Friday, November 18, 2011

When is shock a moral political tool?

My decision to use a pixelated version of this picture is one I am uncomfortable with, precisely because, as I say below, I think there is nothing wrong with showing nudity. But I also know that this is going to show up on people's Facebook and RSS feeds and I didn't want to impose the picture on others without warning. Do you think readers would react differently to my comments if I had shown the original picture instead of the censored one?

Much of the liberal-democratic world is used to nudity in protests. From PETA to peace activists, nudity has become an effective tool to get attention (link probably NSFW), precisely because the media likes to cover it. But these tactical decisions are the result of prurient motives -- the media likes to film nudity because people like to look at it; these pictures are often arousing.


Recently, though, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, an Egyptian blogger, posted nude pictures of herself to protest Egyptian and Islamic conservatism and their attitudes about women's sexuality. As The New York Times explains:

"Ms. Elmahdy — whose boyfriend, Kareem Amer, spent four years in jail for writings deemed insulting to Islam and Mr. Mubarak — posted the photographs with a statement declaring them an act of rebellion against Egypt’s conservative culture and “sexual complexes,” in the spirit of the revolution.
'Try nude models who worked in Fine Art Faculties in the early 1970s, hide all art books and smash naked archaeological statues,' read the statement, alluding to some recent protests staged here by ultra-conservative Islamists known as Salafis. 'Then take off your clothes and look at yourselves in the mirror, then burn your body that you so despise to get rid of your sexual complexes forever, before subjecting me to your bigoted insults or denying my freedom of expression.'"
Several questions come to mind. Can an act of sexual exposure -- of possible objectification -- counter sexism? Many would argue that it only makes it worse. (Karl Marx, for example, might refer to this as "universal prostitution.") Is it moral to expose oneself to such personal risk? This woman is laying a lot on the line for what is likely very little gain. This seems extreme for anyone.

Most interesting to me, though, is the question about the power of shock itself. In an Islamic context, this photo is indeed over-the-top shocking, not to mention, in many countries, illegal. As an American, I can hardly imagine it's impact. So, the question becomes, is using shock in this way an effective political tool? If it isn't, what's the point? And, more philosophically, are there any limits to how one should use shock to cause change? If sexuality is acceptable, what about images of violence? If violence is morally acceptable, what about images of suffering?

I don't mean to say that sexuality is equivalent to violence -- I think sexuality is a wonderful thing that should be explored and cultivated, and I don't find nudity objectionable at all, but I am very uncomfortable with depictions of violence and suffering. Since I am not shocked by this picture, I'm not sure how else to enter into the perspective of those who view it as inherently dangerous and immoral except by analogy with things I don't like, like violence.

And herein lies the problem. Shock is culturally defined, but shock is also intended to change culture. When is this acceptable and when isn't it? Are there instances that you think are beyond the pale -- that are morally wrong? And, given the Islamic context, do you think Aliaa Magda Elmahdy did a good thing? I wold love to hear from our Islamic readers as well.

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1 comment:

  1. Nudity is natural, sustainable, and harms none. Violence and suffering are different. I applaud Aliaa Magda Elmahdy for her courage. As long as she respects herself she won't further sexism.

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