Friday, January 19, 2018
Opinion

Clash of cultures and speech

Global culture is the next frontier. We are witnessing the beginnings of what will be a lengthy struggle to shape global values. The violent protests and debates over free speech that recently convulsed many countries will turn out to be but one episode. And it will involve not just Muslims and Westerners.

As globalization has knitted the world into a singular space, including media, the Internet and the flow of markets, so we are shifting to a global context in the debate over cultural values. Increasingly, different parties will be seeking to determine the foundations of global norms.

Here in the United States we have presumed a national culture, or the common values that provide the foundation for the give-and-take of our civic and political life. Other countries have had their own cultural models. But the geographic scale of such cultural points of reference has shifted over history.

These shifts follow a particular trajectory. The arc of human history shows a continuous ratcheting up in the scale of community. Hunting bands were, if unevenly in geographic terms, replaced by agricultural societies. Agricultural societies coalesced into empires. From roughly the 17th century we see the emergence of centralized states and cohesive nations.

Yet all these shifts were accompanied by a good degree of violence and struggle. Why? As the scale of human community grew, so different groups struggled to shape the nature of these communities. These struggles were not only over economic advantage. They were about the culture and values of these newly developing communities and societies.

One has to just consider American history. As the United States was increasingly integrated through industrialization, so conflict over slavery grew more acrimonious. Indeed, the bloodiest war in this nation's history was the Civil War, not one with outsiders. Slavery represented a deep fissure, and invoked vastly different images of American political and cultural values.

The violent protests across parts of the Muslim world over insults to the Prophet Mohammed — a repetition of the Danish cartoon crisis — is just one example of a new stage in these struggles. That scale is now global.

The fight over speech, from free speech to regulating speech, is emblematic of this conflict. Some claim that we should limit free speech if it offends "human dignity." For example, a satirical portrait of President Jacob Zuma in South Africa generated calls for its banning as it offended the president's dignity. And, of course, we heard the same calls regarding the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

For others the notion of the "abuse of free speech" — an argument one increasingly hears about some speech — is a contradiction in terms. How can one have free speech if it can't be disagreeable?

Yet today it is impossible to insulate speech across borders. The argument is inevitable. The desire to shape the rules of global discourse will follow. These kinds of fights are likely with us for decades, as global culture gets shaped.

The Chinese, Russians and Africans, not just Muslims and Westerners, will want their voices heard as well in this quarrel.

It is critical to understand this dispute is also internal to Muslim communities. Within Islam, hard-liners and the more conservative are favored in this exchange. Political Islam, from Iranian mullahs to the Muslim Brotherhood, is more organized to engage in the fight.

Less politically organized and more decentralized Muslim groups are being buffeted in this internal struggle. From Mali to Libya to Pakistan, centrist Muslims are under attack. Islamist fundamentalists have destroyed precious shrines of such Muslim groups in these countries. The fundamentalists consider these shrines idolatrous. Islamist militants have forced thousands of Tuareg, a moderate Muslim tribal confederation in western Africa, into exile. Sharia has been imposed on other Tuareg in a brutal fashion — including amputations and the stoning of supposed transgressors.

Those heart-wrenching setbacks for moderate people everywhere are barely noticed in the cacophony over videos and cartoons. But we need to take notice. This is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash for the future of civil society, on a global scale. Protecting freedom of expression will be key.

David Jacobson is the author of "Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict," out in December. He directs the Citizenship Initiative at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Comments
William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

A surge of Democrats seeking local legislative offices and hoping for a "blue wave" in the 2018 election continued last week, led by Bob Buesing filing to run again versus state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa.In addition:• Heather Kenyon Stahl of Tampa has...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

The smiles, applause and at least one hug belied the grim impetus for a gathering last week at a neighborhood center in Tampa — the Seminole Heights killings.The Tampa Police Department held a ceremony to thank those who helped in the investigation t...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

The Florida Legislature’s abrupt move to strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its hard-earned separate accreditation and transform it back into a satellite of the major research university lacks detail and an appreciation for histo...
Published: 01/18/18

Another voice: Self-dealing by nursing home owners threatens patient care

The outsourcing of logistical support services, which became commonplace in the U.S. military in the 1990s and later was adopted by state prison systems, has now come to dominate the nursing home industry. And while nursing homes, unlike the military...
Published: 01/17/18
Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Three years into a crisis with its sewer system, St. Petersburg has a dandy new idea for dealing with the environmental fallout of dumping dirty water into the aquifer. Instead of committing to banning the outlawed practice, a consultant suggested th...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

A substitute teacher at a Plant City elementary school berated a class of fourth graders — and then the school principal. Another compared a student to a stripper. Others were caught napping, hitting children, making sexual remarks, giving students b...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

For the longest time, injured workers in Florida were basically at the mercy of the whims of employers to treat them fairly. A 2003 law aimed at reducing the cost of workers’ compensation coverage for businesses had the desired impact, but it also di...
Published: 01/16/18

Another voice: Why just Florida?

Cynicism has always been a part of politics, but rarely are politicians so brazen and self-serving as President Donald Trump and his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, have been over the past week. First they announced a new offshore drilling plan that ...
Published: 01/16/18
Editorial: King’s legacy still relevant in digital age

Editorial: King’s legacy still relevant in digital age

Today’s holiday honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t be more timely. At a moment when the nation’s civic dialogue is choking on personal and political division, it is hard to remember an earlier time when role models were role m...
Published: 01/15/18

Another voice: 38 minutes of fear in Hawaii

In 1938, Orson Welles panicked the nation with a false alarm about a Martian invasion in the radio broadcast The War of the Worlds. That was farfetched, of course. But what happened on Saturday, sadly, was not so hard to imagine — or believe.Authorit...
Published: 01/14/18
Updated: 01/16/18