Sunday, 23 September 2012

Insulting the Prophet

What does it mean to insult someone?

We're all familiar with the basic schoolyard approach to insults.  They usually involve making some outrageous unflattering claim, often about the target's dietary or sexual practices, as a result of which presumably we are to hold the target in lower esteem. Personally, I was never much offended by the content of this sort of insult, nor much impressed by those who uttered them, perhaps because I have a tendency to interpret and analyze things literally. If someone alleges that I mate with iguanas, I'm more likely to be puzzled than offended: such a preposterous claim should reflect more on his credibility than my respectability.

Even in those instances where what was revealed about someone happened to be true, ("Billy's wearing green underwear!") it never made much sense to me that this should embarrass Billy. After all, we probably assumed he was wearing underwear, and it had to be some colour. I'd have thought it more embarrassing to be seen as having any interest in knowing the colour of Billy's underwear, and thus I always felt it was the insulter who should be embarrassed rather than the insulted. And I always felt just a little bit insulted as a member of the audience to such games, because the insulter who gleefully tells me the colour of Billy's underwear is implying through that speech act that I am expected to care.

That's the sort of thing that insults me. Not words, not statements of belief that I am unworthy, but clear demonstrations of that belief. You may say that you believe I am an idiot, and that's fine; you've presented a proposition which may be true or false, and put your own credibility on the line if I prove to be otherwise. But when you act in such a way that shows you fully expect me to behave like an idiot, when you tell me something obviously false and expect me to believe it or expect to convince me with a ridiculously flawed argument, that is something I can't help taking as an insult to my intelligence. When a grandmother's knitting needles are confiscated by airport security to protect me, it's an insult to my courage. When women are expected to dress modestly for fear their beauty will incite me to rape them, it's an insult to either my virility or my self-restraint or both. 

(Of course, if I am an idiot or a coward or an untrustworthy dangerous animal, it may be perfectly appropriate to treat me as such.)

And so what does it mean to insult Islam or its prophet or indeed any religion? Who or what should feel insulted, when someone makes a satirical film or a cartoon depicting the Prophet in an unflattering way? If what is said is false, well, does this not reflect poorly on the speaker more than it does upon the Prophet, and call for no more punishment than being revealed for a fool or a liar? And if what is said should be true, then it is either irrelevant and nobody's business (as in the case of Billy's underwear) or it is a relevant and legitimate criticism, in which case it is perfectly appropriate to act in accordance with it.

Actions speak louder than words. When, claiming to act on behalf of Islam, you storm an embassy and murder people because someone else thousands of miles away made a fool of himself, you demonstrate that you believe Mohammed to be an arrogant, vindictive and thin-skinned bully who resorts to violence rather than reason. If that belief is false, then it is you who insults the Prophet with your actions. And if it is true, then it is a perfectly legitimate basis upon which to criticize the religion.

Friday, 7 September 2012

That's not my house!

One day, when I was in kindergarten, we were all asked to draw pictures of our houses. And so we picked up our crayons and got to work. After a while, as my crude representation was beginning to take shape (I took great pains to get the chimney placement just right, struggling with how a vertical chimney could still be perpendicular to a sloped roof), the kid sitting next to me looked over and said indignantly, "That's not my house!"

Okay, so it was a French immersion kindergarten, and maybe the kid was still trying to sort out how pronouns worked, and thought the assignment for everyone was to draw his house. Kind of a cute mistake in a kindergarten kid, but it's somewhat more frustrating when this kind of subjectivity takes over in adults. Lately I've encountered it in two examples I'd like to discuss.

The first was in the context of a Facebook status thread argument about abortion, in which I reprised a little bit of my argument from this posting. Mainly I wanted to make the point that it may not always be a good thing to view the fetus as a person from the moment of conception, because while that may be a great way to behave as an expectant parent, forming a healthy social bond with the person-to-be, it also can create a great deal of unnecessary suffering in the case of a miscarriage. Miscarriages being rather common, after all, is it really better to think of oneself as the grieving parent of a dead child, or a (temporarily) disappointed would-be parent?

This comment drew considerable ire from one commenter who inferred immediately that I must not know what I'm talking about, or I could never say anything so heartless. Obviously I'd never been through a miscarriage myself. Obviously I wasn't a parent. Well.... as it happens, I have a fifteen year old son whom I love dearly, and my wife and I have been through somewhere between 4 and 6 miscarriages after he was born. (It's hard to know the exact number, because in at least one instance it was never fully established that she was actually pregnant. She sure had all the symptoms, but it's uncertain if anything remotely viable was actually starting to develop in there.)

Now, we were deeply disappointed each time, because we really did want a sibling for our son and another son or daughter for ourselves. We also had started to develop hopes for and bonds with the potentiality that was starting to grow, and it was sad to lose them. But did we feel like parents who had lost an actual child? No, no indeed. Our first pregnancy produced a healthy son, and now that he was born, the disappointment of losing a pregnancy was utterly inconsequential compared to the absolute horror with which we thought of losing him. We are the proud parents of a wonderful son; we are not at all the grieving parents of 4-6 dead children and one survivor.

My point here is not the commenter on that thread was wrong to think of a fetus as a person. I don't think she is wrong to think that way, or at least, not very  wrong; on a personal level I think it's quite desirable for individuals to bond with their unborn children that way because it is a part of good parenting. But I think she was wrong to think everyone must think that way, and to assume that her experience of pregnancy and miscarriage was privileged over any other experience that doesn't mesh with it. We are not wrong to be merely disappointed by miscarriage, either. The error she made, and the error I'm musing about in this post, is in thinking that her experience was the experience. Just as my kindergarten classmate mistook his house for the house we were all supposed to draw.

The other example that's been weighing on my mind lately is that of a frequent anonymous commenter to this very blog. He or she regularly exhorts me to accept a particular religious view, assuring me that if I just ask God to reveal Himself to me, I'll come to know Him and cease with all these silly doubts and philosophizing. Now, I don't doubt that I'll feel that way if I just swallow the blue pill (or is it the red one), that I'll be thoroughly and comfortably convinced of my place in the universe and my relation to the divine. But I can't get past the concern that feeling that way won't make it true.

Now, looking at it from the perspective of the commenter, I can certainly see his or her subjective position. I know that believing one has a personal knowledge of the divine feels exactly like knowing, and more, it feels like a private kind of knowing that no one else can truly understand if they don't feel it too. I understand how privileged that sense of knowledge can feel. I feel it too, but I recognize that it really only applies to things that I, by definition, must know, such as how I feel, how I perceive something, how sincerely I am open to God's revealing Himself to me. I know these things better than anyone else can, but I recognize that my subjective privilege doesn't go beyond the borders of my skull. It's not for me to know, better than you do, how you relate to God, whether or not you love your children, what your house looks like.

What I want to assert to my commenter here is that it's not for you to know, better than I do, how I relate to God, how much I love my son, or whether or not I'm drawing an accurate picture of my own house. It's not supposed to be your house.