Friday, May 8, 2015

The Garland Incident

The Garland, Texas episode has created some strange alignments. To recap, a woman named Pamela Geller who writes at a blog called Atlas Shrugs, and who is inveterately hostile to what she sees as creeping acceptance of Sharia law here in the states, organized an event in Garland in which cartoonists were invited to depict Mohammed. This, of course, is seen as blasphemy by Muslims, and two of them tried to commit mass murder at the site but were quickly dispatched by a police officer before they could do serious harm to anyone.

The controversy that subsequently erupted has been interesting. Generally the liberals (though not all them) are outraged that Geller would organize something so deliberately provocative. What she did, the left says, is hate speech, not free speech, or, at the least, it was gratuitously offensive.

Conservatives (though not all of them) have interpreted Geller's contest as a statement of principle. It was a way of asking whether we will continue to have free speech in this country or whether we will be cowed into dhimmitude by Muslim fanatics.

I agree that the event was offensive and disrespectful to Muslim's beliefs, but the liberals' outrage strikes me as hypocritical. It was liberals, after all, who defended Andres Serrano when he immersed a crucifix in a jar of urine and called it art. It has been political liberals, or progressives as they prefer to call themselves, who have consistently told us that art is supposed to challenge our most cherished beliefs and that disgusting portrayals of Christ should be seen as "opportunities to expand our consciousness." It has also been the liberal-left which has for decades insisted that freedom of speech, if it means anything, must be the freedom to say things that people hate and despise. At least that's the script they've read from as long as the speech in question offended only Christians. Offending Muslims is apparently a different story.

Some progressives amplify their hypocrisy by expressing their distaste for Geller and her anti-Islamic attitudes in terms they would never employ if the person being discussed were hostile to Christianity, like, say, Richard Dawkins.

On the right the officious Bill O'Reilly instructs us that Jesus would never approve of needlessly offending Muslims, and he's probably right, but that's not the point. The question raised by Geller's contest in Garland is not whether she should have done it or not, it's not whether we approve of it or not, the question is whether in a free society anyone should be able to express their criticism of other religions or ideologies in ways that those who bear the brunt of the criticism find objectionable. I think when we start limiting the forms criticism can take we soon wind up prohibiting criticism altogether as Tanya Cohen wishes us to do. When that happens, though, we've lost an essential freedom, and the rest of our freedoms will not long endure once freedom of speech has been abrogated.

In any case, I think Serrano's Piss Christ was far more blasphemous than Geller's cartoons. Christ, after all, is believed by Christians to have been God incarnate. Mohammed was just a human being whom Muslims believe was a prophet. His role in Islam was more like the role of St. Paul in Christianity or Moses in Judaism. Muslims do not think Mohammed was divine. Even so, if people wish to lampoon or degrade those who are objects of devotion for millions of people, that's part of the price of freedom. God, after all, doesn't need us to secure whatever retribution, if any, he might wish to exact for being insulted. Our response should be to display to the world through how we react and how we live how foolish it is to mock what we hold dear.

Nothing is more likely to convince people of the absurdity of a religion than killing those who disagree with it, even if they express their disagreement through mockery and sacrilege. And nothing is more likely to provoke mockery and sacrilege in a free society than telling skeptics that one's own beliefs are so sacred that if you disagree there will be blood.