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.
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.