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.