There’s a tactic that we self-imagined reasonables are prone to, and it just kills me, especially when I do it, and I too-often do. It’s the Knee-Jerk Middle. A controversy erupts, and we, in an effort to show how reasonable we are, declare that the truth lies “somewhere in the middle.”
Sometimes it does, of course. But just as often, it’s a pose that helps us avoid taking a position.
There was a lot of this going on Thursday, which (in case you’ve been living under a rock) was Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a day on which all are encouraged to answer violence with nonviolent action by simply drawing a picture.
It’s wrong for Islamic extremists to kill those who draw the Prophet, say the reasonable middlists, but it’s also wrong to offend for the sake of offense by intentionally violating the rule against drawing the Prophet. So a pox on both houses. It’s the way to appear reasonable without the bother of doing any real thinking or offering an alternative. I consider free expression to be not just fun and interesting but essential to progress. There exists a serious threat to free expression. If not EDMD, what response is best?
The focus on the extremes avoids the much more interesting conflict between regular old Islam, which forbids depictions of Muhammad (not just among Muslims, but by anyone anywhere) and people who find silly the idea that any group can dream up a prohibition and enforce it on the planet (“Respect our Prophet!” demands the FB Group Against ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’).
Add the violence perpetrated against those who ignore the prohibition, and ignoring it is about much more than “offense for the sake of it.” The idea has then gone from silly to obscene, at which point I’d say challenging it becomes a moral imperative.
I may be wrong about that. But don’t try to keep me from raising the question in the first place.
Everybody Draw Muhammad Day raises fascinating and worthwhile questions, my favorite kind. Add to that the fact that it’s silly for any primate to think any other primate is obligated to get moony over the same things. Sprinkle on a bit of collective courage in diluting the fatwa (“I am Spartacus!”) and I’d say you’ve got yourself a thing well worth doing.
It would be nice if we’d all do it thoughtfully and well, but we are what we are, and many have taken the opportunity to depict Muhammad grotesquely. I don’t prefer these because they confuse the issue. Far better have been a handful of drawings from the day that test the question itself in creative ways. For a collection of those [plus some that stupidly muddy the message], plus every other point I had planned to make, damn him, click over to Friendly Atheist.
Not all opposition to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was knee-jerk middlism, of course. So for those who opposed it, a question:
Members of one culture insisted that those of another culture set aside one if their highest values (free expression) out of respect for a value of their own (non-depiction of Muhammad). A few responded with violence, and the threat of it continues. What response do you think would have been more appropriate?
UPDATE: A terrific conversation in the comments, on Facebook, and elsewhere has me clarifying my position. I should have made a much clearer statement against grotesque, racist, or intentionally repugnant depictions of Muhammad. They don’t just “confuse the issue”; they fuel hatred and misunderstanding, and while supporting the right to do it, I condemn the choice.
This critique goes to my heart. I am on record criticizing (e.g.) moderate Christians for not speaking out more forcefully against those who do harm in the name of their faith. By failing to directly address the ways in which EDMD was used to further the cause of hatred and misunderstanding — by saying, in essence, “Yeah yeah, some people are doing this stupidly, but back to my point…” — I am guilty of precisely the same lapse. Thanks for setting me straight(er).
I’m a bit of a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, and that includes stupid speech. But that position can cause me to gloss over other valid concerns. I think I’m coming out of this EDMD thing re-convinced that mass actions of this kind are nearly impossible to pull off effectively because of the difficulty of controlling message and method. They are a victory for free speech that often loses so many other battles they may not be worth doing.
ADDED MAY 21: A fascinating article recommended by a friend in Malaysia.