09/25/2012 03:26 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Insult, Offense and Rage: What Muslims and Americans Need to Know

Contrary to widespread opinion, it's not actually possible to insult, offend, demean or disparage a great prophet, religion, nation or individual.

Of course, public events of late seem to soundly demonstrate the opposite. The well-publicized outbreak of demonstrations and violence in so many countries in recent days that has been directed against America, and sometimes even "the secular west," is being fueled by a popular rage that, at least in the minds of many, has been created by an online movie trailer that those taking action say, "insults the prophet, the religion of Islam and all Muslims," and thereby gives offense to a large swath of the world's population.

Many have pointed out that the role of the prophet in Islam seems hard for secular minds, and even believers in other religious traditions, to understand. He is thought of as having the highest honor, and therefore as due the greatest respect. There is no room in this picture for any freedom of speech to allow an individual or group to disrespect or demean or disparage him. This is an insult to him and to all who hold his work and person sacred. It is also an offense against millions, through being an offense against him.

The problem is that all of this is based on a faulty understanding of the very notions of insult and offense, along with all the other closely related concepts that are being used to explain and justify the responses of anger and violence that seem to most onlookers to be so enormously out of proportion to the video clip cited.

First, we need to understand the deepest roots of the reaction. There is a firm connection in some of the most primitive parts of our minds between insult, offense and violence. In human prehistory, and throughout much of our subsequent history, an insult against an individual was a sign that he was not respected or feared by the person or group from which the insult arose, and this had to be recognized as a territorial danger that could compromise position, property or even the survival of the person offended. The insult had to be met with anger, which could then naturally be fanned into fury and finally give rise to the violent action that might be needed to face the threat and eliminate it.

But over time, the concepts of insult and offense grew more sophisticated, and began to become separate from this original context, along with their entire conceptual neighborhood of notions like honor and respect. They became independent of the originating dynamic of threat and defense, and underwent a spiritual transformation. And over the past two thousand years, many philosophers have made an interesting observation about these concepts, in their developed forms.

It is impossible to genuinely insult or offend, demean, or disparage a truly great man or woman. You can hurl invectives, make comments that are intended to hurt, and film videos whose whole purpose is to verbally attack and ridicule, but true greatness is never affected. It is untouched. The insults bounce off. The deprecations do not stick. The invective fails to wound.

There is an old proverb: The lordly lion ignores the yapping of small dogs. This is an image of the philosophical insight. Greatness has within itself its own honor and worthiness of respect. When it is disrespected, a wrong is done, not to the great person or movement or religion, but both by and to and in the one showing the disrespect.

Socrates believed that others could harm us only physically. We alone are capable of harming ourselves spiritually. He was also convinced that the worst efforts of lesser men could never do genuine harm to the souls of greater men, however they might contrive to inflict that damage.

The maker of a noxious, profane, and blasphemous video cannot in any manner by that action harm a great prophet, a great religion, or a great people. He's not capable, in his own actions, of giving offense to anyone. But they can take offense from what he offers. That is their freedom. And yet, it is a freedom to do what is wrong and confused -- the same freedom that the video producer has exercised, thereby harming himself. In each case, the spiritual damage done is to the one who misuses that particular freedom, in the one instance, producing a video; in the other, violence.

The dynamic of revenge, retaliation and retributive justice, as it is invoked and played out most of the time, in much of the world, is a result of the ancient reflex to protect person, position and property. An insult allowed to stand is thought of as a chink in the armor, a weakening in the wall, an invitation to push me, or us, aside. But on any occasion when no territory is being taken by force, no valuable resources are in imminent danger of being stolen, and no life is threatened, the proper attitude for anyone to take toward an attempted insult against true greatness is to pity the one hurling the curse, and not to rise up in armed defense of the one toward whom it was directed.

To do otherwise is to confuse respect and fear, which are two entirely different things. Consider the most extraordinarily kind and saintly people. They are honored and respected by those who know of them and their deeds because they are worthy of that honor and respect. There is no fear involved in any way. And of course, there can conversely be fear in situations where there is no honor or true respect. These notions of fear and respect are just different and unconnected concepts, in their logically developed forms.

The violence that has recently erupted over a video is not only radically misplaced, it ends up being a version of the very behavior that it means to condemn. In addition to the murderous actions of a few, it has involved speaking harshly and in a condemnatory mode about, not just an individual, but a country, and an entire sector of the world. A video should not result in violence. A cartoon should not result in killing. A novelist should not have to hide for years of his life because of a work of fiction. No one needs to be this sort of guardian for true greatness.

The only people who benefit from the recently televised conflagrations are the makers of the many flags that are so constantly being burned. They'll be getting a lot of new replacement business. But other than that, no good is being done - unless it gets us all to reflect a little more on the underlying issues and come to some new realizations that can be helpful even to those of us who are not in the business of international diplomacy, or video production.

Tom Morris is a philosopher and the author of numerous books, such as True Success, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, The Stoic Art of Living, and If Harry Potter Ran General Electric.