Some readers have objected to my blog about Pope Benedict’s baptizing at the Easter Vigil a Muslim man who is a famous public critic of Islam. In particular, these readers think that it was vulgar of me to suggest that, in so doing, the pope was “flipping the bird” to Osama bin Laden, who had lately accused the pope of being a crusader.
Now, this is just a category mistake. Flipping the bird may be vulgar, but talking about someone flipping the bird is not, just as discussing pornography is not pornographic and talking about injustice is not unjust. The expression flipping the bird is slang, to be sure, just as the synonymous expression digitus impudicus is pedantic, but neither expression is vulgar, even if the gesture iteslf is.
More interestingly, my friend Stephen Barr thinks that I missed an important distinction between intentionally insulting someone and doing something inoffensive in itself that will foreseeably annoy someone because of that person’s unreasonable beliefs. He suggests that Benedict was doing the latter but not the former, and since flipping someone the bird implies intentionally annoying someone, Benedict did not really flip anyone the bird at the Easter Vigil.
The distinction Steve makes is perfectly correct, but I’m not sure how it applies in this case. If someone’s beliefs are unreasonable in a way that causes him to become deeply agitated when someone else does something perfectly inoffensive, might we not, in some cases, do such things with the intention of upsetting such a person? If we are already involved in a desperate struggle with a man, and upsetting him would cause him to appear to disadvantage in the public eye or to overplay his hand or would otherwise lead to some good result, then intentionally annoying such a man could well be the right thing to do. If Benedict saw the situation in these terms, then maybe he was intentionally annoying bin Laden. Compare some of the things our blessed Lord said to the Pharisees.
More to the point, however, I never said that the pope intended to insult bin Laden or anyone else. In saying Benedict was flipping bin Laden the bird, I meant—as I thought I had made clear—that he was sending a public message to Muslim fanatics that he would not be intimidated by threats, that he would preach the Gospel in season and out, even to Muslims, etc. Sending such a message is clearly not to insult anyone.
If so, can what the pope did reasonably be described as flipping bin Laden the bird? Well, it’s obvious that the pope did not literally flip bin Ladin the bird during the Easter Vigil. Although the image of Benedict XVI, in full papal regalia exclaiming, “Osama, azenda me!” and then making the requisite gesture diverts me exceedingly, we all know that didn’t happen. Hence, it’s clear that in suggesting that Benedict flipped bin Laden the bird, I was speaking metaphorically, not literally. I was thus saying only that Benedict did something that in certain respects, but not all was like flipping bin Laden the bird. Here, those respects were that Benedict boldly indicated in a public manner that he would not accede to bin Laden’s wishes.
At the risk of restarting this dispute, I think Benedict was, as my grandmother might have said, telling bin Laden to go soak his head.