Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why doth anyone rage?

I heard on the radio today (probably BBC News) that it is recorded (in the Koran?) that the prophet Mohammad himself was attacked and vilified in his life time; his response sounded almost Christian.  He blessed those who persecuted him, and forgave them their treatment of him.

I realized this afternoon this matter of insulting the Prophet touches on an issue central to Niebuhr's thesis in Moral Man and Immoral Society. I can, as a moral matter, accept calumny and even assault, in the name of my religious or ethical beliefs.  But can I, as a moral matter, accept the same on your behalf? 

That is entirely the thesis of Neibuhr's analysis:  an individual can be moral on their own behalf.  But can they be moral on behalf of others?  It may be right for me to accept insult of my Lord by others; indeed, there is nothing you could say to me that would enrage me enough to attack you, if your insults were directed toward Jesus of Nazareth.

But if they were directed toward my wife?  My daughter?  My brother?  My parents?  My friends?  At what point am I immoral, or at least unfeeling, to accept insults on behalf of others?

Let us posit that I should.  Who would blame me if I didn't?  If you felt any sympathy for any of the groups I've named, would you feel sympathy for my plight?  Or would you wonder, instead, about my self-esteem, my courage, my willingness to oppose evil even if it is merely insults to those I love and care about?  Might you even wonder how much I love and care about them?

It is not an unanswerable situation.  It is not a paradox without a resolution.  But the resolution is hard; it is almost superhuman one, it requires almost a saint-like composure and an almost inhuman withdrawal from the affairs of everyday life.  If I did it, who would understand me?  If I fought back, who would blame me?

It is right for Muslims to do as the Prophet taught and did.  It is right for Christians to do as Jesus and Paul taught and did.  But how far can we go in expecting others do to what we would not do?  We might not be as prompt to explode in public anger at insults to Jesus, we Christians.  But is that because we are morally superior to the angry Muslims on our TeeVee screens?  Or is it because we really don't care as much about our religious figures as they do?

Are we more spiritually pure?  Or just less spiritually concerned?


  1. About the time of the Danish Cartoons, it came to me that more than a billion Muslims didn't care about what I thought though they might care about what I did. Or a fraction of that billion people might care and react badly and 1% of 1,000,000,000 people is a lot of people. In such a situation it's necessary to decide what is important and what isn't.

    A few minutes ago I was listening to a French guy on the radio commenting on one of the most recent copy-cat incitements in a French "satirical" magazine, "satire" meaning "stupid" in easily 9 out of 10 cases. Of course the assertion was that it was essential to democracy that any stupid and obviously intentional incitement to a violent reaction in the Islamic world be published. But I don't buy for a second that eventually the cost of that entirely unnecessary incitement will be too much for "more speech" or the enlightenment stupidity of pretending that all ideas are of equal worth and worth more than many, many lives will have to give way to something that prevents hate speech.

    I had a big fight over free speech absolutism on two different in which I asked if the infamous book "Hitman", explicitly an instruction book on how to be a hitman, to commit murder and get away with it, which was used to commit three murders that we know about, was allowable. Of course the answer was that it had to be permitted, even if it inspired people to try to get away with murder for hire. I don't think so. People always talk about a slippery slope but allowing it is also a slope, one that we know gets people killed.

    The enlightenment theory in which some unseen hand chooses the best ideas is as absurd in real life as the idea that capitalism produces justice. Hard as it will be, the internet and other forms of instant, unedited transmission will force new ways to deal with a new environment.

  2. Was listening to BBC WHYS today, and some on the panel ("Is Islam under attack?" was the topic) were pointing out, as you did, that even if 100,000 Muslims were rioting about anti-Mohammed films or cartoons or what-have-you, that's less than 1% of the Muslims extant in the world.

    OTOH, they said, why is there a need to provoke? I think there is something about poking someone to get a reaction(I want to say an animal in a cage, but it's a disrespectful image. OTOH, many of the angriest Muslims may feel they are being treated like an animal in a cage anyway....) that then hides behind "Free speech" as an excuse to be, ass. Or worse.

    As the people on that panel did, it is possible to decry the violence without approving of the provocations. Too, to impose enlightenment theory in the name of "universal reason" on cultures that have rather different impressions of "enlightenment" and "reason" (especially since both tend to be wielded as clubs rather than as flashlights) of them, at least as coming from a superior down to an inferior (in power if not in absolute stature), is no different really from imposing religious ideas on the non-religious.

    Ironic, no?

  3. Are we more spiritually pure? Or just less spiritually concerned?

    There is a third option: we are more empowered and also have smaller goals. For the un-empowered, we remember what might happen to a raison in the sun ... it might explode. Fundamentalists in our country, however, needed get violent to make a splash, whining about having their "freedom" trampled will do when your goal is simply to nudge policy or even just the political discourse in a certain direction.