Not long ago, one might have concluded that, at least in Europe, there were no taboos left. A process that had begun with the Enlightenment had now reached the point at which “anything goes.” Particularly in the arts, there were no apparent limits to showing what even a generation ago would have been regarded as highly offensive.
Two generations ago, most countries had censors who not only tried to prevent younger people from seeing certain films but who actually banned books. Since the 1960’s, such proscriptions have weakened until, in the end, explicit sexuality, violence, blasphemy – while upsetting to some people – were tolerated as a part of the enlightened world.
Or were they? Are there really no limits? Outside Europe, the “anything goes” attitude was never fully accepted. And there were limits in Europe, too. The historian David Irving is still in detention in Austria for the crime of Holocaust denial. This is, to be sure, a special case. The denial of a well-documented truth may lead to new crimes. But is the answer to the old question, “What is truth?” always so clear?
What exactly are we doing if we insist on Turkey’s acknowledgement that the Armenian genocide did take place as a condition of its membership in the European Union? Are we so sure of Darwin’s theories of evolution that we should ban alternative notions of genesis from schools?
Those concerned with freedom of speech have always wondered about its limits. One such limit is the incitement to violence. The man who gets up in a crowded theater and shouts, “Fire!” when there is none is guilty of what happens in the resulting stampede. But what if there actually is a fire?
This is the context in which we may see the invasion of Islamic taboos into the enlightened, mostly non-Islamic world. From the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses to the killing of a nun in Somalia in response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture and the Berlin Opera’s cancellation of a performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo , with its severed heads of religious founders, including Muhammad, we have seen violence and intimidation used to defend a particular religion’s taboos.
There are questions here that are not easily answered by civilized defenders of the Enlightenment. Toleration and respect for people who have their own beliefs are right and perhaps necessary to preserve an enlightened world. But there is the other side to consider. Violent responses to unwelcome views are never justified and cannot be accepted. Those who argue that suicide bombers express understandable grudges have themselves sold out their freedom. Self-censorship is worse than censorship itself, because it sacrifices freedom voluntarily.
This means that we have to defend Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoonists and the friends of Idomeneo , whether we like them or not. If anyone does not like them, there are all the instruments of public debate and of critical discourse that an enlightened community has at its disposal. It is also true that we do not have to buy any particular book or listen to an opera. What a poor world it would be if anything that might offend any group could no longer be said! A multicultural society that accepts every taboo of its diverse groups would have little to talk about.
The kind of reaction we have seen recently to expressions of views that are offensive to some does not bode well for the future of liberty. It is as if a new wave of counter-enlightenment is sweeping the world, with the most restrictive views dominating the scene. Against such reactions, enlightened views must be reasserted strongly. Defending the right of all people to say things even if one detests their views is one of the first principles of liberty.
Thus, Idomeneo must be performed, and Salman Rushdie must be published. Whether an editor publishes cartoons offensive to believers in Muhammad (or Christ, for that matter) is a matter of judgment, almost of taste. I might not do it, but I would nevertheless defend the right of someone who decides otherwise. It is debatable whether recent incidents of this kind require a “dialogue between religions.” Public debate making clear cases one way or the other seems more appropriate than conciliation. The gains of enlightened discourse are too precious to be turned into negotiable values. Defending those gains is the task that we now face.