On Cartoons

A few days ago I mentioned Will Crawley; just yesterday, his classmate (who also took Latin from him, if I recall correctly) David Efird emailed me to prod me to say something about the riots over cartoons.

I rather wish he hadn’t because I’m not sure I can say anything that won’t inflame or irritate people — but since I make a habit of talking in public about theological topics, and since David asked, willful silence would be a misguided response.

The murderous violence of the past week has taken place at the point where various powerful discourses converge. One such force is the matter of blasphemy, the willful derogation of transcendent truth. I believe in blasphemy — though not, of course, on the same terms as a Muslim brother or sister would — and I can see that deliberate blasphemy (as many will have some reason to regard the publication and republication of the cartoons in question) could constitute an affront so appalling as to incite demonstrations of outrage. I cannot imagine that outrage justifying the murder of people who were not directly involved in publishing the offensive matters, but that’s part of the point: if I were possessed by the obligation to suppress blasphemy, I might sense the need to target noncombatants (as it were) as collateral damage in a war against blasphemy. Other exercises of violence take civilian casualties, too.

On the other hand, the prerogative to express oneself freely constitutes a fundamental principle of Western liberal (in the technical sense, not the “votes for the Green Party” sense) democracies, indeed, of human rights (as those have come to be defined during a period of the ascendancy of Western liberal political thought). Nat Hentoff makes a good living as the nettlesome conscience of the First Amendment because people want so badly to make exceptions to free expression when it bothers them. That’the point of free expression, though — ideally, it doesn’t change its contours whenever cultural perceptions of “going too far” change. My revulsion at blasphemy is beside the point when confronted with a cartoonist’s free exercise of his derisive view of Islam’s prophet. My horror before the magnitude of the Shoah doesn’t constrain a Holocaust denier across the street at Northwestern University. That’s what makes free expression “free.”

(Parenthetically, my rejection of mob violence surpasses, but does not negate, my rejection of politicans’ simplistic, mealy-mouthed cautions that “free speech doesn’t mean ‘anything goes,’ that it carries with it a responsibility to circumspection.” No, that’s exactly what it doesn’t entail; “free expression” means that no constituency’s sensitivities constrain the expression of others. I just don’t think that Tom Paine, Voltaire, and Jefferson risked their lives in the name of speech limited by good etiquette. If you’re a President or a Prime Minister, stand up for the principles on which your political system rests. Consistently —as Ted Rall points out.)

So the urgency of suppressing blasphemy conflicts with the fundamental prerogative to free expression; you can’t have both. A number of Islamic leaders and their sympathizers opt for the former; a number of Western publishers opt for the latter. Add to that combustible conflict the political interests of some Near Eastern people who apparently have been using this occasion callously to inflame the frustrations and anxieties of their constituents, and of some crass Western hucksters who know that sensation sells.

The Western spokespeople are not innocent of coercing others to acknowledge “transcendent” values that these others may not otherwise be inclined to affirm. The Islamic spokespeople are not innocent of inciting the murder of Western bystanders.

So far as I can tell, this outrageous impasse illustrates a point Jean-François Lyotard makes about justice: that sometimes the criteria by which one frames a claim about justice already determine the judgment one will reach. Sometimes one can’t make a decision about justice without taking sides at the outset. If we frame the bloodshed in terms of free expression and the rights of the civilians murdered in the course of the outcry, one can submit that in order for people to live in peace with one another, we must endure others’ speech even when it’s radically offensive. If one frames the conflagration in terms of blasphemy, one can (I suppose) regretfully observe that people who don’t disentangle their lives from the irreligious, corrupt, anti-Islamic institutions of the West have already chosen the consequences of their decadence. (’m guessing at this; if I’m missing a nuance, I apologize, as my intent is to propose the most coherent, sympathetic rationale for the sponsors that I can — but my imagination for justifying mayhem suffers some limitations).

I rush to add that this predetermination is not a bad thing; it’s inevitable (we can never conduct a comprehensive assay of our account of justice, nor will we attain a condition of disinterestedness from which we can pronounce one account of justice “just” and another “unjust” without the coloration of our own presuppositions and inclinations. Such circumstances permit us to feel unreflective moral horror at behavior that offends our very understanding of truly human existence. Sadly, inevitably, different communities of people will encounter different patterns of behavior as repulsively sub-human. That doesn’t make all or any of them equal — but one’s angle of view on what’s right or wrong about them will predictably vary depending what one’s already committed to.

Under such circumstances, my own sense that God calls us to ways of nonviolence and non-coercion remains steady; indeed, it seems all the more urgent that disciples of Jesus abjure violent coercion (and heedless offensiveness), whatever the apparent rationale for violence. I am not a Muslim, and I do not think that Islam is a generically “equal” way of bespeaking the truth about God and the world — but I don’t expect Muslims to acknowledge Jesus as equal to the way that their Prophet taught them. Were I recklessly to insult Muslim brothers and sisters in the name of a truth that they don’t recognize, I’d be ignoring St. Paul’s specific instructions to live on the basis of honoring others peaceably, gently, enduring oppression rather than taking the risk of oppressing others. That (as I recall) was the way of the cross, to which Jesus instructed his disciples that all of us were called.

So I offer no apology for the rioters, though I see clearly why they might rage. I do not defend the publishers and cartoonists; they’re operating within the bounds they claim as inheritors of the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I excoriate the heartless tactical manipulation of the situation by self-interested sensation-mongers of whatever “side.” I will not shrink the exercise of my faith to fit the bounds of liberal polity, and “conservative” Christian commentators should be cautious about requiring that of others. The sword of the State cuts more ways than one.

If I were a non-Christian, non-pacifist American, I suppose I’d be advocating free speech; but I’m not. If I were a Muslim, heavens, I just can’t guess what I’be doing — but I’m not.

As I type this tinny response, I’ve been listening to Fela Kuti’s “Coffin For Head Of State,” which expresses an outraged condemnation of abusive violence that underscores the inadequacy of my own words. I’m not nominating him for sainthood, but I’m listening; and I hear the voice of someone who watched as [nominally] Christian and Muslim forces crushed out his mother’s life before his eyes. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

11 thoughts on “On Cartoons

  1. Have you seen the cartoons in question? I’m not sure I would characterize them as blasphemous. The reaction seems incredibly out of proportion.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful insight. I am reminded of the recent reading about how Paul taught us to conduct ourselves among others without the same sensibilities as us.
    1 Cor. 9
    20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

  3. Ruidh, I have not. I’m not sure what difference that would make; even if I thought the cartoons mild, amateurish, benign, and not worth rioting over, my perspective really doesn’t matter much. I gather that any representation of the Prophet constitutes blasphemy (by some definitions); I would imagine that a derisive representation would seem all the more intolerable.

    But as long as some Muslims feel this an affront for which it’s worth murdering Westerners, theirs is the perspective that diverges from Western liberalism in a way that pertains to my overview here.

  4. AKMA — I’m curious whether your disgust for blasphemy extends to the desecration of Christian symbols as well as Muslim. Was Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” blasphemous? How about Kanye West dressed up as Christ in the latest issue of Rolling Stone?

  5. Isn’t “blasphemy” repulsive in its very nature? That is, if something doesn’t constitute a profound innsult to what we construe as holy, we don’t call it “blasphemous” (except by metaphorical extension, of course). So, sure my disgust at blasphemy includes the desecration of Christian sanctity — all the more so.

    That being said, I don’t much mind the Rolling Stone cover. I’m not a huge Kanye West fan, but I’m not a hater either. That fits the general category of “Yeah, well, in your dreams (or someone’s).” It’s like pretty much everything Madonna has done with religious topics: wearisome, but not (by my lights) blasphemous. Serrano, I would probably relegate to the category of blasphemy, but even if it’s not quite there, if someone wants to argue that the “transgressive art” quality of the work insulates it from the ultimate criterion of willful defiance and derogation of God, I’m uninterested in it. If it’s not blasphemous, I suspect it’s no better than tawdry, and my life is short enough that I don’t care to fill it up with vacuity-dressed-up-as-insight.

    By the way, I may be quite wrong about Serrano (or West, or even Madonna I suppose) — if someone cares to mount a thoughtful, plausible, lucid explanation of why I should think differently about these gestures, I’d be interested to see it.

  6. now, I happen to like Kanye, but really I don’t consider that Rolling Stone any more blasphemous than Mel Gibson’s Commercialization of the Christ. If Kanye had dressed up like that with some kind of malicious intent, I’d probably be offended, but he is relatively spiritual (as spiritual as pop artists tend to be) and I’m sure he wasn’t intending to belittle christianity itself. So while I certainly don’t think it was a classy move, I just roll my eyes and accept the fact that if I were a rock star I probably wouldn’t be able to stay classy all the time either.

  7. I’m fully in line with your conclusions here, AKMA, but I found out a couple of days ago that there was more to the story. See my friend Todd’s post (another episcopal dude) here:


    So now one might morally separate the violent outrage of the Islamic people from the actions of the Danish leadership. Not that I wish to justify any of the parties here.

  8. I would imagine that a derisive representation would seem all the more intolerable.

    From what I’ve seen, there isn’t even anything dericeive. According to some reports, “press kits” have been circulating in Mosques containing cartoons which were even more offensive, which had never been published in the papers in question and which are being circulated to inspire exactly the kind of political response we’ve seen here.

  9. AKMA:

    Nice take on the situation although this notion of blasphemy doesn’t sit so easily with me. I am wondering more and more about what this concept really means. On the one hand, your definition – the willful derogation of transcendent truth – makes me wonder how it is we know that any truth is indeed transcendent. And if it is indeed transcendent, then is it not above reproach from something as simple and reductionist as a blasphemous act?

    So I wonder about the usefulness of a charge of blasphemy against someone who is not a member of the faith in question.

    But then as I think about it, blasphemey then takes on two possible, and useful, meanings for me. One is to see it as a way of indicating when a community’s sacred bounds have been breached. If I were a Christian and I produced Piss Christ, I might rightly be called a blasphemer and my spiritual community might take action to banish me. This definition then is about transgression of the community standard of respect and what constitutes sacredness. Troublesome if applied outside the community, but certainly applicable to the protection of what a spiritual community holds essential.

    The second definition is perhaps outside the realm of what you are talking about, but it might have some use here too. What if blasphemy was also a personal state one could be in…perhaps the opposite of grace with respect to one’s personal practice? In this sense, a blasphemous act would be one that caused the actor to need to undertake personal work to correct behaviours which have divorced him or her from the divine. To my eye this could include acts such as disrespectful speech, and also has room for considering disrespectful listening. When we sing in our Evensong “God hear my prayer: come and listen to me” might we not also be asking for LISTENERS to be with us in a state of grace as well, maybe even listening with an ear to forgive?

    Just some roughly formed thoughts for your consideration.

  10. enjoyed the cartoon.im a tarheel,and can appreciate the jabs here and there,but nothing is sweeter than the knock-out punch,that jj and shelden felt when the heels came to Durham and delivered a most convincing combonation of Ram’s head-butts.coach K had no answer for the mighty North Carolina Tarheels.

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