Sunday, May 20, 2007

Religion, Art, and Tolerance

It's a seasonal occurrence.

Every few months some artist will - in the name of freedom or creativity or plain ol' belligerence - push the boundaries of common decency. A crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. A chocolate Jesus. Dung covered something-or-other. It'll happen again. You'll be offended. You can bet on it.

And even though we can rightly be appalled by what many of us consider patently anti-religious PDAs (public displays of absurdity) we must also note that we live in a free society. The two go hand in hand. I have the right to be offended. You have the right to offend me.

We're not alone in this. It's a universal tension. I just read an article by Indian columnist Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times titled Art, Tolerance and Religion (thus the title of this post). Evidently an artist in Baroda (Western India) was arrested for painting allegedly obscene pictures of some Hindu religious figures. The move has been widely condemned among Indian society, news magazines, and television media. Sanghvi notes:
Most of us will agree that all of this [the arrest of painter MF Husain] is terrible and deserves the condemnation it has received. Few people will also dispute that the behaviour of the authorities in Baroda was reprehensible. . . . Of course, we're all liberals and, of course, we stand for freedom of expression etc etc. You don't have to be an intellectual giant or a moral philosopher to say that art students should not be arrested or painters persecuted. But are we right to see the issue in liberal vs reactionary terms? Let's take the simplest example. Every liberal I know argued that MF Husain had the right to paint a naked Saraswati or a nude Bharat Mata. Yet, hardly any liberal of my acquaintance extended the same principle to the Danish cartoons.
Why? Because -IMO- the Muslims that denounced the cartoonists and those who published them were willing to kill the offenders and any who sided with them. Sanghvi is right. This isn't a liberal vs reactionary debate. The real issue is harmful threat. Am I right? It's not that we hold double standards - we all do! It's that we kowtow to the most dangerous bully on the global block. So we equivocate. Make excuses for the offended party. Try to appease the bully so we don't get hurt.

Again, it's not the double standard that's wrong or being "liberal" or "reactionary." In a free society (read free-market) the give and take over what's offensive is expected, even healthy. I know next to nothing about Hinduism and so am not at all worried about a naked Saraswati or Bharat Mata; I don't know who these figures are, so go ahead, paint away. I'm liberal! But when it comes to my Jesus, then don't you dare! There's the double standard. I'm okay with that.

Now in a free society governed by free-market economics if you offend me and I make a stink, then maybe you back down, you get de-funded, you go away. Or maybe I end up looking foolish. Either way, the louder we complain, the bigger the result - one way or the other. The marketplace of ideas has it's own rules so let's put truth and absurdity in the ring and let them have at it.

In fact, this happens on a regular basis. I know that sooner or later another PDA will make the news. It's a seasonal occurrence. Will I be offended? Probably. Do I have a double standard? You bet. I truly do not care how or if you portray Islam's prophet; but I do care deeply about the portrayal of ours.

The difference is this. I'm not going to kill you for disagreeing with me.
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