Saturday, March 11, 2006

History Repeating Itself

So I finally got a chance to read through the backlog of Economist issues which I've built up. I found this in the letters section in regards to the recent publication of caricatures of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper:

SIR - The fact is that those newspapers which chose to publish satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad crossed the line that separates civil society from barbarism. By all means let us have debates on religion, but let's do so without insulting each others' beliefs.

Alistair Nicholas
Managing director
AC Capital Strategic Public Relations
Beijing1
Gah... I find myself wishing for a pithy Dickensian quote about pap or pablum or some such. "We can all have a good discussion as long as everyone agrees to play nice"... right. The problem with this view is that, when it comes to religion, no one can agree as to what constitutes an "insult"; one person's insult is another person's valid criticism.

Frankly, this whole sordid tale about the cartoons and their aftermath reminds me of nothing so much as the battles over heresy, blasphemy, etc. that went on in merry old England in times past. Y'all should check out Blasphemy by Leonard W. Levy, which recounts those goings-on in great detail. The long and the short is that, over the ages, people have repeatedly been accused of blasphemy for discussing religion in a manner which other people have found objectionable. Those who objected have gone so far as to pass laws protecting various sects/denominations/what-have-you from insult or criticism.

Now, the people who passed these laws were often accused of stifling dissent, restricting academic inquiry, etc. To which they replied that no, they had no intention of doing any such thing, they merely wished to prevent people from insulting other peoples' religions. How this worked out in practice was that as long as you confined yourself to the academic small-press you weren't in any danger. Any criticism which reached the greater public, however, was deemed to be insulting, regardless of style, content, validity, etc.

So you see the parallels here to those who call for us to have discussions "without insulting each others' beliefs". History would seem to indicate that such a stance is both theoretically and pragmatically untenable.

Hey, Mr. Nicholas, I've got a question for you, can you explain to me your rubric for what makes something "insulting"? How can I be critical (in an analytic sense) of someone's deeply held beliefs without running the risk that they'll be insulted? Uhuh... I thought so.


1 From the Feb 25th issue

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