Monday, April 27, 2009

Freedom or tolerance? Do you have to choose one or the other?

Today I watched as my entire News Media in Transition class argued for the Muslim side of the argument surrounding the Muhammed Cartoons that were published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. After a class discussing this issue last week, we all received an email from our Danish teacher expressing his surprise that we - the American students, the poster-children of free speech - were not siding with the free-speech-above-all argument. And today as we sat through a panel discussion in the class, it became increasingly difficult to listen to the conservative and intolerant arguments that free speech should not be limited no matter who it offends or what lines of cultural, social, and religious sensitivity it crosses.

I have often had a hard time with American "political correctness," feeling that being PC was keeping Americans from discussing important issues and was exacerbating instead of healing some of the divisions in our society. But after these few classes, I started thinking: what exactly is American PC? Disregarding the extreme cases, it is a way of people being respectful, censoring themselves rather than causing unnecessary offense. In a country made up of so many backgrounds and opinions, we must use this sort of self-censorship so that our speech can be used as a means of exchange rather than attack.

And according to the speaker defending Jyllands-Posten’s, this “self-censorship” signals the beginnings of the loss of free speech. But I wonder, why do Danes feel so confronted about their rights to free speech? Defenders of the cartoons say that the cartoons were supposed to foster a debate about self-censorship and free speech, but why were they feeling threatened in the first place? Is this merely Denmark’s way of reacting to the diversity that is beginning to infiltrate its historically homogenous society? Or more, a way of recognizing the intolerance embedded in their social fabric, and not knowing how to negotiate it?

The US has battled over issues of free speech throughout the entirety of its existence and yet has seemed to accept that in order to protect our rights to both the freedom of speech and security, free speech is limited by permeable boundaries. In order to protect our rights, we have to learn to respect them and use them consciously and responsibly.

I agree with the defending argument that free speech should not be given up because of one group, but I also think freedom of speech can be exercised without being purposefully offensive, which just seems ignorant, irresponsible, and intolerant. Intolerance marks an entire culture, rather than the intolerant individuals within it. In our world today, we cannot afford to be intolerant.

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