Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Saint's Row: Canonizing Provocateurs

Reading about Paris, I couldn't reconcile the frequent statements being made that France has a long tradition of free speech with my understanding of what limits I know they have in place. I am familiar with the many authors (like Voltaire) who fought against the Catholic Church by continuing to write in the face of certain persecution. However, modern France has seemingly adopted a policy of discretionary censorship. They have laws built into their penal system which are meant to act as a deterrent to anyone who would speak against events such as the Jewish Holocaust. I can’t help but notice that when brown people are involved, the decision to limit speech garners less support, as was the case in 2012 with the attempted passage of censorship laws which would have condemned public denial of the Armenian Genocide. Of course, politics play a large role in these decisions, but I don’t think this is just a coincidence.

As an American, I try to be conscious of my views surrounding free speech since we are so indoctrinated with the idea that our individual opinions not only matter, but that we have this inalienable right to express them. Too often we think only of the satisfaction of being heard and not of the consequences our views have in the world. If we have a right to our opinions, we have a personal and civic duty to accept the responsibility of what ensues after we express them.

I want to preface by saying that this is not meant to be a piece about how to victim-blame. What happened in Paris most recently, and the examples which came numerous times before, were all tragic. But that’s just my problem with these events, they were tragic in the most literal sense and they continue to go un-checked. Our societies have seen what can happen when we actively *choose* to disrespect a particular religion which, let’s be very clear, is what these authors have as their intent. This is what political cartoonist do: they galvanize and get people talking. Sometimes this is necessary because they say things no one else is saying, or they lead the charge in speaking out against an injustice. This can be admirable, but to continue to act from a place of power (access to widely read printing from a nation with such a long history of colonialism), seems less necessary and more like pandering to the discriminatory and xenophobic views which so many have adopted.
The conventional wisdom in the U.S., as I’ve said before, centers on the individual’s right to free speech. For much of my life, this simple rule was the premise on which I formed the basis of my understanding of what it was to have inalienable rights. There is always an exception to the rule, however, and the one which always comes to my mind is that of “clear and present danger”. Though applying this statement to this scenario would mandate some leniency as to who it was that presented the danger, it is clear each time what is the inciting incident. Writing incendiary material of a specific nature against the religion of Islam and the Prophet Muhammed can lead to deadly consequences. I think the recent events in Paris make this evident. Clearly this kind of mockery will not go unnoticed and sometimes will not go unpunished.

Over 12 people were either killed or injured in the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. Not all of those people were writers or even affiliates of the publication, yet they absorbed some of that retaliatory “punishment”. If we know what can happen when choices like Charlie Hebdo’s are made, why is it that we don’t see fit to take preventative measures? And yes, I know, “slippery slope” but this is not a general plea for censorship of anything which tweaks the nerves of our sometimes admittedly sensitive society. In our “culture of umbrage” (as I once saw it phrased), pleasing everyone is increasingly impossible. Yet we are talking about a very specific request from a relatively large group of people from part of a widely practiced religion regarding their prophet. It is so simple, and yet seems to be the most common choice of subject matter for those who want to exercise their ability to present their opinion.

It is easy to say these events were tragic, because they are. It is easy to feel devastated for the victims of this crime, because they are victims and this was an incredibly violent crime. What is not always easy, is questioning the saint-like voice given to those who are presented as martyrs to a cause (and what more noble cause than our rights and our freedom?). To put it simply: what the authors of that infamous image wrote was racist and Islamophobic. Some of these people died for those beliefs, and unfortunately, some died because others held these beliefs. One could call this “speech” carelessness, given the instances of violence or threats of violence which have occurred as a result of this kind of disrespect before. And I would have suspected that, if one religion could warrant laws limiting speech, others could as well, but this is not the case in a hierarchical and racist system. What’s more, given these acts of terrorism, I suspect this type of reform will never happen. Quite the opposite, I suspect  will cut off the thumb to spite the hand. They will continue to print these images and will never censor these particular images because they are proud of their rights, proud of their opinions, proud to "be Charlie", but they are not thinking of the consequences of their obstinance and bigotry. And I am upset, because not only has blood been shed, but also this attack will, I’m sure, be used by certain groups to further denigrate an entire religion when not every member ascribes to this particular “rule” (let alone to the extreme measures taken by the gunmen in Paris). The general backlash brown communities feel are on full display in Rupert Murdoch’s recent comments about Muslims who must, according to him, “be held responsible”. This justification is yet another example of the vitriol against people who had nothing to do with these attacks. I am devastated on so many accounts, and so pessimistic about what these events will mean for brown people and people who look “suspicious” to those who espouse these racist opinions.

Innocent people have been drawn into this conflict by those with pens and those with guns, and I find it wanton and abhorrent on both accounts.

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