08 September 2010

Giving and Taking Offense

In a column published locally today, Jonathan Gurwitz happily notes the recent peaceful opening of the ninth mosque in San Antonio, Texas. He's unaware of any anti-Muslim violence in the "Alamo City," and for him that's strong evidence that something other than Islamophobia or xenophobia fuels objections to the Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" project in New York City. According to Gurwitz, the imam of the new San Antonio mosque agrees with him. In the imam's judgment, Islamic teachings require him to "respect my neighbors and friends and live in a respectful way." In practice, that means, "If I do something that offends you, I should look again and find a way not to offend." On that basis, the San Antonio imam, while acknowledging Park51's legal right to build, urges the planners to reconsider.

This concern with avoiding offense or provocation seems characteristic of Muslim cultures, if not of Islam itself. It contrasts starkly with modern-day western (or simply American) notions of personal responsibility and individual freedom. In simplest terms, while Americans preach "resist temptation," Muslims seem to say "don't tempt." In its ugliest form, this attitude leads Muslims (and many traditional cultures) to blame "provocatively" dressed women when they're mistreated by men. In its most obtuse form, the American attitude refuses to acknowledge any national responsibility for Muslim hostility toward the United States. Americans seem to feel that, no matter how provoked you may feel, you have an absolute and exclusive moral responsibility to restrain yourself, and whoever provoked you has no obligation to change his or her behavior as long as it's legal. By comparison, Muslims seem to have human nature on their side when they argue that pushing them will make them push back.

These differences have implications for international relations, but how should they play out when Muslims and non-Muslims live in the same community, and particularly when Muslims are a minority? In the give and take of politics, especially when people's positions are influenced by religious or cultural traditions, lively debate is likely to give offense to some. In the public sphere, for an atheist to say "there is no god" is bound to offend many. Our commitment to free speech requires those offended to swallow their offense. On the other hand, it's one thing to say "there is no god" and another to say "all religions are stupid." A commitment to civility might encourage the atheist to stop short of the second comment, but civility is not to be enforced by physical threats from other people.

In the past, some Americans were as easily provoked to violence as anyone else, and as quick to blame the violence on the provocateur. In the early days of the republic, however, it was personal honor, not the honor of a religion, that provoked duels -- or mere beatings, as in the infamous case of Congressman Preston Brooks and Senator Charles Sumner, when the person provoked did not regard the provocateur as his social equal. Honor is the common quality in all cases: the feeling that one is obliged as a man or a member of a group to respond to insults. In the U.S., honor grudgingly yielded to the rule of law, and maybe to the idea that aristocratic honor codes didn't belong in a democracy. Nor does any code that entitles believers to use violence in defense of religious honor belong. But do such assertions license Americans to offend whom they will while requiring the offended to take it? We probably ought to acknowledge a middle ground position that forbids people from taking violent offense while discouraging them on civility principles from consciously and deliberately giving offense. I'd like to think that such distinctions can be drawn, and I still say that the irrational offense felt by New Yorkers over the mosque plan should not require the planners to back down. Whether liberty or civility should prevail in the impending Qur'an-burning case is another matter. No Muslim has a right to attack the Florida congregation, but Muslims and their non-Muslim friends share a prerogative to find civil means to shame the church into reconsidering its incivility. All such suggestions depend on a reasonable populace, of course, and what might be necessary to enforce reasonableness is a question for another time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So basically, the question is, are Americans willing and able to be reasonable.