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Do We Have the Right to Offend?

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Yes, I know, I’m a Shakespeare professor, so shouldn’t I only use my blog to sing the praises of Hamlet or Henry V in perfectly structured iambic pentameter?

Soon, perhaps, but not today.

Besides studying the works of the Bard of Avon (and yes, Virginia, for you Shakespeare doubters, there WAS a Shakespeare and he did write the plays and poems we have today…more on that in another blog), I’ve spent much of my academic career thinking and writing about satire. Specifically, I’m interested in how social forces interact with forms of social criticism. And although I’ve explored this interaction in the Roman and Elizabethan eras, lately, I’ve been fascinated with the current battles over depictions of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

(Read more after the jump)

Last Thursday (May 20, 2010) was “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day,” an event sponsored by a Facebook group asking members to send in depictions of Mohammad as a way to assert the primacy of freedom of expression over the objections of those Muslim groups who view such depictions as sacrilegious. The next day (May 21), two days after Pakistan’s information minister successfully demanded that servers block access to Facebook (one Pakistani Mufti called the drawings “intellectual terrorism”), it seems that Facebook in the U.S. also blocked access to the “Draw Mohammad” group due to the nature of and reactions to a number of objectionable (some have even said “obscene”) cartoons of Mohammad, a decision which smacks of censorship.

Although some of the current controversy can be traced both to recent episodes of Comedy Central’s cartoon South Park (in which Mohammad is depicted in a bear costume) and the resulting thinly-veiled death threats against the show’s creators posted on the website “Revolution Muslim,” the web of events goes further back to the publication of cartoons of Mohammad in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Despite the fact that a number of the offending Danish cartoons satirized not Mohammad, but the cartoonists themselves, as well as the treatment of women under strict Islamic law, protests against the publication quickly sprang up around the world: there were formal objections from political leaders, economic boycotts, the Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut were burned, and scores of people perished.  A year earlier, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered after releasing a film critical of the treatment of women in some Islamic cultures, a murder referenced by “Revolution Muslim” in its demand that South Park not follow in the footsteps of Jyllands-Posten by airing insulting depictions of Mohammad. Muslim sensitivities to perceived attacks on sacrosanct aspects of their culture are understandable in the light of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively, invasions spurred by the attacks of September 11, 2001 by a group of Islamic radicals. And so it goes; each new historical event simultaneously takes us back in a nearly endless regression to earlier and earlier historical events; the history of relations between Western and Muslim powers is like a shadow lurking behind each new conflict.

Satirists, in particular, have to remain keenly conscious of the shadow of history. In the wake of the reign of the notorious Roman Emperor Domitian, the satirist Juvenal writes of the dangers of insulting people in high places, which can (and did) result in the satirist being “dragged through the dust of the Coliseum.” In our own era, mere days after 9/11/2001, when comedian Bill Maher characterized U.S. air bombardments as “cowardly,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used his press conference to warn us all that “people have to watch what they say” in the new post-9/11 world, and Maher’s show was quickly pulled off the air. Satirists often present themselves as incapable of silencing their mockery when faced with blatant hypocrisy or vice (once you’ve put on the satirist’s armor, writes Juvenal, there’s no turning back from the battle), and yet, as artists, satirists must walk a delicate line between the form and content of their assault and the conditions that motivated that assault; Maher was free to express his criticisms, but the conditions of a nation at war wouldn’t tolerate them. War is still our condition, and this tension over freedom of satiric expression versus religious sensitivity is a symptom of that war.

Despite satire’s admirable mission to reduce the vicious members of society to “shame, rage, and tears” as Juvenal writes, do satirists have a right to offend whomever they please, whenever they please, with no consideration beyond their own moral judgments? Is freedom of (critical) speech without limits? The existence of libel laws argues for limitations to what we can and cannot say. Alternatively, why should one group be allowed dictate what can and cannot serve as satiric targets? When a satirist allows himself to be silenced by pressure or threats, his art becomes, as the Roman satirist Horace writes, socially “impotent.” In the aftermath of 9/11, a Time magazine editorialist wrote that a society that silences satire by popular consensus is no freer than a society that silences satire by law. Societies that lack those pesky satiric gadflies just aren’t healthy; just ask Socrates, but ask quickly, before he drinks the Hemlock.

A personal example may serve to illustrate the dilemma: in my Satire class at MSU in 2009, I took out a copy of the Jyllands-Posten containing the satiric cartoons, told my students about the aftermath of their publication, and then put the newspaper away without showing the cartoons to my class. On the one hand, my actions were either hyper-politically correct or horribly cowardly (maybe both): I didn’t want to offend or to stifle the opinions of any of my students who may have been Muslim or had sympathy for the concerns of Muslims, nor did I want to have to answer to my Dean when protests over my actions came to his attention. On the other hand, being blessed with academic freedom, and as I was engaged in a legitimate intellectual investigation of a contemporary topic related to satire, I had every right to show the Mohammad cartoons. Furthermore, I am an educator, and the Danish cartoon controversy was the perfect forum for raising complex ethical issues that would have benefited my students’ thinking. But I erred on the side of empathy rather than intellect, and I’m still not fully comfortable with that decision.

In short, I bowed to public pressure, and remained intellectually impotent, but ethically safe. Perhaps there is such a thing as the no-win scenario…

Is there an inherent right to offend? Is satire freedom of expression or intellectual terrorism? In a way, it depends on one’s peculiar place in the web of historical events, doesn’t it? When Tea Party protestors exercise their right to satirize the president’s policies through offensive photos depicting him as Hitler or as a Witch Doctor, despite their claim that they are focusing on the vice and not on the man, the bleak history of U.S. race relations places the inescapable stamp of racism on their depictions. Intent is irrelevant; images contain layers of meaning beyond the intent of the depicter, and certainly, the most striking meanings are those closest to the viewer’s own personal experience. But can a satirist account for everyone’s unique history, and really, why should they bother to try? The vice is the enemy, and the person is just the vessel, right?

There are no easy answers: without the absolute freedom to criticize, our society cannot improve, and because we retain and exercise that freedom often, we are improving. And yet, without the occasional reminder that absolute freedom may not be wholly ethical when it impinges on the freedoms of others, our society may have trouble moving beyond perpetual conflict.

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Written by shakespeareguy

May 24, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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