My attitude toward issues of censorship is straightforward: If anyone wishes to decide for me which arguments, ideas, jokes and art are appropriate to consume, I can only spare them the effort of two words, “fuck you.” And I am egalitarian enough to expect the same treatment to be afforded to society at large.
But far too often those of us who demand these freedoms for ourselves lack the courage to demand it on behalf of others—especially those who most need our solidarity. This regularly means that what is often called the “developing world,” and its resulting cultural traditions, are subjected to the bigotry of low expectations, especially regarding the importance of democracy, pluralism, secularism and equality. Freedom of speech, thought and press are not privileges which should be exclusively reserved for fortunate white people.
For example, take two particularly confronting free speech challenges which the West has experienced in recent history.
In late 2005, a Danish mainstream newspaper, ‘Jyllands-Posten,’ published twelve satirical cartoons, each of which caricatured the image of the prophet Muhammad. Over the course of the following year a series of international protests were staged against the cartoons.
Subsequently, a French satirical newspaper going by the name of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ itself published several deliberately contentious caricatures of Muhammad. In early 2015, they were subjected to the deliberate and organised murder of twelve people in an act of revenge on the paper.
In the aftermath of each event, most of the lukewarm cultural commentators tended to overlap with one another. They often said something to the effect of, “while they had the right to draw those cartoons, they really should have chosen not to. After all, the cartoons were just not very funny.”
It is unclear how literally to take this sentiment. Do they mean to suggest that the cartoonists deserved any rough treatment they received because they “had it coming?” Even if that is not the case, it is the kind of phrasing which should invite severe interrogation: who exactly are you defending by calling the cartoons unfunny, and why?
The connecting tissue here is sadly quite understandable. There is a special kind of sensitivity around all issues relating to the West’s imperialist past. (Which can be an especially potent sentiment, given how often this past behaviour is repeated in the West’s present.) And this sensitivity registers all criticism of these historical victims as the manifestation of paternalistic attitudes, or as bigotry in some cases.
To see how quickly the triumphant forces of liberalism become squeamish in the face of the “third world,” take a look at the mainstream response to a recent incident in Cambodia. An Australian filmmaker and journalist named James Ricketson has been facing imprisonment for the crime of criticising the nation’s ex-communist dictator for months now.
The trial saw the state employing the furthest totalitarian evolution of the ‘not very funny’ defence, with the judge asking Ricketson “what is your intention? Do you hate Cambodia?” This is the same question always asked of the West when they rebuke tyranny abroad: What is your intention? Why can’t you mind your own business? I will be the first to say that my intentions are none of the government’s damned business.
Cambodia has a history of repressing free speech and the free press that extends beyond incautious foreigners. This is hardly a surprise when you take a look at its wider context. Cambodia, along with the rest of Indochina, suffered through the painful experience of French colonialism for almost a century. Rather than achieving independence, the end of French control saw the area becoming the arena for the largest proxy war of the Cold War—the Vietnam War.
The United States’ bombing campaign inflicted more damage on the modestly sized nation of Cambodia than they had ever inflicted on Nazi Germany. Cambodia’s government has been hostage to repeated coup d’états ever since. And for the largest portion of this chaos, it was ruled by two successive communist regimes, leading to the death of millions. The end of this instability only came when the current ruler, a brute from this communist era, took absolute control and became the unchallenged dictator over the nation.
It is not wrong to lay a lot of the blame for this dreary situation at the feet of the West. The French repressed any attempts at self-determination by the Cambodian people, and the United States’ attempts to repurpose the Indochinese colonies into bulwarks against Soviet expansion only served to brutalise the region, and subsequently enslave it under communist rule. It is hard to dispute that we have left Cambodia worse than we found it for all our attention.
But this is exactly why it is essential to be consistent in our ethical approach to political challenges around the world, especially when they are at least partially our fault. The cynical relativism of installing dictatorial colonialism across the globe in order to jealously guard our own freedom in the West is precisely what has maintained these otherwise unsustainable tyrannies. If you believe in the values which underlay the foundation of liberal democracy, it only becomes increasingly important that you fiercely contest any failure to hold those still under the residual bonds of imperialism to these same moral standards.