East Meets West

The Cartoon Affair is to an unusual extent about ideas Whatever deeper causes are involved, the dispute involves religion, speech, and thought, not oil, borders, or weaponry.

This makes the incident a very pure example of the problems caused by bad ideologies, and the ideas that lie at their core.

The lesson of the cartoon controversy is not that Islam is offended; it is not a lesson about Islam at all. Nor is it that the West is ‘hypocritical’, even if that’s true. Rather it is that Western culture has bought into an ideology whose chickens have come home to roost. This new orthodoxy is built on inflated notions of rights and respect, skewed ideas of injury and punishment, and the reliance on ‘voices’ in establishing truth.


Jeremy Bentham said that rights were nonsense, natural rights, nonsense and stilts. Rights, very carefully defined, can have their uses, but their entrance into the cartoon debate perfectly exemplifies how rights ‘inflation’ makes them a mere encumbrance. We are told there is a right to free speech.

Where it comes from, no one says. No one ever says, though sometimes we may hear it is ‘fundamental, which I suppose means: ‘don’t ask’, or ‘I really like this one’. But two — or billions — can play this game. Suddenly other rights rise up out of the ground like the warriors Jason fought: rights to offend and rights not to be offended, rights to worship in peace and rights to disturb that peace, rights to fire employees and rights to not to be fired — you name it. And it gets to be a big joke, because everyone realizes that (a) none of these rights are absolute, (b) they must often be ‘weighed’ against other rights. Well, how the hell do you do that? Check your big box stores and mail–order catalogues to see if they have any Rights Scales. Because as things stand, no one has a clue how to weigh rights against one another, so all the earnest talk of rights is not even hot air — which has, at least, its uses.

In the cartoon debates, rights generally are invoked on the side of the cartoonists. On the side of the anti–cartoonists, the equivalent is Respect.

In some cases, ‘respect’ just means ‘respecting rights’, so we are back at the same vapid nonsense as before. No doubt you should respect persons in the sense that you should not, by and large, torture or murder or rob them; we knew this before anyone spoke of Respect for Persons. We can just say that people have a right not to endure such treatment. But then there are the hard cases, when, if you do not inflict pain or kill or steal, the rights of other persons will be violated. So we are back to ‘weighing’ the rights of many against few, of one sort against other sorts — in other words, we are nowhere.

In other cases, Respect for Persons means actually respecting something or someone — persons, cultures, religion. As some moral ideal, this is a non–starter, and for several reasons.
First, actually respecting someone is a matter of what you feel. People typically don’t have much control over their feelings: you have little choice about whether you feel respect for, say, George Bush or Saddam Hussein, Oprah or Paris Hilton, Wayne Newton or Sinead O’Connor. So, except in very rare situations, there can be no right or wrong about feeling respect.

Second, it really flies in the face of reality to hold that all persons or cultures or religions are worthy of respect. Is this supposed to be some absolute truth? What is inconceivable about the notion of a contemptible person, culture, or religion? Not long ago, and not only in Western culture, the great sin was pride, and self–esteem was considered quite inappropriate to so insignificant and paltry a thing as a human being. You need not go nearly so far to the surely reasonable idea that some people really haven’t done or been anything of which you should stand in awe.

As for cultures, it seems as if everyone agrees that some human institutions, attitudes, and practices are pretty awful. They are not all concentrated in one place. Has someone done a balance sheet to show that, all over the world and throughout history, the good things about cultures always outweigh the bad ones? How was this accomplished? Why haven’t we heard about it? If this hasn’t happened, why on earth should I assume that any culture is worthy of respect? And, to return to the first point, how can I be expected to muster a feeling of respect for all these cultures?

Maybe ‘respecting cultures’ is just supposed to mean that you shouldn’t insult them. If so, why not just say that? Would it be, perhaps, to avoid giving a reason for this supposedly absolute rule? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a reason, though?

Should we respect religion, then? When something contemptible is done in the name of religion, we invariably hear something like ‘this is not Christianity, or ‘this is not Islam’. Is that so? Here’s a way of finding out. Pick up a good dictionary or encyclopedia and look up the religion. It will tell you, in a sentence or two, what all members of that religion are taken to believe, and it will come to very little — for example, that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that he died on the Cross for our sins , or that there is one God, and Mohamed is his prophet. Any practice consistent with those few very basic beliefs can be part of that religion — all it takes is for someone who holds those beliefs to incorporate those practices into their faith. Indeed, to say that these practices ‘are not Islam’ or ‘are not Christianity’ is just the sort of dogmatism that people who say these things pretend to avoid. By this reasonable measure, all religions contain much that is contemptible. Why then should any of them be ‘respected’?

Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.


The bogus value of respect now looms so large in North American culture that virtually every high school code of ethics refers to it. But the ideology of respect cannot itself cut much ice, because you need to know what to do when you encounter disrespect. If disrespect is such a big deal, shouldn’t we be able to see the damage? The question gets answered with new, expanded concepts of injury. Simply to be in the presence of ‘offensive’ material, like pinups, is not merely annoying; it is damaging to the mind. The sight of Janet Jackson’s breast is said to have caused damage to millions, and drew the largest fine, $550,000, ever levied against a television broadcaster. The creation of ‘atmospheres’ is injurious. When someone is convicted of an offense, victim impact statements may help to determine whether or for how long someone goes to jail, where the psychological injuries won’t count and the physical ones will go unrecorded, let alone punished. Unkind words, construed as emotional abuse, can create serious legal liabilities. Murky ideals lead to previously undiscovered harms.


With the increasing importance of elusive ideals such as respect and elusive injuries to those ‘respected’, the very concept of evidence is on the ropes. That someone says they feel bad is taken to be proof that they feel bad. That some says their identity has been damaged, or outraged, is proof that this mysterious injury has afflicted them. That someone says an experience has ruined their life proves that their life is ruined, and by that experience. Courts of law have acquired unexpected abilities to determine such subtleties as when an image is degrading. Written materials are said to incite hate; no one even thinks to ask whether anyone has actually come to hate something as a result of reading those materials. The question of whether any of this supposedly incited hate actually leads to injuries, in the old–fashioned sense, never arises. ‘Communities’, whose existence is established by the mere assertion that they exist, are known to suffer injuries on the basis of mere assertions coming from someone who merely claims to be, or is claimed to be, a ‘member ‘ or ‘leader’.

Worse than this, degraded notions of evidence have rehabilitated dangerous ethnic myths. The 19th century notion of a ‘people’ has somehow become anthropological and historical fact. The people is the Volk, and the connection with Nazism is a matter of historical record. If a particular Volk is in fashion, their assertions come to determine historical record and even scientific fact. If they say they have inhabited an area for 20,000 years, they have done so, whether or not there is any evidence that anyone living today can trace their descent back to any Paleolithic ancestor. If a spirit is said to inhabit a river or lake — anyone who listens to ‘good’ radio will hear this dozens of times a year — then, by gum, that’s the truth. If the Gods of the land said to be angry, there are such Gods, who are angry. Assertions by someone who commands Respect are known, from the fact that they are asserted, to be true. And the fact that a People really, really feels close to some land proves their right to that land. To doubt any of this would, after all, be disrespectful.
Degraded standards of proof invites killing on instinct. Now there are Bad Guys and, just by looking at them, we know who they are. When it comes to fighting crime, or policing the Middle East, appearance or suspicion suffices for conviction, and conviction for punishment.

Punishment and Wrong

What with cloudy moralities, rights inflation, elusive injuries and Neanderthal notions of evidence, there is no longer much sense of the difference between what is wrong and what is, or ought to be, forbidden and, in consequence, punishable. Obscenity, lechery, sacrilege blasphemy, desecration, insults, sometimes even rudeness or disrespect are considered permissible only if they are morally defensible. If I ought not to be treated a certain way, instantly I have an important Right not to be so treated, and others are not merely in the wrong for treating me so: they are also to be punished. So certainly, if I ought not to insult a Community, the presumed members of the Community must have rights not to be insulted, and I should be punished for insulting them. The punishment may be jail time or ‘merely’ dismissal from your job, but it is punishment all the same.

Taken together, and despite the secular, even left–wing contribution to these developments, official Western culture has become a culture of piety. It traffics first and foremost in the Unseen, in respect, in rights, in mysterious injuries, communities and offences, whose existence is founded in faith — faith in That Which is to Be Respected — rather that even the most elementary, the most minimally rational forms of reason. Respect, the foremost value of this culture, translates into behavior as reverence. Disrespect, its foremost sin, becomes punishable.

Suppose, for example, someone displays pictures which insult your life–style, way or life, or cherished beliefs. Suppose these pictures make make you feel you are hated, whether or not anyone can trace some causal link between those pictures and hate, whether or not the hate does you any but mysteriously internal harm — perhaps you feel your identity is under assault. Displaying the pictures is now not merely objectionable. It is profoundly immoral, because it is disrespect. What society considers profoundly immoral, it is now likely to consideer criminal as well. Displaying the pictures is probably a hate crime. It might well be emotional abuse, punishable in domestic contexts.

This must all sound familiar. I cannot say whether the official Western culture of piety, enthusiastically promoted worldwide, played a role in the reaction to the cartoons. I do know that Western piety has left the West without a leg to stand on in this dispute. It is no good trumpeting rights of free expression, because these rights are now supposed to have nebulous but severe limitations. From the moment Western countries started criminalising topless posters in locker rooms, hate speech, emotional abuse and many other sins of impurity, free expression was at the mercy of Western piety. It cannot be invoked against piety of another sort.

The point here is not that the West is hypocritical. Maybe it is; maybe it is just inconsistent: who cares? Hypocrisy is among the most harmless of sins; indeed that it has become such a fetish is one more indication of a culture of piety. The point is rather than the West has put ideological weapons in the hands of those it now wants to repel, and thrown away the weapons that might have proved useful in such an effort. The most basic notions of the rule of law — that you should not be punished for what you cannot help, like the feelings you have, that no one should be expected to obey laws so vague that the criteria of obedience are mysterious — were thrown away years ago. They cannot be picked out of the trashcan and held up as shiny Western ideals just because it is now convenient to do so.

The comics dispute should show the West that it has to make a choice. It can abandon the culture of piety, and go back to defending real civil liberties. It can go back to judging real crimes by real standards of evidence. It can turn its attention to real, vulgar, observable, concrete human needs — like decent food, clothing, and shelter — rather than chase the wild elusive butterfly of respect. Or it can keep up with its piety — but then it cannot complain when others do the same.

Finally, though many commentators have juxtaposed Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, it might be more instructive to juxtapose Islamic fundamentalism and political correctness.

Both arose from the ashes of an effective secular left: the left that was suppressed all over the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, and the kiddie left that imploded as the Vietnam war drew to a close. Both gave up on effecting a real change in the material conditions of their societies and gave themselves over to carping, otherwise known as a critique of prevalent life–styles and ‘hypocritical’ policies. Both quickly discovered that governments or ruling elites found these life–style goals and displays of sincerity much more pleasing than attempts at radical change: better to inculcate respect and piety than to worry about trying to eliminate poverty and other social atrocities. So both found that their ideologies became semi–official, adopted by governments for their convenience and gently rebuked if things ‘went too far’. Now we have smug professional Islamists who preach respect, and smug baby boomers who bask in their Sixties war stories as they remember the days when they invented the idea that respect was progressive.

Islamist culture and the culture of respect now reign with complacent authority, incredibly sensitive to everything that doesn’t matter, and incredibly insensitive to what does. With all the supposed concern for ‘the oppressed’, no one sticks their neck out for these people. There are still leftists, as there are still fundamentalists, who genuinely care about real injustice; they are an isolated lot. The ideology of respect has decreed that piety trumps justice. Changing that priority will not be easy.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is the author of The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com