In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum in New York opened an exhibit called ‘Sensation.’ One piece included in the exhibit was a painting called The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili of Manchester, England.
Ofili’s piece—painted partially with elephant dung—offended millions of Christians worldwide and prompted then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to withhold city funding from the museum. While Giuliani may have been overreacting, I have no problem with city officials deciding not to use taxpayers’ money to fund art that offends a sizable portion of the population. But, as long as I don’t have to pay for it, I have no problem with Ofili making the piece or the Brooklyn Museum displaying it.
It’s called free speech. You see, I have the maturity to accept forms of expression that offend me. Being offended now and then (or even all the time) is a small price to pay for the right to say what we believe, however unpopular, without fear that somebody will imprison or kill us for it.
And I have news for you. Everything offends somebody.
Many of the millions of Christians who were offended by Ofili’s “art” are equally offended—sometimes more so—by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson ignorantly pontificating in their name. Many liberals get offended when I say I believe aborting a fetus is a demented form of infanticide. Many conservatives get offended when I say that President Bush sounds dumb when he talks.
KKK marches offend most everybody, but did it ever occur to you that Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech probably offended members of the KKK?
That doesn’t bother me—I figure anybody who’s offending the KKK is doing something right—but my point is that the freedom of speech does not guarantee a freedom from offense. On the contrary, the freedom of speech was designed to make offense possible! No matter how unorthodox or insightful, ignorant or thoughtful, annoying or agreeable, everybody has the right to put their thoughts into the public square—and everybody else can choose whether they want to listen.
The beauty of the freedom of speech is that it’s a two-way street—for every speech you don’t like, you have the right to make a counterpoint with your own speech. The KKK has the right to march, but rational citizens have a right to stand on the sidewalk and call them idiots. Ofili has the right to cover the Virgin Mary in dung, and Christians have the right to say that Ofili’s “art” is distasteful and go to other museums. The best way to fight “offensive” speech is to rationally speak the opposing view and let the listeners come to their own conclusions.
But rationality seems to be in short supply these days.
In September 2005, roughly six years after the Brooklyn Museum offended Christians, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten touched off a religious firestorm of its own. The paper asked a number of cartoonists to draw depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, founder of Islam, and published twelve of them. Many of the cartoons insinuated that Islam was a violent religion—the most memorable of which showing Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban.
Are the cartoons offensive? Some of them, yes. Just like the Virgin Mary in elephant dung is offensive. Just like the KKK’s racist bigotry is offensive. Just like everything else is offensive to somebody.
But where a rational counter-argument would have had much of the western world sympathizing with Muslims worldwide, the ongoing, widespread, violent reaction to the cartoons baffles and angers many of us. They are cartoons, and they are no more offensive than speech directed at other religions and groups on a daily basis in free societies. Ofili’s elephant dung being an obvious, memorable example.
One of the things I hate is when people play into stereotypes, because playing into a stereotype reinforces it. When a football player flunks Math 101, it reinforces the stereotype that football players are stupid—making it harder for a smart football player to get ahead academically. When a black kid robs a gas station, it reinforces the stereotype that black kids are thugs—making it harder for intelligent African Americans to overcome racism and succeed. When a prominent Christian commentator says that the 9/11/2001 attacks were God’s punishment for our country being too friendly to gays, it reinforces the stereotype that Christians are close-minded homophobes—making it harder for many to take Christianity seriously.
And when rioting Muslims burn down Danish embassies over a few offensive cartoons, it reinforces the stereotype that Islam is a violent faith—the very stereotype expressed in some of the cartoons.
I think a big part of the problem is a lack of experience with free speech. Sadly, the majority of Muslims today live under ideologically-homogeneous totalitarian regimes. To them, the idea of everybody being able to say whatever they like—even if it blasphemes their most cherished religious figures and symbols—is foreign. Worse, those totalitarian regimes are taking advantage of their citizens’ lack of education and are using the cartoons as a tool to keep people riled up against us western ‘infidels’—and thereby not riled-up against their home-grown oppressors. This tried-and-true technique has been used for decades with great success, and the drummed-up cartoon controversy is evidence that it’s still working today.
So I’d like to make a friendly recommendation to Muslims around the world: Make your counter arguments (some clever cartoons picking on Denmark would be nice) and then let it go. With the widespread home-grown repression in the middle-east and occasional examples of real western mistreatment (like the French headscarf ban), I think there are much more important things to protest and riot about.