Respect for the Power of Words and Images

Words and images are powerful. They can be used to foster understanding — of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live. This is what the great artists and writers who have gone before us have left as a legacy. They serve as a reminder of the human love for beauty and the need for finding our place in the world.

When I read something that resonates, it is often for one of two reasons. Either the words encourage me to think about something in a different, sometimes deeper way, causing me to reconsider my former beliefs. The other reason it may resonate is because it confirms my world view and puts words to those deeply-held beliefs that I wasn't able to find.

When I look at works of great artists, I appreciate how the images convey what words cannot — the mysteries in the world and the universe. There are many ways to interpret images that carry these mysteries, and we each bring our own interpretations based on our experiences and perceptions.

Unfortunately, words and images can also be used to cause misunderstandings and incite anger. So that child rhyme we've all heard about sticks and stones breaking bones, but words cannot hurt — is simply not true. Words can hurt, and they do. And so do images. This is exactly what I was pointing out in my post last week when I criticized Hot Snakes Media for their portrayal of the Amish.

It was a shock when I discovered the same day I posted this, the slayings took place in France because of Charlie Hebdo's portrayal of the prophet Mohammad. I find it obhorrent when people resort to violence, striking fear in the hearts of people the world over. It is such a reminder of how we are faced with a choice between good and evil every day of our lives. And every day there are people who choose evil.

There is plenty said all over the internet about these grizzly acts of violence, so registering my horror at what took place will hardly matter. It seems most people who denounce the violence also defend the right of of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo to express their views freely. They plant their feet firmly on the side of defending freedom of expression.

I am here to remind that with every freedom comes responsibility. I will also convey what it's like to identify closely with a culture and a heritage, and how mocking someone's religion, world view, culture, and heritage can be extremely hurtful.

All my life there has been a tension — between my need to develop my "self" and my need to belong. I do not believe this is unusual. It is why playgrounds can be a place of strife, and why there is such a thing as "groupthink."


There are cultures in which people's ancestors and relatives and way of life more or less define the individual. I grew up in one of these cultures. The sense of belonging is very strong among the Amish, and so is the emphasis on fitting into the group, often at the expense of individualism. In the mainstream culture, however, we value individualism at the expense of any sense of belonging or of honoring a heritage.

What happened in France last week is not isolated from the tensions that have existed for some time. Remember when it became illegal in France for women to wear the niqab? I would not want to be a woman who is being told by the men of my culture to wear a niqab. But it seems to me if we are lauding freedom of expression, then a law should not forbid certain dress.

Whether or not the people at Charlie Hebdo's had the freedom to publish what they did is not my point. I am here to remind us that we have the freedom to do a lot of things that are hateful, immoral, or just plain evil. But that does not make them right.

The slayings were just plain wrong. The people doing it incited more misunderstanding and hatred of Islamic culture by doing so. Like so many other issues in the news, we hear the worst of what goes on in the world. Once again we heard from Islamic extremists. The untold story is that of Islamic families who live out their faith, quietly, in their everyday lives, just as do people of all other faiths all over the world.

Just because the killers were in the wrong, does not mean that what was published at Charlie Hebdo's was right and good. There is a scene in Downton Abbey that comes to mind. It was at the end of Season 1, when Thomas revealed his hatred and lack of respect by spitting out beastly things about Lady Grantham's miscarriage. The response from the other servants was shock and horror. William's asked, "Is there nothing left on earth that you respect?" Thomas then said something disrespectful to William about losing his mother that showed his answer is no. This said a lot more about Thomas's lack of moral character than it did about the people he disrespected, just as the cartoons published in France said more about the disrespect for anything sacred than it did about Islamic culture.

We indeed have the freedom to say (and publish) disrespectful and hateful things about one another, the cultures people identify with. and all that they hold dear. If we exercise that freedom, we can not expect that our words or actions will earn us respect or love in return.

I suppose it all depends on what legacy we want to leave. Once we leave this earth, the only part of us that remains is others' memories of our actions and our words. Once we're gone, it's too late to change any of that. And I choose to believe that all the quiet acts of kindness being expressed all overthe world are still more powerful than the violence we hear about in the news. I also believe that when faced with the choice between good and evil, more people choose good. Every day. In all cultures. All over this world.

I am so fortunate to be part of the challenges and the triumphs that come with living on this earth with the human family, and all its diversity.

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17 thoughts on “Respect for the Power of Words and Images”

  1. “I am here to remind that with every freedom comes responsibility. I will also convey what it’s like to identify closely with a culture and a heritage, and how mocking someone’s religion, world view, culture, and heritage can be extremely hurtful.”

    Thank you, Saloma. Your words are powerful.

  2. I can’t say that I was overly shocked about this murderous attack which just goes to show how I’m being desensitized to violence. At least the stuff I don’t deal with directly on a daily basis.

    I looked into Hebdo’s portrayals a little deeper. My goodness, I never knew such a horrible paper existed. I guess it’s true, “When you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”

    I’ve looked at this situation from a Christian perspective. Would I feel obliged to kill someone for printing crude, disgusting things about Jesus. Well, I would certainly be angry, at first, maybe longer, but to kill…no way.

    First of all, my God says not to kill but to love. Secondly, He doesn’t need me to fight His battles. Lastly, He’s taught me to look beyond the surface of a person. There’s a heart in there that may be hurting and it’s a heart that God created.

    This business of freedom, saying whatever you please? That’s not freedom at all. That’s an undisciplined tongue coupled with a hardened heart. And it’s very sad when certain governments approve of such things. It simply breeds hatred. Rights indeed. More like acceptable perversion masked in a patriotic flag. Everybody serves somebody whether they believe it or not.

    1. Fran, it’s good to hear from you. I know what you mean about killing… I don’t think it can ever be justified.

      Your last statement is very powerful, and so true.

      Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. This is one of your strongest blog posts ever, Saloma. You found language to express your special vantage point between two worlds by deeply identifying with the veiled women of another culture, another religion.

    The two pictures are very powerful.

    I will share online.

  4. Oh, this is such a complex subject. In a society that values individual freedom, things we have (or should have) the RIGHT to do are not necessarily “right” in the sense of being good or moral. But once we start decreeing that certain modes of expression are not allowable, we start down that proverbial slippery slope. The cliche that freedom of speech ends when one shouts “FIRE!” in a crowded theater doesn’t apply here, because in this case the injuries were not an accidental result of the shout itself, but of deliberate, evil acts in response.

    Of course the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were offensive – that was their purpose (and they’re part of a long, long French tradition of anticlericalism). People have every right to be offended by them, and even outraged. However, we don’t have the “right” never to be offended. We must always, instead, have the right to argue, discuss, condemn, and deplore. In the case a few years ago of the controversial photograph by artist Andres Serrano entitled, “Piss Christ,” which showed a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine, there was widespread outrage among many Catholics, among others. However, the pope didn’t issue a fatwah, and disapproval was expressed in a largely civilized manner.

    There was a fascinating radio interview today on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” with a former Islamist radical by the name of Maajid Nawas, and I urge anyone with any interest in Muslim extremism, freedom of speech, and the clash of ideologies in our modern world to listen to the program – which you can do on line through Articulate and insightful.

    1. Joan, thank you very much for bringing these points to the discussion. I just listened to the Fresh Air interview you mentioned, and it was indeed insightful. For one thing, I had thought using the term “Islamist” was the acceptable term for people who believe in the Quran. After listening to this program, I realize there is a difference between the people who identify themselves as Muslim and those who identify themselves as Islamist (the latter being more radical). I felt like I got a sense of how the Islamic radicals and jihadists think, which is quite frightening.

      You pointed out the French tradition of anticlericalism. I’m not advocating that their right to express these views be removed, but I am pointing out that disrespecting what others hold sacred is not going to win them respect or friendship in return. That in no way justifies or condones the killings. In fact, I feel the same way about the photograph by Andres Serrano that you described. I would ask him again the question I quoted earlier, “Is there nothing left on earth that you respect?”

      Every day we have a choice of how we interact with our fellow humans. Why waste all the potential we have for doing good on “allowable” ways of being mean and disrespectful? I don’t understand that. And I also don’t understand how anyone can believe that killing someone in response is justifiable or the “right” thing to do.

      We humans have such potential for doing good. And we also have the potential for doing incredible evils. Unfortunately, in our world, we hear more about the evils committed than we do about the good deeds done and the understanding and compassion that people show one another every day. Perhaps it has always been that way. Hegel claimed that peace times are the empty pages of history.

      Thank you, Joan, for your comments.




  5. This really is a strong post. While I also believe there is more good in the world than evil, it also reminds me that much good often erupts after evil actions, and that there is a place in eternity where there is only good, all of the time. May we all be inspired to do good here, to live to help others, and to long for an afterlife filled with a goodness unimagined here on earth.

  6. I fear to think what the world will be like when my great-grandchildren grow up. Thankfully, I won’t be here to see it. Now, I understand how my grandmother felt about many of the changes in the world she witnessed in her 102 years.

    I also agree that “freedom of speech” is being taken too far. I rarely read comments on MSN and other websites because of all the negative comments that get really nasty. I was raised with “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t LIKE TO. I guess the younger generation calls it “dissing”. I wonder what Japan will do now in regards to the latest news.

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