15 January 2015

The Pope suggests a cartoon topic

If Charlie Hebdo doesn't run with this idea then they aren't what we think they are. Francis I has injected himself into the debate over freedom of expression and the right to mock religion in colorful fashion. After the required denunciation of violence in the name of God, he gives Muslims a shoulder to cry on by telling reporters, in one translation, that "You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people's faith, you cannot mock it." The freedom to offend is not implicit in freedom of expression, the pontiff argues. Instead, insult practically guarantees a violent response. The spiritual leader of the world's Catholics offered a personal example. Pointing to one of his staff, he said, "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It's normal. It's normal." If that image isn't the cover of next week's Charlie, it's hard to imagine a better subject. The Muhammad stuff has to get tired after a while.

Meanwhile, His Holiness has said, in effect, that responding with violence to insults of beloved persons or things is wrong but also "normal" -- though it's unclear whether he meant reporters to understand that his punching his friend for insulting his mother -- what about the Mother of God, for that matter? -- would be as wrong as it would be normal. Bergoglio thus accepts the logic of provocation, in which the potential provocateur has a responsibility not to provoke the immoral violence he might suffer in reprisal, as opposed to the more narrower moralism that seems to prevail in the U.S., and which assigns exclusive moral responsibility for violence in response to provocation to the perpetrator of violence. There's obviously room for debate between these positions, particularly over how much provocation any person should be expected to endure peacefully before he can be blamed exclusively for violence. Francis seems to draw the line well before most liberals would, perhaps because liberals lack an appreciation of the emotional power of the sacred. Different things are sacred in that emotionally intense way to many different people, however, and the question those who argue against provocation must answer is how far they want to extend the scope of their principle.

I suppose it can be argued, as the Pope has argued, that insulting a person's faith is like insulting their family, and that while violence beyond a certain point -- would it have been okay for Muslims to have punched the cartoonists? -- is unacceptable, it also becomes inevitable in a way that makes provocateurs responsible for their own suffering. But can we restrict the realm of intolerable provocation to faith and family? Conspiracy theorists, for instance, are often passionately committed to their quixotic quests for truth, and feel that their beliefs give their lives meaning, but are often subject to contemptuous insult for their trouble. If one of them lashes out at his tormentors, whether with fists or firearms, is it fair to say that the provocateurs brought it upon themselves, not because conspiracy theorists are presumably unstable people, but because it's always wrong to mock the things and ideas that people embrace with such emotional intensity. If you dismiss conspiracy theory as mere craziness, how do you answer those who see religion the same way? If the answer is that nothing about conspiracy theory (or ideology) is "sacred" the way faith and family are, the next question is: who are we to say? Is "sacred" (or "honor," a concept implicit in both Islamist rage and Bergoglio's defense of his mom) something subjective, something each person can assign to whatever he will, or is it some verdict of time that we're bound to respect after a certain period of years or centuries?  Apologists for Islam argue today that the west owes Muslims the same sensitivity it shows to Jews or blacks, whether westerners feel the same obligation or not. Is that only because Islam is old and numerous and volatile? If it's a matter of deference to a certain emotional vulnerability as a universal human trait, should the same deference be extended indefinitely, so that no one whose feelings can be hurt by criticism or mockery should have their feelings hurt?At a certain point, to err on the side of deference and sensitivity will insult the intelligence,if not the feelings, of skeptics and secularists everywhere, but what rights have they when provoked? Haven't the people who beat Muslims or burn mosques been "provoked" in some way that makes Islam responsible, in the general way usually deemed unfair, for what befalls individual Muslims? If everyone can play this game, it may be better to abolish the game and affirm the innocence of all provocateurs. Those who recommend that Muslims grow thicker skins should set the example -- but they'd better check to make sure they actually do. As for the Pope, I'm sure I won't be the first one today to say it, nor is this the first time I've said: Lighten up, Francis!

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