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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Nancy Graham Holm on Kurt Westergaard

Long-time readers of this blog will appreciate that I attempt to discuss issues in a fairly cool and reasoned way. Usually, I have some success. Even when I do denounce people with whom I have disagreements, it's usually good-natured and with a touch of humour. Not always, perhaps, but usually. Sometimes, however, more is needed. For example, here is a piece for which I'll make an exception, something truly worthy of disgust and denunciation. It's published in Comment is Free, The Guardian's online opinion forum, and written by one Nancy Graham Holm. Remember that name.

Holm is discussing the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists who drew their impressions of Muhammad for Jyllands-Posten ... back in 2005. Now, you can have a range of views about whether the cartoons were fair, whether the motivations for publishing them were tinged by elements of racism or xenophobia, and so on. There is a great deal to be said about the circumstances that led to their publication ... and about the subsequent mayhem (which did not arise spontaneously and was actually stirred up much later, in a deliberate campaign that used grossly misleading material). I'm going to leave all that to one side except to note that the material was published in a context; it wasn't just arbitrary.

Forget about that. What I find shocking about the article by Nancy Graham Holm is the way that it tends to blame the victim of a terrifying murder attempt, carried out in front of the elderly victim's young granddaughter.

Westergaard was forced to retreat to an armoured panic room, leaving the poor girl behind, while his attacker attempted to break through with one his weapons - an axe. Westergaard had been advised that such murderers concentrate on their targets and seldom attack family members, and to run for the safe room in such circumstances. Fine, but imagine the emotions he must have had, the temptation to try to fight to protect his granddaughter. Somehow, for Nancy Graham Holm, all this is Westergaard's fault for not apologising for the humiliation that he supposedly inflicted on Muslims with his cartoon. There are more fanatics out there, Holm warns, and it appears that this, too, is somehow the fault of Westergaard, the other cartoonists, their editor, and the Danish people for their characteristically suspicious attitude towards religion.

What utter nonsense! First, people in Western democracies (or, arguably, anywhere else) should have every right to be suspicious of religion, or of a particular religion, and the right to express their suspicion in whatever form they find most natural - including by way of satire or mockery. They should then have the right to stick to their guns and refuse to apologise, even if somebody takes offence. We can argue about whether or not a particular expression of views - once interpreted "correctly" - was wise or justified, or whether it was tainted in some way, but people do, or certainly should, have the right to express what they think and feel. It is not reasonable to demand that they give insincere apologies if someone else responds with violent acts. Even a wildly implausible view, tainted by suspect motivations, and expressed in a highly provocative way, does not provide any excuse for acts of murder.

Even if something you've said is quite unreasonable, that is not justification for acts of violence against you or others, and the onus is not on you to apologise in an attempt to forestall attempts on your life. Whether you've been unreasonable or not, the onus is on others to reply with better speech, or simply leave you alone, and to refrain from using violence to make their point. Not even the most unreasonable speech justifies a violent response, particularly when the response is in cold blood years later - not spur-of-the-moment rage from an immediate insult delivered in your face. Any suggestion that there is some sort of proportionality between even the most unreasonable speech and an attempted axe murder is morally abhorrent.

Furthermore, we must all be very reluctant to back down in the face of actual or threatened violence, since this can create a situation that encourages further violence - it is a way of making sure that violence, or even the prospect of it, is an effective means of suppressing unwanted speech. Well, effective at least on that one occasion. But if it works once, why not use it again? And again?

In writing the paragraphs directly above, I'm not at all conceding that Westergaard's famous cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban actually was unreasonable (because of unfairness, or racism, or xenophobia, or whatever other reason). But even if it was, so what? There is still no onus on Westergaard to give an insincere apology in an attempt to avoid murderous violence against himself. It's naive to assume that such a course of action would have the best long-term consequences. Why would it not be seen as a victory? Why would it not inspire attempts to gain more such victories?

Holm's entire article is incredible. She would do better to stand up for the right of Danes such as Westergaard to be suspicious of religion - and to express it openly if it's what they feel. What she has written is worth denouncing - soberly, deliberately, and in all seriousness this time. Let the name of Nancy Graham Holm find its place in every hall of ignominy and shame, indelibly incribed there for posterity.

31 comments:

Daniel said...

I too found the article absolutely disgusting. What surprises me is how many people (people who I would otherwise classify as reasonable, kind and liberal) find this sort of viewpoint convincing and valid. I often come across someone saying "well maybe you should have thought about it a bit more before you said those mean things".

I see parallels in other circumstances. I told some friends about the police brutality at the Climate Camp event in the UK last year, and the most common response was "if they just followed the police's instructions they wouldn't have got bashed with clubs". Never mind that the campers weren't doing anything illegal.

Do you sense this also? Why do you think it may be? Is it a sort of post-hoc retreat into the ranks of conformity to try to distance themselves from the victim?

Tyro said...

In short: Muslims are incapable of rational thought and are driven into insane, uncontrollable rages at the slightest provocation. This is a biological fact which everyone should know and accept. When Westergaard insulted them, it was like slapping a bear after smearing salmon fat on your clothing - the bear may do the damage but it was only following its nature and you are to blame.

It's one of the most craven and insulting (to Muslims as well as others) arguments to come out in Western paper a long time. Curiously though, the Muslims seem happy with this line of thinking and even use it themselves to justify oppressing women (they need burkas because, as everyone knows, any hint of sexuality will drive men into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy). I can't tell if it's self-aware and cynical on their part; I'm not going to grant that uncertainty to Holm.

Paul said...

Do you sense this also? Why do you think it may be? Is it a sort of post-hoc retreat into the ranks of conformity to try to distance themselves from the victim?

That seems like a reasonable working theory.

Curiously though, the Muslims seem happy with this line of thinking and even use it themselves to justify oppressing women...

Don't get too comfortable with just thinking of Muslims expressing that tendency. Such thinking is alive and well all over the place. Western countries see it most often when talking about politicians ("of course they're corrupt and robbing taxpayers, they're politicians") and rape/sexual assault victims ("She got what she wanted...She's an overtly sexual person."), the latter quote actually uttered by a defense attorney, and got a cop acquitted for stalking and sexually assaulting a stripper. But then, it was in the USA, and we're hardly civilized here.

Ophelia Benson said...

Not all that many people find it reasonable if the comments at Comment is Free are anything to go by - they were very nearly universally scathing.

Greywizard said...

The article by the ignominious Nancy Graham Holm (curséd be she!), is indeed disgusting. Your response to it, despite your opening remarks, is cool and reasonable. Thank you for such a clear, reasoned statement of what is so wrong with Holm's failed attempt at reasoned discourse. Her name deserves to be remembered with disgust and contempt.

Daniel said...

"Muslims are incapable of rational thought and are driven into insane, uncontrollable rages at the slightest provocation. This is a biological fact which everyone should know and accept."

Come on, Tyro. You could tone that down a notch or two and still make your point heard. Maybe even just add "some significant percentage of" before "Muslims". Appreciate that a lot of the protection and tacit support given to these extremists comes from the moderate and liberal religious types, and in certain situations we can do worse than not pissing them off.

"Not all that many people find it reasonable if the comments at Comment is Free are anything to go by - they were very nearly universally scathing."

Ophelia, I noted that and was happy. I mean, you'd except nothing less in response to such an overt display of disgusting drivel.

Mr Gronk said...

Obloquy upon her - her article represents everything gutless and craven in our cringing, self-loathing postmodern west. And if she thinks such a display of servility will appease the zealots, she'll be in for an unpleasant surprise - this sort of cowardice is like blood to a shark.

Anonymous said...

Well said Russell. Ms/Mrs? Nancy Graham Holm article in Cif of the Guardian newspaper was simply vile. One wonders whether she hold the same attitude towards rape victims and judges western society and the media as the true perpetrators of acts of rape.

ford said...

Daniel,

I'm sure Tyro can speak for himself but I get the impression you may have misunderstood his intent in starting his post with such an extreme summation of the premise which the article implied.

The next sentence would seem to further clarify his intent;

"It's one of the most craven and insulting (to Muslims as well as others) arguments to come out in Western paper a long time."

gsw said...

@Tyro:
Curiously though, the Muslims seem happy with this line of thinking

It is just the same old Boys will be boys carried to its logical conclusion.

European children, irrelevant of ethnicity or religion, should all be taught the basic tenets of democracy and gender equality.

European politicians are helping aggravate the situation in that they insist on special rules for muslims.

MC said...

The problem with Ms. Holm is that she doesn't even have the intelligence to realize that her own remarks are more than enough to make a man livid, and if such a man had violent tendencies, he might be tempted to split her skull open with an axe. If I were a violent person, and had Ms. Holm standing before me, I would smash her stupid face in as just reward for her grossly insulting published remarks.

So, why does she not see that she is precisely as 'guilty' of causing offence as Mr. Westergard?

Ms. Holm, me and my psychopathic, axe-wielding footsoldiers await your apology... don't dally, dear, lest you pay with your life.

Torbjörn Larsson, OM said...

Great post! It actually helped me to clear up my reaction and analysis of a similar post, as related over at WEIT post on this.

A nitpick:

"Westergaard's famous cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban"

Someone pointed out that Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh turban is a bomb, which makes a difference: Sikh's are required to cover their hair by their religion. In effect, the art wasn't about the person, it was about the symbol.

And FWIW, I noted over at WEIT that along with encouraging violence, pandering to the violator has another problem:

"It is also a form of habituation. Moreover, a habituation to panic reactions that are reversed in CBT by exposing yourself to situations that triggers them. (Panic reactions say from death experience in the hand of abusive parents or peers – apparently it is enough to have helplessness and abuse to trigger such experience and thus build up to panic.)

IIRC it took decades before plane hijackings were down to a manageable level in the public mind. The same will happen in any established abuser-abused relationship, to be sure."

babrock said...

Yes, yes, yes. Thanx again for another well put argument position Mr. Blackford. That was just unfathomably unbelievable on Mrs. Holms part to have said that. She should be grateful that t universe is not run in any fair and just manner, because if it were, she comes close to deserving to be t victim of this crazed axe wielder, w whom she seems to have so much empathy with.

Tyro said...

Maybe it's my over-sensitive radar but I get uncomfortable by people (men especially) talking about beating up women with axes, especially if it's because of something she said. I know that Holm is arguing that men aren't in control of their actions but as Paul already observed, women are already victims of rape and already hear these lame excuses so instead of looking like irony or parody it appears disturbing and sexist.

Not saying that line has been crossed and I'm not blameless in my attempt at parody but I hope that in criticizing one absurd religious stereotype we aren't reinforcing a much more present one.

Smug lecture over, carry on...

Pilot22A said...

This religious war will not end until one side is wiped out.

sduford said...

The violent reaction by the muslim world is proof that the cartoon was spot on. If they find offensive the portraying f their religion as violent, perhaps they should fix their religion.

Paul said...

This religious war will not end until one side is wiped out.

Why not generalize the case? Religious wars will not end until religion is wiped out. Surely if you like your statement, mine must be much better.

Chris Schoen said...

Russell,

I think you are vulnerable here to the criticism that you are allowing anti-religious sentiment to influence your moral stance on free speech. In 2002, Peter Wilby, the editor of New Statesman apologized for running a cover depicting a star of David ominously piercing a Union Jack, accompanied by the headline "A Kosher Conspiracy?", after receiving complaints from, among others, Action Against Anti-Semitism. Do you also hold that the name of Wilby should "find its place in every hall of ignominy and shame"?

Ms. Holm (or is it Graham Holm? I can never get British naming convention straight) did not argue that Jyllands Posten had no free-speech basis to run the cartoons; she argued that though the paper held that right, they (or rather the Danish PM) should apologize all the same for running cartoons that had questionable satirical merit and which quite unquestionably gave the impression of hate speech. I agree with you that Holm goes too far in appearing to blame Westergaard for the attempt on his life. But this is not the whole of her argument, or even the main part, which is to scrutinize the virtue of publishing incendiary imagery in the midst of a highly charged milieu of race, politics and identity. (Yes, I know "Muslim" is not a "race.") She also--importantly--does not argue that the reason for any forthcoming apology should be to pre-empt a violent response from those offended. This is not an "accomodationist" issue.

I was disappointed that many liberals found the Barry Blitt "fist bump" New Yorker cover "racist," so I am not completely tone deaf to the argument that editors should not always bend at the knee in response to controversy. I was also disappointed that the (white) aide to Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams had to resign in 1999 for using the word "niggardly," a word without any etymological connection to anything racially untoward. But in these cases (especially the latter) I recognized that perceptions matter, and that commitments to free speech do not necessarily trump all other concerns in the dialogues we have in heterogeneous societies. Even if I do not agree with the kinds of concessions made to such concerns, I would stop short of characterizing these concessions as the worst kind of infamy, a position which I think makes insufficient room for the kind of complexity that characterizes communication among groups in friction with one another.

Would your uncompromising position here not be softened if the cartoons in question depicted a person of African (or Aboriginal) descent with a bone in his nose, or a Tojo-like Asian with buck teeth and slits for eyes, slavering over punji sticks? In a free society people have the same "right" to be suspicious of Jews, blacks, women, gypsies, or whoever they like, as much as to be suspicious of religion, or, for that matter, multinational corporations, but this does not render all expressions of such suspicion beyond criticism, and I think you may do the matter a disservice by allowing it to begin and end merely on the grounds of the right to offend.

Zachary Voch said...

I think you are vulnerable here to the criticism that you are allowing anti-religious sentiment to influence your moral stance on free speech.


I cannot claim to speak for Russell, but I do not think that his `moral stance on free speech' relies on any `anti-religious sentiment', at least as far as his stance is presented in this article. That said, the example in question is religious, but none of his arguments hinged on protections for anti-religious suspicion alone or in particular. That is just my reading; his personal stances are for him to clarify.


Do you also hold that the name of Wilby should "find its place in every hall of ignominy and shame"?


His stance on whether or not the editors should be considered in such a light is given here:

"I was disappointed that many liberals found the Barry Blitt "fist bump" New Yorker cover "racist," so I am not completely tone deaf to the argument that editors should not always bend at the knee in response to controversy. I was also disappointed that the (white) aide to Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams had to resign in 1999 for using the word "niggardly," a word without any etymological connection to anything racially untoward. But in these cases (especially the latter) I recognized that perceptions matter, and that commitments to free speech do not necessarily trump all other concerns in the dialogues we have in heterogeneous societies. Even if I do not agree with the kinds of concessions made to such concerns, I would stop short of characterizing these concessions as the worst kind of infamy, a position which I think makes insufficient room for the kind of complexity that characterizes communication among groups in friction with one another."

So, no, his comment about `ignominy and shame' pertains to Ms. Holm, not an apologizing editor like Wilby. You quote this in your comment, but you seem to have missed a few items in your response:


Would your uncompromising position here not be softened if the cartoons in question depicted a person of African (or Aboriginal) descent with a bone in his nose, or a Tojo-like Asian with buck teeth and slits for eyes, slavering over punji sticks? In a free society people have the same "right" to be suspicious of Jews, blacks, women, gypsies, or whoever they like, as much as to be suspicious of religion, or, for that matter, multinational corporations, but this does not render all expressions of such suspicion beyond criticism, and I think you may do the matter a disservice by allowing it to begin and end merely on the grounds of the right to offend.


Firstly, his stance was hardly `uncompromising', save in one respect, that suspicions, even if offensive or unreasonable, are allowed and do not merit violence. Criticism of criticism also, I should hope, falls into that category, including the article by Holm. I do not think that, ethically speaking, there exists a better alternative to `uncompromising' on this point. At no point does Russell argue that these rights `render all expressions of such suspicion beyond criticism'. That itself would be a contradictory stance. As Russell states, `Whether you've been unreasonable or not, the onus is on others to reply with better speech, or simply leave you alone, and to refrain from using violence to make their point.' The right to criticize covers and/or cartoons deemed offensive in a nonviolent manner is also covered. In no way does he `do the matter a disservice by allowing it to begin and end merely on the grounds of the right to offend.'

I think that your comment was made in good faith, but I also feel that you might have misread Russell at a few important points. Further, the comparison between Holm and Wilby is at best described as obscurantism.

DM said...

the atheist sins not only against God, but also against man...



Atheist:

have you for but a moment considered that you have adopted a position against 98% of the human race, both past and present?

do you think you are RIGHT and they are all WRONG?

WRONG



now listen to this arrogant puffed up son of a bitch....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilWM7jIEN_k



visit


http://forums.canadiancontent.net/canadian-culture/89170-atheism-dead-forever-canadian-did.html






to see how the NEW ATHEIST MOVEMENT has been annihilated



please, some comment moderation on your blasphemy

Steven Carr said...

Didn't that cartoonist realise that if he didn't apologise for suggesting that Islam promotes violence, that there would be Muslims prepared to kill him for such insults?

At least the words of Muhammad will inject some sense into this matter

Here is one of Bukhari's hadith (Volume 4, Number 270).

The Prophet said, "Who is ready to kill Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf who has really hurt Allah and His Apostle?" Muhammad bin Maslama said, "O Allah's Apostle! Do you like me to kill him?" He replied in the affirmative.

Torbjörn Larsson, OM said...

"you have adopted a position against 98% of the human race"

Well, no and no.

First, atheism isn't a position against groups, it is a claim on reality. Or if you wish, against religion - but not the religious as such. That is what "blame-the-victim" ideology leads to, supporting people who mistakes criticism of religion for criticism of person.

Second, more generally non-belief is the 3d major group, with 16 % of all people.

Anonymous said...

@DM

puffed up son of a bitch? yeah i can think of one.
now go back to your little cave, where i'm sure atheism is well and truly dead

Chris Schoen said...

Zachary,

I would like it if RB would clarify his stance on this. I take him to mean there is a privilege for anti-religious suspicion, though I'm not sure on what grounds. I've written about this on my blog if you'd like to follow my reasoning.

You write that my comparing Holm to Wilby is "obscurantism." I can't agree, although it was incorrect of me to apply RB's characterization of Holm's "ignominy and shame" to aspects of her argument he did not mean them to pertain to. This was not as clear to me the first time I read through Russell's post.

The part of my point I still wish to press, however, is that there is nothing wrong with Holm's appeal to Westergaard to apologize, as long as we don't strictly construe it as a negotiation "to forestall attempts on your life." I think such language mischaracterizes Holm's essay. I grant that the portion she devotes to blaming Westergaard for the attempted violence against him is wrong and unfair, and sets a bad precedent. However Russell wants to extend this portion of her argument to apply to Holm's appeal to apology overall, which overlooks her valid point that there are grounds for an apology that have nothing whatsoever to do with accomodation against violence. My analoges with other forms of offense through stereotype were meant to enhance this point, which can be difficult to see in the present context, since it is hard for many people to accept that what we are calling "blasphemy" can feel like every bit an assualt on one's identity as racism, sexism, or antisemitism.

This was the basis of my analogy to Wilby and the New Statesman. If there is a reason why Muslims should not have the same moral and social recourse in the face of deep offense as other groups, I should be interested to hear it.

Tony and Mae Peters said...

Devil's Advocate here - The point NGH is trying to make is that making fun of extremism exacerbates instead of cures the problem. It's a bit like confronting an axe-wielding psychopath in broad daylight and parodying him, to try to show him how foolish he is; and expecting this to somehow make the lights go on in his dim brain and to relent - 'hahaha, of course, i see exactly what you mean, what a silly psychopathic wanker I've been all along. C'mon mate let's hit the cock-and-bull and chat up the barmaid together'.

Zachary Voch said...

Chris,

Thank you for your response. RBs positions are for RB to clarify as needed. On the use of `obscurantism', it appears that the confusion was not deliberate on your point, so I withdraw any negative charges associated with the term.


"The part of my point I still wish to press, however, is that there is nothing wrong with Holm's appeal to Westergaard to apologize ..."


I agree. There is a case, though I might not agree, for asking for an apology. I think we agree
that the core fault of Holm is blaming the violence against Westergaard on his lack of apology, and further, that apologies should not be made solely to preempt the possibility of violence.


``However Russell wants to extend this portion of her argument to apply to Holm's appeal to apology overall, which overlooks her valid point ..."


On the first point, yes, RB does focus mostly on the objectionable points of the article, but then, these were presumably the cause for blogging about this article as opposed to the more common strain of `he-should-apologize' articles. I understand why you brought up the Wilby example, since it is a good example of when a public apology might be reasonably expected, if not quite beneficial for all involved.

On blasphemy, it is not a surprise to anybody engaged in religious debate that blasphemy deeply offends many people, even in cases where a logical argument is the offending item. In my experience, religious people identify their beliefs with how they view themselves and the rest of the world, so an assault upon the belief is often taken as personal and communal insult, much like a racial (or sexist) remark might be taken. Finally:


``If there is a reason why Muslims should not have the same moral and social recourse in the face of deep offense as other groups, I should be interested to hear it.''


Muslims should have the same moral and social recourse as other groups, just as (ideally) the case should be for Jews and Christians. So certainly, we would agree that Muslims who do not adhere to Islamist ideology might be rightly offended at Westergaard's cartoon. Further, they (and even their Islamist counterparts) have a right to peaceful recourse and outcry.

Now, onto where I suppose we might disagree in our conclusions. Clearly, this `peaceful recourse' is not what occurred at all, as is the growing trend. This could be (and has been) the same of other religious communities, but at the moment, criticism of Islam is the only type of blasphemy that carries risk of physical retribution in Europe/America. The consequences have included self-censorship (Yale UP) and other items we might call `accommodationist' to violence. As a consequence, I think that it is imperative for critics in such an atmosphere to not back down, especially when their criticism is of the sort of response that they themselves receive.

Further, there is a fundamental distinction between blasphemy and things such as racism and racial anti-semitism. Racism puts groups of people, for reasons beyond their own choices, into a position of subservience and degradation. Religious tenets, on the other hand, are beliefs and ideas. Ideas, not being people, are not inherently deserving of respect or the benefit of the doubt even if revered by some people. We have as much right to criticize religious ideas as we do works of literature, even if the religious and the writers are offended.

Zachary Voch said...

(continued)

Now, whether or not to apologize for such expressions comes down to the specifics of the expression and ultimately the decision of the expressor. Such things should be decided as part of the interchange of ideas, as open argument, all of which necessarily presupposes the right to offend and push the limits of tolerable discourse in the first place.

And finally, it is not a question of fairness but rather of reality that some groups, by merit of their wealth or number or otherwise, have more influence and capacity to nonviolent recourse than does a marginalized group. So, by having a foreign culture and being a minority, do Muslims require more protection from offense than the majority? Despite the somewhat inequitable realities of the situation, I would have to say no. Certainly, if faced with disproportionate violence, more legal protection with regards to that measure is justifiable. But in the case of respecting their ideas, I contend that Islam should be subject to the same open criticism that all ideas (religious or science) might face.

In short, defense of Muslims is one thing, of Islam, another. This standard works in their favor as well. If Islam might be criticized openly, so also might it be praised openly. To allow for the praise of Islam and yet restrict criticism of it would be unfair to other ideas and we have to face the reality of reaction to censorship. Already, much of that reaction is apparent in Christian-oriented shows in America. Already, `why don't you say the same thing about Islam?' is considered a counterargument to critics of Christianity.

If we protect Islam (as we have), other religions will lobby (and have lobbied already) for the same measures and will likely receive them on the basis of fairness. We must, in short, pass on criticism of the majority as well, so such measures are not just protections of minorities but instead `set the bar lower' across the spectrum. And then, what do we do about the expression of inter-religious loathing, much of which is contained within and ordained by holy books?

The religious, depending on the nature of the religion, will take offense in kind and deal it out in kind. The only sensible method seems to be in taking the offense into account but allowing it. In that way, there is no reason why Muslims can not have the same recourses as everybody else. Hopefully, the time will soon come when the violent element of Islam will not be the (perceived) representative response to criticism, and yes, that makes taking criticism all the more essential.

Chris Schoen said...

Clearly, this `peaceful recourse' is not what occurred at all, as is the growing trend.

On what grounds do you say this? "Peaceful recourse" was not the whole of the response, but it certainly "occurred." The number of people who responded to the cartoons with violence and other transgressive acts cannot even be compared to the number who responded with speech. The "growing trend" you reference is worth discussing, but it is hardly an excuse to discard the rights of large groups of people who did nothing wrong. (Consider the race riots of the 60s, which were often held as indicating that African Americans, the vast majority of whom were law abiding, were not ready for equality and reform.) This just ends up obscuring the more important conversation about the kind of speech we should be having, as opposed to simply the kind of speech we have a "right" to engage in.

In short, while we cannot let the threat of violence influence our exercise of what is right, neither can we use it as a justification for neglecting to evaluate what is right. There is not much difference to my mind between saying "these people are violent" as an argument to relinquish rights, and an argument to cling to them. What we are concerned with are the rights themselves, and how they are interwoven with competing rights, not with a raw trench-mentality consequentialism.

Ideas, not being people, are not inherently deserving of respect or the benefit of the doubt even if revered by some people. We have as much right to criticize religious ideas as we do works of literature, even if the religious and the writers are offended.

And this is where I return to the question of anti-religious bias. We do not have the right to criticize the "idea" of copyright protection by violating it. Neither do we have the right the criticize the idea of child pornography by depicting it. Defenders of blasphemy laws are arguing that the types of offenses they would prohibit are of a similar species. I'm not defending this argument wholesale, but it is clear that we can't simply rid ourselves of the problem by appealing to a right to criticize "ideas" but not people.

And so, when you write here:

The religious, depending on the nature of the religion, will take offense in kind and deal it out in kind. The only sensible method seems to be in taking the offense into account but allowing it.

I think you fail to consider that these are issues all societies face, not just religious ones. We can continue to characterize ourselves as the sensible ones, and Muslims as the irrational ones, but in the end this merely tends to deny the cultural commonalities between us: that we all have hierarchies of value.

None of this is to say "grant any and all concessions." It is to suggest we can be more circumspect about the relations of power and meaning involved in this debate. It wasn't that long ago (1776, 1789) that our forebears used violence, and plenty of it, when the monarchies of the day would not deign to even consider their grievances, so sure were they that the established order was just and good. We have a chance to do better, not by making wild capitulations left and right, but by making modest attempts to empathize with the people whom it is the most tempting to regard as our opposite.

Zachary Voch said...

@28


`On what grounds do you say this? "Peaceful recourse" was not the whole of the response, but it certainly "occurred." The number of people who responded to the cartoons with violence and other transgressive acts cannot even be compared to the number who responded with speech.'


I apologize for my lack of clarity. As written, that was a gross generalization and your objection is valid.


`The "growing trend" you reference is worth discussing, but it is hardly an excuse to discard the rights of large groups of people who did nothing wrong. (Consider the race riots of the 60s, which were often held as indicating that African Americans, the vast majority of whom were law abiding, were not ready for equality and reform.) This just ends up obscuring the more important conversation about the kind of speech we should be having, as opposed to simply the kind of speech we have a "right" to engage in.'


At no point did I argue depriving the right of peaceful protest on account of the violent. As I stated before, the expression of offense is protected in the same manner as the expression of the corresponding offending material. And as I also stated, I grant even the right of theocratic Islamists to nonviolent expression, regardless of how horrendous I find the associated ideology, so nor would I limit the rights of Muslims as a whole. Again, unlike Holm, I consider Muslims to be capable of self-control as well, not somehow fundamentally incapable of sharing in civil society.

The important issue is the right to speech and expression, because if not, it is as a corollary that we consider Muslims somehow incapable of self-control in the face of criticism. This really is a deciding factor and very much the speech we should be having, hardly an obscuring factor, but a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for further productive dialogue.


`In short, while we cannot let the threat of violence influence our exercise of what is right, neither can we use it as a justification for neglecting to evaluate what is right. There is not much difference to my mind between saying "these people are violent" as an argument to relinquish rights, and an argument to cling to them.'


Exactly, but it is the threat of violence which has brought up the issue above that of comparable situations, such as Christian objections to blasphemous material like `Piss Christ' and other items. Occasionally, these produce a very widespread reaction, but they have not resulted in the kind of fear and self-censorship we saw in the aftermath of the Cartoon scandal because the threat of violence is far less severe. So I agree, but I think that I agree `in the other direction.' It is the violence that has made this an issue.

Zachary Voch said...

`And this is where I return to the question of anti-religious bias. We do not have the right to criticize the "idea" of copyright protection by violating it. Neither do we have the right the criticize the idea of child pornography by depicting it.'


Given that the analogies are quite poor, I'm glad you do not defend this argument entirely. A more accurate analogy is a copyright that also prohibits criticism of the copyright itself or a child porn law that bans the discussion of the child porn law. I am assuming that you recognize the distinction here by your disclaimer. I also say that we may criticize people as well, since I consider racist speech to be legally protected. The distinction is legal protection of the rights of peoples as opposed to the rights of ideas, regardless of whether or not they are religious. Let's elaborate:


`I think you fail to consider that these are issues all societies face, not just religious ones. We can continue to characterize ourselves as the sensible ones, and Muslims as the irrational ones, but in the end this merely tends to deny the cultural commonalities between us: that we all have hierarchies of value.'


I agree. If we were to propose a secular system which includes as a value that the system itself should not be questioned, I would have the same objections. It's just that that property tends to be attached to religious systems (with exceptions like strict strains of Randian Objectivism). The question here is not `rational v. irrational', but `can we even legally debate the topic and not fear violent retribution?' Certainly, our cultures share many values, and I think that some mutual learning is in order, but that requires debating the virtues of each system in the open air, again presupposing the topic at hand.


`We have a chance to do better, not by making wild capitulations left and right, but by making modest attempts to empathize with the people whom it is the most tempting to regard as our opposite.'


Of course we should empathize and feel solidarity with even the most different people. I take that as a tenet of any useful ethical system. Of course, some would disagree, but that's a matter to be discussed. The point is that people are going to be offended in the process (religious or not), and further, that legal attempts to prevent that will likely result in failure and exacerbate the situation, not to mention the loss of rights.

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