A scholar explores how recent American history proves the wisdom (and ubiquity) of self-censorship in a healthy multi-cultural society.
February 17, 2006
The Silent Treatment
By ROBERT WRIGHT
THE American left and right don’t agree on much, but weeks of demonstrations and embassy burnings have pushed them toward convergence on one point: there is, if not a clash of civilizations, at least a very big gap between the "Western world" and the "Muslim world." When you get beyond this consensus — the cultural chasm consensus — and ask what to do about the problem, there is less agreement. After all, chasms are hard to bridge.
Fortunately, this chasm’s size is being exaggerated. The Muslim uproar over those Danish cartoons isn’t as alien to American culture as we like to think. Once you see this, a benign and quintessentially American response comes into view.
Even many Americans who condemn the cartoon’s publication accept the premise that the now-famous Danish newspaper editor set out to demonstrate: in the West we don’t generally let interest groups intimidate us into what he called "self-censorship."
What nonsense. Editors at mainstream American media outlets delete lots of words, sentences and images to avoid offending interest groups, especially ethnic and religious ones. It’s hard to cite examples since, by definition, they don’t appear. But use your imagination.
Hugh Hewitt, a conservative blogger and evangelical Christian, came up with an apt comparison to the Muhammad cartoon: "a cartoon of Christ’s crown of thorns transformed into sticks of TNT after an abortion clinic bombing." As Mr. Hewitt noted, that cartoon would offend many American Christians. That’s one reason you haven’t seen its like in a mainstream American newspaper.
Or, apparently, in many mainstream Danish newspapers. The paper that published the Muhammad cartoon, it turns out, had earlier rejected cartoons of Christ because, as the Sunday editor explained in an e-mail to the cartoonist who submitted them, they would provoke an outcry.
Defenders of the "chasm" thesis might reply that Western editors practice self-censorship to avoid cancelled subscriptions, picket lines or advertising boycotts, not death. Indeed, what forged the chasm consensus, convincing many Americans that the "Muslim world" might as well be another planet, is the image of hair-trigger violence: a few irreverent drawings appear and embassies go up in flames.
But the more we learn about this episode, the less it looks like spontaneous combustion. The initial Muslim response to the cartoons was not violence, but small demonstrations in Denmark along with a lobbying campaign by Danish Muslims that cranked on for months without making it onto the world’s radar screen.
Only after these activists were snubbed by Danish politicians and found synergy with powerful politicians in Muslim states did big demonstrations ensue. Some of the demonstrations turned violent, but much of the violence seems to have been orchestrated by state governments, terrorist groups and other cynical political actors.
Besides, who said there’s no American tradition of using violence to make a point? Remember the urban riots of the 1960′s, starting with the Watts riot of 1965, in which 34 people were killed? The St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, in his 1968 book "From Ghetto to Glory," compared the riots to a "brushback pitch" — a pitch thrown near a batter’s head to keep him from crowding the plate, a way of conveying that the pitcher needs more space.
In the wake of the rioting, blacks got more space. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been protesting broadcast of the "Amos ‘n’ Andy" show, with its cast of shiftless and conniving blacks, since the 1950′s, but only in 1966 did CBS withdraw reruns from distribution. There’s no way to establish a causal link, but there’s little doubt that the riots of the 1960′s heightened sensitivity to grievances about the portrayal of blacks in the media. (Translation: heightened self-censorship.)
Amid the cartoon protests, some conservative blogs have warned that addressing grievances expressed violently is a form of "appeasement," and will only bring more violence and weaken Western values. But "appeasement" didn’t work that way in the 1960′s. The Kerner Commission, set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to study the riots, recommended increased attention to the problems of poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal education — attention that was forthcoming and that didn’t exactly spawn decades of race riots.
The commission recognized the difference between what triggers an uproar (how police handle a traffic stop in Watts) and what fuels it (discrimination, poverty, etc.). This recognition has been sparse amid the cartoon uproar, as Americans fixate on the question of how a single drawing could inflame millions.
Answer: depends on which million you’re talking about. In Gaza much of the actual fuel came from tensions with Israelis, in Iran some fundamentalists nursed longstanding anti-Americanism, in Pakistan opposition to the pro-Western ruling regime played a role, and so on.
This diversity of rage, and of underlying grievance, complicates the challenge. Apparently refraining from obvious offense to religious sensibilities won’t be enough. Still, the offense in question is a crystalline symbol of the overall challenge, because so many of the grievances coalesce in a sense that Muslims aren’t respected by the affluent, powerful West (just as rioting American blacks felt they weren’t respected by affluent, powerful whites). A cartoon that disrespects Islam by ridiculing Muhammad is both trigger and extremely high-octane fuel.
None of this is to say that there aren’t big differences between American culture and culture in many Muslim parts of the world. In a way, that’s the point: some differences are so big, and the job of shrinking them so daunting, that we can’t afford to be unclear on what the biggest differences are.
What isn’t a big difference is the Muslim demand for self-censorship by major media outlets. That kind of self-censorship is not just an American tradition, but a tradition that has helped make America one of the most harmonious multiethnic and multireligious societies in the history of the world.
So why not take the model that has worked in America and apply it globally? Namely: Yes, you are legally free to publish just about anything, but if you publish things that gratuitously offend ethnic or religious groups, you will earn the scorn of enlightened people everywhere. With freedom comes responsibility.
Of course, it’s a two-way street. As Westerners try to attune themselves to the sensitivities of Muslims, Muslims need to respect the sensitivities of, for example, Jews. But it’s going to be hard for Westerners to sell Muslims on this symmetrical principle while flagrantly violating it themselves. That Danish newspaper editor, along with his American defenders, is complicating the fight against anti-Semitism.
Some Westerners say there’s no symmetry here — that cartoons about the Holocaust are more offensive than cartoons about Muhammad. And, indeed, to us secularists it may seem clear that joking about the murder of millions of people is worse than mocking a God whose existence is disputed.
BUT one key to the American formula for peaceful coexistence is to avoid such arguments — to let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo isn’t too onerous. We ask only that the offended group in turn respect the verdicts of other groups about what they find most offensive. Obviously, anti-Semitic and other hateful cartoons won’t be eliminated overnight. (In the age of the Internet, no form of hate speech will be eliminated, period; the argument is about what appears in mainstream outlets that are granted legitimacy by nations and peoples.)
But the American experience suggests that steadfast self-restraint can bring progress. In the 1960′s, the Nation of Islam was gaining momentum as its leader, Elijah Muhammad, called whites "blue-eyed devils" who were about to be exterminated in keeping with Allah’s will. The Nation of Islam has since dropped in prominence and, anyway, has dropped that doctrine from its talking points. Peace prevails in America, and one thing that keeps it is strict self-censorship.
And not just by media outlets. Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it’s nearly unconscious. Some might call this dishonest, and maybe it is, but it also holds moral truth: until you’ve walked in the shoes of other people, you can’t really grasp their frustrations and resentments, and you can’t really know what would and wouldn’t offend you if you were part of their crowd.
The Danish editor’s confusion was to conflate censorship and self-censorship. Not only are they not the same thing — the latter is what allows us to live in a spectacularly diverse society without the former; to keep censorship out of the legal realm, we practice it in the moral realm. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but worse things are imaginable.
Robert Wright, the author of "The Moral Animal," is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.