Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Causing offence...

The cartoon wars aren't over yet. We need to start taking action to prevent this row from developing from a war of words into an effective, bloody war.

The so-called clash of civilisations we hear of can only happen if we let it happen. Right now we're only at the stage of what Robert Fisk calls the
childishness of civilisations.

But the rapid escalations of violent demonstrations, attacks on embassies and calls for bloody murder should make us aware that the predicted clash of civilisations can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It isn't an imaginary risk anymore. Soon those who feel such an epic conflict would play into their own hands will try and broaden the row to other aspects of the perceived Islam/West juxtaposition until it reaches the size of an all-engulfing conflict.

Yet ordinary people are those who have the power to prevent this from happening, more than world leaders, cartoonists and their publishers.

Let me first, briefly, underline my position on freedom of speech: I believe it is our unassailable right to say what we want, universally. There are strong theoretical (logical) grounds on which this principle can be successfully defended, as well as empirical evidence to support it. Regards the latter, suffice it to point to examples of legal restrictions on certain statements in various European countries, such as statements regarding homophobia, racial hatred or Holocaust denials, which have proven difficult to implement and ineffective as tools for anything at all.

But no-one will deny that unfettered freedom of expression does not bring with it a set of problems: where opinions meet head on, the clamour of conflict is never far behind.

Firstly, it's important to realise just how easy it is to cause offence and how relative it is at the same time. For example, as an agnostic person I find it hard to understand a depiction of the Prophet can cause such offence (I'm now specifically NOT referring to the bomb turban cartoon, which is quite a different kettle of fish). My background simply makes it quite hard to see the offensive side of a neutral depiction of what is supposed to be the Prophet, but I accept the fact that it caused offence, nonetheless.

And when less moderate Muslims keep telling us that there is no such thing as British Islam, European Islam or even British Muslims or European Muslims, that there is only the Umma, the Nation of Islam, then they must be aware that in the hands of
people like Nick Griffin such a statement, no matter how true to Islam, is gefundenes fressen to demonstrate that Islam is trying to take over Britain.

We need to understand that what is innocent to one is offensive to another and vice versa. That is no cause for restricting free speech in my view. On a voluntary basis, adopting some moderation, an appropriate tone of language, courteousness and civility may do much to prevent causing offence but that is by no means guaranteed: the core of an opinion isn't altered by how it's uttered.

Lets' face it: we are constantly surrounded by images, people, behaviour, opinions etc that we don't much care for, don't like or find downright offensive. Mostly we do no more than perhaps sigh internally, shrug our shoulders and get on with it: it's simply the mature thing to do. It's called compromising and we practice it all the time. Even when surrounded by like-minded people.

And when we engage in debate regarding whatever issue we would do well to remember that. A true debate in which participants can freely express their views is the best way to build bridges and understand where the other party is coming from.

In the Islam/West debate we sometimes lose sight of these basic facts and it inevitably leads to the kind of pandemonium we're seeing today. Nonetheless, I see plenty of useful debate going on and see no reason to despair just yet.

Finally, and hopefully on a lighter note,
here's a Guardian cartoon by Steve Bell which I DID think was funny. It appeared shortly after the row stared escalating. Dare I say "no offence intended"?

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2 Comments:

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Inquisitor said...

"We need to start taking action to prevent this row from developing from a war of words into an effective, bloody war."

I believe that this is just one of the many episodes that thrive on the 'effective bloody war' that has been raging between the west and the east for more than a millennia now. I suppose it is human to decontextualise the period we are in, which is, in reality, but a stitch in the broader tapestry of history. I support your point though, with regards to the need to prevent its exacerbation.

Whilst i am not a Muslim, unlike most in the west, i have participated in quite a few cultures as more of a participant than an observer and am therefore able to appreciate this episode from the Muslim point of view - to a degree. The west, unfortunately, are culturally shielded to a great degree from this experience and generally 'appreciate' other cultures from a couch's eye view. I am not surprised at all that the Muslims are more than a tad bit aggrieved. What we are seeing is a counterposition between a culture that Respects only where it is necessary and one that Respects even where a 'liberal' sees no point or profit in it. We must realise that western culture is a product arising from a combination of necessity and the need to satisfy the most base instincts of humanity. From this emerges perspectives that time and again cannot help but cause offence to those whose cultures have and are struggling to erect civilisations on the basis of ideals rather than the worst of human potentials being taken as a given. It is from this that virtues like the Freedom of Expression holds the potential of bringing out the beauty of humanity. This is a point that is quite incomprehensible to the west - though UK is quite the exception in this respect, albeit, to a degree. I will not go too much into this as this, admittedly, is a thought in progress and i have to grapple with the west in me in order to appreciate this further.

As for the freedom of expression. I am all for it, except, i believe that the freedom of expression is not a singular phenomenon but is a road with different milestones coinciding with our own development.

Whilst i appreciate the basis upon which you support the unfettered expression of the freedom of expression, i'm afraid this only plays into the more base of our tendencies to resort to insults, which, when diffused via mainstream publications, has the tendency to synonymise FOE with its more degenerate manifestation.

This is a tricky situation indeed, but, this ought not to deter us from attempting to solve this most distressing of dilemmas.

Or else, the next time a child says, "F*ck you", we may be compelled to substitute a smack on the posterior with a pat on the back. Personality and perspectival development, unfortunately, is a phenomenon that does not respect the boundaries of the schoolyard.

 
At 4:07 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Thanks for your comment.

Just a few points:

"I believe that this is just one of the many episodes that thrive on the 'effective bloody war' that has been raging between the west and the east for more than a millennia now. I suppose it is human to decontextualise the period we are in, which is, in reality, but a stitch in the broader tapestry of history. I support your point though, with regards to the need to prevent its exacerbation."

Agreed. But we do also live in the here and now and need to deal with life also in that imperfect and immediate way. Historical context cannot always be helpful in dealing with the immediate.

"As for the freedom of expression. I am all for it, except, i believe that the freedom of expression is not a singular phenomenon but is a road with different milestones coinciding with our own development."

True, it isn't a singular phenomenon but it's an important cornerstone of being human. Without it we would lose much of our humanity, as we can see all around us. It's also the basis of other freedoms, something some liberals in this crisis all of a sudden which to dismiss: "yada yada".

"Whilst i appreciate the basis upon which you support the unfettered expression of the freedom of expression, i'm afraid this only plays into the more base of our tendencies to resort to insults, which, when diffused via mainstream publications, has the tendency to synonymise FOE with its more degenerate manifestation."

Sure, it's drawback of FOE and one to which I see no solution. Unfortunately we sometimes need to accept s**t can also count as an opinion. Who decides what is true and what is not is the key problem here. In some instances that isn't so hard to do (at least beyond reasonable doubt), in many others it's virtually impossible.

"Or else, the next time a child says, "F*ck you", we may be compelled to substitute a smack on the posterior with a pat on the back. Personality and perspectival development, unfortunately, is a phenomenon that does not respect the boundaries of the schoolyard."

Does a child saying "F*ck you" constitute expressing an opinion? I'm not quite sure, there's quite a few issues here, all of which of course rather grey too (when does child stop being a child?)

 

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