Tuesday, May 5, 2015

They Were Asking For It

I've seen this surface a couple of times now.

First, around the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  And yesterday, following the recent abortive attempt to shoot people attending a "Draw the Prophet" competition, in which two failed terrorists died.

It's an attempt to equivocate around free speech, around what is and is not acceptable language, or legitimate provocation to violence.  If someone engages in a symbolic act that is intended to offend, or so this line of thinking goes, they are asking for it.

"If you insult my belief system intentionally, you have crossed a line," this line of reasoning goes.   "While I am a peaceful person who would not attack you, and I oppose violence in every way, I can completely understand why someone else might feel differently.  You are misusing your freedom, and so it kind of in a way is sort of your fault you were attacked.  So let's talk about that misuse of freedom, and about how shameful it is."

It is a faint shifting of the onus of responsibility, away from the self, and towards the other.

Do I think that "Draw the Prophet" was a good idea?  No.  It was, well, stupid, and more than a little bit nativist.  It's obnoxious in the same way that Westboro Baptist is obnoxious, or that Charlie Hebdo is obnoxious.  What they were doing is a pointlessly selfish exercise in trying to evoke a response.

But that doesn't mean anything.  Offense does not confer any legitimacy to violence.

Take, for noted example, the recent Tony award-winning Broadway smash "The Book of Mormon."  For some reason, the internet thinks I want to go see this, and pitches me ads for performances all the time.  I've seen some of the songs, and, c'mon.  Sure, I don't buy the LDS ancient America story, as outlined in the Book of Mormon, which I've read.  The things described therein just didn't happen in this branch of the multiverse.  Mayhaps in some other timeline.  But not in this one.  Neither do I resonate with many aspects of LDS politics or their theology.

But mocking laughter?  There are dark spiritual resonances to that when it's directed at the Other.  If it was directed at the foibles and absurdities of my own tradition, that'd be different.  Maybe if it was "The Book of Order," I might go, but I'm not sure that'd do as well on Broadway.  Lord have mercy, but that would be dull.

So here, in the face of this very public mockery of a significant faith tradition, has there been violence?  Or equivocation justifying violence?  No.

Nor could there legitimately be such justification.

Any more than shooting at Westboro Baptist members would be justified.

Freedom of speech does bring with it responsibility, sure.   But violence used to suppress obnoxious speech only confers legitimacy on that speech.  It allows the rude and the cruel and the bully to take up the mantle of victim or "defender of liberty," to be the aggrieved rather than the selfish.


  1. Neither have I seen The Book of Mormon, and after watching that clip, perhaps it's just as well. Is their history somewhat twisted and often cruel? Yes. Is their theology more than a bit strange, stressing belief? You bet. But here's the thing: having been in the military I've probably met more Mormons than most people living outside the state of Utah, and all I can say is, that as a religious faith, a flavor of, yes, Christianity, it works. It produces a high percentage of admirable people -- generous, friendly, cooperative, courageous in the service of their country, good strong family people. The vast majority of the ones I've met are virtuous. So no, I won't mock them. Won't join them, either, but they certainly do not deserve ridicule.

  2. That's been my experience of Latter Day Saints too, Ralph. Really good human beings, generally salt-of-the-earth types...but also creative, thoughtful, and good in all of the ways human beings are good.

  3. This is a much more nuanced issue, I believe, than you have acknowledged. First, taunting someone unendurably (and then hiding behind the law to protect oneself) is the act of a bully. Second, there’s a difference between understanding why someone responds to a taunt with violence, and giving them permission to do so. While I agree that we should hold those who respond with violence to vile attacks, I think we are too quickly giving a free speech pass to those who deliberately set out to offend. Finally, there’s a substantive difference between the vulgarity of The Book of Mormon musical, and the deliberate vileness of the Westboro Baptist types. I’ve listened to the musical - most of my Mormon friends think it very funny & very tasteless; I’ve been subjected to a Fred Phelps demonstration — it was more like being dipped in hate and drove ordinary church ladies to tears. We dare not use the vulgarity of the one to explain the hate of the other.

  4. There is invariably more nuance, and the ones you surface are entirely valid. But a similar musical called "The Quran" would probably be...well...different. I've been part of Westboro counterdemonstrations--organized them, in fact--and found those demonstrators more sad than anything else. Particularly the kids.

    What's odd is that the provocateurs seem to exist in a dark symbiosis with those they provoke. Listening to the organizer of the event, I can't help feel that this result is exactly what she hoped for, which is itself a horrid thing.