Satire is not provocative, except in the way that it is supposed to be.
by J.R. Leonard
I keep seeing a whole range of arguments and analogies that assert that drawing blasphemous cartoons is comparable to being a jerk or to being purposefully provocative or exercising bad judgment in general. One of the best examples can be found at Vox, where Matt Yglesias does his mealy-mouthed best in offering this half-throated defense of a sensibly qualified, kind of-sort of support for the right free expression. In his words:
The legal right to free speech requires that people’s right to speak freely be respected legally. That means no legal sanction for publishing racist cartoons if you choose to publish them, and it means that the law must protect you from acts of retaliatory violence. But defense of the right does not in the slightest bit entail defense of the practice. You shouldn’t publish racist cartoons! That’s not free speech, that’s politeness and common human decency.
Viewed in a vacuum, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (or the Danish ones that preceded it) are hardly worthy of a stirring defense. They offer few ideas of value, contribute little to any important debates, and the world would likely have been a better place had everyone just been more polite in the first place.
Notice how Yglesias has set himself up at the arbiter of what is decent, what has value, and what would make the world a better place. This makes a bit of sense if you think about who Yglesias is and what Vox is. Vox a slightly left-of-center publication, but ideology hardly matters. Most of all what Vox is about is being sensible and being respectable. And that is fine. The world may need its Voxes, but the world needs its Charlie Hebdos as well. Implicit in Yglesias’ judgments is the belief that what is sensible and fair and decent is a settled matter, something to be explained to us. It is not. We are continually grappling with and fumbling towards the parameters of what is sensible and acceptable and what we ought to celebrate and what we ought to shun. This is the very reason that we affirm the right to free expression in the first place.
The other part of the argument is that people ought to have the write to say whatever they want, but that we are under no obligation to support that expression, especially when there is something unwise or untoward about that language. This sentiment is of course true. It is also, however, being misapplied in this particular case. Blasphemy is not racism. Drawing images of Muhammad, even mocking images, is not an inherently Islamophobic act. It is a heretical act, but that is a wholly different thing. To equate being heretical with being anti-Muslim is to affirm only the most fundamentalist and extremist version of the religion. Drawing an image of Muhammad is no more anti-Muslim than working on Sunday is anti-Christian or eating a hamburger is anti-Hindu. That is to say, in a liberal society people are free to honor their own religious beliefs in almost any way that they want, but they ought to be prevented from trying to universalize those beliefs and imposing religious restrictions on everyone else, either by law or even by mere social convention.
Yglesias quotes White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaking in response to the 2012 decision by Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of Muhammad:
In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it. And I think that that’s our view about the video that was produced in this country and has caused so much offense in the Muslim world.
Here we see Carney doing something similar to Yglesias in anointing himself some sort of expert on editorial decision-making. And like Yglesias, what makes this statement particularly cowardly is that he does not finish the thought. Why is an act of blasphemy at all an act questionable judgment? The only answer to that question is because the religious fundamentalist makes it so.
We really ought to question the idea that religious satire is unquestionably provocative. Yes, satire is provocative, but it is only provocative because some people choose to be provoked. That may sound like a purely semantic argument, but really it is an argument about causality. One thing to keep in mind is the difference between something being provocative and something being offensive. Personally, there is no end to things that I find offensive in this world. I find racism offensive. I find homophobia offensive. The very existence of Justin Bieber is a constant affront to all of my aesthetic and basic moral sensibilities. And yet, I have somehow managed to never pick up an AK and go attack a Klan rally, Westboro Baptist Church demonstration, or whatever salon Bieber goes to get his tips frosted.
To say that drawing images of the prophet inspires anger in the devout and the urge to commit violent retribution is only half true. One can be inspired to anger by outside causes, but the decision to turn that anger into action cannot be merely inspired. And provocation has a half-life. This was not a spontaneous act by a bunch of riled-up believers. The men who attacked the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo were not just magically inspired. Those men embarked on a journey that had purposeful steps and many opportunities for reversal. They made a choice and we ought to treat that choice as a wholly separate phenomenon from the choice that Charlie Hebdo made to publish blasphemous cartoons. The two are tragically linked, but simply not the same thing.
If you want to take Charlie Hebdo to task for being unkind to Muslims or for drawing racist caricatures, that’s fine. It is also a separate issue. The three men who stormed the offices and the people who gave them material and ideological support did not target Charlie Hebdo for being unkind to Muslims. They stormed those offices for the specific offense of showing irreverence to the prophet Mohammed. The fact that these men attacked a satirical magazine and not the offices of the National Front means something. To overlook this fact is to misdiagnose the problem.
Also worth noting is that for the religious extremist who finds cartoons of Mohammed provocative enough to bring a violent response, this is only one of many crimes. To the extremist, a woman walking in public insufficiently covered is a provocation. The list of religious affronts that bring the threat of death includes blasphemy, but it also includes apostasy, adultery and homosexuality; this list is far from exhaustive. Would anyone think to “question the judgment” of a Muslim convert, a sexually active woman, or an out gay man going about his or her business in a Western country? Most likely not, which is why it is a mistake to question the judgment of people exercising their right of free expression and their right to take nothing sacred.
[Picture via Wikipedia]