Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Virtues of Giving Offense

For the past week or so, violent and nonviolent protests have broken out in response to a dozen provoking cartoons about Islam published in a Danish newspaper last Septemeber (and in response to recent reprintings of the cartoons in European and Middle Eastern newspapers). The cartoon that has the most hackles raised shows a picture of a guy identified as Mohammed with a bomb replacing most of a turban on his head. It's hard to overstate how offensive many Moslems find that cartoon. For Moslems, it's flat out blasphemous to pictorially depict the Prophet at all. Calling him a terrorist is just a cherry atop the sacrilige sundae.

This is just a small post to say that I think this sort of thing proves the beauty of the First Amendment--both its protection of speech and its separating church from state.

I think a lot of protests in the Moslem world are hypocritical or misguided. It's a bit suspicious that the same newspapers that run anti-Semitic cartoons have decided to run indignant editorials about the sin of "insulting religion." Further, these protests are taking place four months after the cartoons ran, so in many cases this isn't a case of spontaneous outrage but rather of local and international hardline groups stirring up resentment for their own purposes.

But I'm willing to acknowledge that a lot of the protests are sincere. It's pretty clear that the Danish newspaper set out to offend people and stir up controversy. The editors probably didn't anticipate the resultant violence and the boycotts, but they pretty clearly did anticipate the outrage because some of the cartoons are calculated to offend devout Moslems.

To a point, I'm sympathetic with the protesters. They feel ridculed and despised. And we all hate it when people ridicule our beliefs publicly; we hate it even more when the ridicule seems founded on the assumption that our beliefs mean nothing and our feelings don't matter.

But, well, so what? Who cares what we hate? Or what we love, or believe? Our friends do, but the six billion people on earth don't have any obligation to be our friends.

People should have the right to insult each other's religions. We should have the right to blaspheme, to mock one another's holiest of holies, and to say that the sacred mysteries of someone's faith sound like something dreamed up by a sugar-addled kindergartner.

I'm sick of true believers claiming that their right to belive whatever they want somehow obliges the rest of us to pretend that their beliefs make a lick of sense. Most of us think most other people are a little deluded about everything--and ten times as much when it comes to religion. At best, nonbelievers find religious beliefs and practices intriguing; more likely, nonbelievers find them goofy or hideous. ("Um, so why exactly do you think three gods are actually one god? why do you think extraterrestrials designed the human race? why do you think it's necessary to mutilate your daughter's clitoris? why do you avoid mixing meat and milk? why do you pray facing a city in Saudi Arabia? why do you treat that cow with reverence?")

Yes, religion inspires incredibly powerful actions and reactions. So, yes, if you respect someone, you should be polite about their beliefs. And, yes, if you've decided to disrespect those beliefs, you should be ready to endure a response of mockery and scorn, with maybe some shunning or economic retaliation thrown in.

But the violence as well as the calls we're hearing these days for governments to take a role in "defending religion"—for example, helping fight back against the "war on Christmas" or passing a UN resolution banning disrespectful treatment of a religious faith--show signs of hysteria. And they show exactly why we need the First Amendment. People don't try to ban speech or intimidate speakers that they don't care about. They only want to silence what infuriates them. But the speech that matters almost inevitably infuriates someone.

New and better ideas are, at first, unpopular ideas. And unpopular ideas almost inevitably offend at least one group. So, for our own sake, we need to give people the right to say things that offend us. It's often the only way things get better.

Of course, we don't have to listen when people say something we find offensive. I often keep my blood pressure down by tuning out the stupidest stuff. And if we going to listen, we can sacrifice our blood pressure and go out there and offend back--go out and say why a particular new idea isn't a better idea, is, in fact, a foolish and despicable one. That's what grown-ups do.


At 8:32 PM , Blogger Mike M. said...

I tried to post on this too, but abandoned it. Like you, I'm sympathetic, in a sense, if only because the cartoons weren't all that clever and seemed written in order to cause offense. Thing is, I'm fine with people speaking just to offend. Being offended has its benefits, after all.

Sometimes, I think that more than a more diversified economy or democracy that what the Middle East really needs is its own Lenny Bruce.

At 12:00 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

Yeah, maybe I should've abandoned it too--I don't think I said anything other people haven't said elsewhere. Mostly, though, I wonder whether by posting I wasn't taking too seriously the idea that the violent protests in the Moslem world actually have anything to do with the cartoons. I'm sure a lot of Moslems--probably most practicing ones--were deeply offended by the cartoons, but most of the Moslems I've heard talking about this are at least as offended by the violence as by the cartoons. So I'm starting to suspect that a lot of the violence was orchestrated in advance either by hardliners or governments that want an excuse to crack down on hardliners. The cartoons were a handy pretext to get angry young men in the streets, but that's it.

Still, it did feel nice to vent some spleen about the notion so many people have that "free speech is one thing, but offending me is another." Man, that's a stupid argument.


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