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.


  1. An excelent presentation, Tom. When someone cannot so much as question the validity of another's claims, the implication is that the claims simply cannot stand examination. Zealous resistance to examination is no argument as to truth. Thank you for yor offering.

  2. Actually, I'm not sure you've got it on this one Tom. The nature of the insult is taking something personal and important, (perhaps private) and holding it up to public ridicule. For Billy, his underwear may not be something for people to be concerned over, but it IS his personal business, and for a kid, having anything set up for public negative attention will be a matter of considerable personal embarassment.
    When the issue comes to one's faith, faith is something intensely significant and personal. I hold to a particular religious view as a Christian. I am an educated, tolerant, westernized man who believes strongly in freedom of expression, but I get insulted and feel angry at material I consider to be insulting to Jesus, regardless of knowing the material to be false.
    Now, consider the reaction of an uneducated, ignorant fanatic to material deliberately intended to be provacative and insulting. Consider also this individual knows only living in a country where the government pretty much controls everything, and likely has little understanding of the idea of freedom of expression, having never personally experienced it. Of course they'll blow up. Of course they'll lash out at what they consider to be the source of the insult.
    Of course, I don't condone the people who attacked the embassy in Egypt. Wrong is wrong. On the other hand, freedom of expression or not, I can't condone a bully who seeks to deliberately provoke someone.

  3. Did I say I condoned the provocation? Not at all. I had little to say about the maker of that video not because I condoned it, but because I thought it unworthy of any attention at all. (Note to other commenters: this is not the same as not responding; I read all comments here, but only respond if I feel there's something to add or to refute.)

    But more importantly, I think it is missing the point to focus on the malicious intent of the insulter. It does not MATTER why someone says something offensive; the point is that responding with violence is no way to vindicate one's honour.

    With respect to your feeling insulted and angry if something appears insulting to Jesus, well, I don't see anything unusual about it, but so what? There are lots of perfectly natural human emotional responses to things which nevertheless we ought to resist. I maintain that we would all be better off if we weren't so prone to being offended at content, but rather just considered things rationally before accepting or rejecting them. Someone who too consistently wastes our time with senseless utterances just isn't worth listening to anymore, much less being offended at, however "natural" it might feel to take offence. (It FEELS natural for a heroin addict to crave another hit of heroin, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea.)

    Finally, while you might well be correct in describing the rioters as "uneducated, ignorant fanatics", I resist leaving it at that. As I mentioned in the original post, I find the more profound insult to be that which denies the fundamental autonomy of the target. Just as blaming a woman's choice of clothes for my behaviour insults me because it tacitly denies my responsibility for my own actions and hence my autonomy, so does blaming the riots on some goofy video maker or Danish cartoonist instead of the rioters themselves deny the autonomy of those rioters. Maybe they ARE just a bunch of ignorant savages, but I prefer to believe in the possibility of peace and dialogue, even if it may take a long time, and that necessitates taking it on faith that we are dealing with intelligent and autonomous beings.

  4. Being insulted by something you think is insulting to Jesus is assuming you know what Jesus feels and thinks and deems insulting. It is elevating yourself up to the level of Jesus. It is arrogant and pompous and blasphemy. Jesus can take care of himself. Don't insult him by thinking you're Jesus.

  5. Tom,

    You are missing the point when you criticize this violence as irrational. I don't think your essay fully recognizes what is happening in a culture or subculture where people feel the need to use violence to defend their honour.

    This is a complex topic that has been the subject of a great deal of academic writing in the fields of sociology, psychology, and even economics. I am not an expert in any of these fields, so I am reluctant to summarize here what little I know on the subject, and I welcome correction by others with more expertise, but my understanding is the following:

    Violent defence of honour serves an important social function. In societies with high levels of violence and significant inequalities of power, the life and safety of a person and his or her family may depend on maintaining a reputation as someone willing to exercise an apparently irrational level of force to keep his or her social position intact. In fact, there are some (definable) circumstances in which the most rational thing a person can do is to behave irrationally. It is precisely under these circumstances where violence-to-defend-honour becomes socially normative.

    If you live in such a society, a merely "proportionate" response to loss of face will cause others to view you as a target who can be exploited provided that the cost of defence exceeds the cost of enduring the exploitation. The net effect of many such small cuts can leave an individual vulnerable to ever increasing levels of exploitation, and in some societies, that can be fatal. It is much better to be seen as a crazy person with a hair trigger, who could over-react to any small slight. Those people are not targeted.

    This phenomenon exists at the level of individuals, of families, and even of nation states. ( see FIGHTING TO SAVE FACE: THE REPUTATIONAL CONSEQUENCES OF BATTLEFIELD EFFECTIVENESS
    Kathryn McNabb Cochran Department of Political Science, Duke University)


  6. Thank you for your comment, Nikolai. I'm aware of the game theory rationale for irrationality in deterrence, and the value of being seen as a very dangerous person to cross. A similar logic was fundamental to MAD during the Cold War; while the conscious choice to retaliate to a nuclear first strike would just be a conscious choice to kill millions more and thus a very hard choice to justify on any basis, it was a rational choice to design missile launch systems to make retaliation automatic and independent of human choice. Similarly, contract law itself is based on a voluntary surrendering of certain choices. The whole point of making a promise, after all, is that people can trust you to keep it even when it is not in your immediate interests to do so.

    But there are two scales to talk about here. On what I'll call the strategic scale, it might be rational to cultivate a reputation for trustworthiness, or for a hair trigger. On the tactical scale, this necessarily translates into a choice to behave "irrationally", whether it be by self-sacrifice to keep one's word, or by disproportionately expensive retaliation to perceived slights. Those tactical choices pretty much by definition have to be irrational, for the strategy to work.

    In any event, the rational choice of a strategy ought to take into account the nature of the social environment, and the global environment is one that is moving increasingly towards nonviolence and communication, an environment which does not favour the hair trigger. The only way it can be successful is if everyone else adopts a strategy of avoiding saying anything that might provoke the zealots, AND of tacitly condoning the zealots retaliation when it happens. In other words, their strategy requires that we endorse it and cooperate with it. Is it rational for us to do that?

    1. Tom,
      I am afraid I cannot agree with your postulation that "the global environment is one that is moving increasingly towards nonviolence and communication." It IS true that the Western environment is so doing, but not the global environment. As a direct result of the MAD strategy you mentioned such behaviour was enforced upon the Western world, but the rest of the world had absolutely no effect upon that dilemma and so the situation had no effect upon their development.
      In fact, the remaining 'superpower' has been revealed to be a fraud in the manner in which Nikolai presented - the 'bully' (aka USA) has been proven to be incapable of defending its' honour. The last four military incursions to which the USA has devoted its' forces have been failures (Vietnam, Iraq x2, and Afghanistan). Certainly no one is capable of fielding a massed military which would not be obliterated by US military might, but all of those ventures were guerilla fights against which the USA has yet to find a suitable response. And BECAUSE of the perception that 'civilized' interaction (ie. Western) is "moving towards nonviolence and communication" the US government faces condemnation and ailing support within their own population, forcing a military withdrawal before such perceptions can be developed in the occupied regions. This leads to a increased perception that the USA is weak and corrupt and an increased desire to 'punish' them - increasingly without fear of reprisal.
      Actually, when I first heard of the murder of a high-ranking US diplomat I was certain an extreme reaction would be forthcoming - and the result?, nothing (or near enough). The world has 'learned' that they can kill a US diplomat on US soil and suffer not at all. Strategically speaking, as you put it, the USA is rapidly becoming increasingly less threatening (the basis of their power for the last century). While a good thing in itself, it throws the balance of international power even further out of kilter - the nations that are feared now?: Iran, North Korea, and China. Why? - because no one knows what they might do next and everyone worries they may have nuclear capacity... oh wait, I just described the tactic of irrational behaviour to achieve reputation and respect.

  7. Nice to have you here, Tim.

    I stand by my claim about the global environment, and here I find myself referring to another Steven Pinker book, albeit one I haven't read yet (but hearing a friend talk about it was part of what put me in mind to write my previous post, The Good News About Bad News). In "The Better Angels of Our Nature", he argues that violence has been declining for centuries.

    I think this stands to reason, because one of the side effects of our steadily improving technology and systems of social organization has been that with each passing year, it's been possible to talk to more people and at greater distances. And when people can talk to each other, it become harder to kill each other. Not impossible, and still too easy perhaps, but hard enough to make a measurable difference.

    As for the balance of international power, you may be right that Iran and especially North Korea are feared right now (I'll get to China in a moment) but it's a mistake to think that makes them respected or even powerful. It IS a deterrent against interfering directly in their affairs, but if they were to try to use their crazy hair-trigger nukeloony reputation to project their will too much outside their borders, it would almost certainly be their undoing, because the rest of us all recognize that (1) collectively we can crush them, and (2) we'd all be much worse off if we let them call the shots that way. And being increasingly peaceful in the rest of the world does not mean that we cannot respond forcefully to genuine violent threats. So acting like crazy unpredictable mad dogs may work to keep these countries relatively safe from external threats, they don't actually work very well to garner international influence.

    China doesn't really belong in that category anymore, if it ever did, although there are some similarities which are instructive. Yes, it still has a very rigid deterrent-based policy with respect to intrusions upon what it sees as its territory, but then, so does almost everyone else. (Was it cost-effective for the U.K. to go to war over the Falklands? Probably not in terms of resources, but more so as to make deterrence credible).) But as important as China has been regionally, it never had much international power until quite recently, and THAT it has gained through trade relations, not threats of invasion or nuclear attack. The government is trying very hard to control the flow of communication with and within its population, but it is probably inevitable that over time, the trends towards peaceful communication will continue there as well.