Saturday, May 9, 2015

Distinctions Without Differences

A friend sent along a link to a piece at Salon about the Pamela Geller cartoon event in Garland, Texas that resulted in two would-be jihadi mass murderers being sent off to Paradise to cavort with their seventy-two virgins. I shared some thoughts on this yesterday and suggested that attempts by liberals to distinguish between "hate" speech and "free" speech bordered on the ridiculous. The article in Salon confirms that judgment.

The author, an academic at Penn State University named Sophia McClennen, constructs an argument so convoluted that only an academic could think it meaningful. McClennen's point seems to be that satire that mocks, ridicules, and demeans religion is good, but using cartoons to do the same thing, as Geller did, is not satire and is therefore not good. This certainly seems to me to be a distinction without a real difference, but maybe you'll discern something in McClennen's piece that makes the distinction sound. She writes:
Rather than attempt to spark a debate about how fear, threats, and aggression can lead to censorship of satirical cartoons, Geller wants to draw out a fierce debate about the evils of the Islamic community. She wants to hype fear, not diminish it.
How, exactly, Geller was "hyping fear" by conducting this contest is not clear. Nor is it clear why the "fear, threats and aggression" employed by Islamists and depicted in satirical treatments of Islam are not themselves real "evils." McClennen's complaint seems to be more with style than with substance. She says of Geller that,
She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denunciations of Islam. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes her work as an example of "hate speech."
But why is satirizing Islam fine and dandy, but the event Geller sponsored consitutes hate speech? McClennen tries to explain:
[T]here is a radical difference between satire and hate speech. While many debated whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons had gone too far, there is little question that [Geller's] “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” had none of the irony, critique, or sarcasm of satire. It was just aggressive. Satire, of course, can get mean too. It can cross the line and punch down when it is supposed to punch up, but it’s [sic] goal is to attack ideas and institutions that deserve critical scrutiny and productive skepticism.
So, it's all a matter of style. Geller lacks the savoir faire, the elan, of the typical liberal satirist, and therefore her work is deemed crude and hateful. McClennen implicitly slaps Geller when she distinguishes Geller's work from genuine satire by claiming that the goal of satire "... is to attack ideas and institutions." Her point here is just silly. Is not Islam a set of ideas? Is not Islam an institution? Is not Geller attacking them just like McClennen's "real" satirists do? Anyway, there's more:
So we should not be surprised that the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo was outraged to hear that Geller organized her event in honor of the magazine. Gerard Biard told The Guardian ”When we make a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, or Jesus, or Moses, we don’t mock or attack people. We mock or attack institutions, representatives, powers, and, again, political powers.” At the heart of satire is the interest in calling attention to accepted truths, to questing [sic] the status quo, and to exposing a lack of critical thinking. Geller’s project demands that her followers work entirely off of fear-based emotions, leaving all reason aside.
Biard's claim in that paragraph is absurd and dishonest. When Charlie Hebdo draws its cartoons of religious figures like Mohammed, or Jesus, or Moses, it's very much engaged in mocking and attacking both them and the people who follow them. Moreover, McClennen's last sentence above is an assertion unsupported by any evidence. She makes it sound as if Geller's entire project, and indeed anyone else who agrees with her (which includes many ex-Muslims), is irrational, but she offers nothing to give the reader any reason to accept her claim. Maybe a talented satirist might undertake to expose Ms McClennen's own lack of critical thinking.
This, of course, may be her greatest insult to the idea of free speech. Free speech is not a license to be stupid; in fact, the very right to free speech depends on the idea that humans are rational subjects. Sure we defend all sorts of speech under the notion of the first amendment, but we would never have even had such an amendment without a firm belief that the rights of the citizen should be grounded in reason and not faith. And there is no greater testament to reason than satire. Satire requires the brain to understand layers of meaning, to unpack irony, and to form independent ideas.
I've tried unpacking the preceding paragraph in my mind, but I'm not sure I've succeeded in deciphering it properly. She seems to be saying that free speech only applies to people of the intellectual stature she herself is blessed with, a stature that enables the proud possessor to comprehend satirical intricacies and sophistication hidden from ordinary minds. She seems to be saying, in other words, that cartoons that lack "layers of meaning" should not be considered free speech.

In any case, we get to what I take to be the crux of McClennen's dyspepsia in the next paragraph. It turns out that her real problem with Geller is that she represents those odious faith-based (read Christian), fear-mongerers (read conservatives), who populate the GOP (read axis of evil):
This is why we need to see Geller as another example of the faith-based, fear-mongering thinking that increasingly defines the GOP, rather than the critical satire of Molly Norris’s cartoon poster or the work of Charlie Hebdo. Clearly Geller seems to be attempting to incite the exact sort of violence that took place in Garland, Texas.... it is worth wondering whether Geller was hoping for violence.
This last sentence is a cheap-shot, another absurdity in an already lengthy list of them McClennen has composed. Would she insinuate that the editors of Charlie Hebdo were hoping for violence? If not, why not? Why ask this about Geller if not to somehow make her seem nefarious? And if that's what McClennen's trying to do, what's the difference between what she's doing to Geller in this essay and what Geller is trying to do to Islam?