There was a panel on free speech and satire in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders at the University of Minnesota on January 29th. There was also, we now learn from Inside Higher Ed, a debate on the debate later on.
When Muslim students complained about posters that promoted the event, the university investigated their concerns and issued a report that questioned the judgment of those who signed off on the posters. And the university sent an email that some interpreted as an order to remove the posters, although the university disputes this.
The discussion raises questions about how colleges and universities should balance their commitments to academic freedom and free speech with the cultural sensitivities of students and others involved in campus life. And like the recent PEN award protests over a planned tribute to Charlie Hebdo, it’s also a reminder of how controversial the magazine and what it stands for remain, and how the attack continues to reverberate among thinkers across continents.
Or it’s a reminder of what an artificial and absurd pseudo-controversy there is over Charlie Hebdo and how eager some benighted people are to create controversy where no controversy should be.
Hoping to provide a space for dialogue, by the end of the month several professors had organized a panel called “Can One Laugh at Everything? Satire and Free Speech After Charlie.”
The panel included Sack, who reflected on being a cartoonist, and several Minnesota professors. Anthony Winer, a professor of law, offered a comparative study of free speech laws. Jane E. Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law and director of the Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, delivered a talk called, “As Welcome as a Bee Sting: Why We Must Protect ‘Outrageous’ Speech,” while William Beeman, professor and chair of anthropology, talked about figurative representations in the Islamic tradition — including lesser-known historical depictions of Muhammad. Most observant Muslims now consider any kind of physical representation of Muhammad off-limits.
Off-limits where? To whom? According to whom? When? Why?
Observant Muslims can go right ahead and consider any kind of physical representation of Muhammad off-limits to themselves, if they want to, but they do not have the right to impose that silly and childish rule on anyone else. People can decide to swear off dancing if they want to, but they can’t decide that for the rest of us. People can take vows of celibacy if they like, but they can’t take vows of celibacy for other people.
The organizers advertised the panel with a flyer featuring the cover of the Charlie Hebdo edition published immediately after the terrorist attack. In contrast to the magazine’s earlier, at times vulgar depictions of the prophet, the cover shows a bearded man with a turban — almost certainly intended to be but not explicitly labeled as Muhammad — shedding a single tear. The headline is “Tout est pardonné,” or “All is forgiven,” and the man is holding a sign that says, “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I Am Charlie,” a popular pro-magazine protest phrase following the attack. Over the image, the organizers put a red “censored” stamp-like image, which did not originally appear on the Charlie Hebdo cover.
They discussed the possible negative impact of publishing a picture of Muhammad on the flyer, given the prohibition against physical representations. But the organizers decided that doing so was appropriate for the event on free speech, according to a university account, and might also lead to more Muslim students attending. The flyer was published on the various unit sponsors’ websites and elsewhere on campus.
I’m sorry to hear they even discussed it. I’m sorry Colleen Flaherty wrote “given the prohibition against physical representations” without questioning it. I’m sorry this is any kind of issue at all.
Kirtley, the media law scholar, described the event as standing room only, with “lively discussion” that was “not remotely hostile — there was no one complaining and there were quite a few students who self-identified as Muslim.” Audience members and panelists continued to talk informally long after the scheduled end of the event.
So panelists were surprised to learn weeks later that complaints had been filed with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. The complaints were targeted at Chaouat and Prell as organizers, and referred not so much to the event itself as the poster advertising it.
According to a summary of the office’s investigation prepared for John Coleman, dean of the liberal arts, eight people — four students, a retired professor, an adjunct professor and two others from outside the university — contacted equal opportunity personnel to express concern that the flyer “featured a depiction of Muhammad, which they and many other Muslims consider blasphemous and/or insulting.”
There’s the confusion again. It’s not “blasphemous” to anyone who doesn’t buy into the version of Islam that says it is. It’s not just objectively blasphemous, it’s blasphemous only to people who take a very narrow and self-important view of a particular religious taboo. And how is a depiction of Muhammad insulting? And, again, to whom?
It’s all bullshit. It’s touchy, short-fuse, looking-for-grievances bullshit.
Maybe what they really mean is that the poster reminds them of the Charlie Hebdo murders, and that makes them feel not very comfortable about some of their fellow-Muslims, and that’s an uncomfortable sensation. I can sympathize with that; I can imagine it would be. But the right response is not to try to punish people for reminding them.
The fact that “Charlie Hebdo originally created the image of Muhammad added to the insult, because [the magazine] has previously printed cartoons deliberately mocking Muhammad, including some depicting Muhammad naked and in sexual poses,” the summary continues. “This led some complainants [to] conclude that the [college or cosponsoring academic units] and the professors involved in organizing and promoting the event do not care about Muslims on campus.”
Oh yes? Well I conclude that the complainants don’t care about non-Muslims on campus and elsewhere, even the ones who were slaughtered in a Paris office. I conclude that they don’t even care about the Muslim editor and the Muslim cop who were murdered by the Kouachis.
The office also received a petition signed by about 260 Muslim students, several staff members and about 45 people with no affiliation with the university. The petition says, in part, that the flyer is “very offensive” and has “violated our religious identity and hurt our deeply held religious affiliations for our beloved prophet (peace be upon him). Knowing that these caricatures hurt and are condemned by 1.75 billion Muslims in the world, the university should not have recirculated/reproduced them.”
There speaks the totalizer. They don’t know that the cartoons hurt every single Muslim on earth. (Also 1.75 billion? The number does keep creeping upward.) They don’t know that every single Muslim on earth condemns the cartoons. They don’t know any of that, they’re just bullying. They want to make their religious taboos binding on the whole world. Well fuck that. It will require killing all of us, or killing most of us and enslaving the rest.
Equal opportunity administrators conducted a formal investigation based on the complaint, including interviews with the event organizers. According the investigation summary, organizers “collectively reported that they chose to reprint the Charlie Hebdo image to express a commitment to the future of [the magazine] and to free speech generally, to condemn terror and to show Muhammad expressing love and compassion.” Moreover, organizers said, the image already had been published by news organizations worldwide. They also expressed a belief that “their dissemination of the flyer is protected speech under the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom.”
Ultimately, the office determined that the poster did not violate the university’s antiharassment policy, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Factoring into the decision was the poster’s relevance to academic subjects and its general commentary on a matter of public concern.
However, the office said in its summary for the dean, the poster had “significant negative repercussions.” And given the “large-scale” global protests against the image in question, “the organizers knew or should have known” that their decision to reprint the image “would offend, insult and alienate some not-insignificant proportion of the university’s Muslim community on the basis of their religious identity,” the office added. It said the hurt was heightened by the fact that the insulting speech came from those with “positional power” at Minnesota.
But the office knows or should know that all people in “the university’s Muslim community” are free to refuse to be offended and insulted and alienated. It’s pretty insulting to assume that a significant proportion of them will be unable to see the matter that reasonably. It’s insulting to assume a large number of them are prickly babies.
Equal opportunity administrators told Coleman that he had the “opportunity to lead in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for Muslim students by adding your own speech to the dialogue advocating for civility and respect by [college] faculty.” The office recommended that Coleman communicate the college’s disapproval of the flyer and “otherwise use your leadership role to repair the damage that the flyer caused to the relationship between [the college] and Muslim students and community members.”
They wanted the dean of liberal arts to issue a formal disapproval of the flyer, in order to soothe the neurotic religious outrage of an unknown number of Muslim students. That’s revolting.
In a brief interview, Chaouat said he feared it was possible that “terror and terrorism actually work when people have a tendency to internalize the fear of retaliation and to self-censor. …This is something that’s happened in France after the January events — there’s been a lot of self-censorship in the aftermath of theCharlieHebdo attacks and I’m afraid we’re on the path here as well.”
He added, “In the name of tolerance and acceptance and diversity, we’re actually lying to ourselves.”
It would be vastly better to just say we’re scared. All this oily “concern” and hand-wringing and coddling is anti-intellectual and illiberal and sick-making.