Thursday, February 16, 2006

This is also free speech

I was really unsatisfied about what I'd written about the Danish cartoons. I felt it didn't explain why I felt the way I did, and didn't tease out the important issues. So here's my attempt to explain where I stand . Like I already said I don't have a clue what's going on in the wider conflict, and lacking in knowledge I'm trying to refrain from commenting.

I should make something clear straight up: I don't think we have free speech when speech is something that can be bought and sold. But I still want to examine censorship, and the way it operates.

The first distinction I'd like to make is between a companies and people. I don't actually believe that companies should have the rights of people (which isn't surprising - I don't believe they should have any rights, because I think they shouldn't exist). Howard Zinn is the expert in all this, but the idea that companies should have all the rights of people was created about 150 years ago, because it suited the needs of capitalism.

The most important way corporations are different from people is that corporations need to return a profit, and every decision they make must be contribute towards this goal to create a dividend. This means that in the press all sorts of censorship takes place in order to ensure that this profit continues. I'm willing to bet that the reason the Dominion Post and the Press apologised for printing those cartoons and promised they weren't going to do it again didn't have anything to do with any actual people, but was because our exporters were getting pissed. Fonterra and the meat-board were not happy, and they have a more direct line to The Dominion Post than you or me. Any media that is beholden to their advertisers, grandstanding about free speech leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

I do believe that media should be free from government censorship. Mostly for lack of a better model, than because I think it's standing up for freedom of speech, because it's not.

Censorship by non-state forces is a different matter. Now non-state forces is a pretty wide category, but the first point I'd like to make is that for any kind of censorship to have effect those trying to censor you must have some kind of power over you.

I could get fired for writing this blog if I worked in a government department, or quite a lot of other jobs (not the one I've got though, luckily). That is censorship.

I'm not sure a whole lot of people being angry at you, or even burning your countries embassy on the other side of the world, is censorship. People in Pakistan have no power over the media in Denmark, and whatever power they have, the consequences won't be on the Danish media.


  1. Anonymous2:29 am

    Ah, yes, of course. Because companies are people too and capitalism naturally has economically-based moral deterrents that leads to an efficient, perfect, moral society. Anyway...

    The way I see it, those cartoon were printed by the Danish publication (and subsequently by other European and North American publications) with inflammatory intentions. They know our media will focus on the few extremists that react violently so they can say, "See? Look how violent and uncivilized those Muslims are."

    According to a cartoonist and freedom of speech activist I heard speaking at a human rights conference, the same Danish publication has in the past refused to print unflattering depictions of Jesus, as well as Holocaust-denying material. What does that tell you?

  2. Those cartoons were printed to point out to Danes that they are allowing an increasing number of people into their country who consider violence or demands for govt intervention an appropriate response to speech. The fact that Danish Moslems promptly went trotting off to try and raise foreign countries' anger against their supposed new home was an own goal that they really have no-one but themselves to blame for.

    Undoubtedly, the editor of the Jyllands-Posten and various European govts have been hypocritical in their response (exactly how countries with laws against holocaust denial can pontificate about free speech is beyond me). But that tells me that European govts should be getting their asses chewed to try and better their freedom of speech, not worsen it.

    You're right Maia, the stupid reaction of people in Syria or Pakistan is not censorship. But when foreign govts send their ambassadors to demand that you impose restrictions on your press, "fuck off" is really one of the more polite responses I'd be able to come up with if I was receiving them.

  3. Anonymous8:20 am


    Was that an attempt to answer the questions I posed, re the company/person distinction?

    If it was it didn't answer the questions at all. Your reference to an efficient, perfect, moral society was not my suggestion. We should be free to be inefficient, imperfect, immoral, distasteful and to say what we wish.

    I for one wouldn't have printed those Danish cartoons as I don't find them funny or in good taste. My Iraqi fiance found them most offensive, and she is a very secular muslim. But... people do have the right to offend others if this is their want.

    I would appreciate anyone making a decent attempt at answering the on topic questions I have raised in my initial comment to the post above.

  4. Anonymous9:35 am

    I don't think there's much point in arguing in the abstract. You really need to read around to understand the context.

    I don't think this is fundamentally about freedom of speech at all, it’s about a rise in Danish nationalism and xenophobic opposition to asylum seekers and immigration. The far right Danish People’s Party has gained increasing support over recent years on the basis of their anti-immigration policies and the xenophobic rhetoric of their leader (a female, by the way). They won 13 percent of the vote in the February 2005 election. A recent poll taken after the publication of the cartoons put their support at 18 percent.

    Here's some background that we haven't seen in the New Zealand press:

    Martin Burcharth, the US correspondent for the Danish newspaper Information, wrote in the New York Times:

    “To my mind, the publication of the cartoons had little to do with generating a debate about self-censorship and freedom of expression. It can be seen only in the context of a climate of pervasive hostility toward anything Muslim in Denmark.”
    Burcharth concisely documents this official hostility: “For 20 years, Muslims in Denmark have been denied a permit to build mosques in Copenhagen. What’s more, there are no Muslim cemeteries in Denmark...” This, as Burcharth points out, is in a country of 5.4 million with a population of over 200,000 Muslims—a significant and growing minority.

    He then homes in on the political motives behind the publication of the cartoons. He notes that the Danish minister for cultural affairs, Brian Mikkelsen, recently summoned scholars, artists and writers to create a “canon of Danish art, music, literature and film.”

    Mikkelsen is a member of the Conservative People’s Party, one of the constituents of the government headed by Rasmussen, which also includes the virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic Danish People’s Party.

    “The ostensible purpose,” Burcharth writes, “was to preserve our homegrown classics. But before the release of the canon last month, Mr. Mikkelsen revealed what may have been the real purpose of the exercise: To create a last line of defense against the influence of Islam in Denmark. ‘In Denmark we have seen the appearance of a parallel society in which minorities practice their own medieval values and undemocratic views,’ he told fellow conservatives at a party conference last summer. ‘This is the new front in our cultural war.’”

    Burcharth proceeds to debunk the version of events leading up to the mass Muslim protests that has been given out by the Danish government and largely echoed in the Western media, and explain how the current furor is being exploited by the Danish media and government to further whip up anti-Muslim sentiment.

    He writes: “Now the general view, expressed in the press and among a majority of the Danes, is that the Muslim leaders who led the protests in Denmark should have their status as citizens examined because they betrayed their follow Danes by failing to keep the controversy within the country.

    “But the real story is that they and their followers ran out of options. They tried to get Jyllands-Posten to recognize its offense. They tried to get the support of the government and the opposition. They asked a local prosecutor to file suit under the country’s blasphemy law. And they asked ambassadors in Denmark from Muslim countries to meet with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. They were rebuffed on all counts, though a state prosecutor is currently reviewing the case. But, really, what choice did they have?

    “... After the flag burnings, the Danish news media began to refer to the white cross on the flag’s red background as a Christian symbol. There was something discordant about this... Denmark, after all, is one of the most secular countries in Europe. Only 3 percent of Danes attend church once a week...

    “Now that flag has become a symbol around the world of Denmark’s contempt for another world religion.”

    Here are other recent statements, published in the Times article, by leading “freedom fighters” of the Danish People’s Party:

    * “... The People’s Party leader, Pia Kjaersgaard, wrote in her weekly newsletter that the Islamic religious community here was populated with ‘pathetic and lying men with worrying suspect views on democracy and women.’ She added, ‘They are the enemy inside. The Trojan Horse in Denmark. A kind of Islamic mafia.’”

    * “Morten Messerschmidt, a 25-year-old rising star in the party, said ... ‘the culture clash we have been predicting for 10 years has come to pass... These people we welcomed into out country have betrayed us.’”

    * “Soren Krarup, the Danish People’s Party’s spokesman on immigration, said in a recent interview that the furor over the Muhammad caricatures could result in a further tightening of immigration policies. He added that the party was considering sponsoring a measure to freeze Muslim immigration altogether.”

    To anyone who has read anything about the history of European anti-semitism, these sentiments have a chilling familiarity:

    "... Romanians cannot succeed in being masters of their own house, as they would like, unless the problem of the Jewish element in our country is resolved through categorical and decisive measures. In this regard we are determined to undertake serious and well planned measures, and to carry them out... In this way we will fulfill to a degree greater than ever before in our history the venerable slogan of Romanian nationalism: Romania for Romanians and only for Romanians."

  5. Anonymous9:53 am


    I didn't answer your questions because I thought they were rhetorical and not requiring a serious response. You also seemed a bit off topic. But since you asked...

    My point was that companies shouldn't be as immoral as they like. Businesses normally operate based on what is most profitable instead of what is most ethical and beneficial to society. I couldn't care less if someone starts a company and loses money, but all too often the company itself is not at the receiving end of the harm it creates (you didn't acknowledge that in your comments). Companies have much more power to abuse than ordinary people. Therefore, they should be regulated more than ordinary people. Another reason why it's ridiculous to equate businesses with people (and there are many) is that not everyone is able to own businesses. When you argue for the freedom of businesses, it's probably corporate privilege you're arguing for, not human rights.

  6. Anonymous10:36 am


    Thankyou for your comments. They are certainly thought and debate provoking.

    Business ethics are important to many businesses in this age of greater transparency. The day of profits at any cost has gone, the profit drive now modified by a range of ethical considerations. The cynical amongst us might have an anti business slant which has clouded this reality.

    Businesses are probably more conscious of the sensitivities of others than individuals, given the potential economic condequences.

    I suspect however from your comments you are referring to large corporations, not small businesses, which may be sole traders, small partnerships or small companies. The latter are definitely the most common in New Zealand, often relate to the reputation or 'brand' of their principals, and are only marginally distinguishable from the individual.I take the view these individuals should have freedom rights without fear of being accused of seeking corporate privilege.

  7. Anonymous12:44 pm

    Yes, I'm mainly referring to larger corporations, not small businesses, many of which do operate conscientiously. I no longer know what we're talking about and whether its relevant to Maia's post, so I will stop commenting.

  8. Anonymous, I was aware of most of that, but I still feel that more is going on than I understand and in those circumstances it would be foolish to offer up my analysis of the situation.

    I did want to tease out some of the abstract free speech issues because I was annoyed at the way people were talking about free speech and censorship.

  9. Businesses are still thoroughly driven by profit at any cost. The _appearance_ of being ethical is now more of a factor in maximising profits, but it's often cheaper and therefore more profitable to provide only a facade of ethics than the real thing. In general, unethical companies will be more profitable than ethical companies, putting the later out of business.

    Small owner-operated businesses are more likely to be ethical, partly because its harder to get away with only pretending to do so, and partly because the owner is free to act against the interests of the business in a way that the management of a larger corporation is not.

    How on earth do you set _yourself_ up as a company? You can set up a company easily enough, but that has no effect whatsoever on what you are personally and what rights you have.

  10. Anonymous2:04 pm

    A number of people put companies in their own name, especially if they are trading on their personal brand.

    On what basis are you making the assertion that companies have a facade of ethics for greater profitability? You have provided no basis, although it is good to see you concede many businesses now operate with ethics. It might interest you to know I have been involved with businesses which have acted in ethical manners despite this meaning a reduction in profit.

    Unlike state beneficiaries businesses often sponsor the community despite lack of economic return, because they can and they want to. Unlike state beneficiaries businesses are not about squeezing the maximum they can out of the others in the pursuit of maximising dollars.

    People in business are real people, it is a fallacy that they are evil and out to rape and pillage (figurative expressions before I get anyone screaming).

  11. Anonymous2:49 pm

    You abuse the term "censorship". There's no such thing as "censorship by non-state forces". Only a government can censor: i.e. use, or threaten to use, physical force to prevent an idea from being expressed. If you're fired for writing a blog, you're not being "censored" - you're still free to write your blog. You'd have been censored if you were actually physically prevented from expressing your thoughts, ultimately at gunpoint, by the government.

    Now go ahead and equivocate losing your job with repression by the state, like a good little socialist.

  12. It annoys me intensely to debate anonymous posters, but sometimes you have to. Any contact with actual Danes, rather than reading about them in the NYT, anon? Easy to quack on about a "rise in Danish nationalism and xenophobic opposition to asylum seekers and immigration" from the other side of the planet, but liberals have been quacking on about this "rise" since the '70s, and ultrnationalists still account for a few percent of European populations. If it's on the rise, it's a pretty damn slow rise.

    Re: "But, really, what choice did they have?", they had the choice of accepting that Denmark allows freedom of speech and no-one is going to impose restrictions on press freedom for their sake - or finding a country with attitudes to press freedom that more closely match their own. What they, as Danes, definitely should not have done, is travelled the Middle East trying to get foreign countries to override Denmark's elected government. A plan better guaranteed to galvanise public antipathy is hard to imagine.

    Re: parallels with anti-semitism, bringing the Nazis into a debate is pretty much an indicator of holding a poor argument. German Jews were Germans who were Jews, many of them had fought for Germany in WW1. These guys in Denmark have just conclusively demonstrated their allegiance is not to their home country. If their home country is pissed off with them, who'd be surprised?

  13. Anonymous12:00 am

    Maia, a troll's a troll. Especially one that uses Rush Limbaughisms like "feminazi." Of he's not satisfied viewing his hate speech on his own blog and insists on spewing it here you have every right to delete him. "Hate speech" is not protected under free speech.

  14. Anonymous12:04 am

    I try to respect people's comments guidelines, but a guideline that amounts to "No comments from people who disagree please" puts a hefty strain on that.

    Lost clown: "hate speech" is essentially a meaningless term, in that everyone defines it for themselves. For example, we might agree that "feminazi" constitutes hate speech, but I expect that you wouldn't agree that referring to the relationship my wife has with me as a "survival strategy" is also hate speech.

  15. Anonymous12:05 am

    I fail to see what was anti-feminist about Graham's comment. It didn't even disagree with what you were saying, but simply questioned your priorites.

    If you are saying that Graham himself is anti-feminist, you should justify yourself, otherwise you come across as being narrow and bigoted. There are many ways of defining feminism, and many women might see your views as being anti-feminist and not helpful to empowering women also.

  16. psycho milt trust me when I tell you there are a lot of feminists who wouldn't agree with me (and I meant 'respect' as in honour, rather than respect as in 'have respect for'). I also think you misunderstand what I mean by survival strategy.

    Blair I know Graham is anti-feminist - New Zealand is a small place.

  17. I knew you meant respect the guidelines as in "adhere to them", and I do try to. eg, you won't find me bleating "censorship" if you delete me off your own blog.

    Re survival strategy - I'm willing to accept I can have misunderstood, because it seems inconceivable the term could be meant literally. But terms have connotations, and the connotations of survival strategy are fairly dramatic. If someone, male or female, is too much of a sheep to see that the crap society loads them down with is just that, or too cowardly to stand up to it, or too lazy or stupid or brainwashed or whatever, I don't see that "survival strategy" is a good name for that. I think it's putting a dramatic and noble-sounding name on a mundane and less-than-heroic reality.

    I appreciate you don't want to have to argue for feminism itself on a feminist blog, any more than Christian bloggers want their comments threads full of atheists wanting to argue about whether God exists or not. I don't think I'm asking you to do that, but it's your blog so you get to decide.