Lines in the Sand

February 9th, 2006 § 0 comments

I’ve been following the “Prophet Mohammed Cartoon” story for about a week now, and as the story continues to snowball out of control, I think it’s time I stated my opinion on the subject. If you haven’t heard about the story, go and have a look at the New York Times for the past week or so. There’s plenty of material.
The Times didn’t publish the cartoons themselves. There’s a list of blogs you can find scans of the originals at

I had a conversation via IM with my good friend Kristen yesterday, and while I don’t recall actually taking a side, it did get me thinking on the salient points of the matter:

The only system of values that I am familiar enough with to make any sort of statement is the one I’ve lived with for the past two decades: the general “Western” system of thought. If we analyze the situation within that framework, we come to some inescapable truths:

1) Under its local system of laws, the Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish whatever it chose. Whether or not its actions were “a good idea”, or “a bad idea” are irrelevant to the matter. The Posten has an interest in holding its audience. If the readership don’t like what’s in their newspaper, they won’t read it any more, and day-to-day, that’s what the paper cares about.

2) Under their local system of laws, the Muslim community have a right to dislike the content of the Jyllands-Posten. They have a right to be offended, just as I have a right to disagree with what I might find on the editorial page, or take offense at anything else I choose.

I’ve heard this phrased by several pundits as “the right to offend”. I don’t like the wording very much, but it makes sense. It’s a consequence of free speech.

So, on the face of it, we’re done here. The Posten did what it wanted, and the readership (in a global sense) responded as it wished. So why are we still talking about this? On the one hand, there’s been a great deal of politicking over the reaction of a vocal segment of the Muslim population, and this politicking has comprised most of what’s been on the public stage in the past week. I find the situation interesting for a different reason, though: the “cultural cultivation” effect that has been brewing since 2001, and that has now come to a head.

It so happens that last night, I read an article by George Gerbner, the noted media scholar, about the “Cultural Cultivation” effect of television, in particular. Of interest here is the concept of “Mainstreaming”, where the viewing public are led to believe that certain viewpoints are that of the majority, when they may not be. Of secondary interest is the “Mean World Syndrome”, where heavy viewers of television are led to believe that the ‘real world’ is more brutal and disturbing than it really is. Gerbner used crime figures to demonstrate his hypothesis, but I think it probably holds true here as well.

David Brooks’ editorial in the New York Times this morning (“Drafting Hitler”, New York Times p.A27, 02/09/06)  is a classic example. Styled as an “open letter”, the article refers plainly to “us and them” throughout, drawing a clear line where none may exist. The letter leads the reader to believe that:

1) There is a fundamental conflict between Muslims and The Western World
2) All Muslims share the same beliefs
3) All Westerners share the same beliefs
4) There is “a vast chasm” between The “Muslim World” and “The Western World”

Since late 2001, Americans have had a highly filtered view of Islam. Few images published in the mainstream press have shown much more than violence. In the press, “Islam” has come to be associated with “barbarism”, “terrorism”, “violence”, and so on. I suspect that the media outlets in the Middle East have painted a similarly disturbing portrait of The West, with America in particular being associated with many of the same concepts. George W. Bush has been the ideological figurehead for The West, and Osama bin Laden and a handful of Ayatollahs have been been the figureheads for the so-called Muslim World. Having been subjected to a particularly polarized and distorted set of imagery for the past four or five years, it’s no wonder that mainstream opinion of both parties tends to the bleak, and the tinderbox ignites every time an event comes up that underscores each side’s socially-constructed truths. The scores of articles published in the last year in support of the rights of Palestinians, for example, go nowhere in terms of shifting public opinion in both parts of the world; they get lost amid the wash of “George vs. Osama” rhetoric that floods the mainstream press.

The reality here is that there are more than two sides to the issue. It’s not America versus The Terrorists. Nor is it The West versus The Muslim World. It’s time to have a sensible debate on the matter, rather than using a relatively minor incident to further polarize public opinion and draw sharp lines in the sand when no clear division exists.

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