The Honor and Dignity of my taxi-driver

May 29, 2011 by

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Had an interesting ride in a taxi the other day.

My driver had spent twenty years in Sweden, before returning here a couple of years ago. Not a particularly observant Muslim (he talked about being drunk a couple of times), he mentioned his first response to the Danish cartoon of Mohammed a few years back.

“I looked at that cartoon, with the terrorist bomb strapped to the kaffiyah, and I said to my girlfriend, ‘There’s going to be trouble now. All hell’s going to break loose.’ And sure enough, everything went crazy. And you know they didn’t apologize? The Danes. They just kept saying freedom of speech, freedom of speech. That’s freedom of speech? To deliberately insult millions of people is freedom of speech?”

I made the choice to ignore the rhetorical question-mark:

“Yes,” I said quietly, “having the right to insult millions of people is exactly what freedom of speech is about…”

Before he took offence, I hurried to elaborate:

“I think the cartoon was offensive, and unpleasant, and stupid. I am sure it was incredibly hurtful to you and many others. But freedom of speech is exactly the right to say something that someone else might find offensive. If I am only free to say that which doesn’t offend anyone, then I have no freedom at all.”

He listened, but was unconvinced:

“But hang on, so you are free to hurt me, but I’m not free to hurt you back?”

“You are free to insult me back, but not to hit me or set fire to my property,” I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud. Instead I remembered a wonderful lesson taught to me by the wonderful Professor Mike Rosenak on the thinking of Peter Berger.

Berger observed that the world is now split between believers in Honor, and believers in Dignity. Dignity is the worth I accord myself, Honor is the worth others accord me. These two worlds are polar opposites. For believers in Dignity (let’s say, the entire Western liberal world) those who crave Honor are archaic and weak, if not completely incomprehensible. For believers in Honor, those who cling to Dignity are selfish and weak, if not also totally incomprehensible.

I turned to my sweet taxi-driver, who was one of the most intelligent and most honest guys I’d met for a long while, and said:

“In the West the right to freedom of speech is more important than honor. In the West they believe in rights, not in honor. They don’t even see honor, let alone value it. Here in the Middle East we believe that honor is even more important than our rights.”

I continued: “Here, if you damage my honor, you have attacked me. There is no difference between striking me, or insulting me. But in the West, what is important is rights. My right to speak my mind, my right to vote, my right to even offend your honor. So long as I support your rights, your honor is irrelevant.”

It didn’t make my driver happy, but it was the first explanation he’d heard that made a bit of sense for him.

The conversation got me thinking about words and concepts I grew up with in the West, that are either invisible or mean something else entirely in Israel. While I fervently believe that the rights of these two Peoples must be established and upheld, I’m less convinced that this will really solve the conflict. For not only rights are at stake. Honor is, too.

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