Pouring Oil on Fire-The Ethics of Provocation
September 24, 2012
In the past two weeks, we have witnessed anti-American mobs throughout the Middle-East in so called protest of an obscure anti-Islamic video produced by an even more obscure director of questionable reputation. The trailer of the movie was available on YouTube.
How can it be explained that such an insignificant trailer lost among over a billion YouTube postings could enrage thousands of Muslims throughout the world and causing the death of our Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans?
Ross Douthat of the New York Times writes in his September 15, article It’s Not About the Video: ” The mobs don’t exist because of an offensive movie, and an American ambassador is not dead because what appears to be a group of Coptic Christian in California decided to use their meager talents to disparage the Prophet Muhammad.”
Rich Lowry the editor of the National Review wrote in his September 18th, 2012 article Susan Rice’s Dodge: “To blame the video for the violence, rather than the provocateurs on the ground, is a concession to the logic of blasphemy laws giving aggrieved Muslims a veto over free speech.”
One can easily suspect that some parties with a political agenda have been publicizing the existence of the video to provoke highly emotional, irrational and harmful reactions. In other words, someone has been pouring oil on fire. One could believe that someone had vested interest in using this insulting video to provoke great harm.
Provocation is in essence a strategy to achieve a defined goal. It is very often used in publicity. Benetton, the Italian fashion company was one of the first to use provocative images in its advertizing to address societal issues such as race, discrimination, AIDS and war. Provocation can also be a form of manipulation, making people do something they would not necessarily do on their own.
Provocation challenges emotions rather than the mind, hence the volatility and sometimes violence of the response.
In the legal field, a crime that has been a result of a provocation will be considered with less severity than had there not been a provocation.
Is there a “right way” to respond to a provocation? I believe that in most case there is. As responsible citizens, we are to do the best we can to minimize harm done to others.
With that concern in mind, maybe the best way to react to a provocation is simply to ignore it!
As the 18th Century English theologian John Tillotson once said:
“To be able to bear provocation is an argument of great reason, and to forgive it of a great mind.”