Freedom is not exclusive

When did we lose our nerve in the worldwide progression towards freedom? To be sure, in our self-anointed paragonal society, the controversy over the Muhammad cartoons has even made us introspective about our own fundamental freedoms.

The University of Toronto’s student newspaper The Strand is the latest to wade into the controversy. Not because they republished the cartoons but because they inked their own. In a poll on their website, a full 50% of respondents said that The Strand should not have published the cartoon because it is “offensive”. Most of these respondents would probably quote a socially tolerant worldview towards Islam as the root of their intolerance. Let’s skip over to a current poll running over at the University of Notre Dame concerning the Vagina Monologues. When asked whether or not one would be attending the theatre event, a plurality (44%) of respondents at this Catholic Midwestern university responded, “No, I don’t support them”. Contrast what some would call a “socially progressive presentation” at a socially conservative institution with what that members of that same group would call what the UofT newspaper has done on a “socially progressive” campus. What does vexing about vaginas and the mocking of Muhammad have in common? The answer is that the principles of our society, namely free speech and freedom of the press, easily defends them both.

But it is the troubling response against these very freedoms that should offend everyone. If Charles Darwin penned The Origin of Species today would editors refuse to publish excerpts from the controversial text in order to prevent the angering of fundamentalist Christians? If a modern Martin Luther had published the 95 Theses in a blog, would German embassies be burned across the “Catholic World”? More troubling is to ponder if the press would be successful in sheltering the population from these transformative messages. In the case of the Muhammad cartoons, the message is hardly transformative, yet the defiance of organizational dogma certainly is.

We have learned that the anger sparked by the cartoons in predominantly Islamic countries has been fueled by the governments of the particularly anti-Western nations of Iran and Syria. Perhaps one day women in these countries will be able to perform the Vagina Monologues and enjoy other freedoms of expression.

Why is it that in our true social progression that has protected individual rights from institutional dogma (whether religious or secular) do we find ourselves in the current situation where we do not afford the same to our Muslims friends?

While the students at the University of Notre Dame have the right not to be interested in the Vagina Monologues, every last one of them should at least support the principle of the presentation: the practice of free speech for a formerly marginalized group in society so that they may, in effect, have freedom. Back in Toronto, the students at the University of Toronto should be cautious not to confuse their desire to respect what they perceive to be a marginalized religion/people with the sheltering of them. Are the well-meaning progressives that wish to limit press freedoms in order to prevent hurt feelings rather patronizing a group instead of respecting it?