In the November 17th issue of The Christian Century, Miroslav Volf reveals that he was one of the experts consulted by Yale University Press in The Cartoons That Shook the World fiasco and explains why he recommended that the press not reprint the Danish images. Doing so, Volf writes,
. . . would likely have provoked violence on the part of some who felt offended. That violence would have been unjustified and indefensible, of course, but that would have been of small comfort to any victims. The concern is not a matter of wanting to spare Yale a bit of trouble that a few extra police could easily prevent, as Bolton suggested. In the aftermath of the publication of the caricatures, Denmark was a comparatively safe place; Nigeria was not.
And because “the caricatures need not be reprinted in a scholarly treatise on their effects,” such an act would have been gratuitous. Though “gratuitously offending others may be our right,” Volf continues, “the exercise of that right hardly counts as a mark of a well-lived life.”
I have a lot of respect for Professor Volf and am sympathetic to his concern for non-Muslims in Muslim countries, but his reasons here are problematic.
First, his claim that reprinting the images “would likely have provoked violence” against non-Muslims in Muslim countries is far from sure. It is worth remembering that the violence in response to the first printing of the images happened four months after they were originally published. This is because Muslim clerics, unsatisfied with the public response to the printing of the images in Denmark, took the images back to their respective home countries to stir up violence. (Of which far too little has been said.) However, I don’t think the reprinting of the images would have received that much press here in the States, providing little reason for radical Muslim clerics to incite violence elsewhere.
Second, even if Volf is right about possible violent protests, his utilitarian ethic is somewhat naïve and counterproductive. The decision not to reprint confirms the effectiveness of using force to achieve cultural accommodations, encouraging the use of force in future cultural conflicts. We don’t reprint the Danish cartoons today, which, admittedly, is a small accommodation; however, what accommodation will be made tomorrow under the perceived threat of force?
Third, it is a straw man to state that the original publication of the images was gratuitous and that reprinting them would be equally gratuitous. The original caricatures were printed for a specific reason–according to Flemming Rose, to challenge self-censorship with respect to Islam in Europe. We may disagree with the validity of Rose’s reason (I do), but it was not gratuitous. Furthermore, as Volf well knows, images rarely need to be printed in a scholarly book. Rather, they are often included for a number of secondary reasons, particularly when they help the reader grasp the argument of the book or when the images are of particular historical importance. Not including the images, as The New Criterion rightly put it, is like “publishing a study of the Mona Lisa without deigning to include an illustration of the painting.” While the images may be available online now, it is unknown if they will be available in the future, and one of the roles of a university press is to be a depository of cultural artifacts for future use. Again, while I think that the original publication of the images was more provocation than protest, ironically, the caricatures are of historical value largely because of the violence that followed, and, therefore, deserved to be reprinted.
Of course, Professor Volf is right that offense for offense’s sake is hardly the mark of a “well-lived life,” but neither is appeasement always the most honorable alternative.