“Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” Ethics

The “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” mess is a wonderful example of how ethics train wrecks begin to engulf anyone who get near them. It also an example of an idea that is clever, funny, well-intentioned, and wrong.

First “South Park,” as is its custom, decided to offend as many people as possible (while also amusing as many other people as possible) by creating an episode that included the prophet Muhammad dressed in a bear suit. A Muslim group threatened violence against the creators of the show for its blasphemy, and the craven suits at Comedy Central unforgivably censored the episode, firmly establishing that its willingness to fight for First Amendment expression was limited to, well, fighting those who wouldn’t really fight.  This established the new standard that it is fine to ridicule religions that respect democracy and abhor violence on Comedy Central, but religions that do not embrace democratic ideals and that use violence should always be treated kindly.

Reacting to this pathetic capitulation by the comedy channel,  Seattle artist Molly Norris created a funny poster-like cartoon declaring May 20th to be “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”  Then she sent it out to radio talk shows and web sites, and…Voila! A viral cartoon and a viral idea! Suddenly there was a Facebook page organizing “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”  Then more sites.

Norris suddenly backtracked, and attempted to disclaim any connection to the event. “I am NOT involved in Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!” she posted on her website. “I made a cartoon that went viral and I am not going with it. Many other folks have used my cartoon to start sites, etc.  Please go to them as I am a private person who draws stuff.”  The organizer of the Facebook page dedicated to the event followed this with his own form of retreat, declaring that the pictures of Muhammad should only be “good and charitable,” whatever that means, since the religion forbids any image at all.

Now bloggers who supported the idea are ridiculing its originators as cowards and hypocrites. They have a point—maybe. If Norris and others suddenly lost their nerve to do what they suggested Comedy Central should have had the courage to do—and that is certainly a plausible interpretation of their actions and words—then they deserve ridicule. It is just possible, however, that they changed their minds for a different reason. “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” is unethical.

All Muslims didn’t threaten “South Park,” a few Muslims did. Intentionally offending all Muslims by portraying the prophet Muhammad is gratuitously mean-spirited and disrespectful. The way to make the point that America insists on free expression is to embolden some of our more lily-livered institutions (the media, academia) to  exhibit some fortitude and sense of principle when free expression is under attack. It is not to cause random, wide-spread discomfort to every Muslim in the world. The United States stands for diversity and respect for all religions. If a comic, or a satirist, or a critic chooses to do otherwise, that is legitimate, protected expression, even if it is offensive.  Urging everyone to be offensive, however, violates ethical principles to support Constitutional ones.

Burning a flag is protected expression, but we don’t insult millions of patriots and veterans by “Flag Burning Day” to show those who would make the act illegal that they are wrong.  Excising the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn is impermissible censorship,  but declaring a “Write the Word ‘Nigger’ Day” would be unimaginable. I have explained why trying to ban the word “retard” from the language is an offense to free thought and expression, but I would recoil from a “Use ‘Retard’ Day,” which would be pointlessly cruel.

The logic behind “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” ultimately comes down to the same, old refrain, an ethical rationalization for unkind, uncivil, harmful or deceptive, though legally protected, communication. “It’s our First Amendment right to say/write/print/draw whatever we want.” Yes, it is. That still doesn’t mean that what you say/write/print/draw is fair, respectful, honest, beneficial, helpful, civil or kind. It can still be a terrible idea and a destructive act, it can still hurt people who don’t deserve to be hurt. We should resolve to fight for the right to communicate these things, but be ready to try to explain why some communications shouldn’t be made, not because of  fear, not because of law, but because we care about their impact on other human beings.

66 thoughts on ““Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” Ethics

      • Sorry Sir my last reply was for Aaron.
        & nopes I’m not Odysseus. I appreciate your write-ups. You are fair with every religion. I salute you. This is the right way. Every religion must be respected; whether you belong to it or not.
        Its birth right of every person to stick with the religion of its choice but let others to breath and practice their own. Not to make fun of others only because you don’t think the same way.

    • Excuse me sir, Better read my last post again. it says your fear will kill you yourself… you are guys are sick…

  1. Well, your death threats shouldn’t egg you on. Do you react to dares like that, too?

    If someone says, “please stop this, it is very hurtful to me and my family,” and you think, “Hmmm…maybe he’s right…” then he writes again and says…”Okay, now I’m mad, you bastards…this is going to hurt people I care about and if you do it, I’ll kill you!” Your fair, rational, ethical response is, “OK, now I am going to REALLY try to hurt you for saying that!” But if his original plea was valid, so was his plea with the threat.

    Classic vengeful, irrational, unethical conduct.

  2. non-muslims, say that we are very humble, loving, & peaceful .i want to tell them that you people are in great confusion. instead of you people muslims are peaceful, as the non-belivers are insulting thier prophet & still they are not as reactant as they should be. How dare one can insult the last prophet? if one doesn’t think in that way so this doesnot mean that one starts insulting others . Now think yourselves is this loving & caring nature of these unbelivers

  3. Jack

    Aggregating responses.

    > Frankly, I don’t believe that Scientology is a legitimate religion

    So you say, but then advocate the same deference you would grant to Islam.

    As far as I am concerned, there is only one legitimate religion. Mine. Every other one is wrong. But you have a God-given right to be wrong and it is not contingent on me believing it is a “legitimate” faith. There are, and have been, a number of religions that are just silly on their face, and we have a right to believe in any of them.

    And the point I am making and you continually miss is how a rule that requires you to adhere to their restraints means that if you have a friend about to join this religion (or cult, as you call it), you can’t give him truthful information that might prevent him from joining.

    Not to mention your unanswered problems with your selective willingness to require us to adhere to fundamental Islam.

    By the way, should Muslims who do not interpret the Koran this way also be bound to obey the rule? More than a few Muslims have said to me “this is ridiculous. The passage in question refers to not attempting to represent God. Mohammed is not God, so it’s not a problem. Further, the issue is idolatry, and if you are not an adherent to my faith, it is impossible to commit idolatry of Mohammed or even Allah.” But even though these self-proclaimed Muslims themselves believe they are not prohibited from depicting Mohammed positively, you would require them to do it anyway? What is the point of giving the people the right to interpret the Koran differently if you are not free to act on that different interpretation?

    And if the catholic church decides that all Christians must obey the pope, we have to obey the pope? Kind of solves that whole protestant problem for them doesn’t it?

    Your position is illogical, simply put.

    For instance, a large part of your argument against my position rests on your estimation of our chances of success. But you have no unique qualifications in this regard, and given all that did happen today—Pakistan banning facebook, as well as a number of middle eastern countries—I would say there is a decent chance that they figured it out. They know that literally over 100,000 people participated in insulting their prophet. And if these people aren’t all dead in 6 months, then it will be clear that they will not—indeed cannot—carry though on their threats. We will have won.

    And again, you still stand here offering no solution.

    > If someone says, “please stop this, it is very hurtful

    Jack, get it through your thick skull. NO ONE WAS HURT. Sticks and stones and all that. And when you pretend hurt feelings are somehow equivalent to physical injury you enable and encourage the pathos that makes people think it is rational to murder a person over a Dreaded Stick Figure of Blasphemy. You make precisely the erroneous equivalency that the terrorists make, equating at worst an insult to an injury.

    I mean, for a supposed ethics expert, you seem uniquely unconcerned about the incentives you would create, you know?

    Years ago, I remember when some baseball player said some racist and homophobic things and kicked up a firestorm. Conan O’Brien ran a skit where their version of the player said, “But you’re being intolerant… of my intolerance.” Everyone laughed because it was ridiculous.

    But we witness today a so-called ethics expert who proclaims to the world that I should not only tolerate their intolerant view that even though I am not Muslim I am not allowed to even depict their so called prophet (parody be upon him), even if my depiction is positive, but I am immoral if I try to teach them to be tolerant. Your morality is warped, and it expects a level of deference afforded to literally no other religion on Earth. And it makes me wonder why this faith and no other gets this deference. Seriously what has Islam done to merit such solicitousness never offered to Christianity?

  4. It is worthless for me to respond to all of this, because you argue against positions I have never taken. I haven’t said that you or anyone HAS to respect the Koran. You CAN be as rude a boor and as gratuitously insulting as you choose within the law. Civil and ethical people do not set out to offend people; if an otherwise productive, creative or useful or enjoyable act does so, an ethical person takes note of the possible harm, applies the Golden Rule, looks at alternatives, and makes an ethical choice. Your Catholic analogy is ridiculous. I think, personally, that the Pope is a joke and that the Catholic church is corrupt to the core. There is no justification in my confronting devout Catholics with this just to upset them. There’s nothing heroic about it or noble. Now, if I have a significant message that requires this, as with Christopher Hitchens’ book, or Dan Brown’s novels, well, the Catholics will just have to endure it.

    The discussion with you (and others) keeps stalling on this same point. Because you can insult millions of Muslims, you think you should. All of your other arguments are either unethical by definition—based on anger, revenge, spite, or disrespect—or supported by rationalizations, as in “they asked for it” or “we have good motives, so the fact that we’re actually hurting people doesn’t matter.”

    And, of course, events simply validated what I was saying. The protest angered a lot of Muslims, and didn’t make a single person safer or freer. It just made the self-deluded amateur cartoonists feel like they had done something grand. That’s a benefit, I guess, though they hadn’t really. It’s not nearly enough to justify the EDMD.

  5. Jack

    The stalling point is you keep missing the point. You write:

    > Because you can insult millions of Muslims, you think you should.

    That has never been my position. And if you can’t understand that simple point, then yes, discussion is pointless.

    > All of your other arguments are either unethical by definition—based on anger, revenge, spite, or disrespect

    Except I have NEVER argued from any of those points of view.

    > or supported by rationalizations, as in “they asked for it”

    I never asserted that moderate Muslims who don’t threaten to murder those who insult or depict their prophet “asked for” any of this.

    > “we have good motives, so the fact that we’re actually hurting people doesn’t matter.”

    Well, finally you have an argument that actually gets within throwing distance of what I did say. I said that it was necessary to protect freedom of speech, and that no one—including you—presented any viable alternative.

    > The protest angered a lot of Muslims, and didn’t make a single person safer or freer.

    Lol, good to see you rooting for a defeat for freedom of speech, but if you ever took the argument I made seriously, you would realize that you would have no idea whether we have succeeded or not. We certainly made international news, making it clear to the whole world that their threats were impotent. Their only victory was hacking the biggest facebook page, but it doesn’t change the fact that we showed we were not going to be cowed. So unless they track and kill 110,000 people, including me, they will have failed and their bluff will have been called.

  6. Oh, of course you are. Having one’s deepest faith ridiculed is deeply injurious. Words hurt, mocking hurts, blasphemy hurts. I have seen people reduced to tears by blasphemy and hate-speech. This isn’t “sticks and stones” stuff. Your final comment, appropriately enough, is a rationalization.

  7. And LOL right back. You’re hilariously deluded. How did you show radical Muslims anything, when the next South Park episode will be pulled by Comedy Central just like the last one, if they perceive any threat? You didn’t prove the bullying Muslim threat were impotent one iota.

    You got publicity. That’s what this was always about—self-promotion, at the expense of rational cultural relations. A tiny speck of self-awareness at last.

  8. Jack

    > Words hurt, mocking hurts, blasphemy hurts.

    First, no, it doesn’t. I know because my faith is blasphemed all the time, and it doesn’t hurt.

    Offense is a choice. You can learn to not care what others think. But when people like you call it an injury you actually feed the pathos involved. They have chosen to be this overly sensitive and I am not required to adjust my behavior or speech because of it. My freedom is not dependant on another self-chosen sensitivities.

    I suppose if I said that I was actually hurt every time a gay man served in the military openly, you would support don’t ask, don’t tell, right?

    Seriously, again, for an supposed ethics expert you seem remarkably unconcerned with the incentives you would create.

    Oh, and what of the point that what offends me more than blasphemy is censorship. If offense is hurt, then I have been hurt, right? Mind you, I am not saying it is hurt, I am just taking your argument to the logical conclusion. So am I not allowed to defend myself against this hurt, allowed to try to prevent this hurt?

    Of course censorship doesn’t actually directly hurt anyone. What it does do is it harms society. The gifts of the modern world are the result of the freedom we enjoy in it. So unlike the self-chosen “hurt” of offense, suppression of freedom of speech does lead to real world harms.

    > You’re hilariously deluded. How did you show radical Muslims anything, when the next South Park episode will be pulled by Comedy Central just like the last one

    So because I don’t share your prediction of the future—a very speculative one at that—I am not only deluded, but HILARIOUSLY so at that?

    Logic isn’t your strong suit, is it?

    And since this is a prediction of the future, it’s kind of hard not to see that you are rooting for its failure. I mean even if you disagree with our tactics, shouldn’t you, as a supposed advocate of free speech, HOPE we succeed? Hope that Comedy central shows the original episodes without censoring the image of Mohammed? And don’t you hope that the next Salmon Rushdie is not fatwahed, that newspapers feel free to publish cartoons like the Danish ones, that they stop burning Vilk’s house, and so on.

    > You got publicity. That’s what this was always about—self-promotion

    You know for a guy who tossed around the word “fallacy” a lot, you seem to have forgotten that the ad hominem is one, too.

    Either my arguments are correct or they are not. Since most of the time your entire attempt to refute them is saying some variation of how it’s no use to refute them, what you are really doing is an implicit attempt to commit another fallacy: the appeal to authority. You are the self-proclaimed expert of ethics, therefore you are right, even though you can’t even defend your ethical assertions to a real and detailed critique.

    And I am sure it couldn’t be the case that you just don’t have any good arguments in response. Nah, couldn’t be that, right?

    > A tiny speck of self-awareness at last.

    You are correct to say I personally got very little. Thank God I didn’t care about that despite your unfounded accusations that this is what it is about, contrary to your ad homs. But the movement was noticed well enough to be banned in numerous countries. Chris Muir and the creators of Over the Hedge participated, while a South African newspaper had to fight an “interdict” to prevent it from publicizing its own cartoon. They are protesting in the streets and shouting “death to facebook.”

    And here is the interesting thing. Facebook is not backing down. People are threatening to murder them if they don’t take these pages down and in fact, after a hacker attack, they put it back up. It would be great if Comedy Central found its gonads, but it turns out that not every institution is running in fear.

  9. Aaron, if you deny the value of civility, you can’t comprehend ethics or recognize ethical conduct. It explains your position, but it doesn’t justify it.

    Meanwhile, good for Facebook, though I think it is awfully well insulated from any real threats. Still, it’s a start.

  10. I no more denied the value of civility than you denied the value of the first amendment. We just choose to value one over another.

    Call me crazy, but I think we in the movement valued the more important thing.

    • Ok: you’re crazy. There is no need to choose between the First Amendment and civility, none at all. Anything that needs to be done in the name of free speech can be civil. To do otherwise is a choice, that’s all.

  11. Jack

    > There is no need to choose between the First Amendment and civility, none at all. Anything that needs to be done in the name of free speech can be civil.

    You haven’t earned the right to say that we can do this civilly, because you have literally offered no viable alternative. Your “respect each others feelings day” or whatever you called it is a joke. One wonders if you have any clear idea what it would accomplish.

    I keep saying to the critics, offer a viable alternative. So far none is forthcoming.

  12. A viable alternative to a pointless exercise that insults a world religion to no practical end in the delusional belief that it somehow magically bolsters the First Amendment by showing how it protects the rude and juvenile?? Hmmm… let’s see….alternatives…Going to see the Astros play the Rays? Inventing three new letters to the alphabet? Training chipmunks to play dead? Coming up with all the words that can be made out of the letters that spell “Haverford”? Arranging one’s sock drawer? Memorizing “Evangeline” in Esperanto? Sculpting cheese? Oh, there are so many alternatives. I’m sorry I didn’t suggest some before, Aaron.

  13. Jack

    So your solution is nothing. Just watch our freedom disappear without a fight. Noted and rejected.

    I will do something with a chance of working, rather than nothing.

  14. “Doing something” that does not address the problem is the same as doing nothing. That was my point.

    Our freedoms are not threatened by the outside, but by expression-censoring rationalizations on the Left, INside. Deal with those.

  15. Pity I missed the follow-up discussion; I would have had a few more words to say myself. Actually, I think a better, more amusing protest would be “Mock the Religious Extremists Day”; I’d be up for pulling a Sascha Baron Cohen and pretend to be a Muslim extremist who keeps getting angry because he thinks every other picture and photograph he sees is intended to be an image of Muhammad. If nothing else, I’d hope it would get some chuckles out of spectators, Muslim or not.

    On a different note, I’m a little curious to see another editorial from you about ‘ethical’ versus ‘unethical’ free speech: issues like satire, different standards of vulgarity, etc.

  16. Pingback: Ethics Train Wreck Update: “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” Claims Its Inevitable Victim « Ethics Alarms

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