Freedom of Expression vs. Freedom from Humiliation
EDITORIAL, 2 Mar 2009
#52 | Johan Galtung
Basic thesis: A false dichotomy. With some skill we can deliver both, refusing to be trapped by fundamentalists of either kind. How? Well, let us first do our best to clarify the two freedoms.
On the Big Island, Hawai’i, a US army physician was once asked to identify the most vulnerable points of the human body where a hit would hurt maximally, at minimum risk to oneself. The Hippocratic Oath made him refuse: “my task is to promote life, not death”. He was dismissed and harassed, while US Army killers using weapons of mass destruction get off scot-free, like financial warlords causing massive devastation with what Warren Buffet called financial weapons of mass destruction.
And like a Danish court acquitted the Danish paper Jyllandsposten for its symbolic weapons of mass humiliation, the Mohammed cartoons, on the ground–often used to protect libel–that no insult was intended. Consequence analysis, being responsible for own action, not deploring “that you took it badly” are signs of maturity.
So, which are the most vulnerable points of the human spirit where a verbal-symbolic hit would hurt maximally, at minimum risk to oneself? Obviously the holy, sacred nucleus of individual and group identities, their raison d’être, protected by taboo, off limits; like Chosen People-Promised Land (Genesis 17:1-14) for Jews; salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16) for Christians; the Prophet as carrier of salvation also on earth (the Hegira) for Muslims. The Holy is underlined in the ban on depicting Alla’h and the Prophet, and for Jews even on spelling out fully the name of the Eternal one.
Sow disrespect–cartoons of Jews selling Chosenness for cash?; Jesus Christ torturing in Abu Ghraib?; the Prophet with a bomb in the turban–and you harvest hateful, polarized, humiliated, dehumanized believers–prepared to send and receive violence–and erode the soil where peace might grow; like the others, a crime against humanity.
But that exploration of spiritual vulnerability focuses only on fulfillment, not on suffering–on sukha, not on dukkha, in buddhism. Take the Jews: at least as important as Chosenness is the enormity of the six million victims of the shoa, one of the many holocausts in human history, like Muslims in Baghdad 1258-Omdurman 1898-Libya 1911- Xauen 1925, Africans taken slaves, native Americans exterminated in “Latin” and North America, Armenians, the victims of bolshevism and maoism, of the US Empire and of the Israeli Empire placing the bill for Nazi German crimes against Jews at the feet of the Palestinians in the nakba (invoking both shoa (dukkha) and the Promised Land (sukha), the Afghans killed for the Soviet Empire collapse and the Iraqis and Afghans now being killed for the US Empire collapse. Focus on only one suffering, your own, and you humiliate by telling the world that their little lives count for nothing relative to ours.
The sacred clusters around the religious and the secular, traumas and glories, for persons and nations. Question Norwegian myths around April 9 (1940, the Nazi German attack on Norway) and you reap hatred, or, worse, deafening silence. Question the US Empire and you reap the same–but the hurt is less if you do not question US intentions, good to hide behind. Use the ugly nose of a politician as an argument against his policies, or refer to his mother as a whore, and you overstep a line drawn by law–like the lines protecting Jews and Christians from humiliation. But not Muslims, so far. Free for all.
So, what is the armor that makes authors of mass humiliation so invulnerable? Of course freedom of expression, to which we now turn.
That freedom is a human right and a condition for democracy. But only a necessary condition that comes cheap: some soapboxes in Hyde Park Corner or some blogs, and it is fulfilled. It is better than the society where nobody speaks because so many listen. But the society where nobody listens because so many speak is not democracy either.
The other necessary condition is dialogue, reciprocity of speech. Not to be killed by a bullet is good, but to be killed by silence (like elites with no idea of what to answer) does not democracy make either.
Freedom of expression also presupposes freedom of impression, to be seen and heard, to know, as one condition for having something to feed in to the freedom of expression. The West knows 9/11, but how many know the 25 major Western attacks on the Muslim nation, making 9/11 a needle-prick? How many Muslims understand Muslim conquests?
The lazy answers come from freedom of expression fundamentalists, often those who live by the word, like journalists, editors, authors: the freedom is sacrosanct, any limitation is a crime. And from the freedom from humiliation fundamentalists, often true believers: don’t you even think of questioning the points in my soul where it may start aching, or else! Libel law is in this direction, but is a power game.
However, we want to question all the points, among legion others, used as examples above! Why should we be so modest as to go for only one precious freedom? We should go for both, as a right and a duty, and maybe “question” is exactly the key to both-and, to how to speak?
* “Are you sure you were Chosen for domination, like in Isaiah 2:1-4?”
* “Isn’t Promised Land out of touch with border-free globalization?”
* “Does that faith tally with the Judas gospel? And wasn’t the Jesus gospel also salvation on earth, catering to the poor and destitute?”
* “How do you turn certain Muslims–and non-Muslims–away from killing children and women and other civilians contrary to the Qur’an?”
* “How do you think others react to your focus on your holocaust only?”
* “Does the German attack on Norway become less wrong because England also attacked, and because the Norwegian leadership expected a Soviet attack and had deployed the army way up in the North?”
* “If all the numerous US interventions were well intended, how could the USA go for intentions like democracy directly, not via wars?”
And so on. Of course we can indicate our doubts without humiliating. And of course we can be respectful without submitting. But do so in the spirit of dialogue, not in that continuation of war by verbal means known as a debate. And explore the answers together.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Mar 2009.
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