Friday, January 09, 2015

Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech

Periodically this blog falls silent during busy periods of time. Also, I have been writing a weekly column for the Deming Headlight, among various other jobs and projects. Since Unto These Hills  completed its 2014 season, I have not had a single day off from working on this or that. I make no promises about how often I can write in this space, but the murders in Paris at the headquarters of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent media coverage and social media chatter have moved me to write at greater length, and with coarser language, than the newspaper will allow.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is actually a very good novel. It is also highly satirical with respect to the Islamic religion, Islamic history, and religious despots such as the leader of the Iranian revolution. It was good literature and, at the same time, mocked some sacred cows and was genuinely offensive to some people.

And that is fair play. There is no right to be protected from hurt feelings or criticism. Religion is up for grabs just like any institution, leader, or social system. One can ignore it, or engage and rebut it.

A lot of my friends are getting carried away by the murders in Paris and failing to make some important distinctions. Defending freedom of expression is not the same thing as defending the content of someone's expression. It was easy to recognize the literary merit of The Satanic Verses. But The Interview is just a dumb movie and a lot of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were kind of icky and racist. That doesn't justify murder or terrorism, of course. They weren't "asking for it" (the way many people, including some supposed liberals, accused Rushdie of "asking for it" back in '89).

So let's make some useful distinctions.

In France, religion and race are intertwined in certain particular ways. Critiquing and satirizing religion is one thing; but some jokes/cartoons/memes are veiled (no pun intended) anti-immigrant swipes. Be careful what you decide to broadcast. We can defend freedom of speech without blindly embracing somebody's content.

Let's also be honest about what Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and yes, to some extent Salman Rushdie himself are doing. They are seizing on these murders in order to push their argument against all monotheistic religions, but Islam in particular. (They also make no distinction between the monotheistic Abrahamic religions and other religions, such as Bahai or Buddhism or Taoism, but nonetheless tar everybody with the same hate-filled brush). 

Richard Dawkins is rapidly turning into the atheist version of Fred Phelps. Freedom of speech, sure, but let's still call hate speech what it is. Fuck Richard Dawkins. Fuck Bill Maher. Fuck them for using this awful event to spew hate on my friends and neighbors.

(Sidebar: They're also soft on imperalism.)

And Salman Rushdie? He went through something unimaginable and the threat still lingers. (His memoir about his years in hiding, Joseph Anton, is astounding.) In 1990 he publicly embraced Islam hoping to end the terrorism directed at him. (It was pathetic and he eventually recanted his "conversion.") The reason it didn't work is that it was *never about religion.* It was terrorism. Terrorism wears costumes: religion, nationalism, etc. But terrorism is not Islam, just as terrorism is not Christianity, or patriotism.

One more distinction. Why is it that three young madmen running around with guns somehow define one billion normal people who observe the Islamic religion, but the policemen who was killed, who was also muslim, does not? On some level, conscious or not, that is a deliberate choice. The next time some Christian nutcase bombs an abortion clinic, will you be casting collective blame on all Christians? Richard Dawkins probably will. But he's an asshole.

Freedom of expression includes the freedom to be offensive. Defending it does not require us to agree with the offensive content or say things or consume particular media products just because someone tells us to. Saying something you are ordered to say is not "free speech." Especially when there is hate speech involved.