In perhaps the most sobering and wise bit of an otherwise ridiculously fantastical movie, Peter Parker’s uncle tells his superhero nephew, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Uncle Ben goes on to become a living testament to how futile level-headed reason is by getting shot by a trigger-happy carjacker. Spiderman, by the way. The movie is Spiderman.
This Marvel-ous (sorry) anecdote perfectly illustrates the primary facets of this article: how you choose to use the power you have, and how you can’t expect everyone to act rationally, regardless of your world view. In a perfect world, people with power would live out Uncle Ben’s proverb, living in a way that reflects the responsibility accompanying their power; however, this is not a perfect world. People act in such a way that defies reason every day, simply because they can. The defining aspect of human existence is choice, recognizing we are free to choose and do as we please. As your power and influence grows, the choices you make and the actions stemming from them affect more people; therefore, I believe it is pretty agreeable to say that you should take more care in your decisions if they are going to have a greater and broader impact. Hence Uncle Ben’s final words to Peter. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should—the ability to distinguish between what we can and should do is the basic moral premise upon which free societies exist.
The thing is, today’s fast-paced world grants everyone more “power” than ever before. The internet gives everyone a voice that reaches all around the globe, and (along with 24-hour news) lets everyone know what is happening everywhere, almost instantaneously. On May 3rd, a cartoon contest for the best drawing of the Prophet Mohammed was held in Garland, Texas. Thanks to the ease and speed with which news spreads, gone are the days where word of this event would have been merely a local spectacle. The internet allowed this to garner huge publicity (and notoriety). Predictably, some people were not happy about this. Also somewhat predictably, two Muslim extremists showed up with guns and started firing on the building. They hit nobody, but were themselves killed by law enforcement. Their attack wasn’t a huge success, but I suppose there are those virgins to look forward to.
After the attack—this is the most predictable bit of all—the media got super excited about this, at long last offered a reason to drag Islam through the mud again. As though hitting replay from the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris a few months ago, people are again being treated to shouting arguments about Freedom of Speech vs. Intolerance vs. Islamaphobia vs. This Is Obama’s Fault Somehow, I’m Sure Of It. The only good that could possibly come of this is that Todd Starnes gets so worked up that his head literally explodes on Hannity, ridding us of Todd forever and hopefully leading to Hannity’s retirement due to PTSD.
As a brief aside, I would like to discuss the media (particularly the conservative media). Freedom of Speech is a big part of this argument, as it rightly should be. You have the right to draw Mohammed however you like, and many conservatives will remind you of that in very loud voices on FOX news and at awkward holiday family get-togethers. Now, I feel safe in assuming many who are reading this are Christian, so I ask you: Google “offensive Jesus art” and see how it makes you feel to have Christ portrayed in whatever way you find. I’m guessing most of you won’t do it, and those who do won’t like it. But come on, shake it off—the artist was merely exercising their freedom of speech, right?
The thing is, so many people don’t see it this way when they’re the ones whose religious symbol is targeted. Any time someone says or writes or draws something lewd about Christianity, conservatives are up in arms about the “deterioration of Judeo-Christian morals in America,” and bring up the fabricated “War on Christianity” in our nation. I don’t want to get into this too much, because it’s somewhat beyond the scope of my point, but I think the double-standard deserves mentioning, as it brings to light how conservative Christians react when they are on the receiving end of someone else’s offensive freedom of speech.
Now back to the matter at hand. Here is what I know about the art on display at the show in Garland, TX. Some of it was objectively offensive to Mohammed, in that it portrayed the prophet in a less-than-good light. For example, one of the pieces showed the prophet with an intense stare on his face and a beard that only Medusa would find becoming, as snakes sprouted from the hair on his his cheeks. On the other hand, all of it was offensive to Islam, as it is considered blasphemy to portray Mohammed in any way. From what I understand, that is a directive of the prophet himself. He believed that any physical representations of himself would idolize him and could lead people to worship him, and worship should only be directed to God. Take note, Catholics.
So, is it within the bounds of free speech to depict the Prophet Mohammed however you wish? Certainly. You can draw him in a garden preaching to hundreds of followers if you want. You can even draw him in ass-less chaps and a Nickelback hat on his head, dancing through San Francisco at a gay pride rally. All of this is legal in the US, and to my knowledge, in all of the western world. Even if something is offensive, you have a right to say it or write it or draw it. It’s also legal to be in the KKK, and take your robes and hood to a dry cleaner owned by a black family (NSFW). However, just because it’s legal doesn’t mean people are going to be happy about it.
What people willingly forget is that freedom of speech works both ways. Just as Westboro Baptists have a right to scream at gays that their lifestyle is immoral and they’re going to Hell, the rest of us have a right to tell them back that they’re backwards idiots who will probably spend an eternity in purgatory’s train station, since neither God nor Satan wants them in their kingdoms. I can just imagine them picketing the Pearly Gates, claiming that God isn’t Christian enough. Anyway…
The main point, though, goes back to Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Just because you have the ability to do something doesn’t, ever, mean that you should do it. I could get drunk and drive right now. I can do that. Should I? No. It’s dangerous and against the law, and there are huge potential consequences. I could get pulled over and get a DWI. I could wreck and hurt myself. I could hit someone and kill them. My parents could find out and be disappointed in me, which is honestly one of the worst non-death-involving outcomes.
Or I could have a nice loopy drive around I-820 wearing ass-less chaps and a Nickelback hat (“What is it with this guy and those clothes?” -You), get home safe and sleep it off. All of those scenarios are very real. There could be a consequence as large as life in prison or death, or nothing could happen at all. The point is, I have the choice. Thankfully, I use rational thinking to choose not to drink and drive. For those of you who think that this doesn’t exactly parallel with drawing offensive portraits of Mohammed, bear with me.
While I am a reasonable person who chooses not to drink and drive, that doesn’t wholly remove me from the risks of drunk driving. When I go out for a drive, I pass hundreds if not thousands of other drivers, all of whom have the same choice as I do. I implicitly rely on them having made the same decision as me, to not drink and drive, while they rely on me having done the same. The fact is, though, that there are people out there who are not as rational, be it because they have a blatant disregard for public safety, or because they were so inebriated they were beyond the ability to make the sound rational choice to not drive that they normally would have. Every time you get on the road, your life is in the hands of everyone else out there just as much as it is in your own.
Now let’s tie it together. When you draw offensive pictures of Islam’s prophet, you should do so knowing that you are offending an entire religion of people. Once you put that art in a public forum, your role in the ensuing chain of events is done. It is out there for people to see and be offended by. At this point, all you can do is implicitly rely on them to react to it in a reasonable manner, no matter their feelings. The entire notion of justice is based upon the premise that the punishment should fit the crime. When you do something wrong, your punishment should be in proportion to your crime. It’s basically the moral normative equivalent of Newton’s Third Law. In the case of this artwork, the backlash would hopefully be limited to angry shouts or emails, organized protest, etc.
So what can you do when you’re suddenly faced with an irrational response? This is what you, in the shoes of the artist, must consider, just as when you go out on the road you must always be aware that you may be in the midst of someone who made the irrational choice to drive drunk. These artists have to understand that there is a margin of irrational people out there who are not content with a level-headed and proportionate reaction.
On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart has many times said that artwork, no matter how offensive, does not merit bullets in response, and he is absolutely right. But this argument is only sound to rational ears. In the context of his show, he is preaching to the choir; to a radical Muslim who is hell-bent on destroying anything against his religion, however, those words are lost in the wind.
Yes, of course you have a legal right to draw that. But you have to exist in reality, and in reality, your legal rights don’t matter to crazy extremists with guns. Everyone is absolutely correct to be appalled at the shootings in Garland and Paris, because they are awful crimes committed by awful people; but nobody should ever be shocked by it. This is not victim blaming—far from it. This is reality. When faced with irrational reactions by irrational people, you have to be aware of the potential consequences of what you do.
Not drawing Mohammed in an offensive manner because you’re afraid of crazy assholes is not a blow for Freedom of Speech. It’s self-preserving common sense.