Human beings are sensitive creatures. It’s interesting that this is so because, as a species, we have survived for an unimaginable length of time and more threats to our existence than we could count (none worse than ourselves).
So it is always somewhat entertaining – or sad, depending on your point of view – to see how sensitive we humans get about minor things when we have any level of physical need satisfaction. The moment we don’t have to worry about where we will get our next meal, or where we will sleep next, we get ready to get pissed off about something.
And unfortunately what seems like a majority of people – at least in those countries where we do not have to worry about our next meal, or our next shelter – seem to have this belief that if they are angry it is the fault of the person they are angry at. For some reason, the insight psychology has brought us that anger and outrage come from a disruption of our perception of what is right has been lost on most of us.
The key word here is perception: we perceive something has happened that offends us.
Offense is a relative thing. What offends one person may not offend another – which is why we
cannot should not legislate the concept of respect. But most of us believe our anger is objective. When we are angry at someone or something, we are most often self-righteous. And we see the situation as caused by a singular event. Some other did something or said something bad; that’s why we’re mad. It’s not because of something complicated, but it’s always something simple and usually associated with intention, no matter how unintentional the action or words may have been – i.e “How could you do that to me?”
So now we have yet another one of these eruptions of outrage that are so common to our (settled) species: one religious group doesn’t like what another has done and blames them for anything. And those of us who aren’t involved directly, who didn’t make the film, who don’t support the views in the film, but who also don’t support the actions of those reacting to the film, or their views, are left asking the same tired questions about free speech (only phrased slightly differently to fit this situation):
- Should Google ban Innocence of Muslims from Youtube?
- Should a French paper not publish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad?
- I.e. should people self-censor themselves in a free society when they know that people will respond with outrage and violence?
The answer to that question is, and has always been, no. But people still insist on asking the question.
Because of our lack of understanding of anger, or perhaps because of the perceived complexity of our society – and definitely because of an incomplete understanding of the social psychology concept regarding circumstances influencing actio – we get confused about moral responsibility. We decide that those responsible for committing violence are not the people acting violently, but those who supposedly provoked them.
This basically affirms the anger people experience. It says “Yes, those feelings you are experiencing are completely and totally legitimate and are absolutely the direct result of this publisher’s / filmmaker’s actions, and not the result of things happening to you internally and externally.” And when we support this idea we then fail to understand that just because social psychology lets us see how easy it is for supposedly good people to resort to violence doesn’t then mean that they are excused from responsibility for that violence.
It reminds me of a story taught to a class in Donald Hall’s “Argument and Persuasion,” about a serial killer.
In the story, the class is asked who is ultimately responsible for a serial killer murdering an adulterous woman.
Most of the class wants to blame the woman, or the man she was cheating with, or the husband she was cheating on, or the ferryman who wouldn’t let the woman take the safe way home because she was short of money. Few want to blame the man who killed her.
But obviously (perhaps not so obviously) the man who killed her is responsible for her death.
And we get the same thing today: the filmmaker is responsible, Google could be responsible, a newspaper could be responsible. They better not publish / distribute. If they do, blood will be on their hands!
And so free speech, something that is absolutely necessary in keeping people safe from their governments and other supra-human forces, is threatened constantly because we cannot establish moral responsibility for actions. The rioters are those in the wrong; nobody else.
But banning The Innocence of Muslims will not lessen the violence in the world, nor will keeping some new provocative cartoons out of the paper.
It is the mark of a civilized person to be able to put his or herself in another’s shoes. Sure, the filmmaker does not appear to be a civilized person in this light. But how do these rioters look, unable to tolerate any opinions but their own? Unable to understand that an American living in post-9/11 America might fear Islam. Or unable to understand that some people are just crazy and should be ignored.
We mock Yaweh, we mock Jesus, we mock Buddha, we mock Vishnu. And we do this in part because it’s funny to see people angry but also in part because, at some level, we can use humour to convey truth. Claiming that even non-humourous depictions of Muhammad are off limits is not based in reason, in understanding, in any civilized trait. It is based in fear, in intolerance, in envy, in self-righteousness, in behaviours that those of us who seek to be better people, in our private and public lives, should condemn time and again. And we should defend the rights of kooks to do say whatever they want, because it’s not the kooks that are making us mad.