10 February 2006

Wednesday February 8, 2006
Respect others
IN THE furore over the controversial cartoons in some European newspapers, we should perhaps step back and look at it a bit more calmly. I would be the first to agree that the cartoons are a deliberate provocation and should not have been published. They are disrespectful of people’s faith and beliefs.
But I am wondering whether this really deserves the intensity of the reaction towards it.
I hear some people complaining that Europeans should be more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims about depictions of the Prophets. This is true, but this is assuming that Europeans are all well-educated about Islam and therefore are aware this might be the reaction. (We should note that the Danish paper that originally published the cartoons did apologise.)
Even those who might have deliberately published them in defiance might not have grasped what sort of reaction such an act might elicit.
So, as our religion always asks us to, when faced with ignorance, educate first. I wonder how many people took the trouble to do that.
Not that I’m excusing the newspapers that did belatedly publish the cartoons. If they are making a point about freedom of speech, then it is an overblown one that does not take into account responsibility and accountability to other human beings.
That is such a thing as hate speech and hate crimes and there are laws against these in these very same countries.
The point to be made is are these laws meant to protect everybody or only certain ethnic groups or religions? Laws have to be imposed equally. If they are not, then they are saying that some people have more rights than others.
On the other hand, I also do believe in freedom of speech as one of the basis of democracy. It is no small irony to me that the people most vehemently reacting against the cartoons come from countries that have very little freedom of speech if any at all. Yes, in the whole spectrum of freedom of speech, there is about 2% of that space where such freedom should be restricted because there is no real value in being able to say them.
That, for me, includes any sort of inflammatory speech about race or religion (as in the “mine is superior to yours” variety). But the other 98% should be space where we can exercise our democratic right to say what we truly believe in, to criticise when others are in the wrong, to make our points in rational and safe ways. Yet, how many of us reacting to these cartoons come from countries with that 98% free space?
In our own beloved country, we are free to condemn outsiders who dare to insult us but try expressing our views about our own people and the way we conduct ourselves and see how far that gets us. The laws we have that govern what we can or cannot say can encompass far more than distasteful cartoons.
Then we have this wonderful word “sensitive” in our vocabulary, which in Malaysia, means “don’t talk about it”. We give no quarter to the thought that people might be more mature and resilient than we think, and can discuss issues without resorting to mental breakdowns or violence. Perhaps it is the people who deem things sensitive who do not have the facility to deal with things in a calm and rational manner. That’s why they assume everyone else will be the same.
We also use the word “sensitive” in selective ways. The police, we say, should be sensitive to old people and should not have shaved their heads. Just because they are old? How about not shaving anybody’s heads, regardless of age? I can’t see what exactly it does, unless police tend to worry about lice.
Instead of over-using the word “sensitive” as a codeword for censorship, why not use the word “respectful” and really mean it? We should say that people of all faiths, races and genders should be respectful of one another in every situation. We should be able to discuss anything at all as long as the ground rules are that we speak respectfully to one another.
We do not disrespect one another with generalisations and abusive words. That particularly applies to parliamentarians who sometimes think that parliamentary privilege means you can be racist and sexist.
But most of all, respectful discussion should not be limited to a tiny space only. It should extend to everything that human beings can discuss.
Only then can democracy be meaningful.