Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Speech as Defiance: Why drawing Mohammad promotes free speech

Back in May, two Islamist radicals opened fire at a “Draw Mohammad” contest being held in Texas. The event was organized by Pamela Geller, an American woman famed for her anti-Islam views, with the purpose of rallying dozens of people together to draw depictions of the Prophet Mohammad. Thankfully, security guards at the event were able to kill the gunmen before they could kill anyone else, receiving only an ankle wound in return.

New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi’s response to these events was to tweet the following:

“Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a “Muhammad drawing contest”?

To people who think like me, this was a rather stupefying thing to say. What do you mean free speech aside? Free speech aside??? That’s like saying “your entire argument aside, why are you right?”

A comment like this is telling about the left’s general mindset towards free speech these days, because it reveals that to them, free speech is merely a legal protection (and antiquated one we should ignore when convenient, at that). What Ms. Callimachi likely meant by that phrase was something closer to this: “the fact that this speech is legally protected under the first amendment aside, why would anyone do this?” Had she worded it this way, it would be a more sensible question: the legality of speech does not explain why someone would choose to say it.

But in the case of most Draw Mohammad contests, free speech is also the motive for the event, not merely the reason it is legal. To myself and most of the participants in such events, free speech is more than just a legal protection; it is a principle which is essential to a healthy, robust discussion on important issues. This Vox article attacked the concept of Draw Mohammad contests by arguing “There's a difference between an event that is protected by free speech and one that actually supports free speech.” They were right; it just so happens that drawing pictures of the Prophet Mohammad does both.

So in this post, I will attempt to answer Ms. Callimachi’s question. Why would someone choose to do this?

More accurately, I will let Eugene Volokh answer her question, because he’s much smarter than I am. Consider the following excerpt from his piece titled “Islamo-non-phobia and the Value of Defiance”:

“There is a special kind of exercise of free speech here: speech as defiance. The organizers are sending a message that they are not afraid, either of those who would condemn us or even of those who would kill us — at least not so afraid that they will forgo their First Amendment rights.

Harsh critics of Islam are often accused of ‘Islamophobia’…[and] ‘-phobia’ terms usually convey (and are often intended to convey) an allegation of irrational fear. Well, the critics say, our fear is actually quite rational; it makes sense to rationally fear dangerous ideologies. But with events such as this, I think the critics are saying: it is those who condemn us for being ‘provocative’ who are relying on fear of Muslim extremists, and we are the ones who actually act contrary to the counsel of fear.”

Lest anyone accuse Volokh of being melodramatic, the threats he encourages us defy are very real. Violent retribution was threatened on South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone for their thinly veiled depiction of Mohammad in Episode 200. Cartoonist Lars Vilks was assaulted at a speech in Uppsala back in 2010. They were the lucky ones. When Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh made a film called “Submission” criticizing Islam’s treatment of women, he was murdered while bicycling to work: shot 8 times at point blank range, and stabbed through his spinal cord in order to pin a note to his corpse threatening his (Muslim) co-producer. Last year, Muslims stabbed atheist blogger Avijit Roy to death in the street in Bangladesh, and then fellow blogger Washiqur Rahman, and then fellow blogger Ananta Bijoy Das in a span of less than four months. The Charlie Hebdo killings last January require no recap. This Texas shooting was yet another example.

Provoking and challenging the would-be censor is not an unfortunate byproduct of this sort of speech: it is the intent. So much of our country’s discussion revolves around the moral importance of not offending people, but sometimes, we should offend them on purpose. There are mindsets out there which are so obnoxious to human liberty that they warrant offending, and the mindset that justified hacking those bloggers and film directors to death is one of them.

There are less morbid examples of this too. When PETA douses people wearing fur coats or leather shoes in red paint as they walk down the street, it makes me want to go buy those products just to show them that tactic won't work. When my friend warned me not to wear my Packers jersey to Lincoln Financial Field for their game against the Eagles, for fear of abuse from their notoriously violent fans, I made doubly sure to wear my Cheesehead too.

I neither hate nor oppress PETA members, nor Bears fans, nor Muslims as a class of society; in fact I’m good friends with people who fall in all three categories. But I do hate the particular mindsets which inspire such destructive activities as destroying property, killing cartoonists, and pretending Jay Cutler is a competent NFL quarterback. Publicly thumbing my nose at those mindsets is a perfectly valid form of speech, precisely because it antagonizes people. You can bother people in a deliberate and calculated way in order to make a point on some area of disagreement, without having any deeper malice towards that person outside the bounds of that particular issue. That’s what Volokh’s “speech as defiance” is all about.

Vox’s analogy to Judaism falls flat here, because there isn’t a group of Jews running around threatening to kill anyone who criticizes or caricaturizes their religion. An “Abraham Cartoon Exhibit” would make no sense, because nobody is saying Abraham cartoons warrant death. There’s nothing to defy. And by expending so much ink attacking the people getting shot at, the Vox article represents another sad example of the “I’m not condoning violence, BUT…” motif I described previously in my response to the Baltimore riots:

“There were too many people in my newsfeed this week saying something to the effect of “I don’t support violence, but…” followed by something that frames Monday’s events as an unavoidable part of some heroic struggle. I suppose that’s better than those who dismiss calls for nonviolence altogether, but it’s still horrible. It was the same thing after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January: “I don’t condone violence, but”…these guys kinda brought it on themselves… The incidents differ in severity, but the principle is the same: that violence is less bad when it’s wielded against our enemies in a culture war. Ironically, it is this precise illogic which animates those who sympathize with police abuse: “He shouldn’t have shot him, but…” these guys were criminals, so they pretty much had it coming.

Being libertarian means there should be no but.

To be clear, none of this justifies actual Islamophobia. I concede that both Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders are total nutjobs, and don't want this to be seen as a defense of their views at large. Vox makes a pretty compelling case that the people behind this particular event were hypocritical, and very likely not motivated by free speech absolutism across the board so much as they "intended to support hatred and marginalization of Muslims."

If this is too much of a turn off for you to endorse the Texas exercise, let’s use a different example to illustrate my point. Reason Magazine did a similar “Everybody Draw Mohammad!” contest back in 2010, without any such racist undertones. Editor Nick Gillespie announced the winners of that contest with the following comments:

“Draw Mohammed day is a sign of pushback, not by the groups you would expect to be at the forefront - the organized press and the elected guardians of the Constitution - but by a sea of individuals who will not stand by silently while forces of both hostility and accommodation collude in narrowing the space for acceptable speech. We are proud to be participants in a project that defends the core of our very slogan: Free Minds and Free Markets. Can free societies engage in speech that some may find grievously insulting, and in doing so can they advance both the debate and the ongoing liberal project? It's not just that they can, but that they must.”

Draw Mohammad contests are in some ways analogous to a gay pride parade. In both cases, there are many people in the world who are offended by a perfectly harmless and nonviolent set of public activities. In both cases, these people (due mostly to a backwards, intolerant, ignorant and narrow-minded interpretation of an otherwise beautiful religion) believe that this peaceful activity is sinful, and should be banned. In both cases, a radical subset of these people are known to wield and threaten violence on those who engage in these activities, as retribution for the perceived offense. And in both cases, a courageous few who value their rights decide to very publicly defy these threats – not because they otherwise had some overwhelming desire to draw Mohammad or do whatever this is at that particular moment, but mostly just to make the point that they can. In both cases, the most important “speech” is not so much the content of what is said, or worn, or drawn, or written on a banner. The speech lies in the act itself: in the symbolism of provocatively and flamboyantly and authoritatively shouting “FUCK. THAT.” to anyone who would seek to censor such expression.

Just as the gay rights movement is not motivated by hate towards Christians, “Draw Mohammad” contests are not necessarily motivated by hate towards Muslims (even if certain zealots in both movements sometimes stumble into that regrettable territory). In both cases, it is not necessarily a spirit of animosity towards any individual group of people that motivates the demonstration, but a spirit of rebellion against the coercive constraints they would impose upon your behavior. It’s the equivalent of saying “Oh yeah? Make me. You’re not the boss of me, and now I'm gonna do it just to spite you – so THERE!” That’s a childishly worded summary of what is really a defining, quintessential aspect of the American spirit: the individualistic urge to flout the rules and flaunt our freedoms. Draw Mohammad contests celebrate that, and if they offend you, I don’t care.

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