Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 26 May 2010

The redemptive nature of offence

Between the battle lines in the fight about freedoms following the Mail & Guardian’s publication of Zapiro’s “Muhammad on the Couch” cartoon are important questions about why people have a right to be offended, and why we have a Constitution at all.

We all find something offensive. Many of us might prefer a world which caters to our sensibilities and limits how much we have to tolerate. I would like for everybody to be able to spell. And also for most quotation marks in advertising to be outlawed. Unfortunately, nobody seems willing to make these happen.

It is also true that I’d prefer churches didn’t  get tax breaks and religious figures don’t get treated as moral authorities. I’d certainly want Andrew Wakefield, Oprah Winfrey, Matthias Rath and a bunch of other people to spend a lot of time in Orwell’s Room 101, and then hopefully emerge “corrected”. But I also understand this would not be in my best interests, because there is always a possibility – no matter how slight – that I might learn something from even such unexpected sources as them, rather than only from avenues I already regard as useful.

This is part of the point of JS Mill’s celebrated defence of free speech. With the exception of speech which causes “necessary harms”, allowing ourselves to be exposed to being offended is a robust antidote to complacency, intellectual arrogance, bad science and dogma. The reason we care to have this antidote available – or perhaps why we should care – is that mistaken beliefs can lead us to actions which undermine our welfare or the welfare of others.

I assume this is part of the point of occasions like “Blasphemy Day” (30 September) and “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (20 May). These days are not simply celebrations of free speech but also have a political and epistemological point to make. One summary of this point might be that not everybody takes your beliefs seriously, and nor are they obliged to, no matter what those beliefs are.

This is especially important when those beliefs are used to justify paedophilia, homophobia, oppression, murder, censorship and all sorts of social ills. Perhaps more so when the beliefs in question are derived from interpretations of words uttered by characters much of the world considers mythological. This is equally so for many believers. The utterances of other people’s gods don’t carry the weight those of their own gods do.

Jonathan Shapiro’s cartoon in the Mail & Guardian caused significant offence to some in the Muslim community, partly due to the religious injunction that Muhammad not be depicted. Of course, Zapiro is not a Muslim, and thus has no obligation to adhere to this injunction. Furthermore, the injunction itself is not found in the Koran, but rather in the interpretive molasses of the hadiths, which means we have human religious authorities to thank for this interpretation, rather than some booming voice from the heavens.

Despite the fact that Zapiro was free to draw the cartoon, many commentators claim Zapiro should have self-censored; should have chosen not to do so. These arguments involve ideas like “respect” and “tolerance”, while also sometimes making claims about potential negative consequences to relations between South African communities – and threats to World Cup tourism.

Mostly, though, it is not arguments we encounter, but simple assertions that “Zapiro offends deliberately, then hides behind the Constitution”, or that the cartoon was “offence simply for the sake of offending”. The latter presumes gratuitous poking of fun, and the former misses the point of why we have the Constitution – or, at least, the free speech provisions in the Bill of Rights.

Another class of objections is summarised by this indignant Facebook bleat: “When they attack black people, you call it racism. When they attack Jewish people, you call it anti-Semitism. When they attack women, you call it sexism. When they attack homosexuality, you call it Intolerance. When they attack your country, you call it treason. But when they attack Prophet Muhammad, you want to call it freedom of speech!”

Addressing these in reverse order, it should immediately be clear that comparisons between cartoons such as Zapiro’s and racism, sexism et al involve false analogies. There is nothing to criticise or ridicule about black people qua their being black, homosexuals for being homosexual, and so forth. The target of cartoons such as Zapiro’s is not Muslims for being Muslim, but rather about a range of correlates to that belief system.

I don’t have access to Jonathan Shapiro’s intentions here, but correlates span a range of possibilities, starting with simple comments on the irrationality of taking Bronze-age mythology seriously in the 21st century, and perhaps ending with moral commentary on the problems with a faith that can be interpreted as endorsing (or simply allowing for) marital rape, or the stoning of rape victims, as if it is somehow their fault that they are born into a system of patriarchal dictatorship.

These details are well known to anyone who has bothered to investigate them. However, critics will assert that the evil men I describe above are the ones who have misinterpreted their scriptures or their faith’s purpose. That may be so. The fact remains that the system allows for these interpretations, and such a system cannot claim the right to be left outside the reach of critical assessment. It cannot claim that “respect for other cultures and faiths” demands that we refrain from criticism, or even ridicule, as these actions merit both criticism and ridicule – perhaps in even louder voices than we currently allow ourselves.

If you are a member of one of these faiths who is equally horrified by these abuses, but who still finds the cartoon in question offensive, then you should perhaps consider whether it might not be directed at those who pervert something you consider decent and good. Your offence at the cartoon can be understood, but the target of your anger should be your less-civilised brothers and sisters, who make such comment necessary – not those who make the comments.

The points made by Zapiro, as well as by past examples of this same issue, are a reminder to members of an identifiable social or religious group to get their house in order so that there is no need to mock or ridicule. You do this most effectively from the inside, by persuading people who take faith as a way to justify harm that they are the ones who have lost their way, and that surely a god worth taking seriously would not want you to harm others – and would probably also want you to expose and criticise those who do.

This is not, then, “offence simply for the sake of offending”. If it was, then I’d have to agree with many of the critics who make the point that it is uncivil or impolite to gratuitously offend people. I would agree mostly because gratuitous offence seems like bad political strategy in cases where you hope to change minds. We don’t often change someone’s mind through teasing them. We usually simply make them more intractable.

Having said that, we certainly have the right to poke fun or tease whoever we like, and I think the offended parties are daft for getting upset about it. But there may be cases where, as Jeremy Nell pointed out, “We must fight to the death for the right to draw Muhammad, but then refrain from doing so”. What we should not do is to presume that all such depictions are gratuitous, and thereby prejudge any instance of these depictions as having no political or moral point to make. In the case of this particular cartoon, the point is clear: It’s not about Muhammad, but rather a criticism of some Muslims who do bad things, ostensibly in service of Muhammad.

Finally, there is the disguised ad hominem charge that Zapiro deliberately offends, then “hides behind the Constitution”. It is ad hominem because it attacks his character through accusing him of cowardice. It is also somewhat incoherent in assuming that he doesn’t have a point to make, while at the same time accusing him of not being willing to take responsibility for something he has (or hasn’t) said. But it also expresses a very peculiar understanding of why the Constitution exists.

Firstly, note that we could also make this claim when someone demands a fair trial instead of appearing before a kangaroo court: “Look, we think you committed the murder, and now you want a lawyer?” The opportunity to “hide” behind the Constitution is something for which we’re all generally quite grateful.

Secondly, the claim involves the presumption that causing offence is always wrong, and there is no reason to believe this is true. Causing offence may sometimes be bad strategy, but in many cases – and this is certainly one such case – the offense is part of a deliberate strategy to try to effect social change.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this objection forgets a central purpose of the Constitution – perhaps its key purpose. South Africa used to be a place where freedoms of various sorts were not tolerated, and where people were told what to think and what to do. We have unshackled ourselves from that paternalism, and one of the mechanisms by which we did so was through protesting against things that we considered absurd or unjust. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that this process is complete, or that we don’t still have things to learn about ourselves and about each other.

We do so by speaking freely. This is because any stifling of free expression might involve silencing a voice that could reach another person, and cause them to discard a prejudice, or simply to learn something useful. Social critics such as Jonathan Shapiro serve an enormous public good, but can only do so because the Constitution allows them that freedom. It simultaneously allows us the freedom to feel discomfort, and to learn from that discomfort. This discomfort is a good thing, in that it reminds us that our beliefs may be wrong.

In short, the Constitution guarantees us the right to be offended – and for that, we should remain eternally grateful.


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