Wednesday, September 16, 2009

offending views

A thoughtful reader has brought to my attention the potential of yesterday's post, featuring the cartoon characters "Jesus" and "Mo," to offend. That wouldn't be news to anyone who paid close attention, as I did, to the Danish cartoon fiasco a few years back. An illuminating debate ensued at "Butterflies & Wheels," I hope anyone inclined either to take offense or give it, in such matters, will spend some time sifting these arguments... and will reflect on the meaning of Constitution Day.

My position is that none of us is exempt from the winds of free expression in a free society. I never go out of my way to offend, but I'm not going to go out of my way to muzzle myself either. In my profession we talk a lot about academic freedom, and that's very important. But this is bigger than that. This is freedom.*

By the way: those characters are just a couple of fictional line-drawn caricatures. Neither of them is a prophet or a savior. They're funny to me because they reflect the artist's humanity and sharp perspective, and I think they celebrate the humanity in us all.

Unfortunately, for too long it has been a standard human trait fiercely and unsympathetically to oppose those whose perspectives are not our own as though one's own perspective were privileged and immune from criticism, or even just simple rejection. "If you're not for us, you're against us!" (Where have we heard that before?)

Religion, historically and trans-culturally, has been a particularly obstreperous and instransigent immunizing agent; and "religious" an adjective deployed to hush everyone to respectful silence if they could not in conscience be vocally supportive.

Karen Armstrong's new book The Case for God seems to weigh in on the side of those who would tell us all to shut up. But "silence is just that. It is a kind of lowest common denominator of the human mind," notes Simon Blackburn. "The machine is idling." We can't idle our way out of hostilities built on generations of bad thinking.

For once, I find myself in bed with a Baptist theologian on this: she's peddling nonsense. I could scream that, or I could join those who gently skewer the view through laughter. I re-posted the cartoon because a gentle skewer seemed nicer.

But I'm sorry if any reasonable person still takes offense.

* post-script: Don't confuse this with the Bushism that the 9/11 terrorists attacked because they "hate our freedom." Jonathan Haidt has perceptive things to say about that in ch4 of Happiness Hypothesis. "The myth of pure evil is the ultimate self-serving bias, the ultimate form of naive realism. And it is the ultimate cause of most long-running cycles of violence because both sides use it to lock themselves into a Manichaean struggle... Neither the hijackers nor Osama bin Laden were particularly upset because American women can drive, vote, and wear bikinis. Rather, many Islamic extremists want to kill Americans because they are using the Myth of Pure Evil to interpret Arab history and current events. They see America as the Great Satan, the current villain in a long pageant of Western humiliation of Arab nations and peoples... However terrifying it is for terrorists to lump all civilians into the category of 'enemy' and then kill them indiscriminately, such actions at least make psychological sense [but, I hope it goes without saying, are wrong], whereas killilng because of a hatred of freedom does not."

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