Friday, February 03, 2006

Freedom of Responsibility?

Today I will be talking/ranting about a number of sacred freedoms that people will die for, and most certainly fight for, or at least fight about. If you can't get the vibe yet, this is not going to be pretty, so duck out now if you wan.

First off, let us enumerate some freedoms for the people, as specified by the Universal Declaration of Human Right (UDoHR), of which most free, democratic nations ascribe to in one fashion or another.

From this document, we will be working with
  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of the Press
  • Freedom of Peaceful assembly
  • Freedom of religion


Free speech
One of the most frequently referenced rights is described in Article 19 of the UDoHR, it states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Perhaps it is my naivety, or my own misunderstanding of US constitutional law, but I'm pretty sure this also covers "freedom of the press" so a little more digging, and it turns out that the US puts it in one shot gun declaration itself. So here she is, the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

If you are having any difficulty understanding that, I found a helpful annotated definition here. I don't want to get bogged down here with bias or discussion (that will come later) so moving briskly along:

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Article 20 of UDoHR: states:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

The pesky constitution covers it all in one amendment, so no comment here.

Freedom of religion
Bring out my friend the UDoHR, it states in Article 18. :
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Pretty straight forward that I may believe whatever I wish and I may practice those beliefs without fear of persecution. The US takes that one further and ensures that my government must act in a religion agonistic manner preventing discrimination, or perceived discrimination caused by inequitable treatment of different religious groups.

Now as a proud Canadian, I would be remiss in my reporting if I neglected to mention the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms. Not withstanding the 'not withstanding' clause, it is a pretty weird document. The Charter asserts that an individual has the right to a number of fundamental freedoms, within reason. For example, freedom of speech and of the press means you can pretty much say anything you like, but if (and I am lacking the right verb/tense here) produce hate speech, you have exceeded the reasonable limitations on your freedoms. Anyways, the charter shotguns your rights as eloquently as the US Constitution does, so have a read:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
a) freedom of conscience and religion;
b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
d) freedom of association.

I think I have covered my basis pretty well; you are all now informed of your human rights, now I want to talk about human responsibility. First, let me tell you a tale, straight from the news, and into your home.

A European News paper publishes a editorial cartoon that depicts the Islamic Prophet Mohammad wearing a Turban which is in fact a bomb (I believe there is implied or explicit Nuclear implications as well.) You can see stories about the comic here but out of respect, I will not directly link, nor post it. Out of respect? Absolutely, this comic was a slap in the face of devout Muslim's and on a number of levels. Although I strongly feel that one should be able to take political satire at face value, and as a comic image of global issues, that doesn't give satirist carte blanch to trample all over someone's feelings.

Why was the comic so offensive? Well two reasons really, the first I think anyone individual who has religious beliefs can relate to, and that was the depiction of a key figure or symbol of your religion used in a profane manner. Imagine Jesus dressed up as a priest being charged with pedophilia. Or an individual dressed as a ninja using the Star of David as a ninja. If you are secular, take an important iconic piece of your self identity and vilify it; how about a personification of the American Constitution oppressing and taking the rights and freedoms away from someone. Any of these images may upset you, as something you hold dear, and important to your identity is pilloried and profaned.

To top this insult with more insult, imagine how you would feel if your religion forbids any imagery, positive or negative, of that iconic figure. My understanding (loose as it is) is that it is forbidden to make an image of the Prophet Mohammad, this rule was put in place to prevent idolatry by insuring that Mohammad would not be raised or deified by exuberant, but miss guided devotees.

So we have profane imagery, and we have forbidden imagery together in a piece of political satire, and what does it produce? A whole bunch of angry Muslims, one is left with the question: does this surprise the artist or news establishment?

The answer apparently is yes. Let me establish that in spite of this comic being forbidden by Islam this doesn't prevent the comic's artist, nor his paper from producing and publishing it, arguably it is in bad taste, but he has the right. What right? Why Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Expression of course (how quickly we forget our primer.)

But Geoff, if the artist and paper were well within there universal rights, how dare the people become offended? Well, Geoff, I'm glad you asked. The rights governed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are, well universal...
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.


So... those people who were offended, and expressed their offence were well within their rights to do so, what a great world we live in* where we have such great universal rights. They exercised a little Freedom of Expression, and some Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, and got a whole bunch of "up yours" in response.

After the initial out pouring of offense by members of the faith the world over, the artist and paper might have ended things quickly. They may regretfully have realized they put a burning hot poker on a very sensitive area, apologized for the oversight, and everyone could have walked away mollified. Sadly, the opposite happened, those parties responsible for the comic defended their right to freedom of the press, buy enjoying that freedom a little bit more. They vilified protesters as censors, and refused to back down form their position.

Without going into the timeline in detail, things have gotten way out of hand. The papers continue to spew about their rights, and the extremists are pouring out of the wood works in the Middle East threatening violence against those responsible. At this point I'm inclined to reinforce that there are a large number of perfectly rational, and justifiably angry Muslims, who are peacefully protesting, either in direct protest, or boycotting. Sadly, there is the extremist element of the culture, which is willing to hurt or kill for this insult. I strongly disagree with them, they are deplorable cretins, the type who want to fight just to fight, and have gone too far.

Where this brings me, is to my point (finally.) I strongly believe in the rights set forth in the UDoHR, they are well thought out, and were hard fought and won over generations of oppression of our forefathers. World War II in many ways was about protecting the rights of the Jewish people from their oppressors. The American Civil War was about a country fighting itself to protect the rights for all, not just the few. We should never take these rights for granted, but truly we have the right to take them for granted if we like. Right now I'm liberally exercising my rights; in fact the very core of the internet is built on the tenets of free speech, and freedom of the press. Yet in spite of an individual having the right to do/say something, there is no right to Freedom of Responsibility.
We are responsible for what we do and say, we may exercise our freedom of speech, but if in exercising our right to expression, we insult or offend, we have no guarantee of forgiveness or absolution. In simpler terms, if you insult a friend, he has no obligation to forgive your insult, nor remain your friend. In fact their right to not continue to associate with you is protected. This responsibility seems to have been forgotten in our age of litigation, but I will remind everyone of the old adage "reap what you sow."

In light of these global events, I would like to propose a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility, the terming of which will require some thought, but the spirit is as follows:

You are responsible for your actions.

As follow up, I also found this great article on The Star.

*The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a binding document, and there are many places in the world where such rights are oppressed. This is a deplorable situation, but one that may be rectified in my life time.
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