EXTRACT FROM: Slavoj Zizek Violence: Six Sideways Reflections London: Profile Books, p 51-2.
The Muslim crowds did not react to the Muhammad caricatures as such. They reacted to the complex figure or image of the West that they perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures. Those who propose the term ‘Occidentalism’ as the counterpart to Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ are right up to a point: what we get in Muslim countries is a certain ideological vision of the West which distorts Western reality no less, although in a different way, than the Orientalist vision distorts the Orient. What exploded in violence was a web of symbols, images and attitudes, including Western imperialism, godless materialism, hedonism, and the suffering of Palestinians, and which becomes attached to the Danish cartoons. This is why the hatred expanded from the caricatures to Denmark as a country, to Scandinavia, to Europe, and to the West as a whole. A torrent of humiliations and frustrations were condensed into the caricatures. This condensation, it needs to be borne in mind, is a basic fact of language, of constructing and imposing a certain symbolic field.
This simple and all too obvious reflection on the way in which language works renders problematic the prevalent idea of language and the symbolic order as the medium of reconciliation and mediation, of peaceful coexistence, as opposed to a violent medium of immediate and raw confrontation. In language, instead of exerting direct violence on each other, we are meant to debate, to exchange words, and such an exchange words, and such an exchange, even when it is aggressive, presupposes a minimal recognition of the other party. The entry into language and the renunciation of violence are often understood as two aspects of one and the same gesture: ‘Speaking is the foundation and structure of socialization, and happens to be characterized by the renunciation of violence’, as the text by Jean-Marie Muller written for UNESCO tells us. Since man is a ‘speaking animal’, this means that the renunciation of violence defines the very core of being human: ‘it is actually the principles and methods of non-violence… that constitute the humanity of human beings, the coherence and relevance of moral standards based both on convictions and a sense of responsibility’, so that violence is ‘indeed a radical perversion of humanity’. Insofar as language gets infected by violence, this occurs under the influence of contingent ‘pathological’ circumstances which distort the inherent logic of symbolic communication.
What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?