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Feb 03 2012

Don’t protest the thing you are protesting

There was an extraordinary discussion on the Rally for Free Expression Facebook page a couple of days ago. The rally, of course, is a project of One Law for All and Maryam. The discussion started when a KCL student asked, “Whose idea was it to use a Jesus and Mo picture to advertise this rally?” and when told it was One Law for All’s, said, “Bad move. Very bad move.”

Uh. Seriously? But that was the whole point – to say that Jesus and Mo is not the kind of thing that should be banned or bullied into silence or concealment.

Maryam replied, sardonically,

I decided to use it. I couldn’t find a photo of us kneeling down in submission and agreeing not to offend but that also showed a demand for free expression. I guess that’s because it doesn’t exist… Jesus and Mo is the point.

Along with a post on the subject.

But another student who thought it was a bad move entered the fray -

It was an idiotic, attention seeking, and potentially dangerous decision. The point of this rally is free speech. The point of this rally is not to inflame. The original publishing of the cartoons was satirical, funny and definitely not an attempt to offend, whereas this is either an attempt to offend or sheer idiocy. If the leaflets get onto campuses then it certainly won’t help Athiest societies’ causes, with the union and with fellow students. There’s no issue with saying, at the rally, “ooh look, this isn’t offensive at all, but some people got offended and tried to stop this being published” and showing the pictures, but distributing the pictures on leaflets in this fashion is, as [student #1] said, a very bad move.

So the rally shouldn’t advertise the rally with the picture that is the very issue the rally is about. So if there’s a violent racist incident and people call a rally to protest racist violence, the rally shouldn’t be advertised with photographs of the violent racist incident? War protests shouldn’t mention The War? Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t mention Wall Street?

It’s mind-boggling.

From Maryam’s post:

Some atheists are not happy with One Law for All’s use of the Jesus and Mo cartoon on leaflets to promote the 11 February Day in defence of free expression. They feel that since the Jesus and Mo cartoons have been deemed offensive, it is best not to use them.

But that’s the whole point isn’t it?

We’re rallying in order to say that the right to offend is part of free expression. No one needs to rally for inoffensive speech, do they?

And if I hear one more hypothetical on why we shouldn’t offend if we can avoid it, I might just scream. The latest one: ‘If a Muslim comes to your house you will not plaster the Jesus and Mo cartoon all over to offend them on purpose now will you?’

No, but I won’t hide them, either!
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32 comments

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  1. 1
    Anthony K

    They should have used something innocuous and inoffensive: “The sky is usually blue! The sky is usually blue!” would have been a good choice.

    After all, there’s no free speech more worth fighting for than the sort that bothers no one at all and is therefore never under threat anyway.

  2. 2
    piero

    It has been quoted an paraphrased endless times: the freedom to speak inoffensively is no freedom at all. When will these people get it into their heads?

  3. 3
    FresnoBob

    It seems like the tactic of ‘shouting it loud enough for long enough’ is working for the muslims.

    It’s now simply a given – even to many free speech loving secularists – that certain things are guaranteed to generate a certain response from muslims.

    Such things must therefore be avoided. Not to avoid such things is therefore seen as a deliberate attempt to inflame.

    Sad.

  4. 4
    eric

    The point of this rally is free speech. The point of this rally is not to inflame. The original publishing of the cartoons was satirical, funny and definitely not an attempt to offend, whereas this is either an attempt to offend or sheer idiocy. If the leaflets get onto campuses then it certainly won’t help Athiest societies’ causes, with the union and with fellow students.

    IOW, “they’re coming for Jesus and Mo. We’d better come for Jesus and Mo too, or they’ll come for us instead.”

    Sheer, unadulterated, self-centered cowardice.

    Letting the bully pick on someone else is not fighting him. Its being him.

  5. 5
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    The original publishing of the cartoons was satirical, funny and definitely not an attempt to offend…

    So, here’s an admission that the cartoons are not intrinsically offensive. They are completely different from, say, some misogynistic or racist joke.

    If the cartoons are essentially harmless, the fault isn’t with the cartoons, or the showing of the cartoons. The fault is with those who choose to take offense*.

    I haven’t even gotten to the whole, “I don’t like what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it. And then I will eviscerate your arguments with the straightedge of rational thought.”

     

    * Phrases like that trip my privilege check alarm. I have analyzed it here, and I have concluded that, since the offense is one of ideology and not genetic heritage nor sexual identity, this isn’t a statement of privilege. If I am wrong, I would like to be corrected.

  6. 6
    Pen

    I’d like to know how you feel about the ongoing campaigns against sexist adverts. Here’s one for London that seems to be fairly recent.

    Do you feel that such ads can be protested, but not banned? Do you agree with defacing them as a means of protest? And if it really is about ‘one law for all’,not just about whether muslims have to put with being offended, wouldn’t it be better for Maryam to advertise it using several images that offend a variety of parties?

  7. 7
    Worldtraveller

    ‘If a Muslim comes to your house you will not plaster the Jesus and Mo cartoon all over to offend them on purpose now will you?’

    …actually, I might.

    I’m fun like that. =)

  8. 8
    Sigmund

    I think it’s time we made it clear that we don’t care what the accomodationist/appeaser wing of atheism thinks. They’d sooner stand aside and helpfully point their fingers at us rather than stand with us against religious fascism.
    As Churchill said, “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

  9. 9
    Jeff

    If Mohammed came to my house I’d show him the cartoon. Then the door. But seriously, mafias are scary and since your own government is not willing to be of any help (I’m in the USA, no superiority intended, believe me), it’s understandable people are feaking out. Mafias and clans are scary and the larger the scarier. And religion is the smokescreen. It’s about power and violence and this is all at the beginning of what is going to end very badly because it will not be dealt with now.
    Sorry to be a downer.

  10. 10
    baal

    I’m getting hung up on the utter inoffensiveness of Jesus & Mo.

    If the hissy-fit was being thrown about 50 naked atheists urinating on a pile of Korans, I might see why they are upset.

    It reminds me of the censorship that has single words bleeped from songs on the radio but it’s not a violation of the rules to play Tool’s ‘Stinkfist’, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ or Billy Squire’s ‘Stroke’ (all good songs mind you).

  11. 11
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    And if it really is about ‘one law for all’,not just about whether muslims have to put with being offended, wouldn’t it be better for Maryam to advertise it using several images that offend a variety of parties?

    Why drag in random things because they might offend someone when this is exactly about the LSESU and the Ahmadiyyah student group (really more about the former, since they are wrongly exercising power).
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/maryamnamazie/2012/01/31/jesus-mo-is-point/

    One Law For All is its own entity, not a theme, and they do all sorts of stuff all the time. http://www.onelawforall.org.uk/

  12. 12
    'Tis Himself

    It was an idiotic, attention seeking, and potentially dangerous decision. The point of this rally is free speech. The point of this rally is not to inflame.

    Quel horror!* The accommodationists are up in arms about people using free speech to speak freely. There really should be a law about that, or maybe a rule, or just a guiding nudge, or at the very least an accommodationist shaking hir finger at those rude people who want to express themselves without regard for whoever might be offended.

    *That’s foreign for “gosh oh golly gee willickers!”

  13. 13
    eric

    Pen @6:

    Do you agree with defacing them as a means of protest?

    Isn’t that hypocritical? You can’t very well remove someone else’s speech from the public sphere while simultaneously proclaiming how much you support free speech.

    If you think the ads are sexist, Pen, you should still consider taking the Voltaire approach. I.e., disagree with what they say, but defend their right to say it.

    And if it really is about ‘one law for all’,not just about whether muslims have to put with being offended, wouldn’t it be better for Maryam to advertise it using several images that offend a variety of parties?

    You are going to have to walk me through your logic here, because I don’t get what that accomplishes. Putting up images that no one has demanded be removed misses the point of the protest, which is that the demand to remove this image is censorship and wrong.

    Now if you know of some image that a Christian or Hindu or atheist or Labor or Tory or any other UCL group is asking be removed from another club’s web site, by all means, tell us about it. I think it would be quite appropriate to list other such ‘banned images’ in the ad.

  14. 14
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Pen:

    I’d like to know how you feel about the ongoing campaigns against sexist adverts.

    While there is a distinct difference between offending an ideology and offending a person, in my experience (which is not data), most rational folks I know wouldn’t try to stifle the free speech. They’d protest, which is perfectly within their rights. They’d boycott, also well within their rights. But they certainly wouldn’t try to get an official body to outlaw that particular message.

    And as eric points out, defacing the images for political reasons is infringing their right to free speech — though it is also simultaneously exercising your own right to free speech. (Defacing a sign for humor is another thing entirely.)

    There’s a huge fucking difference between a person defacing a sign, and an official body suppressing free speech using political power.

    So, false equivalence is false.

  15. 15
    Sigmund

    “wouldn’t it be better for Maryam to advertise it using several images that offend a variety of parties?”

    You mean by using a webcomic that ridicules lots of religions rather than one?
    Isn’t that pretty much exactly what ‘Jesus and Mo’ is? (I mean, doesn’t the title give it away? – If it just ridiculed Islam it would have a different name – it would be called “Mo”)

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Well you see the Jesus being teased in Jesus and Mo is not the Jesus of Christianity but rather the Jesus of Islam. Different fella altogether.

    :b

  17. 17
    A-Rob

    This “I’m all for free speech as long as it doesn’t offend” nonsense is really getting out of hand. I think a good first step is getting those who proffer such twaddle to admit their true motivation: they’re worried about the possibility of a violent response, not in rhetorical form either. We should further demand that they actually name the particular faith, too: they’re afraid that not only will some Muslims be offended, but they’re worried that some of those Muslims will actually do something violent. The Danish cartoon controversy demonstrated that this fear isn’t without precedent, but it also demonstrates the extent to which organizations and people will go to not admit those fears, but instead mask them within this intellectually bankrupt idea that as atheists and secularists we can only point out the absurdities of those faiths whose members we think won’t have a violent reaction to our criticism. That is to say, we’re all for free speech as long as we know in advance that your members won’t harm us physically. I notice that no one was was worried about offending the first party of the Jesus and Mo cartoon, namely the followers of Jesus. There are undoubtedy Christians who are deeply offended by these cartoons and our criticism of their bizarre faith, but their hurt feelings don’t force us into self-censorship because we know that the worst they’ll do is offer up a strongly, perhaps badly, worded letter of “offense,” and the possibly of a counter-protest rally of their own with condemnations that we’re all going to hell–a place that doesn’t exist in my mind, so no worries there–and more of the same drivel, touted as “proof” that their faith is indeed correct. When it comes to Islam, however, all bets are off, these previously stoic defenders of reason then resort to rationalizations like the sort we just read in the article. If we at least get them to admit they’re afraid and be honest, then we can have a dialogue about that: why is it OK to criticize those whom we think won’t react with violence? At least from this standpoint, we can dispense with the truly absurd rationalizations, and have a proper dialogue about what to do and how to criticize a group that may or may not react violently. Personally, I think we treat them as any other group: I support their right to believe what they want, express their “offense” whenever they want, so long as my tax money doesn’t go to pay for it, and I maintain the right to mock and ridicule their faith, and, as has been said better than I will now: both of our right to wave our fists in the air in protest end at each other’s noses.

    Thanks, Ophelia, for posting this article. Good work.

    Cheers!

  18. 18
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I think they need to add profanity to their posters, so all the weak-willed folks who think that words have magical properties when someone called them “dirty” will also be offended.

    Also, Mohammed is fucking clown shoes.

  19. 19
    Sastra

    At the Atheist Alliance International convention in Montreal a couple years ago the first night welcome party was coupled with a celebration of Blasphemy Day. The walls were covered with entries for the poster/cartoon contest.

    If some of the KCL students think the ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon is an attempt to inflame or offend, well then they just don’t know what a real attempt to inflame or offend looks like. Some of the submissions were … pretty rough. Like, say, Mohammed-sodomizing-a-pig rough, as a possible example. But they were all appreciated — and addressed the issue.

    So perhaps someone could sooth the hurt feelings or calm the deep concerns by pointing out that it could have been worse. And then there would be whinging about why oh why couldn’t we just have used something mainstream and friendly like ‘Jesus and Mo?’

    (By curious coincidence, the AAI’s opening get-together was held in a room directly across from a room reserved for the meeting of some group having something or other to do with Islam. Lots of robes and veils. More than a few atheists wondered what would happen if we invited them over for drinks.)

  20. 20
    Paul W.

    Brownian:

    They should have used something innocuous and inoffensive: “The sky is usually blue! The sky is usually blue!” would have been a good choice.

    You’re not very familiar with the situation on the ground there, are you?

    Darned cultural imperialists, missing the shades of grey…

  21. 21
    Pen

    Eric @13

    Generally Eric, I think you’re confusing questions with rhetorical statements. I am genuinely asking what other people think about this issue, and not making any statements about how I personally respond to sexist ads (usually, I don’t).

    Now if you know of some image that a Christian or Hindu or atheist or Labor or Tory or any other UCL group is asking be removed from another club’s web site, by all means, tell us about it.

    One of the problems with your requirement is that it’s specific to images. Islam has particular prohibitions on religious imagery that the other cultures you mention don’t share. We have taboos on certain kinds of sexual and violent imagery instead, and particularly holocaust imagery. I raised the question of sexist ads because they’re among the most prominent. I just did a quick extra search to see what examples of image protesting I could come up with, and was quite surprised to find two examples in quick succession of Europeans protesting Holocaust/Nazi imagery abroad 1, 2 I think both cases are quite interesting in that the people concerned really don’t understand why Europeans find Holocaust imagery so offensive, any more than we really understand what’s wrong with drawing Mo. In that context, it’s interesting to see how we feel about their reactions to complaints.

    Now before you start on me, I agree that we probably should’t legally censor Holocaust imagery, and I have grave misgivings about the legal Holocaust censorship that’s building up. I also find Holocaust imagery very offensive, and frankly, I would find it even more offensive if shoved in my face by people who are trying to make a point about free speech. But I do think it could be brought up in a context of how people in general should respond to imagery they find offensive (and how the people displaying the offending imagery could – not must – respond).

  22. 22
    A-Rob

    Pen@21

    I generally agree, and I see where you’re going but…

    I think the issue in the broader context is whether or not people who are “offended” by the imagery you mentioned, i.e., Holocaust/Sexist etc., will voice their displeasure with violence rather than meet distasteful imagery and/or words with more words in opposition. This is the real issue. It’s not that Islam is just sensitive to representations of its Prophet. The issue is that their faith says it’s so, and they demand that everyone else comply, too. This is a step too far for me, and it needs to be met head on. Islam, like any religion, is like an exclusive club: it has rules, codes of conduct, dress/uniforms, whatever you want to call it, but it’s a choice, and it’s theirs, not mine. If I’m not a member of your club, not only should I not have to pay memberships fees (i.e., taxes to support it), but I shouldn’t have to abide by any of its rules either. Cartooning of the Prophet is offensive to Muslims, and I fully support their right to express how offending those images are, and I probably wouldn’t choose to poster my house with cartoons of the prophet if I have my Muslim neighbours over for dinner because it’s my choice, and I choose to have a pleasant evening. The very moment my not “postering” (probably not a word) my house with offensive material becomes not my choice through intimidation or some proposed censorship law, the gloves come off and the posters go up. I don’t need to empathize with Muslims on just how offensive they feel cartoons of the Prophet are by thinking of images that I might find equally offensive. I’m not saying “don’t shove your religious nonsense in my face because I’ll threaten you with violence.” Religion offends me, period, but I voice that offense through my right of free expression, and not through physical intimidation, and I say bring it on, and let their argument for an invisible sky fairy withstand actual argument, physical reality, scientific inquiry. It’s enough that I support their right to express that offense, and would join any march, or oppose any law that denied Muslims the right to say how offensive they thought these images were/are; however, the moment they make their “offense” compulsory, and demand respect, through law or intimidation, they lose my sympathy. Unfortunately, some people, as in the original post, believe that because Muslims have a “special” sensitivity, so we should curb our rights, just a little. I say no.

  23. 23
    evilDoug

    bear with me,

    A cartoon:
    Panel 1: “Hi, I’m Jesus”
    Panel 2: “And I’m Mo”
    Panel 3: (Jesus sitting on a stool; Mo sitting on a stool beside Jesus, and holding a guitar)
    Together: “And together we’re…Jesus and Mo”
    Out-of-frame person: “What are you going to do for us tonight, Jesus and Mo?”
    Panel 4: Jesus: “Tonight we are going to employ a combination of personal abuse, bogus accusations of racism, and threats of violence, both veiled and explicit”
    Out-of-frame person: “Why?”
    Mo: “To promote peace, tolerance and respect.”

    Now, how does that stack up in terms of “offensiveness” with the actual J and M cartoon? Any different? Why?
    I am curious to know how the nay-sayers would answer, and how Islamists would answer.

  24. 24
    eric

    Pen @21: One of the problems with your requirement is that it’s specific to images. Islam has particular prohibitions on religious imagery that the other cultures you mention don’t share.

    It wasn’t meant to be. I said images because an image is what the student group wants to ban. But if you know of any books, poetry, songs, etc.. that one of the student groups at the same school insists be banned, let us know. I don’t speak for anyone but myself, but I think it would be fine to include such things in the protest.

    Second, you do understand that one religions’ prohibitions don’t apply to people of other faiths, right? If Muslims are free to ignore Hinduism’s proscription on eating beef, surely you must recognize that Christians (and atheists, etc…) are free to ignore Islam’s proscription on making images of the prophet.

  25. 25
    Pen

    A-rob @22

    I generally agree, and I see where you’re going but…

    I’m not sure I knew where I was going myself, but I’m coming round to the view that we should make it clear we can model the behaviour we’re advocating with reference to things we find highly offensive. Obviously, that’s not a problem for you, and I hope it isn’t one for me either.

    Eric @24

    But if you know of any books, poetry, songs, etc.. that one of the student groups at the same school insists be banned, let us know.

    Saying the same thing as above in a different way, what I’m really looking for is books, etc.. that a student group found offensive enough to protest without insisting on a ban – so they can be used as examples and models of the behaviour we’re advocating. And if LSE can’t produce any, I’m willing to spread the net a bit wider.

    How about this one from Oxford. I’m not quite sure how it ended. It does say

    Two years ago it (the Conservative Association) was temporarily banned from using Oxford University in its title after members were urged to compete to see who could tell the most offensive racist joke

    so it may not be the example I’m looking for.

  26. 26
    A-Rob

    Pen@25

    I’m not sure I knew where I was going myself

    I thought, and I may have been mistaken, that you were advocated trying to understand Muslim offense to such imagery using analogously offensive material that someone like I would find offensive, and you offered up Holocaust imagery as an exemplar. If that is correct, then all I was suggesting is that understanding their “offense” is surplus to requirement for me personally. It’s a noble goal and worth exploring academically, but the issue at hand is why people whom we generally agree with on issues of freedom of speech, secular values, etc., tend to twist themselves into pretzels intellectually when confronted by one faith in particular, Islam. I’d prefer they just admit to being scared rather than trying to shoehorn some rationalization about freedom to criticize all faiths except where there’s a real or even perceived threat of violence.

    but I’m coming round to the view that we should make it clear we can model the behaviour we’re advocating with reference to things we find highly offensive. Obviously, that’s not a problem for you, and I hope it isn’t one for me either.

    I think that’s an excellent idea. I have no examples off the top of my head, and that’s probably part of the problem you’re alluding to: we tend to live in a society where everyone who becomes offended immediately advocates the offensive materials’ banishment from the planet rather than simply calling out the offensive material for what it is. For the record, I can’t think of a single word, phrase, or utterance that I’d advocate banning regardless of how offensive I found it. I often wish that such words or people speaking them didn’t exist or that I didn’t have to hear them (too often it seems these days), but I wouldn’t deny them the right to say them, particularly because it gives me, you, and the rest of society the opportunity to discredit them, and more importantly, it reminds me, and will remind further generations, the important principles behind the arguments for any given proposition. I like to think that’s how we make progress.

    what I’m really looking for is books, etc.. that a student group found offensive enough to protest without insisting on a ban – so they can be used as examples and models of the behaviour we’re advocating. And if LSE can’t produce any, I’m willing to spread the net a bit wider.

    If I find anything I’ll post it. I hope you do find something because it’d be great to see. I’d hate to think that this thread is the only living example of people who criticize without calling for banishment or violent reprisals.

  27. 27
    'Tis Himself

    Islam has particular prohibitions on religious imagery that the other cultures you mention don’t share.

    Muslims and Jews have a prohibition against eating pork. Why don’t we see hordes of Sunnis and Hadism demanding the rest of us not eat ham sandwiches?

  28. 28
    eric

    Pen @25:

    I’m coming round to the view that we should make it clear we can model the behaviour we’re advocating with reference to things we find highly offensive.

    Well, see my reference to Voltaire above. Disagree with what they say, but fight for their right to say it. That would be the model for my behiavior, and how I would hope other people would act.

    Saying the same thing as above in a different way, what I’m really looking for is books, etc.. that a student group found offensive enough to protest without insisting on a ban

    What purpose would that serve? The Atheist group is protesting the ban. Miryam and her group are protesting the ban. It is censorship that is the main issue here.

    If the muslim group had protested but not demanded the comic’s removal, I would’ve said “more power to them.” If the student union had put out a public announcement that they thought the atheist group’s choice was reprehensible, offensive, etc… but the student union defended their right to use it, I would’ve said “by all means, tell us your opinion.”

    You seem to be missing the point and the problem of this issue. The islamic group and the student union are trying to repress this comic. Not merely tell the world they find it offensive. It is the repression that is the issue.

  29. 29
    ttch

    nigelTheBold, Abbot of the Hoppist Monks @5 wrote:

    So, here’s an admission that the cartoons are not intrinsically offensive. They are completely different from, say, some misogynistic or racist joke.

    If the cartoons are essentially harmless, the fault isn’t with the cartoons, or the showing of the cartoons. The fault is with those who choose to take offense*.

    * Phrases like that trip my privilege check alarm. I have analyzed it here, and I have concluded that, since the offense is one of ideology and not genetic heritage nor sexual identity, this isn’t a statement of privilege. If I am wrong, I would like to be corrected.

    Say someone took a poll of British Muslims and they ranked their identity as Muslims as more important to them than their race/ethnicity or sexual identity, would that affect your opinion? If they ranked their identity as adherents of Islam above all other aspects of their identity combined?

    Do they get to choose their identity or do we do the choosing for them?

  30. 30
    Theo Bromine

    ttch: Not sure what point you are making about “identity”.

    I have a small sticker on the front door of my house (left over from Blasphemy Day a few years ago), which says: “People have rights, ideas do not.”

    If there are people for whom their Muslim identity is more important to them than anything else in the universe, then it is no surprise that they would be personally offended by what they perceive as an insult to Islam. No one is challenging the fact that Muslims find the posting of the Jesus and Mo comic to cause offense. They have every right to be offended. They can engage in as much public argument, ranting, invective, rude comics, etc as they want to in response. But they do not have a right to demand that they be protected from being offended.

  31. 31
    John Horstman

    It’s because SHUT UP! And that’s not an inconsistent position to take because SHUT UP! So, you see, everything would be great if you just SHUT UP!

  32. 32
    Carlitos@LX

    evilDoug@23

    Help! Help! I’m being oppressed offended!

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