Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Religion, media and offense
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Religion, media and offense

The current protests throughout the world by Muslims who were offended by caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (the cartoons caused riots in Afghanistan) that originally ran in a Danish newspaper, sparked an interesting discussion among some friends of mine, about the nature of offensive imagery and the role of the media and even of cartoonists. The most inflammatory cartoon was one of Muhammad with a bomb as part of his turban, suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists.

Below are edited excerpts from the e-mail discussion.

The back-and-forth began when Leland sent a link to a Gawker posting about Iranian response to the flap (via Reuters via WashPost): “Things we never thought we’d say: Iranians have a delightfully level-headed reaction to the Mohammed-cartoons brouhaha; the country’s biggest paper will run a contest for best Holocaust cartoon, which is an entirely reasonable response.” (This quote is from Gawker.)

Steve responded with this: “This is probably offensive, but everytime I see a headline about the ‘cartoon protest’ or a ‘cartoon protester’ I imagine, like, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Roadrunner and Elmer Fudd pumping their fists, racing around aimlessly and shouting, ‘Fight the power!’ Wile E. Coyote will release a statement of response shortly.”

Leland: “I agree with garry trudeau on this one. He says he wouldn’t put a cartoon image to make fun of any god — jesus or mohammed.

“He says just because cartoonists can make fun of religious icons doesn’t mean they HAVE to do it.

“And this is what happens when they do.”

David: “have you actually seen the cartoons in question? the amazing thing is that they’re actually pretty inept — not funny/interesting, like something you’d see in a third-rate weekly somewhere. but after the usual suspects got ahold of this & started fanning the flames, it took off. they were actually published 4 months ago, & it’s taken this long for the controversy to reach critical mass.”

(NOTE: You can see the images, and a pretty comprehensive explanation and timeline of the controversy, on Wikipedia here.)

Steve: “I don’t agree with Trudeau’s hard-and-fast rule about not depicting gods or deities. I mean, Salman Rushdie got in trouble for something similar some time ago and his stuff holds up pretty well. (I just read ‘Satanic Verses’ recently.) But not having seen the cartoon I’m talking out of my hat.”

Leland: “So is it ok to mock the holocaust in cartoons?”

Steve: “No, it’s not OK to do that. Nor is it OK to stereotype black people with exaggerated features or whatever, or to be racist in general.

“I’m just saying it’s acceptable to mock Jesus or Mohammed or God under certain circumstances depending on the context. I don’t agree with Trudeau’s sanctimoniousness in this case.

“There is gray area.”

Leland: “Actually, I don’t think it’s sanctimoniousness on his part. I’m sure trudeau (or any cartoonist) can find other ways to make the point rather than use the images themselves, and I think that’s the point he was making.

“And not to be particularly argumentative (this is a tough question, and I’m not sure of the answer), but I think the Iranians are arguing that the Danish images of mohammed are exaggerated stereotypes, too. I’m not sure I agree, but that line between OK and not is pretty darned blurry at this point.

Steve: “It’s not about whether anyone has a right to do these things. It’s about whether reputable newspapers should publish the images.

“I guess I still disagree with Leland. Yeah, mocking Christ may not be the best way to make your point. But what if it is? Then you should do so. ”

Gil: “As someone who’s encountered racism and prejudice in my life, it ain’t up to us (I’m including myself in this group, which is basically white, middle-aged middle-class white guys with college education) to decide what’s crossing ‘that line between OK and not.’ If something offends someone, it’s offensive, period. One thing I’ve always hated is when some ass says something stupid and patently racist and then says ‘I’m sorry that offended you,’ as if it wasn’t offensive but it was my fault for receiving it that way. Sure, in an overly PC world, everything and everybody is touchy, but that’s the way it is.

“Again, though, I wouldn’t deny a stupid racist the right to say something stupid and racist; I just want it acknowledged that if I find it offensive, it is.”

Steve: “Absolutely. Well put. But are you saying newspaper editors should automatically run cartoons mocking the Holocaust or Asian or black people or whatever because they have no right not to as middle-aged white people? I don’t think I’d go that far. Or I could be confused about the point in your first sentence.”

Gil: “I guess I displayed a typical mixed message, something people of color are used to giving and receiving. As an editor, I would have made that decision on what’s crossing that line…. But as an individual, I think it’s up to the person who’s offended to say something is offensive. Does that make any sense?”

I’m still not sure I made my point, or maybe even what my point was. Afterwards I realized how conflicted I was about this complicated issue. Last night I read this on NYT.com (registration required), about the Philadelphia Inquirer’s decision to run the images (it was the first U.S. paper to do it — let’s see if others follow suit).

I can see the Inquirer’s perspective — they see the illustrations now as news in and of themselves, and although many media have stated that they can describe the offensive image, the Inquirer, in its coverage of the protests, thought it would be helpful for readers to see for themselves the images that Muslims found so offensive.

Interestingly, I couldn’t find the Danish graphic on the Inquirer Web site today, but they do have a page up with links to their stories about the controversy, including a “Breaking News” item about the protests outside the newspaper’s office after it ran the illustration.

Maybe I didn’t look closely enough to find the link to the art, but this made me wonder if they’d chickened out after running it in print, and/or if they were simply OK with generating a lot of curious pageviews over the flap without actually including the art online.

Adding to the layers of complexity here is the fact that in the Muslim faith, it’s forbidden to show any image of the Prophet Muhammad. So the protests aren’t just because of the nature of the depictions, but the act of the depiction itself.

I do think it’s the responsibility of the media to explain controversial issues to the public, and if showing a controversial piece of art is the best way, the media should do that. The context is everything, I guess: if it’s presented in an educational context, and not as an editorial comment, it makes all the difference in the world — at least, to me.

At the same time, as an editor, I reserve the right to not allow anything I deem offensive or that I think readers would find offensive, from my publication, or in this case, Web site.

Who knows, maybe the Post will run a story about the controversy and run the art in the print edition. Then what should I do about the graphic online?

Lemme know what you think.