Words, Violence, Nuance and Proportion: Our Existential Crisis

I think we need to take serious stock of where we stand here. Civilization today is at a point where its very foundation — the idea that we can work out our differences without trying to kill each other — is in real danger. The facet brought up so often in the Traditional Media is our “interconnected, multicultural world.” In this frame, the question becomes whether or not freedom of expression can truly be maintained in the face of those who reject that ideal.

A whole heck of a lot more after the fold.

I agree with Pastor Dan that religion itself is not the root problem. I’d argue that the real issue is, in essence, tribalism. Sure, most Europeans don’t riot over depictions of Christ. Instead, they riot over soccer (in the First World, they call it football) games and events. Yeah, that’s some moral high ground for you — Westerners don’t burn buildings down over our religion, we do it over real issues, like sports! (Maybe that’s why the Super Bowl is held at a neutral site…) At any rate, the question therefore becomes, can we continue to permit freedom of speech, press and religion — in other words, freedom of, well, words — when so many fanatics are willing to respond to them murderously? I would argue that we not only can, but must.

Ever since Hammurabi, the idea of proportional response to a crime or offense has grown in the Western world. (I’m sure there are similar origins and codes elsewhere, such as the constitution of the Iroquois Confederation.) As time has passed, this idea has gained strength, albeit with the occasional backsliding and plenty of hypocrisy (most of which boils down to “well, they’re not the same as us, so they don’t count”) over the millennia. As we have become more “interconnected,” especially during the Cold War where one serious mistake could have annihilated life on Earth, we as a species have been forced to realize the importance of compromise. We began the process of understanding one another, of accepting our own humility in realizing no one group was going to convince any other that it had a monopoly on The Truth ™ any time soon.

Recently, though, something has gone horribly wrong.

It was inevitable, I suppose. It isn’t as if reactionary forces haven’t always been with us. To be honest, though the past few years have seen some backsliding, things have been much, much worse. Our collective situation is still far better than it was during colonization, or when a black Southerner could be lynched with impunity, or when women could be locked up and force-fed. The thing is, we’ve advanced a long way in a short time — and what we’re looking at is the backlash. The world is changing at a breakneck pace, and leaders who offer stability can get people to follow them to the gates of Hell. They’ll think they’re storming the place even as they start to serve as kindling.

The point of all this history is, while we’ve come a long way and only stumbled back somewhat, humanity stands at an ugly and dangerous precipice. Our discourse has reached the point at a number of levels — political, social and religious — where the basic right to even have a discourse is being seriously questioned. Violence is excused and commentary condemned, and neither the left nor the right seems to have any exclusivity to either position. Now it’s fine to condemn vile and inflammatory commentary. Indeed, the discourse I refer to practically demands it if discussion is not to degenerate into a cultural cold war (c.f. the United States of America). For all that, however, this rather sudden acceptance of violent extremism betrays a deeper impulse.


The bandages have been coming off our collective psychic wound for years. I would argue that the attacks of September 11th began our current cycle, but torture and its acceptance, absolutism, primitive tribalism, the preference for “truthiness” over fact, recrimination and pure malice have turned into a downward spiral, abetted by all sides. So now here we are, at a nadir where people are dying over cartoons. Fracking cartoons. None of this is new, of course. Depending on your beliefs, the cycle of pain, death and recrimination goes back to Adam and Eve, the son-overthrows-father pattern of Ouranos, Cronus and Zeus, or the first time two cavemen fought over the best piece of meat.

Over millennia, despite generations of hatred, ancient feuds and genocidal wars, we have slowly stumbled towards something better. That ideal goes by many names today: liberty, democracy, justice, equality and civilization, among many others. It all boils down to one notion, though — we all have the right to our opinions, and may the best opinions win (the “marketplace of ideas”), without interference from the old, barbaric ways. We put aside idiocies of collective guilt by race, gender, religion or nationality. We sit down and talk, sometimes calmly, sometimes passionately, occasionally even rudely in the extreme, but always the ideal is to sit down and talk, in the hopes of understanding one another. For instance, I never imagined I would be thanking someone going by the moniker “Baptist Death Ray,” let alone saying “Amen” to something they said. Live and learn. (waves to Baptist Death Ray 🙂

Part of this notion of civilization, however — and herein lies the rub — is that if you sit down all day, talk till you’re blue in the face, and are still pissed at each other, you all get up and walk away and try again when cooler heads might prevail. Gods know it works that way rarely enough, but at least that’s been the idea. The League of Nations was hopelessly flawed and the UN has its problems, but they’ve both been enormous steps in the right direction. Now this is not to say you hand yourselves over to the Nazi Hordes when they come to kill your men, experiment on your women, and put whatever’s left in concentration camps, but at that point, the other side isn’t bothering with meaningful communication any more.

Which brings me back around to barbarism and violence. It’s not barbarism to fight off a bunch of thugs coming to burn your village down. It is barbarism to burn down their village because they (havedon’t havehave the wrong) “idols” in their temple. You don’t like our idols? Let’s hear your pitch, brother. We’ll listen, but chances are we’re happy with what we’ve got. Which brings us back around (finally!) to some stupid cartoons (and some not so stupid cartoons). It is one of the primary “idols” of Western philosophy that freedom of expression cannot be held hostage to religion. Indeed, that was much of the point of, among other things, the First Amendment:

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802

Emphasis mine.

Now we can debate the various merits and follies of individual statements. (I will address this in the next paragraph.) It is very clear, however, that our laws defer in the extreme toward expression and oppose violence almost entirely. We have the right to bear arms, true — and I am a “Second Amendment liberal,” by the way — but the uses of those arms are highly restricted under the law.

Notice I said “defer in the extreme” and “almost entirely.” This is where nuance comes in. I am frustrated as hell at the scattershot use of “fire in a crowded theater;” Justice Holmes was being clever in a case that was about resisting the draft in a controversial war (World War I), and the phrase has been used as a club ever since. However, the idea is true in its essence (assuming the theater isn’t on fire), and the concept is the basis for laws regarding libel, slander, and incitement to riot. Likewise, while “preemptive strikes” are usually immoral in the extreme (Poland, anyone?), if a demagogue is whipping up a town full of antsy locals to burn down someone’s house, I’m not going to be too upset if the sheriff clocks him in the jaw and tells everyone to go home. Every situation is unique, and we have to judge each situation by the relevant speech and response. Slapping someone for calling a beloved family member a traitor is far less egregious than kneecapping someone for calling you an idiot.

Thus, finally, do we get to proportion. (Brief aside: please, people, learn the difference between a boycott and economic sanctions. One is a group of people voluntarily refusing to do business with a group they consider odious; the other is a group of nations making it illegal for their citizens to do business with another government and possibly its citizens.) If someone tries to take a sledgehammer to your windshield, putting the vandal in a non-damaging arm lock and finding a cop is showing, um, restraint. (Pardon the pun.) If a testosterone-poisoned thug draws a knife and tries to gut you, breaking his arm to stop him is more or less fair, depending on your skill level. Shooting someone in the head for calling you a (insert racial epithet here) is, shall we say, excessive. These proportions have been more or less determined by centuries if not millennia of trial and error, experience and justice. While we argue about details, the basic tenets have been fairly universally agreed upon for the last hundred years. Admittedly, that agreement has sometimes been honored more in the breach than the practice, but the basic principle has been accepted by pretty much everyone. This is part of (though certainly not entirely) the reason, I would argue, for the successes of Gandhi and Dr. King — they claimed and held the moral high ground by refusing to lower themselves to the methods of their rivals.

Finally, a thought I’d meant to work in more fluidly, but that fits well as an epilogue. I’d say I’ve done a fair job of debunking the notion of violence being an acceptable response to speech. Let’s assume, however, just for the sake of argument, that words are more potent than bullets — that the pen is truly, in all ways, mightier than the sword. Why the frack are you bringing a knife to a gun fight? (That’s a hypothetical “you” here.) If words are so powerful, what kind of pathetic spiritual wimps have to silence their foes with violence?

(/) Roland X
B.A. English (writing concentration)


The pen or the sword?

• Pen. 40%
• Sword. 0%
• Depends on the situation. 40%
• Can I have a sword-pen? (I’m an anime fan.) 6%
• Global Thermonuclear War. 0%
• Other. 13%

Votes: 15


Tip jar (4.00 / 8)

…though I suspect it’s just as likely to be a flame jar. 😉

(/) Roland X
Fleeing the Chenon tyranny, the last Battleblog, Galactikos, leads a rag-tag fugitive web on a lonely quest; a shining concept, known as Truth.

by Roland X on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 20:48:59 PDT

Some things I thought of while Roland was working (4.00 / 4)

Suppose someone else here posted something that I found deeply, personally or spiritually, insulting.

I have the right to complain. I have the right to ask the person to stop, and even to express that opinion to PD (who then has the unenviable job of mediating). I have the right to tell all and sundry what I think of the offender, his personal habits, his intellectual capacity, and the horse he rode in on.

What I do not have is the right to track him down and punch him out. Or slash his tires. Or his brake lines. Or burn down his house, or his church, or his place of employment, or his Congressperson’s office, or Pastor Dan’s house (since it’s his blog), or the offices of voxel.net (the site host, per a whois lookup). Nor do I have the right to incite anyone else to do these things.

If grade school children can learn that hitting someone isn’t the appropriate response to verbal (spoken, written, or drawn) insults, why can’t adults?

by Morgan on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 20:50:44 PDT

I voted … (none / 1)

… for “Depends on the situation.”

Which of course makes me a “moral relativist” to some and therefore contemptible.

by Propheticus Lycanthroponica on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 21:41:05 PDT

It was the mange… (none / 1)

that made you contemptible.  Already.

by ogre on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 23:33:32 PDT

Absolutely! (none / 1)

by Mike Finley on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 04:09:30 PDT

You guys! (none / 1)

You seriously make me laugh!

I voted the same, P.L.;

As Mohammed PBUH sez; (Or maybe it wasn’t him… gosh! will I get my embassy burned?)

“Trust in God, but tie your camel with care”

(Religious disclaimer here)

by princembm on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 04:23:00 PDT

working for understanding (4.00 / 4)

Thanks for posting this!

What saddens me the most about this situation is the gulf of understanding between the two sides and that so many people (on both sides) are only making matters worse instead of trying to work towards understanding and being able to live together in peace.

In my experience, when having such a discussion, one needs to have a willingness to listen to and really try to understand the other side’s point of view. Starting from a position of “I know I’m right and you’re wrong” is usually counter-productive.

This does not mean giving up our principles – we do not have to change our minds in the end. But we should try to listen and be willing to consider a new perspective.

“Riches does not mean having a great amount of property, but riches is self-contentment.” (Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him)

by lauramp on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 22:22:04 PDT

I’ve been having a very good conversation (4.00 / 3)

with a friend who is a European cartoonist–a Belgian–exploring how we both feel about all this, and what we think….

If someone could harness the power of human stupidity, we’ve no doubt that the energy crisis would be solved.  Forever.

Stupid, stacked on stupid, piled high on still more stupid.

My firm stance is that both “sides” are firmly right AND are completely deranged and wrong headed.  It gets worse from there. <sigh>

by ogre on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 23:36:44 PDT

Maybe we should see it (4.00 / 3)

as one more sign that the world is getting smaller.

We can’t talk about “them” any more without “them” overhearing us.

Which means we can speak as loosely as we once did.

Sometimes I think that is why our age is so very angry — we overhear things today that never used to come to our attention.

The world was always rude, but because of technology is it always “in your face” rude now.

by Mike Finley on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 04:11:53 PDT

Thank you (none / 1)

for this very thoughtful post.  And I agree with lauramp and ogre.

“Religion without humanity is a poor human stuff.”
— Sojourner Truth

by the stormy present on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 03:04:48 PDT

Excellent post (none / 1)

Thought provoking.  I haven’t followed the crisis of the cartoons other than hearing about the rioting.  The angst the Muslims are feeling isn’t moving my soul, it seems very overblown, but I know none of the particulars.  The reaction is not productive and harmful to themselves.  Why don’t they punish by sanctions or boycotts.  Is this the reasoning of a person too far removed from their world?  Is their life so different from mine that I cannot even begin to understand their feelings?  Is their society so different that I am not able to grasp how it works.  Has Dervish weighed in here?  I would like to hear his thoughts.  
     I also think that as civilized human beings, people in the media would be sensitive to the needs of one group or another and not cause these uproars for the sake of satisfying their own egos.

by tobendaro on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 07:16:47 PDT

More than two sides (4.00 / 3)

I think its important to keep in mind that there are more than two sides operating here.Moderate Muslims are as much or more on the defensive from radicals than we in the west.Many of them fear reprisal and being labeled as apostates, placing themselves, their family and their friends at risk.

The following is from a 2001 Christian Science Monitor essay, “Looking for Islam’s Silent Majority

In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia or other Gulf sheikhdoms, it is simply forbidden for anyone to take to the streets to protest the state religion. In others, like Egypt and Algeria, where armed Muslim radicals have battled government forces – and intellectual enemies – for years, many moderates are simply too scared of being killed to stand up and be counted.

That fear has spread far and wide. In Pakistan, says a young man who – tellingly – asked not to be named, “it used to be quite OK to publicly criticize a mullah. It was normal. But now I keep silent. The man sitting next to me – I don’t know where he stands. And he could take my name to the [militant] brothers.”

Another article suggests

The US must go beyond broad doctrines toward the Middle East and work more closely with each country’s unique dynamics. It should better tap into public sentiments that oppose authoritarian rule. Most of all, especially with Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, it must work with moderates within such radical Islamic camps. These groups are hardly unified in their policies, and can be splintered.

As demands for accountable rule and checks on power rise in the Middle East, the real issue may be less secular versus Islamic rule and more a battle over who speaks for Islam. (A similar battle is under way in Israel, where a March election is raising the issue of who speaks for Judaism.)

It seems to me that the media coverage, by and large, is allowing radical voices to speak for Islam.They could instead help diffuse the situation by offering more coverage of liberal and moderate Muslim opinion.Stereotypes and over-generalizations only make the situation worse.

As a mother with her own life guards the life of her child, have all-embracing thoughts for all that lives. -Metta Sutta [-8.38,-6.15]

by Jeff G on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 08:57:00 PDT

We seem to largely be absent (none / 0)

the voices of Islam from the Middle East. I linked in my tour this week Global Voices, a blog accumulator dedicated to an international view of the blogosphere.

I will just pick Pakistan for a moment. This post, which gives an overview and links some others, is very close to my own view. He links a Muslim blogger who reprints the cartoons (gets criticized, and defends, his position in the comments); and Fahd “goes off” [1] and says:

Its our religion and its our life. Nobody has a right to ridicule it in any way. I speak English, I also wear western clothes. I have studied western subjects. I am working on technologies created by west. I like to eat some of western food. I like to watch baseball and football. I like to watch hollywood flicks. I like to listen to western music. I am not a so-called fanatic or so-called fundamentalist. I abhor terrorism and I abhor clandestine attacks. But I am angry, I am in deep agony. My heart is bleeding, my eyes are weeping. My mind is aching and my soul is screaming. I want to see those who have published those cartoons severly punished. I want to see them suffer as the billions of Muslims are suffering around the world. Everybody should have the freedom of speech but nobody has a right to insult us.

Read these posts and the comments.

Bible in a Year now posted weekly. Index is here

by JCHFleetguy on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 09:37:46 PDT

So, (none / 1)

(quoting what you linked to):

I also feel very strongly that protesting such a derision of one’s faith, should be restricted to verbal or written discourse and not breaking windows, burning flags, effigies or buildings. But hey, that’s just me.

I semi-agree. IMO, burning flags and effigies is OK (assuming it’s not someone else’s property), as long as there’s no physical injury or property damage being caused. Burn their flag, not their embassy.

by Morgan on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 17:50:16 PDT

Burning flags is a provocation (none / 0)

because the percentage of people who will shrug at the gesture is very tiny  …

It is intentionally viceral and says, “We felt it was worth violating your sensibilitis to bring this matter to your attention …”

What happens 97.2% of the time is, the offended people don’t even think about the issue behind the torching —

they just go bananas over the insult

Never forget this horrible truth about human nature:

our animal brains are 10,000 more effective than our cerebral cortex —

i.e., cognitive as we can sometimes be, we become passionate way before we become thoughtful

So, one must wonder at the usefulness of such a ploy

by Mike Finley on Wed Feb 8th, 2006 at 03:44:30 PDT

[1] Link was to http://fahdoracle.blogspot.com/2006/02/we-protest-we-protest.html

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