Power carries a yoke of responsibility
By Michael Beadle • Columnist
The recent worldwide protests against cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed have given humanity a chance to take a closer look at itself, and it’s not a pretty sight.
Too often the opportunity for self-examination and honest discourse about our differences — whether based on culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation — give way to the worst humanity has to offer: ignorance, fear and hatred.
Will we ever rise above this? Will we ever learn to celebrate our differences rather than be threatened by them? Can we turn trespasses into invitations that bring us closer to one another?
Over the past several months, Islamic leaders and Muslims around the world have been outraged that the prophet Mohammed was mocked in editorial cartoons first published last September in a Danish newspaper. While the cartoonists appeared to be making an irreverent stab at religion, depicting the revered prophet of Islam as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban, media reports later explained that any illustration or visual illustration of Mohammed is considered sacrilegious and highly offensive to Muslims.
Though non-Muslims may shrug off the offense, imagine a cartoon showing a crucifix in a pool of urine or the Star of David spray-painted with a swastika. Depending on our religious beliefs or philosophy, we all have our limits when what we deem sacred is denigrated or belittled.
What began as a cultural attack wrapped in the protection of free speech escalated into massive demonstrations around the world, fueled by cultural insensitivities, and perpetuated by religious and political leaders who should know better than to use this issue as a way to incite a holy war of East vs. West, Islam vs. Christianity, Arab vs. Jew, theocracy vs. capitalism.
Instead of calling upon leaders to meet in a summit to discuss these issues and create a dialogue that could help to ease tensions, the Bush administration used its political weight to browbeat leaders of Syria and Iran for perpetuating violence and instigating anti-American sentiments around the world. Granted, there are Islamic fanatics and militant Muslims out there who have fanned the flames (some of the irreverent pictures of Mohammed that stirred up so much trouble were never even published), so that flag and effigy burning turned into torching businesses, churches and embassies associated with Western countries. Now the nation of Denmark is vilified throughout the world.
We in Western North Carolina may shake our heads at the violent protests over cartoons and think, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a cartoon. Why can’t people get along and resolve their differences with a rational discussion?”
But are we really so far removed from the Middle East to think that we are immune from such a war of ideals, a war between cultures or religious beliefs that could erupt into just as much senseless destruction?
Living in Haywood County for the past 10 years, I have come to call these mountains my home — more home than any place I have ever lived — and I often take for granted the fact that I live in a free country where I can publish columns like this in the newspaper without fearing death threats from the government.
But with this freedom comes responsibility.
This newspaper has published some controversial cartoons of its own recently, and while I stand by the freedom of the press and the talents of our editorial cartoonist, David Cohen, I also feel compelled to voice my opposition to a recent cartoon that equates the history of the Cherokee people with gambling.
The Feb. 15 cartoon in the Smoky Mountain News pokes fun of the proposed changes for the outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” (the story of the Cherokee people) and shows Harrah’s Casino Hotel with a sign out front that reads, “Unto These Tills.” At the top, the cartoon reads, “ABOUT THE PEOPLE... BY THE PEOPLE... FOR THE PEOPLE....” This references the fact that the new re-organization of “Unto These Hills” involves much more Cherokee input with the play after more than half a century of mostly non-Cherokee directors and actors running the show. While profits from the Cherokee Casino are helping to fund the changes at “Unto These Hills” and helping to preserve Cherokee traditions and culture on the Qualla Boundary, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians should not simply be viewed through the lens of a gambling casino.
As Lewis Harding, chairman of the Cherokee Historical Association, said to me, “Gambling is not who we are.”
Now, I don’t think any business, politician or public figure is free from criticism about decisions that affect citizens and communities. We as newspapers have a right and a duty to examine issues and offer a forum for ideas. That helps us learn from those issues instead of sugarcoating or ignoring them.
However, it’s important that when we make references to minorities — whether they are Latinos or African-Americans or Cherokees — we don’t perpetuate stereotypes that narrow our view of that ethnic group.
No, I’m not sounding the call for a politically correct tiptoe through the cultural landscape of our society. I’m simply suggesting that as we use words, images and the power of mass media, that we use some foresight and realize the powerful impact of those words and images in shaping public opinion.
If you have a negative opinion about a certain ethnicity, religious group or subculture, ask yourself why you feel that way. How many anecdotes, news stories or personal experiences helped you form that opinion? Even after several negative encounters with a given ethnic group or race, can you still claim that all people from that ethnic group or race act like that? Can your experiences with 10 rude people doom an entire race of millions? Even if you have a dozen cases where a car with a Florida license plate cuts you off in a turning lane, can you really say all drivers from Florida are jerks?
Before we judge all Islamic followers as fanatics based on the media coverage of protests, let’s learn more about the culture so many are ready to condemn. Before we publish our news and pen our editorial cartoons and share our stories, let’s remember the responsibility of our freedom to express.