Monday, 11 January 2010

Offences and excuses

Highly recommended (and not just becomes she kindly links to one of my posts): Eve Garrard's terrific guest post over at Norm's place, on freedom of expression and the taking of 'offence', in the wake of the violent attack on Kurt Westergaard. Here's a taster:
The attack on the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard has raised yet again the issue of freedom of speech, and what is needed to justify and protect it. People whose principal reaction to the attack on Westergaard is to blame those who supposedly provoked the attacker by offending against his religious beliefs have been righty excoriated for this, partly at least on the grounds that no-one, including deeply committed religious believers, has the right not to be offended. And those of us who used to think, back in the late 20th century, that in the West at least the battle for free speech had been won, can now see with embarrassment how naive we were, and how complacent about the extent and durability of that freedom.

It's no longer possible to indulge such complacency; at least, not about the freedom to speak our minds. It's obvious to everyone now that the battle has resumed, and that the old arguments will have to be dusted off and fought for all over again.
I find myself in broad agreement with everything Eve writes here, and I particularly like her generous attempt later in the post to find common ground with religious believers in defending free speech (let's hope it's reciprocated). But I also thought this qualification from Primavera, about 'offence' as a motive for terror, was useful:

Eve mentions the importance of getting across to people that no-one, including deeply committed religious believers, has the right not to be offended. That is indeed an extremely important point, and the degree to which the opposite seems to be believed by the political and other chattering classes is horrifying and does not bode well. But I would add something else, too, which is that we shouldn’t, either, be too quick to accept one of the main premises of that particular debate (the debate about whether people should be protected from being offended). I’m talking about the premise that someone like Westergaard’s would-be-axe-murderer was really doing what he did because he was offended (which he may nevertheless have considered himself to be). Or, for that matter, that the whole world-wide eruption of violence over the original Mohammed cartoons was really all just because people felt offended.

I’m of the point of view advocated by Paul Berman and others: these attacks, this violence – all this is not happening because a Danish paper published some depictions of Mohammed (which it did, and which there was nothing wrong with) or because Israel is building settlements on Palestinian land (which it is and which there is a great deal wrong with) or because the United States props up the ruling family of Saudi Arabia (which I gather it does and which it probably shouldn’t). Rather the terrorism and the constant protests and the intimidation and the violence are driven by a simultaneously nihilistic and totalitarian agenda to attack the Occident (or what my father used to call, with great affection, the Abendland) and, ultimately, take over parts of it, as much indeed as possible. This does not need to mean that, say, Westergaard’s attacker had that particular ideology and big-picture agenda in mind when he attacked. The foot soldiers of a movement needn’t have a true understanding of the big picture in order to do their job and are often merely brainwashed fools. Westergaard’s attacker (his name, it seems, is not being published – why not?) may well have felt offended, or thought he felt offended. But why is it that, at this particular juncture in history, some Muslims, or at least some Islamists, respond to feeling offended by becoming violent, while, by and large, people of other persuasions don’t? Is it in the nature of Islamic belief itself? I don’t think that it is, and I say that not by way of hastening to insert the politically correct disclaimer (I don’t care whom I offend and if I thought it was inherent in Islam I would be happy to say so). Rather, it’s because the totalitarian, anti-Occident movement that Berman identified is indoctrinating its foot soldiers to behave this way. It’s not that the cartoon gave offence so the offended man got angry and attacked (even if that’s what the attacker himself honestly believes). It’s that the cartoon offered the opportunity to construct a pretext for violence and intimidation, and the taking of offence is part of that construct. There is a deeply dishonest and sinister, and extremely broad and radical, agenda behind the attack on Westergaard. And that is true even if the attacker, in his foot-soldier childishness, really thinks that he was acting alone and purely out of his own personal anger. If he thinks that, then he is simply unaware of the degree to which he had already been taught and conditioned to do violence.

All of which is a powerful riposte to Glenn Greenwald, writing in these posts, who seems to think he's being terribly bold and original in rehashing hoary old myths about America's support for Israel and actions in the Middle East somehow 'fuelling' terrorism. Do we have to quote former jihadist Hasan Butt yet again?

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.


Martin Meenagh said...

I agree with you there. I find myself wondering about GG sometimes. As a catholic person, I seem to quite cheerily offend too easily, but I don't mind getting it back.

Where's the line, though? I left the Labour Party in part because it had become so lazily anti-catholic and in parts antisemitic. Is it OK to laugh at a burqa or rosary, but not to deny anyone's right to look silly, or question their patriotism? I pray and don't mind a joke, but do note a slur.

What are these rules of free speech of which you write, and when should courtesy restrain them? Bullies always call insults 'jokes', but half of me thinks that we all need a sense of humour, or perhaps a social requirement to pretend to one. That would be a start.

Eve Garrard said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Martin - I'm delighted if you liked the post. Some of the thoughts about religion in it, especially the way in which those who are hostile to it sometimes present a travesty of the real thing, were sparked off by reading your posts about religious belief late last year. So please keep writing on this topic, it's really useful stuff!

Martin said...

Thanks both for the comments.

Martin -

You ask 'where's the line, though?' A couple of thoughts:

- there's a crucial difference between good manners and legality. To paraphrase Voltaire, I may think it was terribly uncivil and unwise of the Danes to publish those cartoons, but I will defend to the death their right to do so. This vital distinction often got lost, I think, in the heated atmosphere following their publication. When some religious (and secular) commentators criticised the Danish newspaper, they were probably really saying 'On balance, I don't think printing the cartoons was a good idea, and I wouldn't have done it myself', but it often came across as 'This kind of thing shouldn't be allowed'.

- if religious 'offence' is legally frowned on, where does it end. Do Scientologists et al have a right not to have their beliefs 'offended' against? And why should religion be privileged in this way? As a feminist, I may find the burqa extremely offensive - but does the fact that this is a secular and not a religious belief mean my sense of offendedness doesn't count`?

Eve -

I'm flattered that you cite my humble posts as an influence. Does that mean that the Christian apologist you refer to in the post is Niebuhr?
And yes, I promise to pursue this topic in future posts....

Eve Garrard said...

No, it wasn't Niebuhr - it was C.S.Lewis, though I can't remember where in that large oeuvre he says it. But I found it specially interesting that a man whose imaginative and literary life was so gripped by the attractions of hierarchy should come down so firmly against it in the practical political sphere. And his sense of general sinfulness is something that can easily be given a secular reading, in fact a quick glance at the history of the last century is quite enough to force it on us; so the argument goes acros pretty directly to the free speech context.