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.