Thursday, February 23, 2006

Freedom of Speech VS Religious Tolerance - FIGHT!

[The title works best if you say it in your fighting-game announcer voice - honest.]

All right, let's make what might be a colossal mistake: delving into world events.

[Innocence, once lost, suddenly goes, "Oh shit! That was a bad idea!"]

So. Seems there's quite a bit of an uproar lately in the world over some drawings. Can be awful confusing. Let's see if I can boil it down:

In one corner, you have a bunch of conservative white Europeans, attempting to demonstrate how intelligent, sophisticated, and enlightened they are by publishing a bunch of ignorant, racist, insulting caricatures of the prophet Muhammad; then further demonstrating their sensitivity, empathy, and concern for others by not only refusing to apologize, but reprinting the cartoons repeatedly.

In the other corner, you have the oppressed Muslim masses: grappling with poverty, living under largely repressive regimes, and enduring the barbs of white people from Europe since at least the end of the 11th century, when the first Crusaders came a-knockin'. They see these cartoons as the latest example of the Wild White West just not "getting" them and decide to voice their discontent in the most reasonable manner possible: by setting fire to crap.

Of course, this hubbub isn't solely about those cartoons, any more than, say, the 1992 L.A. race riots were solely about the Rodney King verdict: in both cases, those incidents were catalysts - hot sparks hitting some very dry tinder - which were taken as proof of larger systemic issues of racism and oppression.

So what else is bubbling beneath the surface?

Well, for starters, the Danish newspaper which originally published these cartoons is apparently closely tied with a Danish right-wing political party, who lately seem to have been stirring up a potent mix of national pride and latent xenophobia in support of (among other things) their anti-immigrant policies, under the guise of a "culture war."

Holy crap - some white people in Europe might be racist?! Yeah, that one caught me off-guard too.

More seriously, the impression I get is that there is a lot of public discontent throughout Europe over their rapidly growing, largely Arab Muslim immigrant populations, leading to tensions between white Europeans and their new Islamic neighbors: witness the recent riots in France. As near as I can tell, most European countries simply aren't equipped - socially, culturally, politically, economically - to handle these large influxes of people. And unfortunately, it's stirring up some of the uglier elements of European national pride: paranoia, xenophobia, isolationism, racism. And the louder the Muslim world screams at them, the more some of these people dig in their heels and refuse to budge - not exactly the best way to improve Euro-Islamic relations.

Man, do all conservatives have trouble apologizing for being jerks? I thought maybe it was just ours.

In the Muslim world, it seems that the most violent protests are occurring within countries with their own volatile mix: rampant poverty, oppressive governments, and hardline Islamists trying to appeal to public discontent over the first two. Said governments - eager to appear "one with the people," deflect public outrage aimed at them, and maybe try to take some Western heat off of their own questionable behavior - have been all too willing to stoke those fires. As a friend recently observed, public protests don't "just happen" in virtual police states like Syria and Iran.

And in these countries, the most radical Islamic elements appear all too eager to stoke public outrage. Protests over the cartoons have quickly mushroomed into more general protests against the West, particularly the United States - ironic, since for a rare change of pace, this one isn't our fault, but I guess to the slippery slope logic of the mob mentality, they just lump this under the heading of "Dubya's debacles" and feel good about themselves - and local governments, especially those seen as too cozy with Europe and/or the Bush administration. In general, the worse off the people are, the more pissed they are about things; the more inclined they are towards radical Islamic fundamentalism as an outlet for their frustrations; and the more they vent their collective bile.

Evidently, when their lives are generally shitty, Muslims get upset. How odd.

In the more moderate, affluent Islamic countries, the protests have been milder, in no small part because Islamic fundamentalists are a relatively tiny minority in those countries. The trouble is, having stoked the fires of religious fury, the instigators will find them difficult to control or put out. In the long run, these people may be doing more harm to themselves than to the perceived sources of their oppression and misery. Certainly they're not improving their public image with the rest of the world or doing anything to convince those in the West with the most virulent attitudes towards Muslims that they're wrong about them.

But man, burning stuff sure can be cathartic sometimes, can't it?

My take on this? Freedom of speech does not give you free rein to be a dickhead. It doesn't excuse fraud; it doesn't let you comment slander or libel (and accusing a major religious figure - dead or otherwise - of backing terrorism seems like it's veering dangerously close to a kind of libel, however exaggerated the accusation); it doesn't let you yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, then pretend the ensuing panic is not your fault. And it doesn't get you off the hook when you insult a major religious figure, then act like you don't understand what all the fuss is about.

If we get to bitch every time the president of Iran pooh-poohs the Holocaust, the Muslim world is well within their rights to expect us to show some respect for their most important religious figure (apart from God, of course) and for their religion in general. Claims about the inviolate nature of freedom of speech ring a little hollow when they come from European countries which put limits of free speech - however nobly intentioned those limits may be, such as prohibitions in Germany concerning the Nazis and the Holocaust - and from publications which, I'm reasonably certain, would never portray Jesus or the Pope like that.

[If Jyllands-Posten decides to publish a cartoon deriding Jesus - "The Son of God liked the whores - and we do mean in a Biblical sense!" - or depicting Pope John Paul II having sex with a donkey - "There be no need to relocate / If it be done by the Prelate" - I'll revisit that assertion.]

Freedom of speech carries with it certain implicit responsibilities. The First Amendment does not give you the right to shoot off your mouth without regard for the consequences of your words, any more than the Second Amendment gives you the right to shoot every jackass who crosses your path.

[And I think I speak for all Americans when I voice my disappointment at that particular oversight of the Founding Fathers. Guys, what were you thinking? Why the hell else did you think we want to have open-carry laws? Duck hunting? Rabbit hunting?]

Obviously, other countries have different notions of "freedom of speech," but the baseline definition I use is: you're free to say what you want, but you have to own up to what you say.

Put another way: unless you truly have a no-holds-barred, anything-goes, no-taboo-is-too-sacred attitude towards freedom of speech - and few, if any, publications (or countries) are that fearless - then I expect you to exhibit some effin' tact. In this instance: if you think any major religion is deserving of respect and shouldn't be denigrated in your publication - be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, or anything else - then you should extend that courtesy to all of them. Anything less is hypocrisy - and usually self-serving.

[Yes, you heard it here first: people are hypocritical and self-serving. Alert the media! No, wait: maybe that's not such a good idea...]

It is unreasonable to have expected the original European publishers to have predicted the extent to which these cartoons would provoke ire in the Muslim world. That said, you'd have to be willfully ignorant, stupid, and blind not to guess that some segment of the hundreds of millions of people who follow Islam - roughly a quarter of the world's population - are gonna be a bit piqued when you commit (in their eyes) an act of deliberate blasphemy and defamation. And then, once that outrage is provoked, to hide behind some mealy-mouthed claims of freedom of speech . . . l don't know how it is in Europe, but in America, if you offend someone by accident, you're expected to make a sincere attempt to apologize; you don't act like the First Amendment is an excuse for you to be a jerk.

I can say what I want to a woman in a bar; doesn't mean I don't deserve to get slapped if I'm out of line.

Of course, if you deliberately insult someone - or you're simply being critical of them in a manner they find insulting - that's another matter. And yes, freedom of speech is a core value in any modern democracy and should not be abrogated - but so is respect for your fellow man. And the latter seems in short supply here.

Near as I can tell, Jyllands-Posten was "playing to the cheap seats," as it were - appealing to their home crowd's baser impulses - for their own domestic purposes when they originally published those cartoons. They were caught off-guard by the fervor of the fury they provoked in the Muslim world. But rather than doing the civil thing and apologizing sincerely, perhaps opening up a larger dialogue about European attitudes towards the Islamic world - y'know, something constructive - they stuck to their guns and deployed "freedom of speech" as their defense, while claiming to have no anti-Islamic bias.

Sheesh, and people call Americans rude?

Not that there isn't plenty of blame to go around the Islamic world, I hasten to add. It seems there's no shortage of people willing to exploit genuine public outrage to advance their own political, religious, or social agendas. They've found a rich vein of ire to tap and they intend to tap it for all it's worth. And the fact these people have plenty of legitimate grievances doesn't excuse violence. It's understandable where that violence comes from, but ultimately it solves nothing.

Then again, I'm not an angry, frustrated Muslim youth, trapped by poverty and repressive government, deprived of economic and educational opportunities, with religious zealots yelling their dogma in my ear 24/7. I'm not so naive nor arrogant as to presume I'd behave any better under those circumstances.

Some have commented that once the furor broke out, it was reasonable to reprint these cartoons: that the uproar itself had become newsworthy and that the cartoons needed to be shown to provide context. There is some truth to that assertion; but it runs the risk of being hypocritical bullshit. Every newspaper in the U.S. has their own guidelines about what it will and won't publish - e.g., graphic photos of the dead, nudity, or four-letter words - its own dividing line between what's truly newsworthy and what's simply gratuitous and offensive. I'm sure newspapers around the world have their own standards which differ from ours, but they do have standards.

But the general rule of thumb seems to be: does the news value outweigh the potential offense some of our audience might take? Is this genuinely worthy of note or is it simply needlessly provocative? And again: if you wouldn't publish that sort of caricature of Moses or Jesus, you shouldn't publish one of Muhammad. That isn't "cultural relativism," or whatever the hell conservative critics like to call it. It's called showing equal respect to your fellow man. It's stating, "I may not believe what you believe; but I won't publicly denigrate your beliefs either."

In my opinion, any major news publication has an implicit responsibility to set a minimum bar on the level of discourse they present. And if that's not an explicit part of whatever code of ethics professional journalism espouses, it bloody well ought to be. I wouldn't want to see racist caricatures on the OP-ED page of the New York Times any more than I would want to see scatological humor on their front page: it's simply not the appropriate venue for that kind of thing. The Washington Post decided that the cartoons were too inflammatory without contributing to the dialogue; considering how multi-cultural the D.C. area is, they chose to be tactful. Most American newspapers seem to have done the same; those which have published some of the cartoons seem to have chosen the least objectionable ones. At this point, that seems the wisest course of action: now that we all know how much offense many Muslims take from those cartoons, reprinting them just seems like pouring salt in the wound.

So what's needed to fix all this long-term? A lot more respect and understanding from the West towards Islam and the Middle East; a lot less stoking of public fury in the Muslim world; and significant economic and political improvements throughout the Middle East (including, of course, the ever-persistent Palestinians) - people tend to riot less when they actually have something to lose in the conflagration.

Also, belly dancers. Belly dancers make everything better!

. . .

Well, they improve my mood, at least.

[Good one, FB - distract everyone from international religious and racial tensions with a sexist comment! Smooth move, boy - smooooth...]