The 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” will be on display at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in New York City for a full month starting tomorrow. The same Christians who have been screaming that a poorly-made film insulting Mohammed was an expression of free speech are now wringing their hands and whining that Mayor Bloomberg isn’t doing something about this offensive work of art.
I don’t want to talk about the hypocrisy or the politics of this; there will be plenty of that all over the news and the web, and I doubt I will have anything new to add. Instead, I want to talk about the more philosophical issue of what it means for something to be offensive.
To make it more concrete, I ask myself the question: what object would I absolutely not want submerged in piss? What thing, if it were submerged in piss and put on display, would make me angered and offended?
It’s a tough question. Now, I don’t want you to think that just because I’m not religious, there aren’t things that I value or attach symbolic meaning to. I value lots of things. So let’s try to imagine…
I picture a mathematics textbook submerged in piss. No emotional reaction.
I picture “Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain” by Patricia Churchland submerged in piss. Seems like a waste, but not really upsetting.
I picture “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” by Gregory Bateson submerged in piss. For some reason, that one strikes me as a little funny. I don’t know why. But certainly I feel no outrage.
OK, maybe something other than a book. Maybe a symbol of some sort.
I imagine the American Flag submerged in piss. Seems kind of dumb, but it doesn’t get me angry.
I imagine the HRC “equality” symbol submerged in piss. I suppose it might upset me if it was meant as a form of intimidation, like if it were left on the doorstep of an openly gay political activist. But if it’s on display in a gallery then… meh. No real emotional reaction.
I imagine the Democratic Party donkey submerged in piss! Poor donkey. Now I’m just worried about animal abuse. But I’m not really offended.
How about something more personal?
I support President Obama and have a great deal of admiration and respect for him. How about a photo of Obama submerged in piss? Actually, this has been done by a conservative activist thinking that he was “getting back” at liberal artists for “Piss Christ”.
I think it’s kind of stupid. I think it’s crass and classless. But I’m not particularly offended by it. It doesn’t make me feel personally hurt or angry. I am not outraged. I don’t feel any personal emotion about it at all, except that I think it’s kind of pathetic. If that even counts as an emotion.
I am half German, so I imagine German things submerged in piss: A Bavarian flag in piss, a pair of Lederhosen submerged in piss, a nice cold mug of beer submerged in piss. No reaction. Actually, to me, certain German beers look a little like piss.
I’m half Ukrainian, so I imagine Ukrainian things submerged in piss: pysanki in piss, borscht in piss, vareniki in piss. Now I’m just hungry and grossed out at the same time. But not particularly offended.
I like working out, so I imagine… I don’t know. Dumbbells submerged in piss? No emotional reaction.
Money submerged in piss?
Doctor Who action figures submerged in piss?
I really can’t think of anything at all that I would get angry or personally upset about, if it were submerged in piss for the purposes of putting on display in a museum or art gallery.
Is this a real difference between atheists (or at least atheists like myself) and theists (or at least theists who take offense at things)?
A lot of people like to claim that atheism is just another kind of belief system. Some go so far as to call atheism just another “religion” . They claim that it is not qualitatively different from religions, and that the only difference is that atheists hold a different set of beliefs to be sacred.
But I think this thought experiment belies that assertion, to an extent.
Both religious people and atheists value things, to be sure. Both will argue tooth and nail to support the assumptions that they feel are true about the world we live in.
But it seems as though religious people (perhaps not all religious people, but certainly many) have an extra layer on top of that belief. They have a layer of emotional attachment that says: if you mock or insult my beliefs, then it will shake me to my very core!
In fact, with religious people it is almost assumed that if you insult certain things that they believe, it is not just expected but perhaps even justified that they will get angry or seriously emotionally hurt. They will take it personally, and it will be experienced as a kind of emotional pain for them.
I just don’t see this with atheists. I do not see atheists saying, “If you submerge a book by Darwin in piss, then I will boycott and protest and set things on fire.” I do not see atheists saying, “You have insulted scientific method, and now I’m just so personally hurt by that act that I can’t sleep at night.”
It just doesn’t happen.
Or at least, it doesn’t with me. Maybe it’s different for other atheists.
If you are an atheist, you may want to ask yourself: What do you think shouldn’t be submerged in piss?