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Hitchens, Yale, and ‘Instigation’


Christopher Hitchens has an excellent piece on Yale’s refusal to print the Danish Mohammed cartoons in a book about, well, the Danish Mohammend cartoons. Hitchens wrote to his friend, University Press director John Donatich, to ask for an explanation:

Donatich is a friend of mine and was once my publisher, so I wrote to him and asked how, if someone blew up a bookshop for carrying professor Klausen’s book, the blood would be on the publisher’s hands rather than those of the bomber. His reply took the form of the official statement from the press’s public affairs department. This informed me that Yale had consulted a range of experts before making its decision and that “[a]ll confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence.”

Hitchens rightly launches a devastating rhetorical assault on the idea that printing cartoons “instigates” violence:

It was bad enough during the original controversy, when most of the news media—and in the age of “the image” at that—refused to show the cartoons out of simple fear. But now the rot has gone a serious degree further into the fabric. Now we have to say that the mayhem we fear is also our fault, if not indeed our direct responsibility. This is the worst sort of masochism, and it involves inverting the honest meaning of our language as well as what might hitherto have been thought of as our concept of moral responsibility. 

This is exactly right. In fact, some communities — in this case extremist quarters of the Islamic community — should be shocked. The very idea that there are certain citizens whose beliefs are beyond reproach or even mockery is offensive to the idea of democratic society. There is no subset of citizens who are entitled to be treated with kid gloves, and it is imperative that they learn this lesson sooner, rather than later.

Moreover, the fears in this case should be reversed. It is those who seek to threaten, injure, or kill cartoonists and writers who should live in fear — the fear of lawful authority. Yet all too often we give the worst sort of person veto authority over our speech and in so doing encourage the very violence we seek to avoid.


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