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

The difference between post-Enlightenment Western societies and most modern Muslim societies has been painfully obvious during the last few days. By now the details of the riots that have spread throughout the Muslim world in response to several cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad are well known. There have been apologies by diplomats and newspaper editors for the publication of the cartoons, but these apologies are misguided. Muslims have all the rights to get offended at anything they think is critical of their religion. But – in liberal democratic societies – they have no right whatsoever to react in any physically threatening way. They can write their own cartoons, or decide not to buy the offending papers, but that's all.

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.


  1. And how any human being ever has had the impudence to speak against the right to speak, is beyond the power of my imagination. Here is a man who speaks -- who exercises a right that he, by his speech, denies. Can liberty go further than that? Is there any toleration possible beyond the liberty to speak against liberty -- the real believer in free speech allowing others to speak against the right to speak? Is there any limitation beyond that?

    So, whoever has spoken against the right to speak has admitted that he violated his own doctrine. No man can open his mouth against the freedom of speech without denying every argument he may put forward. Why? He is exercising the right that he denies. How did he get it? Suppose there is one man on an island. You will all admit now that he would have the right to do his own thinking. You will all admit that he has the right to express his thought. Now, will somebody tell me how many men would have to emigrate to that island before the original settler would lose his right to think and his right to express himself?

    - Robert Green Ingersoll, "The Limitations of Toleration"

    Here's my take

    Needless to say, I concur.

  2. Actually, I believe the South African constitution is the "crown jewel of Enlightenment philosophy." It offers way more in terms of individual rights that ours does (at least as far as offering language for justiciability).

  3. This is kind of similar to what I asked in my last post to "Hail democracy...". Who, how and why set the limits to democracy or, in this case, freedom of expression, and all that.

    A text on the "clash of civilizations", actually claining there's really no clash is here

    And, if you're curious about the infamous cartoons themselves, try this site. But it might not be online anymore when you try it - some other ones have beeing taken down by muslim hackers.

    Let's see if the links will work this time...


  4. Two works of art exhibited in the United States caused such "violent" reactions that, for one, the head of the National Endowment of Arts was forced to resign, and for the second, Mayor Giuliani of New York canceled the city's funding of the Brooklyn Museum and wanted the museum kicked out of the city. The first work was a painting of Mary with elephant dung on her, and the second was a photograph of a nude woman depicted as Jesus. No, this violence didn't physically burn any buildings nor kill anyone, but the intent of the protestors was the same.



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