Monday, February 06, 2006

The case of the Danish cartoons

It has been suggested that what this crisis is all about is "the perception of freedom of the press and freedom of information" It seems to me, however, to be a more general problem of how cultures differentiate between the rules (etiquette) of public and private expression and the status given to respect for deeply held personal convictions, especially those values that are clearly linked to the sense of personal and cultural identity.

In a culture (e.g. US and apparently Denmark) where "speaking up" (assertiveness) is seen as a core value, there appears to be a growing obsession with the principle of possessing – and affirming -- the right to say whatever's on your mind and exercising that right with a double objective: to prove the unlimited scope of your freedom and to attract attention, often with a commercial goal or simply to obtain some sort of competitive advantage (recognition, reputation, public image, etc.). This leads to the equally principled denial of any form of self-restraint in the name of another complementary core value, "healthy competition".

Because in such cultures outspokenness and competition are seen as overriding principles, it's easy to forget that all civilization have carefully codified tacit protocols of respect that govern everyday "public" social relations. In the intimate private sphere, the nature of freedom of expression changes and one can vent one's prejudices or provocative opinions freely. I would submit that our obsession with individual rights has partially broken down or at least obscured the natural frontier between public and private. This may be potentially as dangerous as losing the distinction between ego and id (and the two phenomena may well be related).

This may also explain why Political Correctness has become such a major issue in the U.S. If society loses track of the implicit and tacit rules of politeness and restraint in public expression and accepts provocation as a positive norm and an object of universal admiration, it has to invent artificial principles to compensate for this loss. PC does this in the most artificial and hypocritical way by imposing set rather than mutually understood rules.

In other words, I don't think we can reduce the question of modes of public communication to the purely political or judicial issue of "freedom of expression". What the Danish (and now European) issue raises is the deeper question of confidence in our institutions. To what degree are public institutions and the associated voices (the press, the state, authors, publishers and public speakers) responsible, not so much for the content of what they transmit or protect (with their laws) but for the psychological effects they provoke? Publishing is a complex communication activity engaging multiple responsibilities and creating an impression of complex complicity. What one man on a soapbox says - and his freedom to say it - should be seen as very different from what public institutions (protected by the law) disseminate in the guise of information.


In a Newsweek interview the Danish publisher responsible for the cartoons that have unleashed global violence makes an interesting remark:

"This is a clash of cultures and, in its essence, a debate about how much the receiving society should be willing to compromise its own standards in order to integrate foreigners. On the other hand, how much does the immigrant have to give up in order to be integrated?"

I presume the "standard" he's referring to is that of free speech, or rather the free commercial press, which isn't really the same thing since the Muslims wouldn't go to such extremes in the way of protest simply because certain individuals are anti-Muslim. I think confusing the two is part of
the issue, just as Bush's pronouncement in September 2001 that the attacks on New York and Washington were an "attack on freedom" was a misleading, tendentious and ultimately bellicose "interpretation" which drove us further from understanding the nature of the tragedy.

What strikes me in the publisher's account is that there are some serious cultural "idées reçues". Isn't it a bit odd to suggest that recognizing another culture and respecting its sensibility is a "compromise"? And should we be thinking in terms of the necessity of "giving up" aspects of one's culture to be integrated into another culture? It sounds to me like a one-way street even though it's
framed in terms of a trade-off (i.e. a commercial transaction, which should in itself provide a major hint concerning the cultural asymmetry at work here).

The "positive" side of this incident (and sadly the one that will ultimately justify the violence) is that it will likely produce a new code of conscious and explicit self-restraint: in other words, a new article of "PC". In future, no newspaper editor will take the risk of offending on this issue.

Supposing everything calms down and this turns out to be the final result, should we consider it a good thing? I sincerely doubt it. It turns a living tacit relationship into explicit PC. It's interesting that no one protested when Oriana Fallacci or Michel Houellebecq - both using the leverage of their
international fame - wrote anti-Muslim texts that were somewhere between provocative and racist. Why? Because they were just expressing their individual opinions in words. Even printed on a page, words are nothing but wind. Part of the reason for the reaction to the cartoons can be traced to the iconoclast tradition of Islam, which gives special importance to images. But I suspect the deeper reason is that a newspaper cartoon is "editorial" and therefore represents the public face of an approved institution (an organ of the respectable and respected press) rather than simply the utterance of an isolated individual expressing his point of view. What the editor tells us bears this out: the cartoons were commissioned and were not simply the spontaneous "opinion" of individual authors.

The question I ask myself is, why can't we in the post-modern (and post-Christian) Occident see that this is where the issue lies?

Here is the end of the interview:

So where do you draw the line between censorship and freedom of speech?
My newspaper has its limits. In a pluralistic society where you do have freedom of speech, my limits should not be the limits of others. We do have laws against racism and blasphemy.

Didn't your newspaper commit blasphemy by depicting Muhammad?

Danish prosecutors determined around a month ago that the cartoons were not blasphemous.

Will Jyllands-Posten apologize?

For what?

Now isn't this a nice illustration of how explicit low context cultures work? The law determines all questions of relationship. Discussion over. Once you know that you are within the law, nothing else matters.

1 comment:

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