Thursday, February 16, 2006

Very Interesting... But Stupid

Stanley Fish in the New York Times thinks that the Danish cartoons should have been self-censored. His reasoning? First he say that the editor is liberal which he describes as:
The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously. This is managed by the familiar distinction — implied in the First Amendment's religion clause — between the public and private spheres. It is in the private sphere — the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship — that one's religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.
As for Moslems, he defends them this way:
One of those arguments goes this way: It is hypocritical for Muslims to protest cartoons caricaturing Muhammad when cartoons vilifying the symbols of Christianity and Judaism are found everywhere in the media of many Arab countries. After all, what's the difference? The difference is that those who draw and publish such cartoons in Arab countries believe in their content; they believe that Jews and Christians follow false religions and are proper objects of hatred and obloquy.
So, it's ok for me to say anything I want as long as I believe in it strongly? But if I believe in something like free speech then I am supposed to censor myself?

But Fish goes too far in defending Moslems. Mohammed said that Christians and Jews are "people of the book" and to be respected. This isn't a custom added after the Prophet's death. It is in the Koran.

But I would bet that the editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision; they do it gratuitously, almost accidentally. Concerned only to stand up for an abstract principle — free speech — they seize on whatever content happens to come their way and use it as an example of what the principle should be protecting. The fact that for others the content may be life itself is beside their point.
We fight wars over abstract principles like freedom of speech. Fish seems to think that no one can hold strong beliefs worthy of respect unless they are inspired by religion.
The argument from reciprocity — you do it to us, so how can you complain if we do it to you? — will have force only if the moral equivalence of "us" and "you" is presupposed. But the relativizing of ideologies and religions belongs to the liberal theology, and would hardly be persuasive to a Muslim.
Maybe so, but Fish's argument does not persuade me. You cannot tell me that Moslems have the right to denigrate the West and to take offense when the West retaliates.

For a different take on Fish's article, see this.

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