Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Caricatures and Flag Burning

Eugene Volokh has an interesting post about the comparison between flag burning and the Muhammed caricatures. I agree with him that anyone who thinks that there should be an amendment banning flag burning but supports freedom of expression to print caricatures of Muhammed that inflame Muslims is being inconsistent. I would go even further than perhaps he would, however, and say that those who freak out over flag burning are engaging in very much the same kind of thinking that many Muslims are in the case of the caricatures – I’m offended and therefore this should be banned, or, in some cases, I’m offended and therefore I get to beat you up or kill you.

When someone says that they would beat someone up for burning a flag – and I’m sure we’ve all heard such bluster many times – they are thinking and behaving just like the folks who are threatening people for printing caricatures of Muhammed. People who freak out over the “desecration” of symbols are thinking at the most simplistic, visceral, childish level one can think at, which is to say that they are barely thinking at all, they are reacting with virtually no thought at all.

I feel the same way about other types of offensive art. Serrano’s “Piss Christ” did not offend me and would not offend me even if I was a Christian because all it represents is one person’s view. Is their view wrong? Fine. Most people’s views on most things are wrong every day. You don’t have to agree with them, and in fact you don’t have to listen to them at all – you’re a free person with every right to walk away and ignore them.

I think a distinction needs to be made between someone desecrating or dehumanizing a person and doing so to an idea or a symbol. That’s the difference between, for example, burning a flag and Fred Phelps’ gang of loonies showing up at someone’s funeral and holding up a sign saying they deserved to die because they were a “fag”. Desecrating a person is one thing, a terrible thing indeed; desecrating a symbol or an idea is quite another. The trouble is that some people cannot separate themselves from their beliefs. They define themselves not as a person but as a vessel in which God and country reside, so that any criticism of God or country is an attack on them personally. But that kind of thinking prevents us from making the distinctions necessary to survive in a world where the vast majority of people do not share our sense of either religion or patriotism.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeff Hebert
    February 9, 2006

    What I find particularly galling is when the true believer acts in a way entirely antithical to what the desecrated symbol they hold so dear represents. The American Flag represents freedom of expression, so you react to its burning by banning freedom of expression. Muhammed is the Propher of Peace, so you react to his desecration by killing people.

    If it weren’t so sad and horrible, it would be ironically funny. People seem to care more about the symbol, than what the symbol stands for.

  2. #2 CanuckRob
    February 9, 2006

    “People who freak out over the “desecration” of symbols are thinking at the most simplistic, visceral, childish level one can think at, which is to say that they are barely thinking at all, they are reacting with virtually no thought at all.”

    Not much more needs to be said than the above. Or course this is the only way you can react (i.e. wihtout thinking) if the symbol is so empty of meaning like religous symbols. For a symbol such as a flag (particularly the US flag) which actually does have a meaning such an attitude demeans the ideas symbolized.

  3. #3 mark
    February 9, 2006

    Flags and flag decals were also popular during the Nixon/hardhat/hippie era. At that time I came up with a bumper sticker that would be appropriate today as well:

    Our flag:
    Pray for it
    Not to it.

  4. #4 outeast
    February 10, 2006

    CanuckRob, I think it’s a bit daft to say that the American flag has meaning but religious symbols don’t. Are you saying that just to be insulting about religion and its symbols? The meanings of religious symbols tend to be complax and even contradictory, but they’ve been around for longer that the US flag and have had more time to accrue diffenent meanings in the hands of different factions; on the other hand, the US flag’s meanings are pretty damned complax and contradictory too…

  5. #5 K Klein
    February 10, 2006

    CanuckRob said:

    For a symbol such as a flag (particularly the US flag) which actually does have a meaning such an attitude demeans the ideas symbolized.

    That’s funny because I always thought that the act of burning the flag was in fact a testament to the very ideas that the flag itself symbolizes.

  6. #6 blog responder
    February 10, 2006

    “When someone says that they would beat someone up for burning a flag – and I’m sure we’ve all heard such bluster many times – they are thinking and behaving just like the folks who are threatening people for printing caricatures of Muhammed.”

    If I’m not mistaken, a law was written so that the punishment for punching or physically attacking a flag burner was trivial–thus encouraging attacks. Or was that merely suggested and never legislated? Help me–does anyone know what I’m talking about?

  7. #7 aurora
    February 11, 2006

    My opinion on this entire issue is still a bit confused, but being a cultural anthropology student, I do know a few things for sure:

    It is ethnocentric to expect other cultures to conform to the same conceptual heirarchies as we do in the west. there is no right or wrong way of identifying with cultural icons. the idea that muslims (and please try to separate the millions of peaceful practicionners from the minority of attention-seeking zealots) “define themselves not as a person but as a vessel in which God and country reside, so that any criticism of God or country is an attack on them personally” is not wrong. From our “enlightened” point of view it may seem backwards or naive, but to them, it is essential. A little semiotics lesson: We do not percieve the connection between the sign(obgect:flag) and signified(concept:our country) the same way every other culture does. For example, the Hopi people percieve no difference between the idea of a rose and an actual “solid” rose. The sign and signified are one and the same. This is also true of how Muslims percieve representations of their god. Depictions of muhammed are muhammed, or at least, they contain his essence. And since we claim to be so philisophicaly advanced, shouldn’t we be concious of this? shouldn’t we be setting an example? It’s about respect, cultural sensitivity and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Dig it.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    February 11, 2006

    aurora wrote:

    My opinion on this entire issue is still a bit confused, but being a cultural anthropology student, I do know a few things for sure:

    It is ethnocentric to expect other cultures to conform to the same conceptual heirarchies as we do in the west. there is no right or wrong way of identifying with cultural icons. the idea that muslims (and please try to separate the millions of peaceful practicionners from the minority of attention-seeking zealots) “define themselves not as a person but as a vessel in which God and country reside, so that any criticism of God or country is an attack on them personally” is not wrong. From our “enlightened” point of view it may seem backwards or naive, but to them, it is essential.

    First of all, you don’t “know” that they’re not wrong – you assume that they’re not wrong because it is a premise you accept. It’s a premise I reject. And frankly, I don’t care whether what I write is “ethnocentric”, I care whether it’s valid. The statement that you quoted from me was not about Muslims, it was about anyone in any culture that confuses symbolism for reality, including those in my own culture and ethnic group who confuse the symbolism of a flag for those things the flag is supposed to symbolize. That alone shows that the charge of ethnocentricity is nothing more than a kneejerk reaction to any judgements about anyone in a different culture.

    I find this whole notion absurd. Right and wrong do not change depending on who does it. Slavery is wrong, period. It is wrong whether it happens within my culture (it was absolutely wrong when America practiced it and it was absolutely wrong when any other culture did so or does so as well) or in another culture. Logic doesn’t change when considering behavior within a culture, nor does truth change when it crosses a border.

  9. #9 nolo
    February 11, 2006

    For example, the Hopi people percieve no difference between the idea of a rose and an actual “solid” rose. The sign and signified are one and the same. This is also true of how Muslims percieve representations of their god. Depictions of muhammed are muhammed, or at least, they contain his essence.

    I’d be curious to know whether your assessment of Hopi perception is based on any discussion with modern Hopi. Your assessment of why certain Muslims (and to be more precise, Wahhabi) are offended by depictions of the Prophet is kind of wrong, though. It’s not because they can’t differentiate between depictions of the Prophet and his “essence.” It’s because they’re being literalists (and super-sensitive) about the prohibition of idolatry in the Koran. IOW, it’s precisely because they do not want Muslims to equate the image with the essence that they oppose depictions of the Prophet.

    For the record, I’m not sympathetic to any effort to restrict such depictions. But to say that the Wahhabist orthodox flip-out over the images is based on a cultural inability to distinguish between image and object is a bit wrong.

  10. #10 aurora
    February 14, 2006

    first, Ed, let me assure you that my reaction is far from a knee-jerk one. Just because I disagree with you (which most people clearly don’t), does not mean I’m not thinking for myself. And I’m hardly one of these uber-PC anthropologists who is unwilling to criticize any culture but my own, that you seem to think I am.

    So, okay…what’s this about slavery??? You make it sound as though I would condone slavery. Which I would not. Under any circumstances. Cultural relitivism is not about ignoring right and wrong. There will always be things that are clearly one or the other. Cultural relativism is about that grey area. Is paligamy(sp?) wrong? What about eating meat, or arranged marriages? Yes, Certain actions are clearly wrong. Rioting, and attacking others on the basis of thier association with a newspaper that offends you is WRONG, because it directly hurts other people, and infringes upon their freedom. But thinking a certain way? How can we say that seeing the world in a certain way.. “confusing symbolism for reality” is wrong alone? this alone does not harm anyone. And as long as it isn’t, I can’t see why it should be anyone’s concern. And they do have the right to be deeply offended, and cut off trade, and stop speaking to those who offended them, and give them dirty looks and the cold shoulder, because that is their right. But not to harm others. And that is what we should be talking about here.

  11. #11 Pieter B
    February 24, 2006

    Our flag:
    Pray for it
    Not to it.

    Am I the only one who is disturbed by the use of the word “desecration” when it’s applied to doing things to the flag?

    des•e•crate
    tr.v. To violate the sacredness of

  12. #12 Roman Werpachowski
    February 25, 2006

    I think that we shouldn’t refrain from calling what is right – right, and what is wrong – wrong, no matter whether it is in our culture or someone else’s. However I would be cautious to call some other culture’s custom or belief “silly” (which is what many people do about some Muslim’s – not all, you can buy Muhammad’s portrait easily in Iran – belief that Muhammad portraits should not be displayed. We also have some customs and beliefs which appear silly to other cultures. Like the importance we attribute to punctuality, being on time. In Africa, very often people don’t understand it. Can I call punctuality “right” or “wrong”? Hardly. It’s a custom.

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