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Friday, March 28, 2008

Freedom of Expression vs Social Responsibility

A Right Wing Dutch politician has made a film that is perceived as anti-Islamic and some Islamic countries have responded as one might predict. Unlike Christianity, Islam brooks no criticism, even from those outside the religion. I have no religious dog in this fight but I do have a dog in the fight for freedom of expression.

What chaps my butt is that the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations has also condemned the film. According to the BBC News web site, "The film sets verses from the Koran against a background of violent images from terror attacks." The Secretary General says, according to this web site,
"I condemn, in the strongest terms, the airing of Geert Wilders' offensively anti-Islamic film," Mr Ban said in a statement.

"The right of free expression is not at stake here," he added. "Freedom must always be accompanied by social responsibility."

Unfortunately, while the notion "free expression" is very clear in meaning -- it means (entails) that you and I may say or write any damn thing we like. There is a substantive problem with the Secretary General's notion of "social responsibility." The problem is that there is no internationally accepted set of standards of social responsibility.

Local communities like to pretend that they have standards of social responsibility. They pretend, for instance, that the community is agreed that certain representations are obscene. Photographs of naked women, if artfully done, might be seen as art and therefore as not appealing to our prurient interests. In another photograph, women might be shown engaging in sexual acts with each other. A museum that tried to put that on the walls might be forced to take it down. I happened to be in Cincinnati, Ohio during the time the infamous Mapplethorpe exhibit was on display. It contained photographs of naked men and of a crucifix, perhaps one with Christ on it, in a glass of urine. I have no doubt that these depictions violated the standards of social propriety in Cincinnati. Had it been on display at the Wexner Center at The Ohio State University I suspect it might not have been so controversial.

The idea there are local standards of propriety or social responsible behavior, while a bit of a fiction, does have some value. It allows us to (try to) keep certain materials out of the hands of very young children, for instance. What I very much doubt is that there are international standards of propriety or social responsible behavior. I, for one, am not a bit offended by this right wing Dutchman's film, as described. I am offended, however, by some of the Islamist's responses. An Al-Qaeda linked web site calls for his death and for increased attacks on Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan. I recently watched the Dutch movie, Brothers, and was not offended by the depiction of the extraordinarily brutal Al-Qaeda/Talliban actions toward two Dutch prisoners held n Afghanistan. I suspect that many Muslims would have been angry about this sort of depiction.

The reality is that there are very few international social mores that would be agreed to by the international community as a whole. There seems to be fairly universal distaste for incest within the nuclear family (father-daughter, for instance). There are not many other sexual mores that are universal condemned. And, people generally don't agree as to what sorts of criticism of a religion are acceptable. Perhaps the fact that there is no established church in the US is why we don't get very worked up about criticism of religions because implicit in having so many different religions and sects within our religions is that there is disagreement about basic principles.

I suspect this is the only thing I would agree to among the various beliefs of our Dutch Right Winger, but I do agree that there is nothing at all wrong with juxtaposing images of Islamic violence and passages of the Koran, the reason being simply that those who engage in this violence maintain that they do what they do in defense of their religion. I believe that our Secretary General must be an idiot. He is telling us that saying "Don't say 'P'" doesn't restrict what we can say. Claiming an exception to freedom of expression based on certain social values is ridiculous. As the Secretary General, he in some sense speaks for all of us. I don't want him to be speaking for me if this is the sort of thing he has to say.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Chimera said...

Excellent post!

I watched Fitna and, while I could appreciate Wilder's point, the film does not reflect the attitudes of any of the Muslims I know on a personal level. But then, most of the Christians I know don't reflect the attitudes of the fear-mongering, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-choice, fundamentalist rabble rousers, either.

What Fitna -- and the violent backlash that goes with it -- showed me was that the fringe elements of both Islam and Christianity need to be cautioned against. These people are crazy!

6:06 PM

 
Blogger Bilbo said...

Very well said! I had been thinking about a post along the same lines, but doubt I could have said it as eloquently. You may also draw a line from this controversy to the consistent actions of the Chinese government to restrict personal freedom of expression in the interest of creating a "harmonious society." As for Mr Ban, I think he has done great harm to everyone by essentially taking the side of the radical Islamists...but he, of course, wouldn't see it that way.

6:52 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Thanks for both of your comments. Chimera, you are too right about the dangers posed by the religious right of Christianity.

You are right, Bilbo, about the parallel in China. People who wish to restrict others from expressing themselves always have some lofty goal which they believe justifies the restrictions. One day, the Chinese people will put a stop to the actions of the thugs who run their country.

6:43 AM

 
Blogger Cornelius T. Zen said...

Good day, all! The reactions of the imams in Islam, and the people who follow their exhortations, merely prove the point of the observation. People who riot and burn because someone observes that they do this whenever anyone talks about them, only reinforce the conclusions drawn from the observation. The entire reaction process is one of imtimidation: Respect our beliefs, or we will riot and burn, and do crazyass things to scare you. And then, they "wonder" why people think of them as crazyass burning rioters.
Perhaps the challenge from the West should be: Prove us wrong.
CTZEN

2:55 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Indeed, if the great majority of Muslims are opposed to violence, it is their responsibility to engage with those who engage in it. They don't because, I believe, they believe that the crazies aren't all wrong.

2:58 PM

 
Blogger Chimera said...

Does that mean that you would also hold all Christians responsible for the crtiminal activities of people like the Phelps family, who actively promote hatred and hostility towards everyone who is not a Phelps family member?

A better solution, I think, would be to throw all this vile behavior open to ridicule. And I think the press ought to be front and center, leading the charge. If they actually have to report on terrorist activities (and yeah, I guess they have to), then they should also be poking fun and shame at the terorists instead of leading right into what the terrorists want -- more fear.

Laughter is a great antiseptic.

6:35 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

I had never heard of this Phelps family. Seems like the main man is all over the map, hating such an unlikely band of brothers as Bill O'Reilly, Coretta Scott King, Ronald Reagan, and Howard Dean. Perhaps he is an equal opportunity hater. It seems that Fred Phelps, Sr. does not maintain a Christian church but rather a gay hater church. So, no, I would not hold all Christians responsible for this guy.

8:25 AM

 

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