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Don...t Defuse Explosive Humor

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A Feb. 14 Opinion column, “Don’t Defuse Explosive Humor,” incorrectly implied that the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh was Danish. Also, van Gogh was murdered in 2004, not 2005.

Brian M. Loux

Not even counting my personal problems, it’s been a bad month for offensive cartoonists.

Last September, in one of the many ironies in an ironic story, a Danish children’s book author sought to bridge the large cultural disparity between native Danes and Muslim immigrants by writing a book detailing the life and deeds of the prophet Mohammed, only to learn that illustrators were unwilling to commit to the project out of fear of violent repercussions for depicting Mohammed — an act strictly forbidden by the Qur’an. The illustrators had reason to be fretful — Islamo-Danish relations have been consistently rocky, similar to those in France. A director had been murdered earlier in 2005 for making a short film deriding Islam as misogynistic; the film presented statements by four women describing abuse they suffered at the hands of the Muslim men in their lives. In addition, a Danish lecturer was assaulted after reading Qur’an verses to non-Muslims. To accompany an editorial decrying self-censorship, the Jyllands-Posten printed 12 depictions of Mohammed by a handful of cartoonists. While some were as innocuous as a bushy-bearded man with a turban, one turned the turban into a lit bomb. And now, after many overlooked boycotts and other expressions of discontent, the situation has escalated to the point where violent protests and vandalism carry international headlines.

The story almost eclipsed another tirade against cartoons that occurred in Washington, D.C. late last week. Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Shales depicted Donald Rumsfeld as a combat medic addressing a heavily wounded soldier. Rumsfeld tells him, “we’ll list your condition as battle-hardened.” This cartoon drew a reaction from a swath of war-supporters, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who demanded an apology, as they believed the cartoon was detrimental to troop morale. This camp’s line of thought (echoed frequently on talk radio) is that any picture showing our troops losing or being injured is a detriment to our society and our war effort, and thus runs the risk of being treasonous.

Pardon me if I think the only sin committed was a misdirected sense of humor.

All that Shales and the Danes did was insult someone else’s sacred cow. Yes, there is far more weight to the argument that the Muslim prophet is more sacred to some than the U.S. Armed Forces are to others, but therein lies the beauty of a pluralistic society: you aren’t required to hold any values but your own. If I hold the tenets of Mormonism dear, then I will profess my faith. If I don’t, then I might say that Joseph Smith was a convicted polygamist. In a pluralistic and democratic society, I could even denounce the very pluralism and democracy that allows me to say it! And if I don’t find the depictions of a prophet with a face or a wounded American soldier sacrilege, I can go ahead and draw them. Freedom of speech is curtailed only when it begins to threaten the life and liberty of others: it allows you to say what others may not want to hear. Inherently, you have the right to offend.

The entire purpose of an open society is to give all ideas a chance. When that happens the response should not be the burning an embassy or protesting for an apology, but a lucid reply refuting the argument put forth. Though you cannot get rid of an idea, no matter how stupid or vile it may be, you can weaken it through dialogue and debate. The good points of view will conversely be lauded and extolled when they endure the same public scrutiny; our own history proves this fact. Communism is dead not because we’ve become great at stifling worker uprisings, but because any Marxist who tries to make their case will be met with a public well-versed in its fallacies. Jim Crow disintegrated because civil rights leaders brought before the public eye, and the public gradually realized that it did not hold water.

Criticisms both fair and unfair do not spell out the demise of their targets. Christianity has endured “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “The Life of Brian”, and Virgin Marys spackled with elephant dung. It has emerged healthy and vibrant, sometimes even evolved, from its encounters with critics. Islam has endured “The Satanic Verses”, Ann Coulter columns, and the Iron Sheik, and still remains 1.3 billion believers strong. Well before the war in Iraq, cartoonists have been using the images of injured or fallen troops to prove a point, and our war effort … never mind.

Yes, there is the question of a publisher’s responsibility to keep such dialogue above the din of insults and flame wars. To that extent, printing the bomb-turban Mohammed — even when the issue at hand is self-censorship — was a dubious move. But that does not mean it should lead to a whitewash. The press does not hold responsibility to be sensitive to a subset of their potential readership; its responsibilities lie with the truth and the facilitation of dialogue. The purpose of humor is to poke fun at something and to be shocking, and it is all but guaranteed that the topic will upset someone.

I found the violence to be disgusting and inexcusable, yet regrettably unsurprising. Given a low standard of living, plausible fragments of evidence that Western Civilization is the enemy, and the lack of acceptance of philosophies from the Age of Reason, a worldview that might endorse such violence is conceivable. It is important to realize that the Muslim reaction has been far from uniform: one Jordanian newspaper actually chose to reprint the cartoons and advised its readers to “be reasonable.”

What actually surprised me were our reactions. Papers in the United States and United Kingdom — the self-described promulgators of liberty — have chosen not to run any of the cartoons. The New York Times editorial page argued that if the cartoonists had a point to make, they should have written rather than drawn it (if you haven’t figured it out already, we draw because we can’t write well). And thus, five months after the Danes tried to argue against self-censorship, our press has decided to do it anyway.

Why do people think this is a solution to cultural misunderstanding? What we really need to do is to educate the Muslim world about pluralist tradition, to educate the Western world about Islamic tradition, and to grow some thick skin for the debates that follow. Yes, people will get their feelings hurt, but wouldn’t the end of this “clash of cultures” be worth it? Just like some question our presence in Iraq? Just like some can’t understand the outcries of irked Christians over gay rights when poverty is a much more pressing issue? Aren’t the hurt feelings of some worth the promise of a new thought? Maybe even a chuckle?

There’s something laughable about all of our lives. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you won’t get very far.