if you can foresee that publishing a cartoon will lead to violence and death, you have to take that into account. Although it won’t be you that directly does the killing, you bear some indirect responsibility. Perhaps the costs will be outweighed by other benefits, but the costs can’t possibly be ignored.
To disagree with this, you really have to say some odd things about the sanctity of speech, or some such. Or maybe take a Kantian line on truth telling. Kant was an absolutist about lying–you shouldn’t do it, ever, even in his famous case of the inquiring murder. The bad guy comes to your door and asks about the whereabouts of his wife, who he plans to kill. You should tell the truth. The guy goes and kills his wife. Is that your fault? No, says Kant. The bad guy killed his wife, not you.
It’s a different situation, but I suppose someone might think that as long as the cartoonists are telling the truth, it doesn’t matter how many people get killed in foreseeable riots. It could be 10, 100, 1000, even a million. They’d still be completely innocent, and only the killers would be guilty. This is not very plausible.
On to the factual component. It seems possible (that’s as far as I’ll go) that the Danish cartoonists could have foreseen the violence that resulted (Christians killed in several countries) especially because of the earlier Rushdie affair. If “The Life of Brian, Muslim style” is in the works today (as Ibn Warraq says in his Point of Inquiry podcast), then you really have clearcut foreseeability.
Supposing the violent outcome of the cartoons was foreseeable, that’s not the end of the story. In Nazi Germany, it could very well have been worth the risk to print a nasty caricature of Hitler to turn around a population that was too enamored of him. But from what I can tell, the west is not enamored of Mohammad. The cartoon that depicts Mohammad with a bomb turban delivers the news that Muslim countries are violent. Whether that’s true or not, it’s old news. It’s just the establishment position, the conventional wisdom. Sure, people in Muslim countries don’t believe it, but the last thing that’s going to persuade them is a deliberately provocative cartoon offensive coming out of Europe.
The ethical point that we’re accountable for our impact is, well, “to die for”. The facts? Well, facts are always very messy. No doubt there are many other relevant points to be made.