On Zapiro, and Draw Mohammed Day

The original text of this column, first published in Daily Maverick.

We all find something offensive. Many of us might prefer to live in a world which caters to our sensibilities, and limits how much offence we have to tolerate. I would like for everybody to be able to spell, for example, and also for most uses of quotation marks in advertising to be outlawed. Unfortunately, nobody seems willing to offer me any legal assistance towards achieving these outcomes.

It is also true that I’d prefer a world in which churches don’t get tax breaks, and in which religious figures don’t get treated as moral authorities. I’d certainly want to make Andrew Wakefield, Oprah Winfrey, Matthias Rath and a bunch of other people spend a significant amount of time in Orwell’s Room 101, and then to hopefully emerge “corrected”. But I understand that this would not be in my own best interests, because there is always a possibility – no matter how slight – that I might learn something from even such unexpected sources as them, rather than only from avenues that I already regard as useful.

This is part of the point of J.S. Mill’s celebrated defence of free speech. With the exception of speech which causes necessary harms, allowing ourselves to be exposed to the possibility of being offended provides a robust antidote to complacency, intellectual arrogance, bad science and dogma of various forms. The reason we care to have this antidote available – or perhaps the reason we should care – is that mistaken beliefs can lead us to perform actions which undermine our welfare or the welfare of others.

I take it that this is part of the point of occasions like “Blasphemy Day” (September 30) and “Everybody draw Mohammed Day” (May 20). These days are not simply a celebration of free speech, because they also have a political and epistemological point to make. One summary of this point might be that not everybody takes your beliefs seriously, and nor are they obliged to, no matter what those beliefs are.

This is especially important when those beliefs are used to justify paedophilia, homophobia, oppression, murder, censorship and all sorts of other social ills. Perhaps more so when the beliefs in question are derived from interpretations of words allegedly uttered by characters that much of the world considers mythological. This is equally the case for many believers, in that the utterances of other people’s gods typically don’t carry the weight that those of your own god do.

Jonathan Shapiro’s cartoon in The Mail and Guardian of May 21 caused significant offence to the Muslim community, partly due to the religious injunction that Mohammed not be depicted. Of course, Zapiro is not a Muslim, and thus has no obligation to adhere to this injunction. Furthermore, the injunction itself is not found in the Koran, but rather in the interpretive molasses of the hadiths, which means that we have human religious authorities to thank for this particular interpretation, rather than some actual booming voice from the heavens.

Despite the fact that Zapiro was therefore free to draw the cartoon – as was Kurt Westergaard, responsible for some of the “Danish cartoons”, and the subject of a recent assassination attempt – many commentators are claiming that Zapiro should have self-censored, and chosen not to do so. The arguments for this view involve ideas like “respect” and “tolerance”, while also sometimes making claims about the potential negative consequences to relations between South African communities, and threats to World Cup tourism.

Mostly, though, it is not arguments that we encounter, but rather simple assertions that “Zapiro offends deliberately, then hides behind the Constitution”, or that the cartoon was “offense simply for the sake of offending”. The latter presumes that the cartoon involved gratuitous poking of fun, and the former misses the point of what the Constitution (at least, the free speech provisions in the Bill of Rights) is in fact for.

Another class of objections is summarised by this indignant Facebook bleat: “When they attack black people, you call it racism. When they attack Jewish people, you call it anti-Semitism. When they attack women, you call it sexism. When they attack homosexuality, you call it Intolerance. When they attack your country, you call it treason. But when they attack Prophet Muhammad, you want to call it freedom of speech!”

Addressing these claims in reverse order, it should be immediately clear that the comparisons between cartoons like Zapiro’s and racism, sexism et al involve false analogies. There is nothing to criticise or ridicule about black people qua their being black, homosexuals for being homosexual, and so forth. The target of cartoons like Zapiro’s is not Muslims in respect of their being Muslim, but rather in respect of a range of correlates to that belief system or faith.

I don’t have access to Jonathan Shapiro’s intentions here, but correlates in these situations span a range of possibilities, starting with simple comments on the irrationality of taking Bronze-age mythology seriously in the 21st-century, and perhaps ending with moral commentary on the problems with a faith that can be interpreted as endorsing (or simply allowing for) marital rape, or the stoning of rape victims, as if it is somehow their fault that they are born into a system of patriarchal dictatorship.

These details are well known to anyone who has bothered to investigate them. However, critics will assert that the evil men I describe above are the ones who have misinterpreted their scriptures, or their faith’s purpose. That may be so. The fact remains that the system allows for these interpretations, and such a system cannot claim the right to be left outside the reach of critical assessment. It cannot claim that “respect for other cultures and faiths” demands that we refrain from criticism, or even ridicule, as these actions are meriting of both criticism and ridicule – perhaps in even louder voices than we currently allow ourselves.

If you are a member of one of these faiths who is equally horrified by these abuses, but who still finds the cartoon in question offensive, then you should perhaps consider whether it might not be directed at you, but rather at those who pervert something you consider decent and good. Your offense at the cartoon can be understood, but the target of your anger should be your less civilised brothers and sisters, who make such comment necessary – not those who make the comments.

The points made by Zapiro, as well as by past examples of this same issue, are a reminder to members of an identifiable social or religious group to get your house in order, so that there is no longer any need to mock or ridicule. You do this most effectively from the inside, by persuading people who take faith as a way to justify harms to others that they have lost their way, and that surely a god worth taking seriously would not want you to harm others – and would probably also want you to expose and criticise those who do.

This is not, then, “offense simply for the sake of offending” – or it’s at least not obviously so. If it was, then I’d have to agree with many of the critics, who make the point that it is uncivil or impolite to gratuitously offend people. I would agree mostly because gratuitous offence seems like bad political strategy in cases where you hope to change people’s minds. We don’t often change someone’s mind through teasing them – we usually simply make them more intractable.

Having said that, we’ve certainly got the right to poke fun or tease whomever we like, and I think the offended parties are daft for getting upset over it. But there may be cases where, as Jeremy Nell pointed out, “we must fight to the death for the right to draw Muhammad, but then refrain from doing so”. What we should not do is to presume that all such depictions are gratuitous, and to thereby prejudge any single instance of these depictions as having no political or moral point to make. In the case of this particular cartoon, the point is clear: it’s not about Mohammed, but rather a criticism of some of his followers who do bad things, ostensibly in his service.

Finally, there is the disguised ad hominem charge that a cartoonist like Zapiro deliberately offends, then “hides behind the Constitution”. It is ad hominem because it attacks his character through accusing him of cowardice. It is also somewhat incoherent in assuming that he doesn’t have a point to make, while at the same time accusing him of not being willing to take responsibility for something he has (or hasn’t?) said. But it is also expresses a very peculiar understanding of what the Constitution is for.

Firstly, note that we could also make this sort of claim when someone demands a fair trial instead of an appearance before a kangaroo-court: “look, we think you committed the murder, and now you want to have a lawyer?” The opportunity to “hide” behind the Constitution is something we’re all generally quite grateful for. Second, the expressed claim involves the presumption that causing offence is always wrong, and as I’ve argued above, there is no reason to believe that this is true. Causing offense may sometimes be bad strategy, but in many cases – and I think this is certainly one such case – the offense is part of a deliberate strategy to try and effect social change.

Third, and most importantly, this objection forgets a key purpose of the Constitution – perhaps its key purpose. South Africa used to be a place where freedoms of various sorts were not tolerated, and where people were told what to think, and what to do. We have unshackled ourselves from that paternalism, and one of the mechanisms by which we did so was through protesting things that we considered absurd or unjust. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that this process is complete, and that we don’t still have things to learn about ourselves, and about each other.

We get to learn some of the things we still need to learn by speaking freely. This is because any stifling of free expression might involve silencing a voice that could reach even one other person, and cause them to discard a prejudice, or simply to learn something useful. Social critics like Jonathan Shapiro serve an enormous public good, and can only do so because the Constitution allows him that freedom. It simultaneously allows us the freedom to feel discomfort, and to learn from that discomfort. This discomfort is a good thing, in that it reminds us that our beliefs may be wrong.

In short, the Constitution guarantees us the right to be offended – and for that, we should remain eternally grateful.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.