In comments on an earlier thread, OCSteve asked about the difference in some people's responses to what Amanda Marcotte's posts about religion on the one hand, and the Danish cartoons of Muhammed on the other. I started to write a reply, but I decided to make it into its own post, both because it was getting too long and because it makes a point that I think is generally useful. Namely:
The brouhahas over Amanda's posts on religion and the Danish cartoons are in some ways similar, in that both involve people saying or drawing things that offend some members of a given religion. However, in each case, there is no one thing that is "the question raised by Amanda's posts/the Danish cartoons". Instead, there are a bunch of different questions confronting different actors in those situations. And it's worth separating those different questions, and asking whether a difference in someone's responses to the two cases might reflect not a difference in the way that person treats Christianity and Islam, but the fact that s/he identified with differently situated actors in the two cases.
To flesh this out: in the Danish cartoons case, I thought the following: (1) the newspaper was just being pointlessly rude when it decided to hold what is, to Muslims, a blasphemy contest. It would have been different had there been some compelling reason to publish cartoons about Muhammed. If, say, archeologists had discovered Muhammed's secret porn stash, I'd of course support newspapers reporting that discovery -- that's their job. But just up and deciding to run the contest was, to me, different. Had I been the newspaper editor, I would not have done that.
(2) For similar reasons, had I been a cartoonist, and had some paper announced such a contest, I would not have entered.
(3) Had I been an editor of a different paper, and had one of my cartoonists submitted an entry to that contest, I would absolutely not have fired that cartoonist.
(4) Had I been the government of Denmark, I would absolutely have supported the right of cartoonists to draw pictures of whatever they want. I would also have apologized to Muslims for any offense.
(5) Had I been a Muslim opinion-maker, I would not have drawn attention to this particular case, on the grounds that there were more pressing matters to attend to. I would also have discouraged violence.
(6) Had I been the government of a Muslim country, I would have supported the right of my citizens to engage in peaceful demonstrations, but not violent ones. I would also have expressed my displeasure at the insult to Islam, probably in something like an op-ed rather than a government-to-government communication, since I would recognize that speech is not for the government to regulate in this way. I would also have tried to communicate to my citizens the fact that in Denmark, what appears in a newspaper does not necessarily reflect any kind of official policy.
(7) Had I been a random Muslim, I would have thought: they are trying to distract us again by throwing us this red meat when we might otherwise work for some sort of serious political reform, or (alternately) addressing the religious failings of people closer to home, starting with ourselves. This is all a charade. Feh.
(In all of the above, read 'I would have done X' to mean: I hope I would have. The above is about what I think is right, not about e.g. my estimate of my own courage or ability to think fast in a pinch.)
If you just look at these responses in isolation, I might seem to be taking quite different views on whether it's OK to make the cartoons. In particular, if you focus on (1) or (2), you might get the sense that I thought that criticizing Islam is just out of bounds, when in fact I think something more like: gratuitously insulting any religion, or more generally anything people care deeply about, is wrong. (Note the word 'gratuitously': the idea is not that things people care deeply about cannot come in for criticism; it's that you shouldn't slam them for no reason. Similarly: I think that it's wrong to belittle people's marriages just for fun, but that does not mean that I don't think you can criticize them at all. The word 'insult' is also important: there are all sorts of ways of poking fun at something that are not insulting.) On the other hand, if you looked at my response in (3) or (4) (about sticking up for the cartoonists' right to say what they did, which I would strenuously defend), you'd get just the opposite impression.
I don't think that this is because my responses are inconsistent. It's because the decisions that different actors are faced with are very different. If I were a government, I would defend the rights of all my citizens to say what they wanted to about any religion, even if what they said gratuitously offended people. The decision faced by someone deciding whether or not to say something gratuitously offensive in the first place is completely different.
For this reason, in comparing people's responses to these two cases, it's crucial to make sure that what you're counting as "their responses" are responses addressed to similarly situated actors. If someone says that the cartoonists should have been legally forbidden to draw cartoons of Muhammed, but that Amanda should feel free to write literally anything, however insulting, about Christianity, and if they can't explain this difference on the basis of some real distinction between the two cases, then that person has a double standard. (An example of a real distinction: someone -- not me -- might point to the fact that the cartoons, but not even a totally outrageous post on Pandagon, has a real likelihood of provoking violence. The reason that's not a good argument isn't that the difference it points to is not real; according to me, it's that it's not true that speech that might provoke violence by being offensive should be banned.) Likewise, if someone said that Muslims would be justified in burning down Danish embassies, but that Christians would not be justified in burning down Edwards' campaign offices, that's a double standard.
But if someone says: the cartoonists should not have drawn the cartoons, and also says: Edwards should not have fired Amanda Marcotte, that's not evidence of a double standard. Those two agents are not on a par, and they do not face the same decisions. Had I been a Danish cartoonist, I would not have drawn the cartoons; had I been Amanda, I would not have written those of her posts that ridiculed Christianity as a whole, not just those Christians who have made themselves legitimate targets of ridicule by e.g. mounting campaigns against Sponge-Bob Square Pants and Tinky-Winky. Had God taken me aside and offered me the ability to make the Danish cartoonists, Amanda, or anyone else, conform to my sense of what they should write or draw, I would be horrified and say no. Had I been the Danish government, I would have stuck up for those cartoonists' rights; had I been the US government, I would have stuck up for Amanda's. Had I been either a Danish newspaper or the Edwards campaign, I would not have fired the people in question, though I think that employers can legitimately consider the question how their employees' public personae affect their business interests. (This last is meant not as a point about whether employers can legally take such things into account. I don't know enough about that to say.) Had I been either a random Catholic or a random Muslim, I would have focussed on more important things. And so on.
The general point, of course, is: it's always, always a good idea to take statements about someone's position on a situation as shorthand for: someone's position about what someone in that situation should have done; to consider the various different decisions that confront the different actors in that situation; and to consider the possibility that apparent conflicts in someone's position on two apparently similar situations might be due not to inconsistencies in that person's beliefs, but to the fact that s/he is talking about what two differently situated actors should do. It's one of those useful tools of thought that can clarify a lot.
Or so I've found.