Sunday, April 3, 2011

Don't Provoke Me

What does it mean to "provoke" someone? To "to incite to anger?" To "to stir up purposely?" Or does it mean something other than what I dictionary might tell us? Maybe it means "to get someone to show their 'true colors,'" or "to have to take the blame for someone else's actions?"

It really is a tricky word to parse out, because it confronts us with who bears some or all of the responsibility for someone's acts. If Alice constantly needles Bob until he flies off the handle, does Alice bear the responsibility for actively working to annoy Bob? Does Bob bear the responsibility for being susceptible to flying off the handle? Or are they both responsible?

In the "real world" especially when one speaks of diplomacy, "provocation" is generally speaking a warning. "Quit with the 'provocation' or when the troops show up, or the bombs start falling, you'll have no-one to blame but yourself." It also serves as absolution - "we won't be responsible for the consequences." Viewed in that way, it seems like a cop-out, something people say when they really just want to beat someone up, and don't want to be the "guilty party." In a lot of ways, it's like "terrorist reasoning" (although it's certainly not limited to terrorists) - if you do X, I'll have no choice but to kill these people, and it will be your fault. And we tend to see that for what it is, a self-serving method of abdicating moral agency to another person - effectively pretending to be a puppet as a way of avoiding blame.

But that can't be the entire picture - if for no other reason than the world is more complicated than that, and we don't have perfect information about it.

And that means that sometimes, we're perfectly justified in saying that someone provoked something - but it does require a slightly different take on provocation. Perhaps "to call forth (as a feeling or action)." Imagine that Alice, in a rage, comes after an unsuspecting Bob with a gun, and receives a face full of pepper spray. Then we find out that it wasn't a real gun, and Alice was only joking. (She has a somewhat off sense of humor that way.) Unless we're die-hard Alice fans, we're unlikely to blame Bob for what he'd done. It's unreasonable to expect him to wait for all the facts in the face of what otherwise appeared to be a clear and present danger, even though, in this case, it turned out to be a hoax. In other words, we consider it unfair to treat Bob as a moral agent in his actions, and so we're likely to feel justified in saying that Alice provoked being pepper sprayed, even though she hadn't meant to do so. (On the other hand, she did intend to provoke a fear response, which pretty much worked.)

And that brings us to the yahoos at "The Dove World Outreach Center." They put the Koran "on trial," found it "guilty" of "inciting murder, rape and terrorist activities" and sentenced it to "execution" by burning. Perhaps predictably, there were Moslems who were not pleased. Pastor Jones and his cronies are unfazed, claiming that it's preposterous that their actions could be responsible for the violence.

(I'm going to leave aside the absurdity of "convicting" an inanimate object, which more or less by definition, cannot have any sort of moral agency, of "inciting murder, rape and terrorist activities.")

Given what I've laid out above, you can see how the fault lines are going to break on this, generally in accordance with one's views on Moslems. People who already view Moslems as violent and/or terrorists, and will be inclined to see charges that Dove "provoked" the violence as attempting to find moral cover for unrelated reprehensible behavior. On the other side of the coin, those who are inclined to understand that Moslems sincerely (if not necessarily accurately) feel threatened by the Christian West see Jones' placing all the blame on the protesters as the moral cover-seeking. Of course, these positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive - you can easily decide there's enough blame to go around. Or, better yet, one can refuse to paint with a broad brush, but where's the political advantage or self-righteous fury in that?

Personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, looking for a reason to unite his people behind him, and shed his image as a puppet of the United States, saw an opening to redirect his people's anger away from himself, and being a shrewd politician, took it.

It's hard to make sense of the facts on the ground from half a planet away, and as an outsider. I'm not biased enough either way to have a strong opinion as to who is ultimately responsible for what happened, and, to be honest, I'm not interested enough to do the research that would be required to have a really informed opinion. (While I'm sure that a history of Judeo-Christian-Moslem relations over the past several decades or so would be fascinating - actually, I'm pretty positive it wouldn't, and I'm not looking for a job in that field...) So I'm going to have to say that I don't know in what way the word "provoked" applies here, and I don't feel my opinions are grounded enough to be worthwhile.

But we're going top have to deal with this issue, and the concepts of responsibility and moral agency that come with it. Because when people start dying, the bickering over who's at fault may be morally satisfying, but they don't restore the dead.

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