Tuesday, January 31, 2006

On Cartoons and Violence

Muslims around the world have expressed outrage over 12 cartoons printed in a Danish newspaper last September. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador. Muslim groups have called for boycotts of Danish goods and stores in the Arab world pulled Danish products off of their shelves. Some groups such as the Mujahedeen Army called for attacking Danish interests wherever possible and placed a bounty on the cartoonists who created the drawings.

Last night, the newspaper apologized saying that “offending anybody on the grounds of their religious beliefs is unthinkable to us.”


Let us assume that a group of Nazis get the idea that Hitler was a prophet and that Mein Kampf was the Newest Testament. Clearly, it would continue to be appropriate to denigrate Hitler, to count him evil, and to condemn those who idolize him.

We have every right to distinguish a religion that demands its followers do harm to others from one that demands that its followers live in peace with others. It is absurd to say that, if a religion demands that its followers do harm to others, that those others have an obligation to suffer harm, rather than condemn that religion and those who embrace it as a threat. Just as we have a right to distinguish different religions based on whether they embrace doing harm or bringing peace, we have a right to distinguish between sects within a religion. Claiming that all followers of a religion are alike when simple observation shows that this is false is simple bigotry. We must recognize distinctions where they exist.

This was where the Danish cartoons have problems. They lumped all Muslims together, failing to distinguish Muslims who stresses peace and tolerance from those who embrace violence.

However, the sects that preach peace and tolerance were not the ones calling for the destruction of all things Danish, or threatening the lives and limbs of Danish citizens. Only a Muslim who belongs to a cult of hate and violence would embrace these options. These are the Muslims as deserving of contempt and condemnation as the Hitler cult mentioned above.

A Muslim truly interested in peace and tolerance should recognize that Muslims who preach hate and violence are more of a threat than those who print cartoons in a newspaper. If a given Muslim sect finds that it is heartened by the violence that other Muslims preach, then they are also to be considered a family of the cult of violence, not a sect of peace.

Civilized people recognize that appropriate response to speech is with counter-speech that points out the malicious and bigoted nature of the original claims.

Yesterday, I responded to an online article that equated atheists who "get [atheism] right") with sociopaths. Specifically, he wrote of the atheist who “gets it right” that, “Some people already do that. We call them sociopaths.” There is no difference between this and a cartoon that equates Muslims with terrorists.

I responded as a civilized person should respond, with a letter posted on my blog and sent to the offending parties indicating the moral depravity in that original article.

According to the principles of some Muslim sects, I should have called my fellow atheists to attack, whenever or wherever possible, anybody having anything to do with the state of Wisconsin. We would place a bounty on Mr. Reich. Yet, clearly such a response is so morally depraved to be worthy of any serious consideration.

If any atheist had gone beyond speech and proposed violence -- particularly if they had proposed violence against people for no reason other than that they come from the same state as the bigot who produced the original article, I swear I would have had a post on my site within the day condemning them.

Furthermore, I would have expected to be trampled by the stampede of electrons from other atheist writers who would have also been quick to condemn the atheist who made such a call for violence. I would have been sorely disappointed if this was not the case.

Yet, I know of no such atheists to condemn. They are so rare, at least around here, that I can only talk about the hypothetical atheist making such a call to do violence. The reason they are rare is probably due in no small measure to the fact that they know how few allies they would have.

This does not mitigate against the original wrong. Publishing an article that equates atheists with sociopaths, or Muslims with terrorists, is an act that deserves the harsh condemnation. I am not inclined to take back a single word that I had written in response to that article.

However, civilized people agree to moral limits to the responses they give to offensive speech. When any group goes beyond those limits, then the target of that outrage should shift. The wrong of the offensive speech is orders of magnitude less than the wrong of making calls to violence.

Civilized people can understand the difference.


Alonzo Fyfe said...


In the category of "two wrongs do not make a right", it is a poor argument to claim that since Arab papers engage in this type of activity, that they should not condemn that behavior in others.

This would require the assumption that there is nothing wrong with what these papers do.

I am not willing to go down that road.

Anonymous said...

If they should condemn it or not is more a matter of the hypocrisy involved then the ethics of it.

Personally I don't find it a problem (or a surprise) when editorial cartoons anywhere excercize their normal and expected villification of the opposition (political, national, cultural or what have you) as thats pretty much what they're for.

Consider me on the side of an open (and likely offensive) press.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I believe in a free press, but I also believe that an author has to have some devotion to truth. If a depiction is meant to convey a message that is harmful to others, and it is not accurate (true), that is wrong.

I have no objection to being offensive. However, there is no virtue in hiding an offensive truth. Since no individual has a monopoly of truth, even offensive falsehoods need protection.

This is why I argue that the only legitimate response to offensive speech is speech itself. Nothing else -- particularly not violence -- is appropriate.

Anonymous said...


Agreed no one gets a pass because of religion. The cartoon link your provided is actually a bit less brutal then I was expecting, seems like they should get some pointers from some of the neo-nazi fringe group sites in the US/EU


I don't disagree at all, I'm just not an acceptor of the 'responsible speech' arguement I always seem to hear as a euphemism for censorship agendas.

As to the violence solution, its mostly amazing to me how few fanatics manage to see how all they do is make these depicitons true with such calls to arms. I wish my self-blinders were that good :)

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, the subject of your comment is what I was planning to write about the next day.

However, the research that I did revealed that it is possible that these more offensive cartoons still came from Denmark. They simply were not among the original 12. However, I found no evidence that they were ever identified as being a part of the original 12. They were always described, in what I found, truthfully, as "other cartoons about Mohammed that have recently circulated in Denmark."

I can see this being true. After the controversy broke, I bet a few skinheads took great pleasure in creating drawings that were as offensive as possible.

So, I could not post that blog. I would be at risk of accusing people of things that they had not done.

Anonymous said...

"This was where the Danish cartoons have problems. They lumped all Muslims together, failing to distinguish Muslims who stresses peace and tolerance from those who embrace violence."

Well, don't *all* political cartoons generalize in a way that would be unacceptable in a written article or editorial? Aren't there lots of editorial cartoons with labels like "Democrats" or "Republicans" or "Army" on some figure doing something (good or bad) which not *all* members of that group do or advocate?

What about political cartoons which show Uncle Sam doing something bad as a way to criticize the United States - does it unfairly lump all Americans or all government employees together? It's standard for political cartoons to take a representative symbol of some group and use it to castigate the excesses of that group.

I'm not saying that no political cartoons can go too far, but I don't think that the mere presence of generalization is a flaw unless we're going to go after the entire genre.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

austin cline

I concede that you have a point.

Well...it is not true that "all" political cartoons are like this. Many are not about a group.

However, it is common for a cartoonist to use a character in a cartoon to represent a group -- such as using an elephant to represent Republicans or a donkey to represent Democrats.

Yet, the bigotry of "all Muslims are terrorist" is a prejudice that has the same merit as "all atheists are sociopaths". The message deserves no defense.

However . . . I do think that it is possible to measure the percentage of Muslims of peace to Muslims of war by the numbers who protest the beheadings of captured civilians in Iraq to those who advocate violence in response to cartoons published in Denmark.

Anonymous said...

"Yet, the bigotry of "all Muslims are terrorist" is a prejudice that has the same merit as "all atheists are sociopaths". The message deserves no defense."

True, but my point is that I don't think the cartoons necessarily send this message. They can be interpreted this way, but cartoons using an elephant to represent the Republican Party could also be interpreted as sending a message about all Republicans.

Could... but *shouldn't* because the use of symbols to attack the excesses of some members of a group, not all members, is part of the genre of political cartoons. It's part of the conventions which make up political cartoons and which allow cartoonists to express their ideas simply and immediately without all the caveats and qualifications which would properly be part of a reasoned argument.

What are the "symbols" of Islam? What works in a political cartoon? Either Muhammad or someone dressed in traditional Arab robes. For the Catholic Church, we'd use someone dressed as a priest or pope - and without intending to attack *every single* priest or *every single* Catholic.

"However . . . I do think that it is possible to measure the percentage of Muslims of peace to Muslims of war by the numbers who protest the beheadings of captured civilians in Iraq to those who advocate violence in response to cartoons published in Denmark."

I agree. This is why the cartoons are appropriate. If it really were only a very tiny number of people within Islam who advocated or supported violence, then the cartoons would probably be inappropriate - using a symbol of an entire group to criticize the group's excesses works when the excesses are supporter or advocated by either a sizable percentage or by the group's leaders.

So few atheists are sociopaths that a political cartoon depicting them as sociopaths simply wouldn't work. It would be a smear, not critique. On the other hand, a cartoon showing atheists are coldly rational and too unemotional *might* work because that can be true so often. It would be possible for such a cartoon to be commentary and critique rather than a smear.

Imagine if most Muslims had ignored the cartoons and a few wrote annoyed letters - *that* would have gone a long way to demonstrate that the cartoons were wrong. The radical difference between Muslim actions and the depiction of Islam would effectively render the cartoons a smear. The violent reactions, however (even if we ignore the beheadings in Iraq), actually make the cartoonists' argument for them. Ironically, the cartoons can be reprinted today as commentary on the reactions to the same cartoons.