The “Sin” of Provocation

This morning on the news, I heard someone complain the editors of Charlie Hebdo were guilty of the “sin of provocation” for continuing to publish any cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.

Last week, 12 people were murdered by terrorists who were offended by the publication and its history of publishing satirical cartoons that depicted religions and politicians in negative and even offensive ways.

There has been much debate, certainly since the attack, about whether or not news media should widely disseminate the offending cartoons in the news stories of the attack.

cover of today's issue

cover of today’s issue

I’ve been conflicted. I support free speech, even speech with which I don’t agree. It is a hallmark of a free society that I fear is under attack in many ways.  I also try not to just annoy people and aggravate them because I can, because that’s a jerk move.

When I heard the comment about the sin of provocation this morning, though, it clarified something for me.

People who accuse people of the “sin of provocation” are actually people with poor boundaries who are blaming other people for their behavior. It is not limited to terrorists, although they are clearly the most deadly illustrations.

I would likely be offended by Charlie Hebdo. You know how I handle that? I don’t read the magazine.

I am also offended by Fox News. You know how I handle that? I don’t ever turn my dial to that TV Channel.

People are willing to offend us all the time, I’m sure, if we are looking for it.

When people say a woman can avoid being raped by not dressing provocatively, or by not drinking in public, they are accusing women of the sin of provocation.

Anytime schools enforce dress codes for female students, or anytime courts say a man has a right to fire a woman who works for him because he is tempted to have an affair with her just because she’s in the same room with him, we support the idea that our behavior is dependent on the behavior of others.

When I see an attractive man who isn’t wearing much clothing, do you know how I manage not to rape him right there on the spot, blaming him for his clothing choices? I have no idea how I do that because it has never occurred to me to do that. Why would my behavior be his responsibility?

When opponents of marriage equality speak against same gender marriage, their claims often involve how offensive it is to their religion and to their own marriages. They are accusing same gender couples who are seeking equal rights under the law of the sin of provocation.

You know how I “protect” my heterosexual marriage from the scourge of gay marriage?  Again, I’m drawing a blank because I can come up with no possible way that another couple’s happiness could possibly threaten mine. I support my marriage by tending to it, not by saying its success depends on the behavior of someone outside my marriage.

Society cannot rule itself when people who live in society do not take responsibility for their own behavior.

We can’t censor publications because someone might be offended, unless we decide we cease publication of all ideas.

We can’t tell women to censor their clothing choices because someone might be offended. What’s the line where nobody would be offended?

We can’t restrict civil liberties because someone might be offended. Again, where’s the line? Your gay marriage offends one person. The bacon I had for breakfast offends another. My lack of head scarf offends someone else. The possible list of offense is endless.

We can’t define our behavior in civil society by the poor boundaries of a few who live among us. The sin of provocation is no way to live. Don’t validate the people who won’t be responsible for their own actions.

16 thoughts on “The “Sin” of Provocation

  1. I have been offended by the way the sin of provacation has been raised in the affair and very little is said about all the provacation we are hardly hearing about in Nigeria.


  2. I seem to remember that one of the fruits of the Spirit is “self control,” no? This would seem to apply to provokee as much as to provoker … but in general I don’t think we get to apply the category of “sin” to the press.


    • Right. Just because all things are lawful does not make them good, as Paul says. But I have had more than one man, on this very blog, use Paul’s words to tell me (and Beyonce) not to provoke him to lust by my clothing choice. It leaves me conflicted. Paul didn’t have great boundaries either.


  3. I’ve been thinking about this since I read it yesterday. I agree with your conclusions, but I’m not sure the comparisons work. Getting too drunk to offer consent isn’t a provocative act on the woman’s part. But Charlie Hebdo IS a deliberately provocative publication, written to inspire a strong reaction. The editors admit as much, and it would be naive or coy for them not to do so. The relevant questions are, is provocation a sin? And if it is, should it be punishable by death? (No and no.)


    • Whether or not they are equivalent things, other people all claim to be provoked by them.

      In terms of Hebdo, it seems the easiest way to make it go away is to not subscribe. It was down to 60,000 copies before the attacks. Yesterday it printed over 3 million copies and sold out.

      They may well be provoking. But it is untenable to claim “since a few groups of people will react violently to a cartoon, we should make sure not to do things that will provoke them to violence”.

      Its like society is an abused wife and the terrorists are the violent husband. Where is society going to draw the line about what concessions are appropriate to make to not incur their wrath?

      Provocative or not, they are drawing cartoons for a magazine. It seems the real “sin” of provocation is murdering people because their way of life offends you. Isn’t that what drew us into these wars in the first place?


    • I think the fact that Charlie Hebdo was allegedly provocative (that’s a separate question, if these murders were really about free speech related issues, or if the attempted goal of the assassinations was to trigger reprisals that would further radicalize Muslims / North Africans living in France) is a side effect of Charlie Hebdo’s purpose.

      Historical studies on propaganda of various kinds tend to suggest that the purpose of stuff like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons isn’t so much to convince people who are on the fence, or who disagree, or even to anger opponents, as it is to build solidarity on the side of people who already agree with the author of the material. In that sense, the murders of the cartoonists help their project along.


  4. So I drink coffee every (hour) morning. And my dear son gags at the smell of it every morning, if/when I put the cup too close to him. He rightly asserts his gag reflex and then states calmly, “mom, please put your coffee over there and you can still sit next to me with your coffee on the other side”. I completely respect his direction and calmness.

    When he used to yell like hell at me about it (he is only 8), I pointed out there are other ways to address me. And I have since begun pouring just half a cup at a time instead of the full on jug I like to walk around with. Point is, I have to be responsible to myself (i desire/need coffee) and to the relationship I am invested in. So we work it out, we find ways to negotiate and understand our boundaries! I love this piece and so thankful for the string/strand you have put together. The other scenarios are exactly related one another!

    In community organizing, we need to know the power. We need to recognize our power and the power of others AND the power that is the only power over me and carrying me. To let someone else be the blame for my action, well, my discernment goes to: 1. How I connect this to my relationship with my GOD and 2. How will I explain this to my children. Let alone myself! And yes, even with the right of free speech, we know folks tend to lean into the brokenness instead of the building up. But that does not mean we brake them all down. We just sort out negotiations and boundaries!


    • Yes. And the coffee illustration also reminds us of the importance of seeing the other as important. You change your behavior because you love your son. Do we extend the same changes to strangers?


  5. Is provocation a sin? I think deliberate provocation is a little sinful. Sort of akin to bullying. But what the hell isn’t a sin (is writing “hell” a sin)? We don’t have to proclaim them guiltless, to also proclaim that no one should ever be murdered over a cartoon no matter how offensive it is. Humans have an inherent responsibility to keep each other, and part of what that means is trying not to poke our most agitated brothers and sisters. There is no excuse for murder, but I think intentional provocation is a less than desirable way to use ones resources, and, yes, even a little sinful.
    I recognize in myself a resistance to saying that the victim did anything wrong, but that isn’t because I think it’s okay to insult someones religion over and over again. It’s because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. If they had just given the cartoonist a black eye, then you could have a reasoned conversation about whether or not he got what was coming to him (and I would probably still not approve of the black eye), but a multiple homicide is so far off the scale of acceptable response that the immediate reaction is to sort of sanctify Charlie Hebdo.


  6. I agree with you that “provocative” behavior should not be censored or, God forbid, attacked violently. But the question remains as to whether or not it can be considered “sinful.” I think it probably can! I think that almost any form of rude or disrespectful speech is tainted by some measure of sin. But that doesn’t change the truth of your key point, that we are free to ignore such sinful behavior or speech.


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