Rafael Capurro

Posted on May 5th, 2015 to the Freelance Netizen. Reposted on June 13, 2020 to the blog of the International Center of Information Ethics.

There is an interesting ethical and intercultural discussion in the German newspapers (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Jan 13, 2015, No. 10, p. 8: "Angst vor Blasphemie. Die britische und amerikanische Pressse und die Moral" by Jochen Buchsteiner and Andreas Ross) about how the US (The NY Times, The Washington Post but also CNN) and UK (Dominic Lawson) newspapers refused to publish the Mohammed satirical cartoons of Charlie Hebdo because of 'internal rules' based on the precept that the US is a multi-cultural country with a special sensitivity about not insulting minorities of any kind. Some German journalists view this as a kind of cowardice coming paradoxically from countries that defend freedom of speech and freedom of the press. British journalists such as Nigel Lawson, Peter Hitchens and Rod Liddle are seen as 'politically correct' and defenders of public morality, "Sittenwächter" or guardian of morality, which is a very negative concept in German. My impression is that the Anglo-Saxon culture is less 'fundamentalist', or more pragmatic than the German culture is. Consider the difference between satire and insult or hate speech or hate pictures, as Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, has outlined. Is this decision really a product of having fear ("Angst"), of being blasphemic, or is it the result of weighing prudently (Aristotle's phronesis)? Or is it 'just' practical cleverness in this particular situation, taking into consideration the global impact of what is locally published independently? If I know that the people I am attacking or ridiculing are anything but rational and that their reaction will cause social disruption, is it ethically prudent to produce these kind of 'blasphemies', however otherwise viewed by ‘enlightened’ religions? Is it not possible to distinguish between critical speech and that which is considered by an 'irrational other' _as_ blasphemic? And is it not paradoxical in this situation that to defend our values in such a way is considered by said 'irrational other' as a kind of religious war? Did we not learn from Freud how to deal with the 'irrational other' in ourselves and in others?

The focus in the debate around the events that took place in Paris last week must be viewed in terms of what and why we conceal and/or reveal who we (and others) are.

Is it 'right' to claim, "Was darf die Satire? Alles" ("What May Satire Do? Everything") as Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) put it in 1919? Such a presumed ethical stance of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech allows a literary form, in this case satire, to trump considerations of social responsibility, to not consider what (and how) we should conceal something while revealing it. There are a lot of ways of respect that allow criticism without provoking an over-reaction. And there are also different cultures of concealing and revealing that depend on the history of a culture: France is not the US and it is also not Germany. Is it really a matter of 'style' or of a different perception of limits within a society as well as in a global media environment in which we live today? Can I say: this is the way we, French people are?  Is this 'French way of being' not a product of French history? Is there a need for a reconsideration of when it is appropriate and what it means to-be-French when being French takes place in interplay not only within France or within Europe but globally? Should I not consider, from a consequentialist viewpoint, the potential impact of what I do in the present context? Is this then just a case of cowardice that leads eventually and inevitably to the abdication and dissolution of the very essence of democracy? One must consider also other non-Western democracies in cultures where 'indirect speech' is of 'higher value' then 'direct speech' and where 'saving face' is a basic ethical value, an example being Japan where indirect speech forms the foundation to ethical value.  Does this necessarily mean to wrongly respect the criminal actions of terrorists done in the name of whatever religion or Weltanschauung?

We are in the middle of a war of universalisms, more or less absolute values, manifesting in respect or disrespect for others, in freedom and hate speech, libertarianism and religious feeling. In Europe, our societies are multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious and as such, our law can only partially protect various interests and feelings. We have strong laws against racism, fascism and so forth and this is excellent in so much that we have learnt from our history, but with Charlie Hebdo there is a new situation.

Perhaps in certain cases we can afford an effort to take better care of each other's feelings, particularly when we know that such feelings are those of 'irrational others'. Peace is no less an important value than freedom of speech and freedom of the press. With such a show of concern, it is not the entirety of freedom that we renounce once and for all and as a whole, but a kind of being-careful due to the explosive nature of the situation, especially when we know that a slight provocation can provoke an even worse reaction then the one we had in Paris. This is not cowardice, but caution and prudence (political and ethical virtues). A 'fundamentalist' position based on our identity might be counterproductive. In the long run change can only happen in a patient intercultural dialogue. We won't change others or ourselves with cartoons.

Our current era is filled with jargon around universal human rights. We must try to make clear that ethics is a permanent critical reflection on (universal or particular) moralities. Such reflection is often misunderstood as ethical relativism. The reason for this misunderstanding is simply that an ethical analysis of (cultural) differences is misunderstood as being the same as advocating for different moralities and their potential or factual incompatibility with a common morality. There is also a misunderstanding, I think, that reduces ethical reflection to the foundation of such a universal ethos. This has its origin in Enlightenment, particularly via Kant who was well aware that no code of morality with a list of values is universalizable but 'only' the form itself of universalibility of norms. Reducing ethical reflection to this task, as important as it is in a globalized world, implies devaluating other views of ethical reflexion. This kind of reflection includes possible ways for singularities to relate theoretically and practically toward each other. This kind of reflection is indeed universal (or potentially universal) in the sense that we deal with a world full of singularities (individuals and groups...) where the issue of universality is less a question of universal norms than of the compatibility and influence of forms of living. Universal 'ethical' declarations have a practical use from the perspective of how different forms of living can coexist. But this is not the whole story, practically or theoretically. We must be aware, I think, not to confuse the task of Intercultural Information Ethics (IIE) with the issue of a transcultural (or universal) morality (or code of 'ethics'). Dogmatism and relativism are different on the side of morality i.e. of the given norms and values in a society (mores) and their confluence (or not) in a common 'code', and the reflection on such norms and values (universal and/or singular), which is the crux of the matter of IIE as I understand it. To this reflection belongs also the issue of a transcultural Information Ethics (IE) i.e. of discussing (!) the issue of the meaning of a meta-cultural level of reflection and the possible foundations of such a universal code. This is not the same as aiming alone or primarily towards the level of critical reflection, toward such a universal code, although it might be an outcome or at least a possible (!) foundation for such a given code. This is the case of philosophical discussions and foundations of human rights as opposed to some kind of 'cultural relativism' at the theoretical and practical level. At the theoretical outcome it is not, I think, a dead end, because it can be questioned again and again and in this sense it can and should be culturally (linguistically, historically...) relativized. I think that this kind of relativism or scepticism or 'critical rationalism' (Popper) or 'hermeneutic process' can be understood as ethical relativism and which is, in fact, mostly moral relativism. Ethical relativism and moral relativism are not of the same kind but unfortunately concepts of 'relativism' are used as if they were synonymous. There can be ethical dogmatism when an ethical theory presents itself as the only possible truth. In practice, moral universalism that does not advocate for some kind of quasi-religious absolutism might be compatible with ethical relativism in the sense that it becomes a matter of ethical reflection, intending either to provide a possible foundation or to question its universality. In this sense, I think that IIE is not an opposite to transcultural IE but that both belong together in an end-less process of critical and indeed inter-cultural reflection without a final trans-cultural destination that makes sense at a practical or 'objective' level but that remains 'object' of such end-less inter-cultural reflection also because it deals not only with norms but also with forms of living in a shared world. It is because we share a world that we are able to think critically about others, and ourselves, theoretically and practically. Thus, beyond the present discussion on Charlie Hebdo we need a discussion on the different layers (historical, cultural, religious etc.) that remain paradoxically concealed in the public discussions taking place in Europe and elsewhere.


last update: June 14, 2020


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