On Secularism and Freedom of the Press: The Jyllands-Posten Cartoons Revisited

Webb Keane in the Immanent Frame:

By focusing on freedom of the press rather than social relations, the defenders of the newspaper could count on a family of common sense views of what pictures and words are, and how they function in the world. They tapped into a widespread and habitual way of thinking that treats representational acts as referential and communicative in function. In this view, pictures and words are vehicles (and in the case of words, arbitrary social conventions) for information, itself a distinct entity that stands apart from persons and their actions.

This view is not the only one found in the Euro-American world, nor should we imagine that the sense of offence some Muslims expressed is fundamentally alien to “the West,” as American reactions to the “Piss Christ” artwork make clear. We should also not assume it arises from some sensitivity peculiar to religious faith, as American responses to flag-burning and Spanish laws against lèse majesté show. But it does have a privileged relationship to the moral narrative of modernity, in particular to those strands associated with liberal thought and the concepts of freedom associated with them. It is implicit in John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of press freedom, according to which the reader should evaluate the message and ask how well it fares in competition with the alternatives, which determines whether we should accept it as true.

Matthew Noah Smith and Bruce Robbins respond in the comments section. Smith:

No one reasonably can deny that speaking and publishing are actions. Uttering sentences and printing text (or images) are actions par excellence. They are subject to all the normal practical considerations to which other actions are subject. For, as a formal matter (i.e., abstracting from the particulars), whether I ought to say something (or print something) or do something else is no different a question than whether I ought to run to catch the bus or just walk and wait for the next bus. In all cases, what is at issue is intentional behavior.

So, Keane surely cannot mean that defenders of the printing and publication of the Danish cartoons (or utterers of offensive speech) believe that printing and speaking are not actions in this sense. If he does mean this, then the target of his objections above is a particularly dimwitted crew.