Saturday, February 25, 2006

freedom of expression

Oh, and since I seem to be on a rant, I will take this opportunity to give you my opinion on The Cartoon.

Freedom of expression is paramount. Yes, there will always be lots idiots who say lots silly things. They have that right. Most of the time, the most extreme only get worse if we pay them any mind. The ones that are truly mad and crazy will attract only a few other crazies.

Yes, there will be people who display bad taste, bad judgment, bad ... all sorts of things. So what? Who made me the arbiter of what can/cannot be thought or expressed? Who made me the Judge? God? No, I know God isn't calling me by name lately and telling me I have any right to say: "I think the cartoon was in bad taste, therefore I command you to stop it's publication, " even though I do think the cartoon was in bad taste--but oh god forgive me, funny in a sick way.

(god forbid bad taste should be punishable -- well, ok, there are consequences-- but laws and punishment?? many would consider the way I dress to keep warm--ugly but warm--on my winter walks, or cool in my summer gardening duds-- in bad taste, maybe even offensive!!)

(completely off the track here: I remember reading a fashion writer commenting on how well-dressed she was, even when she was out jogging in Central Park. The proof: a stranger, a distinguished gentleman, commented to her that she must be in fashion or some such field, judging by the tastefulness of even her jogging clothes; and he was a distinguished gentleman as well, therefore probably nearly a saint, and, it goes without saying, extremely wise and intelligent, judging by his clothes ! ok, I paraphrased a lot there, but: Really! of course we always make snap judgements, we have to, but we can take it too far! How utterly silly!!)

There are a lot of things that artists do to make us stretch as a society. Yes, they are often quite offensive and shocking. And that's as it should be. Whether artists shock us to get our attention, or the shock is our recognition of some truth there, it (shock and offense) is one of the tools of artists. Sometimes artists are just shocking and offensive too and that is all they are saying. If we can use our dismay to think about the offending issue, talk with each other, re-evaluate some of our dearly held beliefs (read: silly dogmas), redefine, adjust and grow, we could really benefit from the shocks artists sometimes deliver.

However, freedom of expression is not carte blanche. When anybody is using that freedom to incite hatred, violence or taking actions that hurt other people, we need to respond appropriately. (Right now, in this world climate, I'm so hesitant to give anybody permission to take that action because I'm afraid it will legitimize all the bush-crap out there right now.)

And yet, while there are people or groups who clearly suffer from discrimination, there are also people and groups who take themselves so seriously, that a well-aimed humourous observation, particularly if it hints at unpleasant truth, elicits a response of offense all out of proportion to the observation made. I think all of us should just lighten up a little and learn to laugh at ourselves a bit more. It's not the insult to a holy person here that has caused all the upset--Mohammed would probably be quite upset at all the violent reaction to a little joke -- I really believe he would be wise enough to laugh at himself--it's the sensitivity of many Muslims, I believe, being just a tad too touchy here. I know, I know, there is a history here of unrelenting and undeserved insults made by the Christian world, the West, the US foreign policy (read: US economic interests) against the Muslim world, but insults of this kind are being made everywhere against all kinds of people, groups, religions.

How does one choose the proper response ? Not an easy question. Being a confirmed idealist, I would pray for a non-violent response. Resistance,for instance, among the choices, could be carried out in so many creative ways. But in a macho-world of limited emotional/relational vocabularies, perhaps it's not surprising that after stoicism, the only other choice is the jump to anger and violence.

I have been reading many interesting debates between, for example Hindus and Muslims in India, lately, in connection with the depiction by a Muslim artist of a nude Hindu goddess. Is it insulting, or is it art? The value or importance placed here on the depiction of gods/goddesses/prophets, by the groups affected, is not the same. I understand that the depiction of the human figure in art or decoration is traditionally not done in the Muslim world? Is that correct? In contrast, much Hindu art is quite graphic and shows nudity and sexual acts in many variations. How exactly does it then follow that a modern Muslim artist's depiction of a nude Hindu goddess is insulting or pornographic? Because he is modern and India's modern sensibilities are much more prudish than they might have been centuries ago when that more ancient and sensual art was created? Or because he is Muslim and creating images of a Hindu god (he has no business doing that, whereas a Hindu artist does?)? Or because he is Muslim and should not be creating any images of any human figure?

All these "shoulds"!! I think that is where the problem lies. All these people and groups trying to tell other people what they "should" or "should not" be doing!

I prefer to take the role of bemused observer. (easy way out, right?)

I see a cartoon that makes a point about the violent atmosphere is many Muslim societies today. And that point exactly is worth thinking about. Muslim thinkers need to speak more to the ethical problem of the violence, not only against their very real oppressors/outsiders, but against their own.

I see an image of a naked Hindu goddess, created by a Muslim man in India and the furor of offense in a culture which has been unable to trash and destroy(while so many other people have managed to obliterate the evidence of a previous/conquered culture) its many beautiful temples which glorify the sensuous and sexual goings-on of myriads of fascinating gods and goddesses! To me, quite ignorant as I am about the Hindu religion, it means little except that I admire the richness of an exotic, brilliant culture and wish I knew more about it. Absorbing some of the lush, joyful, colourful art of India into my own life is something that I desire, now that I've been exposed to more of it...

A Christian black, female preacher causes apoplexy within a church community with her sermon on becoming intimate with Christ. My observation is that it says so much more about those making the judgements than it does about the preacher! Being a part of my own roots and background, the debate is absolutely hilarious to me -- someone who has been "led astray" and "fallen away", oh my god, actually "left the church"!! You see what happens to me, the person making judgments here? It's so revealing about me, making judgments about the people making the judgments...!

Rap artists often use a patois of their own to describe events and express ideas that are horrifying to many middle class, middle aged, white North Americans, even as their children listen to the music constantly and even try to emulate the body language, the gestures, the speech and the fashions. We might not want to see it, but it's expressing something that is there, within our own middle class suburbs, not segregated off somewhere in inner city slums!

Ah, we can build walls around our beautifully landscaped homes in gated communities, and fill them people who look and act and talk just like us, but we can't live in isolation from the world. It rubs against us whether we like it or not, irritates us, stimulates us, fascinates us, infuriates us, drives us crazy, invades and insinuates itself into our homes, tempts us and inspires us, all the time.

It's a balancing act, after all. Trying to tell our truth honestly and with compassion. Trying to hear the other person with understanding and an open heart. Being honest and compassionate with ourselves. Not easy to do. I don't have the answers at all. And yet, maybe a little laughter would make it easier? maybe rueful laughter, tinged with bitterness and tears? and yet, give me laughter, just a small chuckle will do!!


Blogger Aleida said...

I have to agree with you on this one. The cartoons were undoubtedly offensive. But it is, as you say, a balancing act, and freedom of expression definitely has to win here.

12:04 a.m.  

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