News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Irony, Humor, Free Speech, Cartoons, and Religion

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Irony, Humor, Free Speech, Cartoons, and Religion

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once remarked that people are so enthusiastic about freedom of speech because they have forgotten how to think. For Kierkegaard, this meant that in place of thinking for myself, getting to the real basis of what is important for my life in terms if life and death issues, I will tend to accept a type of political correctness that passes for thought but which is really a form of group-think.

Kierkegaard knew whereof he spoke. He'd been lampooned as a sorry, sick figure in the Danish society of his time. Depicted as an eccentric, borderline madman, and cripple by his society's print version of "Saturday Night Live," he retreated into isolation because, as he put it, even the ragamuffins in the streets taunted him and threw stones. ...

Of course, when it comes to making fun of religion and ethical hypocrisy, Kierkegaard was no slouch. His merciless attack on the Danish Christian Church became more and more bitter and increasingly shrill. One commentator even characterizes some of Kierkegaard's last writings as "gutter" journalism.

Kierkegaard was not alone in his attacks on what he saw as religious hypocrisy. The great Protestant thinker and theologian, Luther, often used the most vulgar terms to depict his arch-nemesis, the Catholic Church. If calling the Church the Whore of Babylon was not bad enough--and surely scandalous to many Catholic ears--his minutely detailed scatological description of the Church as it traveled through the bowels of Satan and came out his ass in the form of a pestilent turd would surely curl many dainty toes even today.

Compared to these writings, those of Erasmus and Rabelais might seem somewhat tame, but not by much. In the western literary and cultural tradition, satire and lampooning of religion goes back to Aristophanes and Socrates. And certainly these writers were not all anti-religious. Indeed, most were perhaps more religious than what passes for religious these days. For the latter often simply means a mouthing of religious platitudes and empty formulations that in no way connect with the lives of most people living in a world that more and more has lees a conception of spiritual reality colonized by consumerist and capitalist iconographies.

Therefore, the reaction of many Muslims at depictions of the prophet Muhammad are surely understandable. Many in the Muslim world have not had their communities wasted by years of consumerist and nihilistic jargon. The secular freedom of speech ideologues are therefore somewhat one-dimensional in their thinking because, while ranting about their own special access to individual and private truth, would impose their belief in nothing onto cultures whose religious ideals have not been wasted to nihilistic tirades.

On the other side, it's surely easy to berate the lack of thought free speechers for their nihilism. I suggest that there's always a virtue to this leveling process. That is, while nihilism might mass-produce herd-like know-nothings, it can also provide access to a world where I face the ultimate choices that each human must make. That is, when faced with the choice of becoming a cow in a faceless herd or choosing to identify with values that transcend the purely secular, nihilism's void makes real the ultimate existential task.

The violence evinced by the caricatures of the prophet Muhammad tell more than simple Muslim intolerance or lack of free speech. Instead, I suggest that the level of violence shows how dangerous individual Muslims see western nihilism as representing. That the violence is carried out by crowds, however, shows that they do not appreciate the full danger posed by nihilism.

Nihilism ultimately resides in reducing individuals to groups of clones who cannot and will not think for themselves because the process of thinking brings into question too many cherished projects. These projects, a Kierkegaard might say, can just as easily be the product of what one wants to think and believe out of a craven desire to refrain from making real choices as it a desire to follow sacred truths.

It seems very odd to me that a religion that ostensibly has no leader but God and teaches each person to stand alone and unique before the Transcendent should manifest itself in this type of group action. As a religious individual any violent action that involves unthinkingly and irreligiously following what to all intents and purposes is antithetical to that ethical individuality called for by the eternal commands.

From this respective, I suggest that Islam holds within its teachings an irony and humor that has lain untapped for centuries. Inherently anti-authoritarian, the absolute commands calls each individual never to accept the status quo or the lies and deceptions that uphold it. From this perspective, any seeming attacks on sacred truths are ultimately regarded as either irrelevant and empty or potentially edifying.

Giving the lie to the empty-headed free speechers protestation is the fact that they have no way of going beyond simple negation and destruction. In its place they will impose a simplistic political correctness, belying their rhetoric to the contrary. A world where nothing has value is just as much a world of authoritarian oneness as is a world of highly hierarchical and transcendentally based value systems.

In terms of the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, one might ask what could possibly be edifying about this? Let me suggest several simple ways to see this. First, there is the question about why westerners might think this way. Is there anything in Islam that could give this impression? Is everything okay with the way that individual Moslems are living their lives that would—rightly or wrongly--give this false impression? Instead of attacking the westerners for their falseness, Islamists could look inward and ask themselves whether all is well with Islam.

Another thing to take away from this incident is the fact that all protests couched in terms of absolutes and appeals to the Koran will simply not work in the west. Instead, one must go to the base of what the religion means and begin to formulate Islam’s message of peace and justice into language that does not rely on empty phrases and verses that have been memorized into nothingness. This is the height of legalism. Surely many can see that you can mouth a million verses and still not truly understand what they mean—either in one’s own life or the lives of others.

In the same vein, individual Muslims can ask whether their own leaders are the best representatives they can have. The value of humor and irony is that they hit those in power where it hurts. It busts the balloon of vanity and pompous self-righteousness that the powerful find so useful in their Machiavellian machinations to maintain social and cultural control.

But these concerns are far outweighed by the more spiritual and ethical processes of humor and irony. As the Greek philosopher was expert at showing, all values and traditions ossify over time. Unless these are placed in direct communication with their relative value as shown in relationship to higher transcendent realities, they become purely negative and emptied of the truth they once contained.

While humor and irony can evoke violence from those whose pretensions are undermined, that violence is only a sign of how much the person made light of takes relative values to be. The truly transcendent does not need violence to sustain itself. No matter how much the official spokespeople protest that they are the ones who have the authority to interpret and translate the wishes and desires of the Transcendent, humor and irony show how shallow and superficial these understandings are.

All of these comments occur in a context of western civilization’s decline. Perhaps that word is not the right one, since decline connotes ineffectiveness and powerlessness. Contrary to this view, western civilization’s decline means a spiritual and ethical decline. While spiritually the west is an empty shell, by all means of social, economic and political measures it appears expertly successful in propagating its nihilistic way of life.

This decline promises to sweep the face of the world in its long, wasteful trek. It will perhaps result in numerous wars and untold suffering. Soren Kierkegaard seemed to see something of this in the 19th century. For him, the proper approach to this terrible tyranny of the void is coming to know oneself as an individual. For in knowing what true faith is through its expression in your own life, the basis for a future world where love and justice abide is laid.

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Mathias said...

On the other side, it's surely easy to berate the lack of thought free speechers for their nihilism. I suggest that there's always a virtue to this leveling process. That is, while nihilism might mass-produce herd-like know-nothings, it can also provide access to a world where I face the ultimate choices that each human must make. That is, when faced with the choice of becoming a cow in a faceless herd or choosing to identify with values that transcend the purely secular, nihilism's void makes real the ultimate existential task.

Holy crap, that was a potent paragraph. I loved this whole article. If this is your own writing I would be honored to link to you. If you'll allow it.

Mathias said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Kierkegaard's attacks on religious hypocrisy or Luther's vulgar desriptions of Catholic church are fundamentally different from the cartoons of Muhammad. I have been disturbed by the type of debate arising from this issue; I dont consider it a matter or criticism of religious establishment or freedom of speech.

"Mullah" is a comic character in Pakistan, for example. Everyday newspaper cartoons mock the narrowminded ordinary religious clergy. The comic character I know since childhood, is "Mullah Naseer-ud-Din".

The anger is not about criticism of the religious establishment, religious fanatics or practice of Islam. Muhammad is the perfect human being on whose life Islam is based upon. He simply is the living Quran for muslims. The cartoons are simply a hedious portrait of Islam.

Such expression, by unwritten social laws that we all live by in a group(society), is not acceptable and should be prosecuted (I dont consider is a nihilist's free speech by the way). I based my opinion not only on the content of expression, but after listening to the defence from the editor who thought of the ideas and commisioned cartoonists to sketch his ideas. This is simply criminal.

Your article is a nice read, I must add. And I agree with you on many points regarding nihilist euphoria, and the spiritiual and emotional vacuum in Western civilization and its decay (Allow me to replace decline). Your comments on whats going wrong in Islamic practice are also undeniable, and the rotten state of muslim societies in general.

But I will stress again regarding this particular issue, that it doesnt come under the umbrella of freedom of expression, and secondly it cannot be viewed in any way as an attempt to critcize muslim society, or practices of muslims; it simply is blatant and criminal act of inciting racial and religious hatred.

Anonymous said...

"Muhammad is the perfect human being on whose life Islam is based upon."

Wrong and right.

Mohammed was a vile man that murdered, tortured, plundered, raped, and enslaved. Oh yes, he beat his young wife also. Every word here is backed up by verses from the hadiths.

Right. Yes, Islam is based upon his life. Obviously. Read the papers, watch the news.

Why can't Muslimss be honest? Why don't they read their own sacred writings?

Do you want references for these actions? How about direct links to Islamic sites with the hadiths online?

Yes, Western nihilist and the 'spiritiual and emotional vacuum' are a problem, but not as much as the total dishonesty and lack of respect and tolerance by Muslims.

You know, this issue is going to lead to violence and a bad future for all of us. However, this old man sees no reason to lie to Muslims to save their feelings. This is not helpful to any of us. I also have no problem discussing the evils of Christians, Bush, Secularism, Hollywood, Western Culture, etc...

Can you folks be honest? Want to start with a talk about what happened at a village named Banu Mustaliq as per this reference...

That's all for now.

John Kactuz