Monday, February 06, 2006

Freedom of Speech, Offense and Civilization

It's very tempting to look at the outrage and hysteria that's erupted over the infamous twelve Jyllands-Posten cartoons and dismiss it as just another example of Those Crazy Islamist Hijinks™, but I'm increasingly of the opinion that we're looking at exactly the sort of culture clash I was beginning to worry about a few posts ago when I waxed prosaic about the demographics of Western and Muslim countries.

I've read several attempts by commentators to explain this strange Muslim tendency to counter offense with violence: it's an Arab thing, it's an extremist thing, it's an "unused to the rest of the world having free speech" thing, it's a "well, if we hadn't compromised all our principles maybe we'd riot too" thing.

I think all these analyses miss the mark. It's a civilization thing. Or the lack thereof.

Stimulus and Response
Anyone remember Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically the frequently-recurring moment when someone would impugn Worf's manliness or strength or honor or whatnot, and he'd bark a reply along the lines of "I should kill you where you stand!" This was both a source of dramatic tension and of humor, because it's the mark of a civil throwback, of complete overreaction, of the belligerent rube among more sophisticated, more civilized people. Put simply, we tend to equate maturity, both of a person and of a culture, with the ability to respond with grace and, if not understanding, tolerance toward viewpoints we consider objectionable. It's fundamental to getting along with one another--grade-school stuff, the sort of thing we try to cultivate in preschoolers.

Still, there's a line we all have to draw, at the individual and at the societal level: the delineator between grin-and-bear-it and kill-the-bastards: some transgressions cannot justly be borne. Those of us in civilized society have for the most part put that line somewhere between "an eye for an eye" (i.e., in response to grievous injury) and "when it's almost, but not entirely, too late to salvage matters" (i.e., the position of the United Nations on pretty much anything of import).

So what constitutes grievous injury? Well, the loss of life through malevolent action (say, flying a plane into a complex of inhabited office buildings) seems to qualify. So, I hope, does menacing one's neighbors by researching and threatening to deploy WMDs of any stripe. There are gray areas along the regions that encompass sovereignty issues like genocide within one's own borders, or violations of international treaties. Does offending religious sensibilities qualify? Well, 500 or 600 years ago it certainly did in the Western model of things: witness wars of the Reformation, the Crusades and the like. It's been a while since that sort of thing happened on a wide scale, though. No, for the most part among cultures that consider themselves civilized, it's primarily violence that merits violent response.

Civilization Here at Home
The American Constitution's enshrinement of freedom of speech is a strong indicator of the ideal of tolerance of opposing viewpoints (that would be offense) that is expected of Americans. Pretty much all other representative governments around the world have adopted something similar to this model, and for good reason: if a people is to be entrusted with the task of determining its government through deliberation, then the ability to deliberate freely is essential to that process.

The U.S. occupies a funny place in the annals of history: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, atheists and others can and do work and live under the same roofs without engaging in swordplay, mutual grenade exchanges or other "kill the unbeliever" activities. This is largely because we've all signed on to the ideal that actions of loyalty to one's nation-state trump actions of loyalty to one's religious denomination. American first, and Christian, Raelian or Scientologist second. The state not being permitted to make any law respecting any religious denomination means that it must not privilege any faith over any other, or even over an absence of faith; and from the point of view of position and privilege within the state, neither must we. I.e., Christians can't just go depriving Jews of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or vice-versa. It's a powerful sort of relativism, and an important ingredient of the mix that has made the United States the most powerful geopolitical entity on the planet.

Those Crazy Extremists
But back to the toon-happy members of the Religion of Peace that have been gracing our TV screens. This all ties into one of the things I've had to realize about Islam: it's not just a religion, it's a social order, and one that extends all the way to political and national and even global dimensions. Islam has teachings within it that simply can not coexist with most of the constitutions of the world that mandate faith-neutrality (primarily having to do with the concept of "dhimmitude," or the doctrine of how to deal with adherents to other faiths who happen to be living in Muslim nations). This is one of the reasons why, for example, the new Iraqi Constitution has as one of its tenets that Islam is the basic foundation of the country's laws.

Here are a few facts about the cartoons and the surrounding craziness:

1. The 'toons were first published months ago, in concert with an effort by the Danish Jyllands-Posten editors to highlight the self-censorship everyone seems to be engaging in these days to avoid offending members of the Religion of Peace. It's only in the past few weeks that the rest of the world even took particular notice of them, after a few other European papers, in an uncharacteristic fit of free-speech pique, republished the cartoons. This appears to have fanned the dying embers of the issue back into life, evidently giving the Middle East an excuse for a good riot.

2. There were some initial signs of backbone from the French, Danish and English, but the repeated calls for the deaths of the cartoonists, calls for the deaths of the editors of the papers, vandalism and burning of embassies and lovely moments like threats of a new holocaust have cowed the French, the Danes, the British and even our illustrious State Department into mealy-mouthed beseechings for calm and reasoned discourse.

Stimulus and Response, Again
It's my opinion that we're past the time for reasoned discourse, and forceful response is needed. An attack on an embassy is an attack on a country's sovereign soil, i.e., an act of war, and the last time I checked the Danes were our allies. Not that our actions in the arena of embassy defense have been exemplary, but what we have is Muslims around the globe up in literal arms over the fact that something was done, somewhere on the planet, that offended them. I don't recall Hindus rioting because we eat hamburgers in the U.S., or Christians around the world burning embassies when the illustrious artwork Piss Christ made its debut. It is, quite simply, an attempt to privilege the sensitivity of Muslims over the free speech of the rest of the world.

Since, as I've mentioned, free speech is pretty integral to the functioning of our sociopolitical lives out here in tolerance-land, this attempt might be construed as a big, clash-of-civilizations sort of deal.


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