Moral Racism - Dripping with Blood

by Ian Buruma
Tuesday December 3, 2002
The Guardian

What is so terrible about the Miss World contest? It is a little cheesy, to be sure. Somewhat old-fashioned, too. And a bit vulgar, perhaps. But "toxic" (Kathy Lette)? Something "normal" people should not enjoy (Rod Liddle)? Of course, the contest turns human bodies into objects to be admired. But how different is that from Bruce Webber photographs advertising Y-fronts? Or painting a nude model in a studio? Or indeed a Chippendale show? Was The Full Monty toxic?

Besides being in bad taste, Miss World is now also being blamed for the killing of more than 500 people by frenzied Muslim mobs in Nigeria. People cheered as Christian women and children were dragged from their cars and torched to death in the street. The prize for the most idiotic reaction to this murder spree must go to Muriel Gray who opined that the Miss World contestants' swimming costumes were "dripping with blood". As though Miss Wherever, whose only ambition was to have her moment in the media sun, was to blame for this homicidal madness.

And if it wasn't Miss Wherever, in her bloody bikini, it was Ms Isioma Daniel, the British-trained journalist, who was hounded out of her country for writing a column about the prophet Mohammed marrying a beauty queen. This is what sparked off the riots. And so Julia Morley, the Miss World convener, blamed Ms Daniel for the killings. She "made this problem".

Staging the contest in Nigeria might not have been wise, and the journalist may have been courting danger. But some of the reactions in London suggest that the killers may have had a point. There is an odd convergence between fashionable political correctitude and religious bigotry, as though people who have the bad taste to enjoy beauty parades are criminally culpable. Rod Liddle, for example, found it difficult to disagree with the Muslim lynch mob, "from a theoretical point of view", that Miss World represents everything that is horrible about "western culture".

Why does the bien-pensant knee always jerk in this predictable way? Why would so many of us be so quick to blame the brutality of non-western bigots on "western culture", or a local journalist who dared to make very mild fun of religious pieties, instead of on the killers themselves? I can think of a few reasons. The contempt for Miss World and those - often, by the way, in the non-western world - who enjoy it, is partly a matter of snobbery. Our condemnation makes us feel morally superior, and shows off our superior taste. Morality and taste are of course connected. What the good bourgeoisie considers to be bad taste is also, on the whole, seen as morally offensive. Hence the deliberate bad taste employed by such iconoclasts as Joe Orton or Lenny Bruce. But the bad taste of Miss World is not deliberate. Perhaps that is what makes it so low rent, so plebeian, so unfit for our dinner tables and thus a convenient target for our disapproval.

Besides snobbery, there is a worse reason for being more outraged by western vulgarity than non-western murderousness. It might be called moral obtuseness, or even moral racism. The assumption appears to be that Africans or Asians can't be held to our own elevated standards. They are more like wild animals, whose savagery should not be provoked by our foolishness. When we do provoke them, the consequences are entirely our fault. It would be as misplaced to apply our moral standards to their behaviour, as it would be to expect tigers to talk. The murder of Nigerians or Indian Muslims, or Iraqi Kurds, is par for the course, unless we did it, or Americans, or Israelis.

At best, this can be excused as a form of helplessness. After all, there is nothing much we can do in London about brutal dictators, hysterical clerics, or racial hatreds outside our own cosy borders. One might even say it is our first duty to make sure we behave, as well as those whose political acts we might have a tiny chance of influencing, by voting, or demonstrating, or writing angry letters to the editor. Criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. So that is all right.

What is not so fine, however, is to defend Salman Rushdie's right to free speech, but to blame a Nigerian journalist who tries to exercise the same right, for provoking mass murder. What is certainly not all right is to diminish the responsibility of clerics, who incited the violence, by frivolously concurring with their views on western culture. That is no way to defend the freedom of others or, for that matter, our own.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
Posted by DeLong at December 03, 2002 09:16 AM