Saturday, January 10, 2015

Offending Thoughts

What is so offensive that a society should do something about it, legally? The discussion Thursday night on All In with Chris Hayes between Feisal Abdul Rauf, a U.S.-based imam, and Harry Shearer, comedian and writer (of Spinal Tap and LeShow fame) got me thinking about that question.

Imam Raouff made the point that as the world grows smaller and we become more intercultural, we all need to learn what is considered offensive in other cultures. He gave the example of crossing your legs so that the bottom of your foot is shown to the person you're speaking to, which is very offensive in some cultures. He argued for learning to not offend others' cultural sensitivities as a way to promote harmony.

Harry Shearer jumped on this to say it would lead to a race to the bottom, where no one can say or do anything for fear of offending. In this scenario, he said, "The countries with the most tendency to be offended and the least respect for freedom of speech get to dictate the standard." It doesn't result in harmony; it leads to a "situation where the free are intimidated by the unfree."

It's easy to think it's silly to find the bottom of a shoe or offering to shake with your left hand extremely offensive. The equivalents in America's culture are invisible to us, though. In some American cultures, the "your mama" insult comes close. For middle-class, European-descended culture, the only thing I can think of that's universally offensive would be something that harms the animals we keep as pets, such as cultures that eat dogs or cats. There are words that we generally acknowledge are unsayable in most contexts (such as the so-called "n-word").

I've been trying to think of what offends me, personally, in anything like the way some Muslims and Catholics are offended by the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. These are the words or behaviors that provoke a less-than-rational response from me:

  1. People who make it clear through their words or actions that they think women or people of a different race than theirs are not fully human. When I hear or read these types of thoughts, I can't help thinking, "I wish that person would just shut up." Then I try to calm myself and think of how to respond reasonably.
  2. People who take up more space than they need in public seating (usually men, from my observation). I can't help glaring at them, furtively.
  3. People who drive large SUVs (especially when they drive in a way that impinges on other drivers' space, which I see as mirroring their disregard for others, environmentally and spatially). This one was suggested to me by my other half, who has heard me remark on a few too many of the Lincoln Navigators and Mercedes Land Boats we've seen along the road.
I notice that all three are things I wish could be legislated or regulated, if only mildly, such as the recent New York City subway campaign to encourage men to stop spreading their legs wide when seated. Ban SUVs. Teach kids to recognize everyone's humanity. I have no wish to harm any of these people, though. I just wish they would change.

I don't know if my offense-triggers are widely shared or not. They're not exactly cultural, unless you consider social justice warrior/environmentalist as a cultural category.

Maybe the wish to regulate a behavior is an indication that it passes some threshold of offense? I wrote a few years ago about Quran burning, examining it in the context of flag- or cross-burning and shouting fire in a crowded theater. After the recent attention to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed (or the Pope or rabbis), I don't see a reason to change my earlier position:
But why does the fact that burning is involved seem significant to me? The key is the nature of the two acts: drawing is at least minimally creative, bringing a new idea to the exchange of thoughts, while burning can only be destructive. That seems important.
We are increasingly multicultural, and one of the best rules we can have for that type of future is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (or as the recent atheist Ten Commandments put it, "Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.") Obviously, if you don't know something is considered offensive, you can't refrain from doing it. But if you do know, then you can.

But at the same time, it seems to me that we all can learn to take less offense at the behaviors of people whom we know are from a culture that lacks our conventions. Living in a multicultural society has to smooth out the sharp corners of cultural differences after a while, if only because our blood pressure can't take all the elevation.

1 comment:

Gina said...

Thoughtful post. I've been thinking about much the same during the last week or so. It boggles my mind how some people in this world don't think killing someone over a cartoon is an extreme over-reaction. On the other hand, I agree with you about learning about other cultures -- I don't think Americans have been very good about doing this in the past. It needs to apply to everyone not only Westerners, however. What an extreme over-reaction may reveal is a deep ignorance, too.