About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
That's the difference
Were the cartoons in question “insensitive”? Indeed, and on purpose. That's the whole point of satire, or have we not learned anything from Jonathan Swift and Voltaire? One may or may not agree with the content and form of the cartoons, or with the message they send, or even with the timing of their publication (then again, when is it ever a good time to offend religious fundamentalists?). But any call for the firing of newspaper editors, or the banning of similar initiatives in the future, is contrary to the very core of Western civilization. Well, again, of post-Enlightenment Western civilization. Before the time of Voltaire, Rousseau and co. we were doing exactly the same thing: the Catholic Church was burning at the stakes people who dared question the Church's interpretation of the Bible. In the New World, the Puritans had just crossed the Atlantic to escape religious intolerance, and promptly passed laws to ban whatever didn't meet their narrow view of what God wanted (including, of all things, Christmas!).
The difference is that most Western societies have evolved beyond their medieval stage, while most Muslims societies have not (which is why, for example, there is so much discussion about Turkey's bid to enter the European Union – Turkey being among the most advanced Muslim societies). If this smells horribly of Western chauvinism, I'm sorry, but I've never believed in cultural relativism. There are things that are objectively better about Muslim societies and history when compared to Western ones (including, for example, the quality of the social fabric), but freedom of thought and expression isn't the Middle East's strongest point.
Not that this sort of problem is endemic to Muslim countries, of course. I still remember from years of living in Tennessee how many people there are genuinely convinced that the Constitution gives them protection from being offended. What? And no “Onion” or Jon Stewart? I don't think so. Quite the contrary, the American Constitution (that crown jewel of Enlightenment philosophy), guarantees precisely the opposite: the right for people to offend others by peaceful means, such as writing, giving speeches in public, or draw controversial cartoons. At least few fundamentalist Christians in the West actually resort to violence when they are offended, although of course exceptions include bombings and shootings at abortion clinics, among other activities carried on in the name of an all-loving God. But in the US (usually) such acts are condemned by public opinion and politicians alike, and – more importantly – are prosecuted by law. It will be a wonderful day when Muslims will do the same, sit back, relax, and laugh at those silly infidels. Much more civilized than burning their embassies.