Saturday, February 4, 2006

When Pictures Hurt

My definition of a minor medical procedure is one that is happening to someone else.  In the same vein, as the crescendo of Moslem protest rises across the Middle East and elsewhere, some outsiders like us may wonder what the fuss is all about.  After all, this uproar seems out of proportion to a few cartoon depictions of a historic figure, albeit a religious one.  Well minor procedures are not always painless and this one has obviously hit a nerve.  It’s not the first time.  Remember the riots in Afghanistan in reaction to a copy of the Koran purportedly being flushed down the toilet?  Then there was the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in historically peaceful Holland.  All these things are of a piece and all reflect not merely heightened tension between Moslems and Western ways but between and within religious groups.  The present uproar is being portrayed as a freedom of the press issue which to some degree it certainly is.  But it is also a reflection of our diminished civility, mutual respect and most painfully the negative role that religion is playing in current geopolitical conflicts (hence the content of the cartoons).  As to the underlying question of freedom to express, it isn’t always whether we have the right to say (or print) something, (which I firmly believe we do), but whether saying our piece is likely to unnecessarily hurt a fellow human being.  There is no easy answer to that and perhaps no right answer either, at least in the absolute sense.

This whole thing started in Denmark, perhaps one of the most benign and tolerant countries in the world.  It is also, despite having an official state religion, one of the least religious.  Only 5% of Danes go to church with any regularity.  In that regard, predominantly secular Danes may not be sensitive to the Moslem proscription against depicting the Prophet Mohammad, nor for that matter to a similar Jewish prohibition against depicting God.  After all, the Christian Churches which they know best regularly portray images of Jesus on their alters and museums, including those all over Europe, are filled with paintings depicting him.  The great Sistine Chapel has that extraordinary Michelangelo depiction of God reaching the hand of creation out to Adam.  On the surface then everything is explainable including the critical commentary on militant Islamism reflected in some of the cartoons.  But in a deeper sense it is a metaphor for our lack of mutual understanding, if not absolute disrespect.  It is part of that current “my way or no way” thinking that has so poisoned our public discourse at home and abroad. 

There are many things that go into making for a great friendship or marriage.  Among them of course is knowing how to please each other.  But perhaps the most important test of friendship, or expression of it, is knowing what hurts the other person.  Being sensitive to that, and more importantly protecting that vulnerability, often requires that we think before we speak or act.  It isn’t always a question of our ability to get out the words or do something, but measuring how it will be received.  That’s why newspapers and magazines have editors and why sometimes we consciously edit our own actions in personal relationships.  While candor is usually the best course, and should be the norm, selective editing about highly sensitive subjects isn’t inconsistent with integrity.  This is a tough global neighborhood in which we find ourselves today and navigating through it takes some doing.  We all like to talk about how small our planet has become, how easy it is to interact and to collaborate across national borders.  But as technology facilitates communication with others, the greater responsibility we have to understand those at the other end of the line.  My guess is the particular Dane who started this all, simply didn’t understand, and perhaps in the context of the real world in which we live that is becoming increasingly inexcusable.

We can’t condone the violent reaction taking place on the Moslem street some of which is undoubtedly being fomented by larger agendas.  The protests in Afghanistan that cost lives (and an apology by a news magazine) apparently had nothing to do with the desecration of the Koran (unknown to the demonstrators).  Nor in end can we tolerate any constraints beyond our own on how we express ourselves.  At the same time, all of us have a vested interest in doing something to change the dynamics of a world that is moving ever so swiftly toward catastrophe.  People in power, whether it’s President Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust to marshal support among the most radical in his streets, or on the other side Donald Rumsfeld comparing Hugo Chavez to Hitler at the National Press Club, have lost their sense of restraint and are pushing us further into conflict with both words and deeds.  The cartoon controversy has to be viewed in that unrestrained context; simply another expression of the same inflammatory thing.  Right or wrong is not the issue.  How to change course is.

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