Last Sunday, two men opened fire outside uber-Islam-hater Pamela Geller’s “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas. Both gunmen were killed by police, a security guard was wounded. Since cartoons of the Prophet have sparked killings around the globe, this was a risk, if not an inevitability, of holding such an event. That was undoubtedly one of the reasons for it, in fact: to show defiance of those that would cow us into self-censorship.
Since the episode, commentators and pundits have engaged in various levels of confused ethical thought regarding the competition and the shooting, much of the confusion due to cognitive dissonance regarding Geller, who is beyond question an anti-Muslim bigot. So horrible is it to their delicate liberal sensibilities to have the principle of freedom of speech represented by Geller that rather than accept it, many would prefer to jettison freedom of speech itself. In this they seem to have forgotten that the reason for free speech is precisely to protect the most infuriating, inflammatory, controversial speakers, whether they be hateful fanatics like Geller, or Martin Luther King.
It really is remarkable that the First Amendment has survived so long, since those who discuss it in public the most frequently are journalists and politicians, neither of whom are consistently able to interpret it accurately.
Ethically, this isn’t hard, or shouldn’t be. In fact, not a single new issue is raised by the Texas shooting that was not thoroughly covered here five years ago:
1. No group, no matter how offended or righteous and no matter what its holy book says, is ethically entitled to threaten violence against those who say, or draw, things that they find offensive, including the offense of blasphemy.
2. Encouraging such groups to do this by self-censoring is cowardly and a threat to free speech. Thus South Park and Comedy Central breached their duties to the nation, the culture and free speech by censoring a satirical animated series after receiving radical Islamic threats. As I wrote here:
“Standing as an example of America’s ideals carries some responsibilities as well as benefits. News organizations operate with the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, but they are sometimes called upon to protect that right when it is under attack. This requires integrity, sacrifice, acceptance of responsibility, and guts. Critics of popular leaders, government policies or wars have a duty to follow in the best tradition of Patrick Henry, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Eugene V. Debs, and not clam up when threatened with imprisonment, censorship and violence. Yet the cable channel Comedy Central, which has so smugly and “bravely” turned its rapier (or sophomoric ) wit on Presidents, celebrities, dictators, demagogues, popes, and evangelists, has chosen to ignore its duty and betray its nation’s ideals by censoring itself, through its program “South Park,” in response to a threat from Islamic extremists.”
3. Setting out to intentionally insult a group, a nationality, a race or a religion is absolutely protected speech. However, demonizing, belittling, being cruel, mean, vicious or just hurtful because the First Amendment permits it is an unethical use of the right, even if the offense seems irrational or factually wrong. I don’t understand why this is such a difficult concept. Because Bill Maher has a right to call women he doesn’t like cunts and twats on TV, as he does with some regularity, that doesn’t make the conduct acceptably civil, respectful or fair. Similarly, intentionally causing emotional distress to the devout Muslims who never have threatened anyone in order to taunt those few who have is ethically indefensible, unless there is a reason for the expression other than “I’m doing this because I can, so there!”
The First Niggardly Principle, inspired by a ridiculous incident in Washington, D.C. where an employee’s use of the word “niggardly” got him fired because someone might have thought the word, meaning “cheap,” was a racial slur, is:
“No one should be criticized or penalized because someone takes racial, ethnic, religious or other offense at their conduct or speech due to the ignorance, bias or misunderstanding by the offended party.”
The Second Niggardly Principle imagined a scenario in which that worker with the good vocabulary, now restored to his job, decided to use the word niggardly at every opportunity, in the presence of those who were most offended by it. His response to any criticism of his aggressive use of a word he knew bothered some of his co-workers—just because of the way the word sounds, and the uncomfortable associations they had to that sound when uttered by a white man—was to say, “Well, you’re just infringing on my right to free speech, you know. And you are discriminating against me, presuming ill will when in fact I am doing nothing that is either wrong or harmful.” This would be unkind, unreasonable and insensitive conduct, because nothing required him to use a word that he knew was, reasonably or not, going to upset his co-workers and be perceived, accurately or not, as a deliberately disrespectful act. Thus the Second Niggardly Principle Two comes in, holds:
“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”
In relation to the proposed New York City mosque near the site of 9-11, the SNP suggests that as irrational and unfair as the violent objections of many in the community were (Geller was the ringleader in the protests), the deliberate provocation of building a mosque there was unethical unless this was literally the only place where the mosque could be built. Otherwise, it was a gratuitous finger in the eye of 9-11 victims that served no purpose other than to provoke.
4. The most blatant breach of the The Second Niggardly Principle was the misbegotten inspiration for Geller “contest,” Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. This was a response to the South Park fiasco, and an ethically tone-deaf one. I wrote:
“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.”
5. This applies to Geller’s event too. In one respect, her event is more admirable than thousands of cartoonists scattered around the glove submitting blasphemous cartoons, which was grandstanding without risk. If the point is to say, “You can’t scare us!,” at least Geller’s contestants were presenting themselves as targets.
6. The worst of the SNP principle violators was, of course, Rev. Terry Jones, who happily got some people abroad killed in riots because he thought burning the Koran was a good way to really offend Muslims. I wrote:
“Silly me: I’m still stuck in that ethical rut that holds that we should try not to be gratuitously disrespectful to the feelings and beliefs of others, even when the others may not be completely respectful of us. If there is a really good reason, that’s a different matter, and really good reasons can range from artistic expression to a search for truth to a really funny joke. Just doing it to annoy a group, or because we have a right to do it, or because we don’t understand why anyone should mind, are not good reasons.But I’m sure all you self-righteous cartoonists out there can distinguish your stunt from what Rev. Jones wants to do, because he appears to be the kind of religious zealot they make fun of on The Daily Show, the Daily Show liked “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” and his protest is slam-dunk wrong and irresponsible, an act of bigotry, not protest. Yet his stated logic, purpose and motivation are identical to yours.
7. The Garland attack made Geller the symbol of other cultures seeking to muzzle American speech, and our duty to resist it. Even if it was speech that was unnecessary, ugly and intentionally offensive, a proper symbol she is, just as the martyred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had to be supported by anyone who understands the importance of free speech, whether their cartoons were hateful of not. (Not displaying this understanding: Gary Trudeau and President Obama, among others. Also Hillary Clinton, who, lest we forget, grovelled to Muslims by condemning a tasteless anti-anti-Islamic YouTube video, essentially apologizing publicly for the First Amendment, saying,
“Let me state very clearly — and I hope it is obvious — The United States government had nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. I know it’s hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, your next President of the United States!
8. No, Greta Van Susteran, Geller was not being irresponsible because police would be placing themselves in harm’s way to protect her and her fellow anti-Muslim protesters. “It’s one thing for someone to stand up for the First Amendment and put his own you-know-what on the line, but here, those insisting they were defending the First Amendment were knowingly putting officers’ lives on the line — the police,” said Greta on her Fox show. You mean like King’s Freedom Marchers having to be protected by police? Allowing controversial protests to go on without bloodshed is a well-established job of the police. No, Donald Trump—speaking of yechhh—“provoking and taunting people” is what you call protests by people you don’t agree with. What do you mean, “this country has enough problems right now”? The threat to the First Amendment presented by Islamic crazies and cowardly companies, newspapers and elected officials lacking the courage to oppose them is one of those problems. No, Douglas Athas, the Garland Mayor, you don’t comprehend democracy. “Her actions put my police officers, my citizens and others at risk,” you say? So do you advocate the heckler’s veto on a grand scale, as in “threaten violence against the speaker, and the speaker is obligated to shut up, because it inconveniences the democracy’s government that is obligated to protect our rights” “Her program invited an incendiary reaction,” you say? So did the Lincoln-Douglas debates, gay pride marches, labor rallies in the 1890s, and abolition rallies. Who taught you that speech had a duty to avoid angry dissent? “She picked my community, which does not support in any shape, passion or form, her ideology,” you say? So I guess demonstrations for integrated schools and allowing blacks to vote should have only been allowed in the communities that already supported them, right?
What an idiot.
As I said, it’s amazing that the First Amendment has survived so long, with ignorant, irresponsible dimwits like this guy having the responsibility to protect it.
Let me close by quoting Ken White of Popehat, as passionate a defender of free speech as there is on the web, at the end of his epic takedown of an awful newspaper article using the Garland shooting to argue for new limits on expression. Ken wrote in part…
You can talk to me all day about how Geller is a nasty, scary nutjob, and I’m unlikely to disagree much. But that has no bearing on whether her speech is, or should be, protected. We don’t need a First Amendment to protect the soothing and the sensible….Speech should not be banned because it is “provocative” …Accepting that premise gives every hothead in the world the right to control our speech by indulging their subjective reactions to it. [The authors] are exploring whether drawing Mohammad should be permitted, but it’s only at the whim of violent people that their question is so narrow. Nothing restrains Muslims (or anti-gay protestors, or abortion opponents, or Democrats) from cultivating a much broader list of speech that makes them violently angry. Established First Amendment exceptions are carefully defined and objective, but “provocation” as a measure of censorship cedes all authority to the offended and provoked. Can people who react violently to speech — to cartoons — be expected to be judicious in selecting the topics that will provoke them to aggression? [The authors] are effectively inviting people to be more violent in order to control what speech is permissible.
Addendum: Worth reading are a clear, unequivocal, scholarly debunking of the imaginary “hate speech” exception to free speech by Eugene Volokh in the Washington Post, and a fatuous editorial in the fatally biased New York Times, with a headline that Prof. Volokh explained is a false dichotomy.