A friend is a free-speech fundamentalist, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. With him, it's crystal clear: the right to free-speech trumps anything else. No buts. I admire the man for that clarity of thought. I wish I could say the same about myself.
Thing is, I can't. I believe in free speech, but I'm troubled by its implications.
You know where this is going: the cartoon imbroglio.
Is the famous Danish cartoon offensive to some? Without doubt it is. (Though not to me). That's why the protests in various parts of the world. You can say till you're blue in the face that the protesters are stuck in medieval times. You can also say till you're blue in the face that they do not understand the intellectual traditions that make Westerners -- some Westerners -- cherish that freedom above all.
The whole point is, these things matter not at all. The cartoons were offensive to people who believe the Prophet cannot be depicted, period. (Let alone caricatured). And those people reacted to that depiction, some with threats and actual violence.
Is the reaction obscene to some? Without doubt it is. (To me as well). That a mere picture should be met with threats of terrorism is nothing short of obscene. You can say till you're blue in the face that it was deliberately provoked. You can also say till you're blue in the face that these cartoonists and editors do not understand the sensibilities of religious people -- some religious people.
The whole point is, again, these things matter not at all. The reaction was obscene to people who think you cannot threaten violence against those who speak their minds, period. And those people reacted to those threats, some defiantly, with more cartoons.
Does freedom of speech apply to the cartoons? Of course it does. Does it apply to the protests? As long as they harm nobody, of course it does.
So where does that leave us?
In this place where the implications of free speech are troubling, that's where. Because if your freely expressed speech offends someone, that someone is going to react, and claiming freedom of speech will not switch that reaction off.
And so I think the lesson here is about consequences and responsibilities. You express yourself, whether via cartoon or protest, you had better be aware of the consequences. Free speech is a great power, but like all great powers, it comes with responsibilities. Protest is just as great a power, but it too comes with responsibilities.
Which means: I will defend a cartoonist's right to draw whatever the hell he wants to. But if he wants to draw something that will profoundly offend someone, I will tell him he should not do it.
Not as simply elegant as my free-speech friend's principles. But, I like to think, a little more in tune with the ways of the world.