Much has been made -- appropriately, I think -- of the fact that the shameful murders of UN workers in Afghanistan was not directly in response to Terry Jones' burning of the Koran (which initially did not make that much press this time around since it was after all just some crazy fundamentalist kook holding a dumb little ill-attended show inside his church), but rather in response to Afghani president Hamid Karzai's very public announcement and condemnation of Jones' actions, and subsequent incitement by some very angry mullahs. I immediately spotted the parallel to the Danish cartoon affair, which barely made the news outside of Denmark until a couple of imams decided to tour the Mideast a year later stirring up anti-Danish sentiment (I was not the only one to make this observation, by the way).
So in both cases we have a Western nation experiencing an otherwise rather short-lived and mostly harmless free speech controversy, in which freedom of speech ultimately triumphs despite widespread condemnation of the message (which is just great; that's how liberal democracies are supposed to work) -- which was later turned into an international incident when some mullahs deliberately tried to make an issue out of it and fan the flames of violence. To me, it seemed easy to see where the blame lies: with the mullahs, not with the dumb bigot pastor or the controversial cartoonists.
That is, until I realized that unless one rejects cultural relativism (which, thankfully, I do) that argument falls apart, or at the very least undermines some other moral statements we'd very much like to make.
Take for example the problem of child witchcraft accusations in parts of Africa. Ophelia Benson's blog is a good resource to find out about this, but in a nutshell, there is a problem in certain parts of Africa where bad events are blamed on local children practicing witchcraft, and the children are then exiled or murdered in the most brutal ways. Terrible stuff.
Of course, like the Terry Jones book-burning and the Danish cartoons, locally it is not that big news. Sadly, that's not too far out of bounds for how things are done in those regions.
Perhaps this is a poor example because, shamefully, this travesty hasn't gotten much press in the West. But if we did want to do something about this, the way to do so would be to publicize what had been only a minor local issue, get people over here angry about it and motivated to do something. In other words, do exactly what the mullahs have done in regards to perceived slights against Islam in Western nations.
Don't misread me here. I am not drawing a false equivalence. I happen to think that murdering children in the name of superstition and scapegoating is not even comparable to the questionable exercise of free speech. And I happen to think I am right about that in some objective sense, not just as a matter of cultural or personal bias.
But that's just the point I am making. Without a strong statement that, in this particular case, one culture has got it right and the other one has just plain got it wrong, we cannot blame the mullahs for inciting violence. They simply drew public attention to what, in their cultural perspective, was an unacceptable event taking place elsewhere -- an event so unacceptable that they felt, just as I feel about the child witchcraft stuff, that they could not turn a blind eye to it just because it is happening halfway across the world. From their cultural perspective, burning a Koran is as bad or worse than murdering children. And so, unless we reject cultural relativism, the mullahs were perfectly justified in what they did.
As much as a sick fuck as Terry Jones is, it's baffling and enraging to me that people want to put as much blame on him as they do on the mullahs who directly incited violence, or on the angry mobs who murdered innocent UN workers in their infantile rage. But maybe it's because of cultural relativism run amok. After all, unless we flat-out reject the idea that it's okay for another culture to be as angry about their holy book being desecrated as we Westerners might be about murdered children, then we have no leg to stand on in condemning them.
We should not make the leap from a long overdue rejection of our history of cultural imperialism and an appropriate humility about our own cultural perspective and its potential flaws, into a pure ungrounded cultural relativism. There is nothing inherently superior about Westerners that ought to make our culture always superior; and when culture does not warp people's values into a twisted caricature of morality, cultural variation is part of the rich tapestry of human experience. But none of that changes the fact that there can be issues on which another culture is just flat-out objectively wrong, no ifs ands or buts.