Autonomy, Respect, and Arrogance in the Danish Cartoon Controversy

Autonomy, Respect, and Arrogance in the Danish Cartoon Controversy

Hi everyone,

I have been working for a while on a paper, which was provoked by the cartoons of Muhammad that were published in Denmark in 2005 and created an international uproar. In the Danish public debate about the cartoons there were a number of dividing lines, but the one I find of particular interest from the perspective of political theory is one drawn between standing firm on Enlightenment values (freedom of expression and democracy) versus giving in to the demand for respect for religious feelings. In my paper I relate this contrast to Galston’s contrast between Enlightenment and Reformation Liberalism, autonomy and diversity. In short, I reject Galston’s dichotomy and argue that the Enlightenment value of autonomy is not the culprit; it is not this principle that is to blame for the lack of respect for Muslims in the Danish cartoon controversy. To make this argument I distinguish different ways in which “autonomy” may be used. In particular, I am concerned with how autonomy is used in justifications for freedom of expression and whether these uses are incompatible with respect for diversity. I argue that if we understand the autonomy that freedom of expression is justified with reference to not as a character ideal that has to be promoted but as a capacity we presuppose everyone has, then this principle rather than creating hierarchies among forms of life is an indispensable principle for grounding equal respect. Properly understood, a commitment to autonomy is not a threat to respect for difference but its precondition.

I am very interested in any thoughts on whether my argument success. In particular, I am not quite satisfied with the concluding section (sec IV) in which I try to respond to objections.



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6 Responses to Autonomy, Respect, and Arrogance in the Danish Cartoon Controversy

  1. Thom Brooks says:

    I strongly recommend you get in touch with my Newcastle colleague Peter Jones (Politics) who has done some work in this area.

  2. Dear Thom,
    Thanks for the suggestion. I have read some of Peter Jones’s excellent articles and will get in touch with him.

  3. Andrew March says:

    Are you arguing that the cartoons necessarily involved a lack of respect for Muslims or arrogance towards them?

  4. Dear Andrew,

    Thanks for your question. This is what I write in the paper (p. 21f):

    “… my criticism is not so much directed at the cartoons as such but rather at the arrogance that I found in the justification for publishing them and in many of the subsequent defenses of them. One cannot judge whether or not the publication of the cartoons showed a morally condemnable disrespect for Danish Muslims without considering the context. My judgment, therefore, is not based on viewing the cartoons in isolation but in an assessment of the context in which they appeared and the justifications that were given for publishing them. If the cartoons had been published in an atmosphere that were otherwise characterized by mutual respect and attempts to try to understand and listen to Danish Muslims, there would have been no reason for moral reproach of Jyllands-Posten. But that was not the case. The atmosphere of Danish public debate has for some years, not least since the election in 2001 of a government that relies on the votes of the far-right Danish People’s Party, been very hateful towards Muslims, and Jyllands-Posten has been a main contributor to this.”

    Thus, I am not arguing that cartoons such as those published by Jyllands-Posten are necessarily disrespectful toward Muslims. But I argue that in the context the decision to publish the cartoons was a form of moral arrogance.

    I am not sure if you find this part of my argument inadequate, too vague, or simply wrong. I would be very interested in hearing any objections you may have.


  5. Andrew March says:

    Well, whatever we may argue here it is certainly the case that European Muslims interpret the cartoons in the context of wider European attitudes.

    I simply think that is was too often merely assumed, rather than shown, that the cartoons were demeaning in their own right. And this usually relied on pointed to the wider European climate, not anything inherent in the cartoons. I think there is a pretty good case for seeing most of them as either legitimate political expression or merely bland. They were not simply gratuitous stabs at Muslims, like showing a pig with the name “Muhammad” would be.

  6. Hello, I know I am reviving an old post, but I have a little critique about this very interesting article.

    In the ‘Respecting Autonomy in the Exercise of Freedom of Expression’ section, you mention the possibility of attacking someone’s belief without attack him as a person, that is, without compromising the recognition respect you owe him, but you remark that sometimes it’s very hard to do the former without the person feeling like you’ve done the latter.

    It seems to me that your only advice here is “it is crucial that criticism and mockery be very specifically directed at the content of the belief”. However, you are also saying that the receiver may not be able to recognize the distinction, because sometimes “we cannot see an attack on [our beliefs] as different from an attack on us”.

    That being said, it seems weird to me that the onus of recognition respect should fall on the speaker, because there are cases where the listener will take the critique as an attack, in spite of the best efforts of the speaker.

    So in the end, how do we judge if the recognition respect criteria is met, without falling into complete subjectivism?

    If you’re still with me (and I thank you very much for that :), I am also concerned about the plausibility of the Kantian autonomy. It seems to me this autonomy that we must presume everyone has is more alike to a placeholder for the duty, the respect, which is way more important that the capacity for autonomy we are told to accept uncritically … but what if people really aren’t that autonomous, as science and psychology tell us? Is it a kind of very pragmatic argument, along the line of “we will have better outcomes if we act “as if” people really were autonomous”? Because that doesn’t sound very Kantian 🙂

    Thanks a lot and have a good day!

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