Offense in a globalized world

By Razib Khan | September 9, 2010 2:57 pm

In my post “The naked years” I used this image to illustrate the transition from furry Australopithecus, to hairless H. erectus, to the sartorially elaborated H. sapiens sapiens:

Do you find the image offensive? I obviously didn’t, I’m not an artist and was trying to visually communicate a scientific concept, not “provoke.” My usual procedure when looking for images is to go to Wikipedia and find material in the public domain. For the last image I just entered “top hat,” and yanked out the first picture which had a fully body shot, and inserted it into the image montage. As I was crediting I noticed that the image was of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln of Turkey rolled into one. And so the post went up….

But that’s not the end of the story.

Someone posted the entry on friendfeed, which prompted this response:

Eivind, looks like Ali intended to tell about Turkish people’s commitment to the image of Ataturk. Initial reason for the Turkish censorship of Youtube was “insulting to Ataturk” From that point of view, putting an image of the man next to a chimpanzee is humiliating, even if it is out of the context.

First, the image isn’t a chimpanzee. Atatürk is next to another human, albeit an ancestral lineage. The commenters seem to have spoken more in jest, but Turks take insults to the founder of their nation seriously : “…the Turkish Parliament issued a law (5816) outlawing insults to his reminiscence (Turkish: Hatırası) or destruction of objects representing him.” As a larger proportion of Turks are Creationists than Americans, I can see where they’d find offense at this juxtaposition (though the Creationist ones might be less adulatory of Atatürk, who was a militant secularist, and privately an atheist).

I have not removed the image. Unless the editors ask, I will not I suspect, though I am always open to new arguments assuming I have the marginal time to consider them. I think the idea that this is an offensive image is silly. We’re all primates, equally descended from H. erectus. And the intent was to contrast the well dressed modern man with our naked ancestors. But, I can also agree that Turks are within rights to be offended. They aren’t me, and I’m not them, our experiences and values differ.

How about this image:


I don’t personally find it offensive, but I wouldn’t use it. Depicting George W. Bush in a simian fashion was so common on the political Left during his tenure that it wouldn’t serve the intentions of the post, which is to explore science, not political ridicule or satire. Conservatives would be offended, liberals would be amused, and the topic would probably be the image, and not the post.

How about this?


I wouldn’t put this image up either as an illustration. I don’t personally find it offensive in a visceral sense, Barack H. Obama is descended from ancient primates who we might term “apes.” But, I am sensitive to the long history in the United States of depicting people of African ancestry as apes or ape-like, and such an image might cause great offense and hurt others. At a minimum the image would be a distraction, just as the image with George W. Bush spliced in would be.

And that is why I can understand the Turkish perspective somewhat. The post-modern rejection of the pretense of concrete objectivity is valid in some circumstances, though that rejection is itself grounded in material, and the phenomenon which emerges from that material (brain and mind). But, that does not mean that I fly to total subjectivity here. To my knowledge Turks have not historically been depicted as apes. If I used “Orientalist” imagery to indicate the progression from barbaric Turk, to decadent Ottoman, to vigorous Turk, some analogy might be drawn between the first and last image of H. sapiens sapiens. So though I grant some Turks the right to be offended (even on the thread very few Turks seem offended at the use of the image), in this case I think there are objective grounds to also argue that the offense taken is not proportionate to the image because of the context.

But setting aside the issues of objectivity, why don’t I take the subjective aspect which I grant seriously enough to change the image (at least at this moment?). In this instance, no one is forcing Turks to view the image. But there is a more general problem: the non-uniformity of the sacred and the response of offense cross-culturally. Different cultures have radically different views of what is offensive, what is sacred, and often those views are simply at such opposition that a common understanding is not possible. Many Jews view the traditional Christian view of supersessionism as deeply offensive and objectionable. Many Hindus view the stance of many Muslims and Christians that they should convert “heathens”, “idolators” and “pagans” as deeply offensive. And yet for some Christians and Muslims to engage in the Great Commission or Dawah is a fundamental part of their religious faith. In the realm of practice, many conservative Muslims find the exposure of female arms and legs a provocation. Conversely, many women across the world feel that it is their right to dress how they wish to, and are offended at the idea that their very body is a provocation, such that it needs be cloaked.

I could go on. And, I have to add that the problem exists within societies. The same people can view the same images, or consider the same beliefs, and come to radically different conclusions as to their acceptability as judged by “common decency.” There’s no easy solution to this problem, but, we need to remember that other people don’t always share our implicit values, experiences and outlooks, and so we shouldn’t view their own actions and views as we would our own in those circumstances. I’m aware of this personally because my milieu is that of secular liberals, and I am a secular conservative. I don’t go into situations assuming people share my values, because they don’t, and I tread in a manner which pragmatically acknowledges that reality of my existence.

This is a weblog written by an American, predominantly for an American audience. Additionally, though it is a politically diverse weblog, the readership is overwhelmingly well educated and secular. That colors what I say, how I say it, and how I assume the audience will react (I doubt most of you recognized the image as of Atatürk. Even I did not think of it, and I take interest in things Turkish!). But many people find aspects of my posts deeply offensive. Generally they deal with human genetics and tread on some nationalistic shibboleth. I don’t often publish those comments or respond to those reactions because I don’t think there’s any fruit to be had there. If I changed what I wrote to satisfy all those who were offended I just wouldn’t write very much. The internet is international, but for purposes of practicality I have to constrain the circle of offense to the United States, and to a lesser extent the Western world. As I suggested above, many people are offended by contradictory things, so ultimately the set of things mentionable converges on the null set if you really try to satisfy everyone. A reasonable human life is bounded by a common set of values, understandings, and cultural moorings. I’m not a dogmatist of course. But I reject the idea that comparison of an individual to a chimpanzee is offensive in and of itself. Chimpanzees are intelligent and interesting animals, as are we. Those are my values, and in my space (or the space that the editors of Discover Magazine provide) they will reign supreme. I can not live under the worry that someone, somewhere, may be offended.

I wrote this post in part to clarify this particular issue, but also obliquely to address events in the wider world of cross-cultural offense. People are taking sides, and arguing in broad brushes. That’s fine for politicians and public figures, who live in a different world. Most of you who know me understand that I take a dim view of the median human cognitive capacity, so I have little hope that a subtle and nuanced discussion can be had out in the open in a broad-based fashion (that assertion, that the average human is not very intelligent, is very offensive to many people, but that is just how I feel, and I own it). But those of us who deal in the domain of the mind should push ourselves further, and try to acknowledge both that we’re active agents within a particular cultural system and hold to specific values, and, that we can use our higher cognitive faculties and enter into a state of Epochè, and view phenomena from the outside.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics, Culture

Comments (38)

  1. Katharine

    I didn’t think the picture was particularly insulting of Ataturk.

    It seemed to look like the end of a progression – from very early human to early human to modern human.

  2. right. but the inference is nested within two larger assumptions/facts

    1) you recognize that the two earlier images are of earlier human and pre-human lineages, not apes

    2) you believe that humans descended from earlier humans and pre-humans

    obviously i share the two assumptions, but how you view the image is conditioned on those sort of things. #2 is a matter of beliefs of how the world is, and #1 presupposes a minimal level of knowledge and understanding of the area of human evolution. totally reasonable for my readers, but not much of the world. very few americans who believe in evolution probably have internalized the idea that we’re not descended from apes, for example.

  3. Why in the world didn’t you just use a picture of some anonymous soul not known to anyone? Or maybe even better, a group of people of different races?

  4. i did. no one knows ataturk in the states. i didn’t recognize him. as for using multiple people, i write on a blog with a 600 pixel width constraint, so i really had room for one h. sap. but thanks for the editing advice!

  5. onur

    you recognize that the two earlier images are of earlier human and pre-human lineages, not apes

    very few americans who believe in evolution probably have internalized the idea that we’re not descended from apes, for example.

    Actually we – and the rest of the genus Homo – are scientifically already apes.

    I didn’t think the picture was particularly insulting of Ataturk.

    It isn’t insulting in the least bit as Atatürk represents modern humans (=we) in that series of images.

  6. arda

    You say that “no one knows Ataturk in the states”. This is wrong, first of all, there are about half-a-million Turkish-Americans and Turkish-born people in the U.S., and all Turks know Ataturk, trust me. I don’t even count those American people who know a little bit about the early 20th century history of Balkans and Middle East. Second, thousands of Turk reacting to your article makes your point useless, because once you upload your work on your blog your unfortunate article is not anymore in your computer, it was spread to the Internet and all over the world. How naive you were when you think that your article will be only read by people who don’t know Ataturk! even though it is on the Internet. By the way, I am in the states, and I know Ataturk very well.

  7. arda, do you know what colloquial english is? no one in the states knows who ataturk is. even fewer recognize him in the top hat.

  8. Brilliantly written post, Razib.

  9. Mary

    In the global village we all live in via the internet, one needs to dial down the sensitivity meter and not go looking for offence where none is intended. Get over your own damned selves. Razib, you should have just gone with Cary Grant

  10. dan

    i’m offended easily. i am most offended by people burning a pile of religious books. i am american.

  11. I say we just replace every image with Pauly D.

  12. No, no, no.
    The logical progression should be
    Australopithicus -> Erectus -> Ataturk -> Pauly D -> That thing from the Island of Dr. Moreau wearing a Truck Nutz t-shirt.

    It’s For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls, you know?

  13. Alev Mitti

    Noone in America knows Ataturk? Why would you reflect your own lack of information to the whole population? I personally know quite a few who do! Why don’t you just stop justifying yourself and admit it was a bad choice? Trying out a Bush picture is easy. Try Lincoln and see the reactions.

  14. Why don’t you just stop justifying yourself and admit it was a bad choice?

    ok kommissar! whatever you say!

  15. justin

    Let’s make it clear, you do not personally find it offensive but obviously Turks do. As far as I know Ataturk is very important for Turks and we as Americans should learn to respect and recognize the culture of people who do not live in the States.Good for you that you feel happy because you live in the States, but note that there are billions of people live all over the world not as happy as you.

  16. To be honest, I see the point of view that led Razib to put the top hat picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the place of the modern human, the H.S., namely. And as a Turk, that makes me proud, in a way, seeing that, as a Turk, Atatürk is used to symbolize the nowadays-evolved-modern human. I know that Razib had no bad intention while putting the pic. in subject to his writing.

    But (there is a but with a long string of u’s in here), the way that he defended what he had done is somewhat, hasty, that we can call he did his best after receiving so many offensive post about the situation. Let me summarize what I have to say:

    1) Not knowing who you have put in your article does not make you naive, it makes you the kind of person who does not fully rely on helping materials of his article. This makes you the kinda person who does not spend time on researching the best visual material. This makes you, in a manner, kinky.

    2) Not being known by the majority of a country does not mean that the possibility of being offended by being side to side to evolutionally lower species is a lesser “crime”. Alrite, it is true that worse had been made, the cynical Family Guy sense of humor would have done the worst maybe, but while not putting the last two presidents of your country to the pic. in subject and finding some excuses – somewhat controversial – about that while showing the excuse of “nobody knows him in states” and “he is not shown as an ape” while not putting President Obama for the possibility of being regarded as an ape is, I must say, way too controversial and silly. Sorry I couldn’t find more suitable one. Yes, nobody knows him and to hell with the ones who might be offended. And yeah, let my article be only read by States and provinces, I specially made it available for USA citizens. Let the Turks don’t read it. Duh!

    3) And finally, while using Internet to spread your knowledge and at the same time, blaming your knowledge for not knowing something and even not researching it as a researcher is tragic. Nothing more, nothing less.

    As a result, I see the goodwill while putting the picture of Atatürk near the evolutionary species. But the way of defending something that you are already right about makes the situation even worse. And not knowing someone for whom the research professorships (the right choice of word?) had been opened for, a few including the states, is just omitting that you may not “want” to “know”. Just saying, “whateva, let it be.”

    …and, adding to the sense of humor, the last one at the evolutionary chain must be the donkey starring in the “shut up woman get on my horse”.

  17. Fixxer

    I think it may be a better choice to apologize from Turks. Messing up things but also making a “step back” to clean it up to is very human and sometimes praises you. Otherwise, you will not seem to differ from that ready-to-burn-a-koran priest. Respect brother, respect…

  18. onur

    Two years ago, a successful Turkish journalist and documentarian was similarly accused by some Turkish fanatics after the publication of his biographical documentary about Atatürk, which depicted Atatürk completely as a human with humanly feelings and fears rather than a stereotypical hero. There is an unadmitted personality cult around Atatürk in Turkey propagated by the Turkish state since 1930’s and this explains the excessively fanatic and sensitive attitudes of a proportion of Turks when it comes to anything about Atatürk. I think those reactive Turkish commenters are all from the fold that follow the official but unadmitted personality cult around Atatürk; so even though the photo isn’t insulting in the least bit, they regard it as an insult because that they see Atatürk as if a god.

  19. Katharine

    I admit I didn’t recognize Ataturk, but I do know who Ataturk is. And I’m American.

  20. Katharine

    Apparently, according to a review of the new controversial film Mustafa, which depicts Ataturk as the human being he actually was, Turks under 35 do less of the personality cult thing, to be fair.

    But the creobottery rampant in Turkey is pathetic. (Why does it seem to be more marked in Turkey than in, say, other parts of the Islamic world?)

  21. onur

    Turks under 35 do less of the personality cult thing

    Is there a public survey about that?

    Why does it seem to be more marked in Turkey than in, say, other parts of the Islamic world?

    It isn’t more marked in Turkey than in other parts of the Muslim world according to the public surveys. What makes creationism seem more marked in Turkey is the successful global marketing policy of the Turkish creationist organization called BAV.

  22. This makes you, in a manner, kinky.

    uh, thanks.

  23. DavidB

    I also know who Ataturk is, but I wouldn’t have recognised the picture. At first sight I assumed it was a very upper-class Englishman of around 1910 – someone like ‘Lord Curzon, that very superior person’.

  24. onur

    As a Turk who knows Atatürk very well, I immediately recognized him.

  25. bioIgnoramus

    This is all bonkers. Your point , as I inferred it from the pictures, was to contrast a sophisticated, suave representative of modern man with cartoons of our forefathers. Accidentally your choice was not of some little-known plutocrat, but of a distinguished foreign statesman. And then the statesman’s countrymen object to his picture being presented as the epitome of our advanced state. I conclude that you haven’t really caused offence; rather, they were looking to take offence. Tell ’em to go and boil their heads.

  26. onur

    I wholly agree with bio.

  27. John Harvey

    What an absurd flurry of PC nonsense. Presumably the only acceptable image for the third box would be of some anonymous man of Northwest European origin. Anyone else and Razib would be accused of insensitivity.

    Come to that Razib what about your first and second images? Was your Australopithecine of African extraction, and was your Erectus from Asia or the Middle East? C’mon, we demand the right to know who else you have been insulting.

  28. znz

    The grounds for offense are weakened by fact that the accompanying text makes it quite clear that the reason he appears in the collection of photos is because he is a modern-day dandy, not because he’s being called a (non-human) ape. For example, if either Obama or G.W. Bush had reputations as dandies, then I think most (reasonable) Americans wouldn’t find it offensive to see their photo in that place. They’d know exactly what you meant.

    On the other hand, those coming from a different culture who perhaps do not have perfect fluency in English might not appreciate that context. They might miss it entirely and see nothing but ‘ape,ape,Ataturk’ and that’s the whole story as far as they’re concerned. But I don’t know what one can do about that problem.

  29. onur

    Yes, I think Atatürk had all the characteristics of dandyism. But I don’t know whether he knew what dandyism is; it is likely as he was directly influenced by Western ideas beginning from his youth.

  30. compared to us contemporary slobs most men of means in his period or the 19th century seem like dandies.

  31. onur

    compared to us contemporary slobs most men of means in his period or the 19th century seem like dandies.


  32. onur

    Atatürk was dandy for his own time too, and not just for Turkey but also for the Western countries.

  33. i chose that image almost at random. but, ataturk did have a fixation on dress as a cultural marker which is actually really relevant to the overall point i was implying.

  34. Concur with bioIgnoramus. I once edited here–all those who didn’t back the Turkish gov’s view received death threats. The worked up chauvinists didn’t deserve more that two or three lines in the comments. Yet, receiving threats is a funny experience, particularly as you go by your real name.

  35. Sandgroper

    I wholly agree with bio.

    Which means I wholly agree with onur.

    Which, on reflection, is not wholly unfamiliar territory to me.

    Please note worrying evidence of Scottish fundamentalism:

  36. onur

    Btw, I didn’t use the word dandy in its pejorative meaning, but in its original meaning, which isn’t pejorative. I don’t want to be the object of some Turkish commenters’ rage because of a misunderstanding as in Razib’s case. 🙂

  37. Sven DiMilo

    Should have used this pic instead.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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