Beyond cartoons: There's a lot we can learn about ourselves from the discomfort of others, says law professor SUSAN DRUMMOND

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Author: Susan Dummond
Date: Feb. 11, 2006
Publisher: The Globe and Mail Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,135 words

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The recent furor over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed brings to mind the admonition of French philosopher Simone Weil, who had debilitating migraines: "When I behold evil in the world, I must recollect to myself that when I am suffering from one of my headaches, I am overcome with the urge to strike out and hit somebody in the exact same spot in my head that I am hurting."

The whole cartoon debacle, which lamentably appears to be not fully spent, reminds me of another moment when the atmosphere was electrified with a similar climate of devastation, anguish, animosity, and suspicion.

A week into the first time I taught comparative law, the twin towers of the World Trade Center came down in front of the eyes of the students, staff, and faculty who gathered, aghast, in front of the electronic message board in the lobby of our law school. Ten minutes later, I was supposed to start teaching a diverse group of students the intricacies of common law, civil law, aboriginal law, Talmudic law, and Islamic law. Speechless myself, I cancelled the class and told the students who dribbled in, hollowed out, that I would be available if anybody wanted to talk. Somehow, we managed to get the course back on track over the next several weeks. And then, an interesting thing happened, not unlike the current debate about the relationship between the values of the secular and religious worlds.

I had just passed out a photocopied page of the Talmud so that students could see, graphically, how the spiralling and open-ended commentaries of one of Judaism's religious and legal texts contrasted with both Napoleon's and Justinian's efforts to bring all commentary to an end once their civil codes had been promulgated. During the break, I could see, out of the corner of my eye, one of my very devout Muslim students approach a very devout Lubovitch Jewish student. They had a small confabulation, and then they approached me. I was informed, by both, that passing out a page of a Jewish Holy Book was a particularly insensitive thing to do as it contained the name of God upon it and could be subjected to all manner of disrespectful treatment, even unwittingly, by those insufficiently versed in its holiness. I was further informed that the reproduction of the Koran on the cover of the comparative law text that I had selected that year was also prone to cause offence, reproducing, as it did, an image of the Koran. The Muslim student informed me that he felt compelled by his religion to cleanse himself each time he read the text and added, tongue in cheek I assume, that he could not take the book into the washroom with him as other students might.

I was completely taken aback by the intervention of these two students. I asked them what they wanted me to do in response to their concerns. They suggested I should ask the rest of the students to return the photocopied sheets of the Talmud to the Jewish student so that he could dispose of them in a manner consistent with the significance they held for him. I invited them to make the request of their colleagues. At the end of class, each student respectfully complied.

The exchange left me uneasy and unsettled about what had just taken place, and I remain so to this day. Osgoode is a secular institution, resting upon centuries of the same cherished traditions that infuse the value of freedom of speech. I am not teaching about any legal tradition under the assumption that its core tenets are inherently worthy of respect. I am teaching about each of them from the vantage of a critical distance cultivated over millenniums. Consistent with deeply entrenched values within the academy, I urge students to subject their understandings -- from the most commonplace to the most sacrosanct -- to the light of critical scrutiny.

And yet, I am aware that the familiar academic stance of detachment has the potential to objectify and thereby distort the object of its inquiry, particularly when the subject relates to an aspect of human society. I am also aware that such detachment is itself a deeply held and historically conditioned value, for which some of us have been prepared to die. One hears echoes of the virtues of that detached stance in recent commitments to the right of freedom of speech, some heartfelt and thoughtful, others callow.

I believe that things were resolved that day in an admirably pacific (and prototypically Canadian) manner. Indeed, Omar, the ever-mischievous Muslim student who initiated the exchange, presented a paper with me on the event at an international conference on law and society the following spring.

What if, however, there had been students who, within their rights (I believe), felt that the request that they treat religious texts with reverence was disconsonant with their own deeply held beliefs? What if they further argued (with reason, I believe) that the request was not wholly appropriate to the diverse and overarchingly secular law school environment? What if they declined to submit to the request of those two devoutly religious students?

I still don't know what I would have done, though I am almost certain that the ensuing conflict would have been fuel, propelling us to a deeper and more fine-grained understanding of each other. Comparative law begins from the premise that she who understands one legal tradition understands none, or to quote script from a sculpture on the campus of York University, a fish only recognizes water when it discovers air. Taking into account that the study of law touches upon values that also embody different senses of injustice, I urged my students that year not to simply understand unfamiliar texts and traditions from the vantage of a cold and purportedly neutral detachment, but to follow another of Simone Weil's admonitions: to understand the self from the point of view of the other's affliction.

I continue to be buoyed by the very fact that, in the electrified atmosphere that shot through the law school, the campus and, indeed, the world in the weeks following 9/11, a devout Muslim student felt moved to approach a devout Jewish student to query him about whether he felt pained by the way that a secular professor had handled one of his holy books -- and that they respectfully approached me and their colleagues with their concerns.

In the spirit of that year's comparative exercise, I hope we continue to shore up the compulsion to understand that keeps the ivory tower of the university, along with many of the other foundational structures of human society, in place.

Susan G. Drummond is a professor of comparative law at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A141946322