As you may have heard, a great many people in various countries around the world are upset by the publication of some pictures of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. They are sufficiently upset as to riot, set fire to national embassies, and call for summary executions. There have been incidental deaths. It is, in short, a serious matter.
I offer two small reflections on this, beginning with the simple question: What is "a picture of Muhammad"?
"A picture of Robert McHenry" we understand pretty clearly, even though the term "Robert McHenry" is not entirely unambiguous. We mean a photograph or a hand-made likeness of that particular person. If we are shown a drawing said to be of Robert McHenry and find that it doesn't look at all like him, we say "No, that's not him." But Muhammad lived long before the invention of photography, and there are no likenesses of him by contemporaries. In other words, no one knows what he looked like.
If you were to assemble a set of mugshots of dark, bearded men and ask any number of ordinary Muslims, imams, or even ayatollahs, which one most resembles Muhammad, they would be (over and above being scandalized by the very idea) quite unable to do so, though some might pretend.
So, these cartoons created by some illustrators in Denmark -- what makes them "pictures of Muhammad"? Clearly, they are accepted as such only because the artists said that they meant them to be. The intention defines, not the thing itself, but only our conditional acceptance of it. This is not unlike our response to a small child's drawing that looks like mere scribbling: "Oh, yes, dear, that's a lovely picture of Aunt Louise." If only one of the artists had meant to depict Muhammad, neither we nor our panel of Muslims would have been able to pick out his work from the field. What is objected to, then, is not an actual thing or an observable act -- but an intention, a state of mind, a point of view.
My second question:
How do these pictures offend, then? How do they insult those who so clearly feel insulted? More generally, what happens in any instance of insult? A says or does something, whereupon B reacts with strong negative emotion. A may or may not have intended to evoke that response; the response does not depend on A's intentions. We blur this fact in ordinary speech when we say that A has given offense. It would be more apt to say that A has provided the occasion for offense.
The case of unwitting offense clearly and properly places the onus on B. B has choices. B can say, "You know, in our tradition we don't do that." He can say "There are those who would be quite provoked by what you have said [or done]." He can even ignore the whole incident. Or, of course, he may choose -- choose -- to indulge in an emotional outburst ranging in fervor from a rebuke to a rebellion.
Over the past few months I've made a collection of news articles reporting on cases of "insult" or "offense," in each case taken, whether or not actually given.
Some Jews are offended by the practice of some Mormons, who use genealogical records to find the names of Holocaust victims, among others. They then repair to an inner chamber in the temple and perform "proxy baptism" intended to convert the dead to Mormonism. The most logical and sane response to this practice is to ignore it, perhaps after a hearty laugh. What is offensive? Do the complainers fear that it actually works? If it doesn't, it has absolutely nothing to do with them or with the dead; it's just some people in a private room saying some words.
One Christian was offended by the name of Mount Diablo in northern California. More recently, some other Christians were offended by the showing of scenes from Gounod's "Faust" in an elementary school music class. A Hmong family was offended by the failure of a cemetery to bury a dead relative in accordance with their traditions.
Note that in each case, the possible alternative responses included being disappointed, being amused, accepting a refund, or walking on by. But the choice was made to be, and to express publicly that they were, "offended."
It would appear that the reason for choosing to be offended is that it is believed to elevate the offended one to a superior moral position. "You have offended me! I am now authorized to blame, censor, censure, denounce," (I'm working from my thesaurus here) "excoriate, fault, etc., you." Or, in some cultures, riot, burn, and kill. In short, all the nasty things that we humans enjoy so much that we feel instinctively that we need moral sanction to do them, and no sanction is quite so available, so ready to hand, as the bad behavior of others.
Once, in high school, I visited another nearby high school for some reason. "We" and "they" were rivals in sports and, less formally but in the way of adolescence, in just being. Walking through the main lobby, I stepped on a representation of the school's crest on the floor and was immediately and sharply reprimanded by several of "them." There was a "rule," albeit an unwritten one, against stepping on that symbol, and I had been caught in an offense. Even though I didn't give it, they took it, and they enjoyed the taking.
None of which is to suggest that this love of taking offense can't be used quite cynically, as is the case with the Muhammad cartoons. The rabble have been well and truly roused by radical Islamists, but the whole thing works because of the exhilarating high of moral advantage it offers. In cultures still struggling with the implications of the 18th century and marked chiefly by ignorance, tribalism, and religiosity, and in lieu of good government, economic opportunity, and liberty, it's the popular drug of choice.
Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).