Tag Archives: freedom of speech

Je suis Comfy

In the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, social media filled up with images and hashtags proclaiming solidarity with the victims and the importance of free speech. Yes, perhaps the act of drawing a caricature of the Prophet of Islam might be offensive to many, but that offense did not justify brazen violence and murder in retribution.

The countries of the West always love to proclaim the value of freedom, especially freedom of speech. Yet the conversation changes more and more toward: “Freedom of speech is an essential foundation to civilized society, but…”

That “but” is the problem. 


From the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. The artist must not have gotten the memo about drawings of the Prophet… pretty sure that’s white out.
Garland, Texas is fresh on my mind even if most of America has moved on to the new royal baby or whether or not Tom Brady and the Patriots were punished enough for Deflategate.

It’s on my mind because of news reports that cast the failed attackers as the victims and the event organizer as the true villain. It’s on my mind because of opinion pieces that question whether this sort of free speech is really an American value. It’s on my mind because the reaction–not to the violence but to the expression that supposedly instigated it–flies in the face of my experience of what it means to live in a pluralistic and tolerant society.

Tolerance and pluralism do not excuse blaming and shaming the targets of attempted murder.

But victim-blaming works for news stories, like the headline: “Pam Geller won’t apologize for event that ended in 2 dead.” As though their decision to attack and attempt murder was completely taken out of their hands the moment the event was announced. Maybe she should apologize for failing to die in a hail of gunfire along with several cartoonists and the Dutch politician that also attended?

And it works for op-eds that argue “that’s not the kind of American values we want to encourage.” Yes, free speech and all, we’re told… but not THAT sort of free speech, because it offends sensibilities. (Forget that plenty of other free speech offends plenty of other people’s sensibilities, but it’s still protected because that’s how this works.)

We even have world leaders like the President and the Pope giving this argument some weight. 

When the President says “The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam” then it makes one wonder. Who does the future belong to? What level of critique or even satire is acceptable? What other religious figures are equally off-limits?

Yet the name of the Christian savior is most commonly heard as a form of profanity. “Jesus Christ, did you see what that other driver did?” The figures of Christianity are regularly made into caricatures believers rightly call blasphemous. No one’s name-dropping Buddha or Mohammed as a swear word.

I see multiple episodes of South Park with a soft-spoken Jesus Christ running a public access show to announce his return. A quick Google search gave me pages of image results from the show as well as links to the wiki describing Jesus as a regular guest apperance.

But the show’s creators made one episode with one segment several years ago depicting Mohammed and giving him a taste of the same biting wit they regularly employ against everyone and everything else. And that show has been removed from Comedy Central’s archives and blocked from (easy) access online because… why? 

Surely it’s not out of respect or concern that “these aren’t the sort of American values we should encourage.” Otherwise, all those Jesus episodes should likewise vanish. So… what’s the difference between the two circumstances?

When the Pope responds with (and I paraphrase) “if you make disparaging remarks about my mother, you’re gonna get punched in the face,” he admits that sometimes violence is an acceptable response to words we don’t like. Then it’s hard to deny that there must be some cases where this logic justifies taking action. Maybe it’s in response to words we don’t like. Or drawings, or belief systems, or lifestyles, or being female.

This line of thinking matches well with a different (arguably) religious figure: ISIS propagandist Junaid Hussein. His statement in response to the attempted attack in Garland was, “If there is no check on the freedom of your speech, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.”

It echoes Muhammed Atta’s false promise to the passengers on the hijacked plane: Just stay quiet, and you will be okay.

I’m not okay with that. We’re finally growing past excusing violence based on the victim’s behavior and characteristics in many segments of American society. And by growing past, I mean more of us are more vocal about calling out and condemning that sort of misplaced shame. 

We’re not there yet. But fewer people buy lines like, “Look at her short skirt–she wanted it” as an excuse. We won’t let a husband claim, “she made me hit her because she burned dinner again.” We don’t accept “I thought he might come onto me and it creeped me out” as a justification for bullying homosexual kids. We question the narratives we’re given when use of police force seems unjustly applied. 

And yet, when statements or drawings are deemed offensive by the strictest interpretations of one religion, we fold like paper and shrug. “Yeah, I mean, why would someone do that?  They knew it would set those guys off. It’s pretty rude. In fact, it’s downright un-American. I mean, violence is wrong, and everything. But if they wouldn’t do stupid things like that, then it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Does that sound like someone roaring “I am Charlie” in defiance against unjust aggression and attempts to instill fear? No. Is that a valiant defender of free speech standing up in solidarity with those who have died for expressing their views? No. 

“Just don’t do what we don’t like, and we won’t hurt you” — terms of surrender, not peace, whether the threat comes from Muslims or Christian fundamentalists, liberals or conservatives, whites or blacks, heterosexual or homosexual. 

We can post a je suis comfy hashtag, and call it American values if that makes it more palatable.

But that doesn’t sound like freedom. 

The Power of a Blog

Some people measure their blog’s success in views and visitors. For others, the measurement might be the number of armed policemen who show up in the middle of the night.

The news out of Hong Kong reminded me that I’ve had this draft post in the hopper, waiting to be completed.

I recently completed a Mandarin-Chinese language refresher course.

As part of our exposure to cultural issues, our teacher brought a documentary called “High Tech, Low Life” which followed the lives of two Chinese bloggers and their experiences dealing with China’s governmental restrictions on expression.

Here’s the trailer.


One is a man in his fifties, who goes by the name Tiger Temple. He refuses to be called a “citizen blogger” because creating a label or category like that invites government crackdown and restrictions on what “citizen bloggers” are permitted to write.

The other is a man in his twenties, Zhou Shuguang, who is well on his way to a form of celebrity status on the Internet. He is even invited to speak to a worldwide forum in Germany about China’s web restrictions and his blogging experiences.

I watched with interest and was challenged by thoughts about the power of this concept called a “blog.”

At one point, ten armed policemen come for Tiger Temple, swarming the humble older man in his temporary home. They pack him into a van and drive him back to his hometown several hours away from the city.

Why? To quell fears that his communicated thoughts or even mere presence might create a disturbance to the status quo during an important conference of Communist leadership.

All because a man jots down his experiences and thoughts about life happening around him.

Tiger Temple writes because he sees it as a way of showing the real situation wherever he is, and a way to ensure that the voiceless get their stories heard.

Zhou Shuguang makes it clear he has no such altruistic thoughts about the purpose of his online activities. He’s not out to make a political scene to defend someone else or call out the government about an issue unrelated to him. But he still stands as an example of someone demanding the basic rights and freedoms of humanity – the right to think as we desire and speak as we like. His focus may be self-centered but his action still benefits many.

This made me wonder: Do I value my ability to communicate freely the way these men do? Would I suffer personal loss or some level of government oppression to keep saying whatever I want on the Internet?

It’s easy to say whatever I want when hitting “Post” costs me nothing.

Simply Reasonable

Still useful
Remember me?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. It’s kind of a big deal around here.

The trouble is, sometimes we forget the value and the importance of those core principles and ideas that allowed this nation to prosper for the last 200 years. And sometimes we forget that we don’t have these rights because a piece of paper in Washington D.C. says so. These rights are written down on that piece of paper because our nation is founded on the idea that people inherently deserve and possess these rights.

These memory lapses seem to come around every four years or so, like Leap Year’s Day. Strange, isn’t it?

Some atheists decided that they had a message for the two main political parties during all this buildup to the elections. These atheists want to make their case that religion doesn’t belong in politics and that the political parties should pursue ideas, not ideologies. You may agree or disagree, and you can be vocal about it. You have that right. It’s written down on that piece of paper.

The atheists used their money and resources to create billboards, and then sought advertising agencies willing to put up the images near the national conventions of both parties. There was no such agency in Florida. For whatever reason, none of them wanted to carry a controversial message about religion. They have that right. It’s also written down.

An agency in North Carolina was willing to put up the atheist organization’s message.

So these billboards were spotted in the last two weeks:

The offending billboards

You might strongly disagree with the messages. (I do.) We have that right.

However, the billboards are now being pulled down, as a response to a reported flood of “vitriol, threats, and hate speech against our staff, volunteers, and Adams Outdoor Advertising,” according to Amanda Knief, managing director of American Atheists, quoted in a Fox News article.

And that’s where our rights cross the line.

When my free exercise of religion or speech threatens the safety of another person, then maybe I’ve missed the point of both my religion and my freedom. 

I’ve said before, as a religious person, it’s reasonable to support everyone else’s right to express their religious views, even if–or especially if–those views differ from my own. As soon as we permit the government or the public to decide what is an acceptable religious view and what is not, then we are giving up the principle behind those rights written down in Washington.

It’s not my job just to make a case for my own faith and for my own freedom. It’s my job to make the case that everyone else should have the same freedom as me to express their point of view without fear of violent retribution from government or from their fellow citizens.

This all makes sense from the civic political perspective. I can’t go around threatening the free speech or free religion of others without expecting the same treatment. I can’t push for government to make laws that limit free speech or free religion (or lack of religion) for others without expecting that some day the same government might limit my freedoms.

It’s also sensible from the perspective of Jesus’ teachings. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, right? I’m not sure what my fellow believers are asking for “them” to do unto us, if we’re engaging in threats and vitriol just because some atheists don’t believe what we believe.

Newsflash: That’s kind of the point of atheism.

Of course, this is North Carolina, where religion and politics have clashed quite often in the past few months. North Carolina recently voted on an amendment to their state constitution prohibiting gay marriage, or defining marriage as one man and one woman, or however you want to put that.

North Carolina was also in the spotlight thanks to Pastor Charles Worley of “electric fence” fame, who suggested maybe we could lock “all the gays” behind an electric fence and let them die off. (To be fair, he did suggest dropping food and supplies into the fenced area so they could not starve to death… so, I mean, there’s the Christian compassion we were all hoping for, I guess.)

I think the latter is worse, to be honest.

To be fair, everyone can say what they want about other religions, about atheism, about Democrats, about Republicans, about anyone who is “not like me.” As much as I may disagree with their speech, I defend the right of Americans to say what we want. We can shout down voices of ignorance and hate.

Threats of violence are not the way to do it.

To my fellow believers who have raged against those billboards: You want to do something useful with your anger?

Go prove them wrong.