Legality and Courtesy

In his opinion article in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on 21 January, Per Edgar Kokkvold (secretary general in the Norwegian Press Association) stated the obvious, “It is people who must be protected – and who are protected under current legislation, under the law that prohibits discriminatory or hateful utterances, persecution or insults based on religion or belief. But here it is the individual person who is protected, not the religion. Religions and beliefs must be open to insult.”

This is the position under Norwegian law, and this is the position that Norwegian politicians – and the Church of Norway – want to continue.

What is more remarkable is that Kokkvold does not comprehend that this was the position adopted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2006 in the very statement that Kokkvold cites: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has “great understanding” for the fact that the Danish caricatures “are experienced as offensive by Muslims worldwide”.

Expressing “great understanding” is not the same as saying that the caricatures should be illegal. It is a phrase that conveys empathy.

It is a good thing that we have a Ministry of Foreign Affairs which understands that expression that absolutely should not be banned may nevertheless be experienced as offensive to a person’s religion or beliefs. It is a good thing that we had a Minister of Foreign Affairs who understood the difference between legality and courtesy.

Elements of racism

Neither the Danish nor the French caricatures are drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. They are images whereby contemporary cartoonists have communicated their idea of Muhammad.

The drawings contain elements of racism: Muhammad is drawn with facial features, a beard and clothing that caricature the appearances of immigrants from certain Asian countries – countries or neighbours of countries that have been invaded by the West. This does not ameliorate the sense of humiliation caused by the caricatures.

Terrorists and arsonists are always responsible for their actions. So it was in 2006 and so it is today. But even though the thief bears responsibility, we lock our doors.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs is responsible for people’s safety, for Norwegians abroad, for embassy employees, and for embassy buildings. The Minister of Foreign Affairs took these factors into account in 2006, and the current minister must do likewise.

In these waters, a foreign minister has to manoeuvre between preserving the sanctity of freedom of expression, showing respect for people and their beliefs, and the danger that thieves, arsonists and terrorists may exploit the situation.

Moral responsibility

Both in 2006 and today, Kokkvold has contributed to reminding us that we must be aware of our shared responsibility above all for preserving the sanctity of freedom of expression.

Precisely for that reason, I also think that we should also be careful when speaking about the limits of freedom of expression. It is difficult to see that this freedom should be restricted, other than against incitement to violence.

On the other hand, Kokkvold has contributed nothing at all to the debate about how we should fulfil our responsibility not to humiliate people. That is a moral, not a legal, responsibility that we also need to be mindful of. If we fail to do so, things may, in Kokkvold’s own words, go very badly for us!


This text was published in Aftenposten 23 January 2015: Lovlighet og høflighet

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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