February 28, 2006

Stop the sophistry: Quit justifying offensive speech with ignorance

Free speech has gotten a good deal of press in the last week, and none of it good. I want to try and put at least one thing in perspective: Islamophobia is alive and well despite all the denials. First, look at the tasteless joke: “Mo’ Mohammed, Mo’ Problems.” Imagine I say to you, “Watch me fart in front of grandma!” I might extract a chuckle based on the absurdity and shock value of the “joke.” But what makes this joke tasteless is that the amount of insight required to get it is akin to that of an ill-mannered grade-schooler. It is besides the fact that we may have to excuse this immaturity on the basis that “I really was not thinking when I made that joke.” You pay big money to think at this institution. And what if Johnny makes the joke first? As big a fan of Jon Stewart as I am, I think taking the phrase out of context and inflating it to become the core of your “political” message or to “lighten things up” is a rather dense mistake.

When this story broke, a student told the Maroon, “I’m worried about the thought policing…here.” If he would remember his Orwell, though, the thought police referred to the accusation that political entities are trying to alter the inner-consciousness of individuals by providing outward social opportunities to gauge the individual’s commitment to a particular cause. Transgressions are then tallied via extensive monitoring to warn against an inner-discord with the status-quo. This Orwellian account is far different from the University’s punishing of an offensive remark. Unless you can make an argument that the joke somehow was not offensive, then you’d have to account for exactly how the University’s response is actually more offensive.

If you feel that the Muhammad cartoons are not offensive, look at a parallel cartoon: the Virgin Mary walking into Planned Parenthood or asking the Holy Ghost to wear a condom. Again, you might chuckle, but you do recognize its bad taste. Such a cartoon uses for its humor something that is in direct opposition to a religious belief. To the faithful Muslim, “Mo’ Mohammed” does not equate to “Mo’ Problems.” In fact, the more the faithful Muslim is exposed to and learns from his or her Prophet, the richer life becomes. This is a theological fact. Since the Koran and the Hadith are instruments of understanding and sermons rich with divine inspiration, there can be no more correct religious stance than to be fully acquainted with one’s faith.

The other frequent response is that Christians suffer the same sarcasm. This is not quite true, I have never heard the Mary joke told, and I regret having told it. Despite the fact that Christianity has suffered the constant abuse of non-believers who somehow find it their duties to spur others to non-belief and that Judiasm has suffered 2,000 years of expulsions and massacres, it is not OK to prod at the new kid in class, even if it is “merely a joke.” Muslim society is already facing friction with the West—which is not the fault of the cultures of Islam. Teresa Mia Bejan writes in “Muslims Are Not Exempt from Toleration,” (2/23/06) with implicit racism, “If Muslims want to be welcomed as ‘citizens of the West’…they must realize that, although they have a right to be offended by what they perceive as an insult to their religion, newspapers have a corresponding right to publish the perceived insults.”

Perceived? At least two of the images are blasphemy in the most literal sense! What is more, to argue that the West is some kind of club to which Muslims have to conform sounds like, “I have nothing against black people, but they have to learn to lighten up if they want to golf on this estate.” Ouch! Somehow Bejan embeds the specter of this comment among images of violence that depict a savage Muslim population opposed to an enlightened West and doesn’t see that as racist. Perhaps a non-Muslim would live a richer life if he’d take the time to know more of the most influential historical person since Jesus. We should not be dilettantes of reason and make outrageous political statements based on a half-baked perception of a real social problem: Islamophobia. Come on now, “Mo’ Mohammed, Mo’ problems”? Nobody is remotely amused.