Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Free speech and dog bites

It looks like some people need a refresher course in the concept that going around deliberately offending people you disagree with doesn't make you a hero, it makes you an asshole.

This is my general conclusion about Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, whose "Draw a Cartoon of Muhammad" event in Garland, Texas was crashed by two armed Muslims.  The event had high security -- no one was in any doubt of the risk they were taking -- so when the two men came in, brandishing assault rifles, they were immediately shot and killed by the armed guards hired to protect attendees.

The comparisons to the Charlie Hebdo massacre started to fly.  Geller, who organized the event, was vocal in her claim that the whole thing had to do with free speech.  "There is a problem in Islam, as illustrated last night, and anyone that addresses it gets attacked in this same way," Geller said.  "The Islamic jihadis are determined to suppress our freedom of speech violently."

Which is certainly true, on some level.  I don't want anyone to misunderstand me; I still think that Islam is factually wrong, and has a lot to answer for in terms of human rights offenses, suppression of women, and encouraging extremism and fanaticism.  But Geller's case began to look a little different when it was revealed that she isn't just a free speech advocate, she's a conspiracy theorist who thinks there's some kind of huge plot to institute Shari'a law in the United States, and that there are Muslims everywhere, influencing every level of government.

Hell, she even thinks that conservative activist Grover Norquist is a "dangerous Islamic infiltrator."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So the whole Draw Muhammad event starts to look like a deliberate set-up, and that Geller was hoping like crazy that something violent would happen.  What she did amounts to taking a stick and repeatedly hitting a dog with it, and when the dog turns around and bites you, saying, "See?  I told you it was vicious."

And, of course, she got her wish.  So this isn't some sort of victory for free speech; it's a fanatic on one side pissing off two fanatics on the other side, which hardly constitutes a win for either ideology.

As far as the parallels to Charlie Hebdo, there are some similarities.  In both cases, we had people who knew full well what the reaction by devout Muslims would be.  The difference, though, seems to be that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo lampooned other religions as well -- the Catholics and Jews got equal time in their magazine -- whereas Geller's event was specifically targeted at Islam.  The fact that the intent in Garland was to provoke a response is evident from the armed guards, who turned the attack into something more like suicide by cop.

So let me make this clear.  We do have the right to free speech in the United States.  Geller, and the cartoonists who participated, had the right to do what they did.  But having a right to do something doesn't mean that you have the right to expect that there be no consequences no matter what you say.  I might have the right to say that a guy I know is an illiterate, ugly ignoramus, but I don't have the right to act all surprised if he responds in kind.

And more importantly, having the right to do something doesn't make it the right thing to do.

As far as Geller's claim that she was just trying to point out how crazy the Islamic extremists are, I only have one question: didn't we already know that?  No one who has picked up a newspaper in the past ten years had any doubt on that point.

There's a difference between criticism and deliberate provocation.  By all means criticize; pointing out the flaws in an ideology is crucial in getting people unstuck from erroneous ways of thinking.  (And as I said before, there is a lot about Islam to criticize.)  But you can do that and remain respectful of people.  It doesn't mean there won't be times people will lash out at you; it doesn't mean you won't sometimes offend.

But it does leave you on a moral high ground that Geller and Charlie Hebdo have abandoned.  They want to have it both ways -- to set out to be offensive, and then to be offended themselves when their targets retaliate.

And in the end, all they proved was that being an asshole sometimes results in getting people killed.

1 comment:

  1. Gordon, I don't get it. Some people get together to draw cartoons of Mohammed, guys show up with weapons to kill them and you are chiding the organizers for being provacateurs? Where did you condemn in the column the would-be murderers? The analogy you make with beating a dog with a stick is a poor one. Pamela Geller, wackaloon though she may be, did not physically harm anyone. She neither picked their pocket nor broke their leg. Blasphemy is protected speech in this country whether it's the expression of an artist or a bigot. If you think an insult to your religion requires a violent response, you need to be living elsewhere. I'll take a bigoted conspiracy theorist for a neighbor any day over someone who's sworn allegiance to ISIS. The conclusion I "draw" from this incident is that properly planned Mohammed drawing parties might be a very effective way to identify and eliminate such crazed thugs from our midst.