Weekly Edgework #89 - March 13, 2006

Cartoon Conniptions

We think we are living in a secular society where even religion can be subjected to criticism and satire. (Roger Koppel, Editor of Die Welt)

I get a kick out of a good cartoon. One of the first things I did when I became editor of our church periodical in 1998 was find a cartoonist. Cartoons can help us see our idiosyncrasies and laugh at them. They help us loosen up – not take ourselves too seriously.

My favorite cartoon character is Herman. Every week when I open our local newspaper there he is on the editorial page, doing or saying something so absurd as to make one groan. Most of the time the joke is on himself. Usually his logic is on “another plane”, as it were, so that when I compare his perspective to how I experience life the dissonance is often great enough to bring out a healthy belly-laugh.

I am aware, however, that more prestigious publications take their cartoons more seriously. The purpose of their cartoons is to express a social or political point of view – something related to the news of the day. They are sophisticated, often satirical, “editorials” in simplistic art form. And it is a given that some will agree and others disagree with the subtle messages emanating from these cartoon sketches. And, hey, it helps sell newspapers. Even those who don’t read much will likely get some kind of charge out of the cartoon of the day.

But ratchet it up a notch and you find another category of cartoons and cartoonists. At this level cartoons are published, not so much to make a point, but to insult, denigrate or deliberately offend others. Publishers defend their right to do so on the basis of their constitutional right to freedom of speech. And it seems they take it to be their duty to test the limits of those freedoms. Apparently they are afraid that if they don’t publish offensive material society will quickly slide back into some kind of pre-enlightened barbarism.

Or could it be just the other way around – that the insistence on their right to be offensive is itself a sign of the failure of modernity. According to Roger Koppel, quoted above, the western world has now become a secular society. I suppose he means by this dictum that people of faith in the West, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, should retreat into the shadows to allow secularists to have their heyday. And since, according to them, nothing is sacred anymore, it is their responsibility to attempt to provoke those who disagree with them. Show them up. Let the world see how ignorant and backward religious people really are.

Of course people of this mindset have for some time already made a mockery of Christian faith, citing artistic freedom – a first cousin to freedom of speech – as the only justification required. So submerging a crucifix in urine or covering a Madonna with feces is considered creative art and can readily be displayed as a sign that secularism has indeed won out over any notions of spirituality in western society. And publishing cartoons of Mohammed, knowing full-well that Muslims world-wide consider making any visage of their prophet sacrilegious, is for them just a natural further step toward total literary and artistic emancipation.

Koppel and company should wake up and smell the coffee. It is true that there are pockets in the western world where formal religion has been on the decline. However, it is also true that the colossal failure of the enlightened liberalism of the 20th century has spawned a search for spirituality that is perhaps unprecedented. Purveyors of modernity who place their hopes on a growing secularism on the planet are, it seems to me, in the last quarter of their game and the score is tilted against them. That is particularly obvious when one takes into account the rise of Islam as a formidable global force, the pervasive power of Eastern religions and the persistent rise of Christianity south of the equator.

Contrary to earlier predictions of secularists, it is now clear that religion and various forms of spirituality will indeed play a major role in the 21st century. The human quest for a relevant spirituality simply can’t be quashed. Whatever safe haven secularists have had in mind for the future – from which they could lob insults at people of faith with impunity – appears now to be in jeopardy. And their cry that this is not fair – that we fought for this freedom to insult and offend at will – sounds increasingly like a pre-school sandbox tantrum.

Even the architects of modern secularism understood that freedom of expression came with a price, that being social responsibility. You do not have the freedom to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire – just to see what will happen. To help reinforce this notion of responsibility various jurisdictions have enacted laws against publishing hate literature – presumably because some people just don’t get it. Freedom without limitations is not freedom at all, but anarchy. And that is precisely what the most recent expressions of “freedom” have created. Publishers can say all they want that it shouldn’t be this way, but that doesn’t change reality.

It seems to me that what the world needs today, more than unlimited freedom of expression, is a good dose of respect and understanding. As a person of faith myself, I welcome the opportunity to dialogue with people of non-faith or of different faith. And in the process I am open to being critiqued, even satirically. Goodness knows that none of us gets it right all the time and all of us are often not aware of our blind spots. I don’t see why people of very different points of view and experience would not rather seek understanding and respect from each other instead of propagating sacrilege in the name of freedom.

Kudos to those who refused to reprint the cartoons of Mohammed just to make a point.