August 27, 2009 Ben Peters

In Mild Praise of Retraction

The jury is convening, even though it is still too early to pass judgment on Jytte Klausen’s forthcoming The Cartoons That Shook the World due from Yale University Press in November. The Cartoons promises to treat the 2006 Muhammad cartoon controversy and to do so without republishing the cartoons themselves. The first part of that sentence contains the real news: a book that looks to speak on the subject. Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, had written books on Muslims in Europe before the controversy. If interested, she wrote a Feb 12, 2006 Boston Globe editorial here.

But it is the last part of that sentence–the decision to not publish the cartoons–that has elicited a small spate of recent articles from the New York Times (here), the Boston Chronicle (here), the Chronicle of Higher Education (here), as well as the annotation and comment of (duh) bloggers. Nevermind that the Boston Chronicle reports (again, here) that eleven of the twelve cartoons are copyrighted and held in embargo by the royal library in Copenhagen, and that the artist of the twelfth cartoon (of a man with a bomb in his turban) makes brisk business with it by selling reprints. The majority consensus seems to take this decision as a failure of free speech. Names called include “dhimmitude” (originally from the Arabic for “protected”), “academic cowardice,” “self-censorship,” “chilling effects,” etc. “Plagiarist,”  may be next: after all, Klausen is deliberately not revealing sources she relies on….

Perhaps. The negotiated decision is far from ideal. Let’s dispense quickly with the obvious talking points of the other side: conversations that do not ostracize their interlocutors are also those most worth having, tolerance needs as fair a hearing as free speech (or else free speech is not doing its job, eh?), the overriding pragmatism of security concerns, that critics’ negative attention will only push book sales for Yale Press and Klausen, etc. But even this back-and-forth misses an overriding point: the very question whether the cartoons should be republished is for naught.

The cartoons already have been republished, many, many times online and offline, and almost anyone who knows how to find reading material on the subject can also find the cartoons themselves (my piece on search engines below develops this). I can think of plenty of compelling political motivations to republish the cartoons but convincing practical reasons escape me so far. Why not simply describe each cartoon in words, point to other sources, and move on?

Because there’s a larger issue brewing. Some media attract more concern about free speech than do others. Strangely, the ones that seem best at promoting free flows of information are also the most concentrated with concern. In part, many watchdogs for much treasure explains it. But it also seems like their bark may be worse than the bite. How does the fight for free speech change when so much of what has been spoken (or drawn) is already freely available? I am not sure. Content abundance online (of which a massive majority quickly disappears) surely does not justify censorship. But I am also not sure, to put it gently, that noisily proclaiming the failure of free speech is the best way to advance debate in the face of disagreement. The knee-jerk defense of free speech as a sort of symbol unto itself may detract from (I won’t say chill) the very substance of the conversation it is meant to protect. Promoting free speech at the cost of better speech is gratuitous. The more speech asks for more speech, instead of better speech, the less is said in the end.

Free speech deserves praise, and so does the right to retract and redact. How else can conversation be built, except partially and, to quote Kant (not the blog), out of the crooked timber of humanity? Here is two cheers for the right to retract in a world ripe with speech. As for the book, I look forward to postponing judgment until it comes out.

For a few more thoughts from 2006, I wrote an early meditation on the subject, focusing on the role of search engines in the Muhammad cartoon controversy. A proof is available here: (2007) “The Search Engine Democracy: Metaphors and Muhammad,” in The Power of Search Engines /Die Macht der Such-maschinen, edited by Marcel Machill and Markus Beiler, (Leipzig, Germany: Herman von Halem), 228-242. That book chapter builds on ideas I encountered in conversation with John Durham Peters and his Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (Chicago, 2005). And I should also point to Biella Coleman, whose brand new and award-winning “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers” (Cultural Anthropology, August 2009) has much to offer anyone interested in why, among the poets of code, the force of free speech is so strong.