Friday, May 7, 2010

Chalk Muhammad

The Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA!) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are chalking pictures of Muhammad all over campus.  Look at his smile!  Who could feel offended by such a positive depiction?

Many Muslims, of course, are offended.  According to certain Hadith, depictions of Muhammad are discouraged or forbidden.  I believe the underlying motivation is the fear that the visual representation would become more important than the man himself, thus causing idolatry.  But leave it to religion to apply a rule blindly, without any regard to whether its original intention applies.

AHA! chalked over a hundred Muhammads in order to support free speech.  The Muslim Student Association (MSA) had neat response.  Well, first they tried to get the Dean of Students to stop the event, that wasn't so neat.  But their next action was to follow around the chalkers and draw boxing gloves on the stick figures.  Now it's Mohammad Ali!

The MSA is free to draw boxing gloves if they want.  It's free speech.*  I think they'd even be allowed to erase the drawings if they wanted.  Indeed some of names were later erased out, though no one knows that it was the MSA.  But just because they have the right to erase doesn't mean they should.  Though no rules are broken, erasing the drawings would clearly be anti-free-speech in spirit.

*On my own campus, there are regulations against chalking, so it would not be free speech here on either side.  But apparently there are no such regulations at Wisconsin-Madison.

Similar complaints were heard by AHA!  Just because you can draw Muhammad doesn't mean you should.  I mean, you're allowed to speak up in favor of free speech, but surely free speech can fend for itself as long as we all keep super quiet about it.  (Right now I'm visualizing Free Speech Personified boxing with Muhammad.)

But on a more serious note, I must admit there is one thing I don't like about the chalking.  The vandalism or erasure of the chalk does not hurt AHA! in any tangible way, and is not even breaking any rules.  Rather than serving as an example of why we must defend free speech, it arguably serves as an example of where an attack on free speech doesn't hurt anything except free speech itself.  The chalking itself is empty and pointless.  Its worth only derives from a public reaction to reaction to reaction.

Story time!  It's November.  I'm at a rally on the anniversary of Prop 8.  People are going up to the microphone to talk about the tragedy that is Prop 8.  Everyone is wearing black. Who do I see walking by in a bright orange Hawaiian shirt, but my most hated enemy, Mr. O?  Let's just say that he is the only person I've ever defriended on Facebook out of dislike.  Mr. O shows interest in the rally, asks me what's going on.  I'm friendly.  He hasn't done anything horrible in some time, and I can't hold a grudge for very long.  He totally supports the rally.

But he has a funny way of showing it.  He asks to speak at the mic.  "Aren't there more important things to worry about than guys having buttsex?"  He got kicked off the stage rather quickly.  Later, people at the mic would passionately tell him that, no, this really is the most important issue to them.  Mr. O tells me that this is the response he was going for.  What a jerk!

I'll divide the consequences into two parts.  There is Mr. O's little speech.  And then there is the reaction to the speech at the rally.  The speech itself was terrible, a total dick move.  The passionate responses at the rally were good, though perhaps they would have been just as passionate otherwise.  And yet, Mr. O is still a total dick, regardless of the ultimate responses to his actions.

That's sort of the problem with Chalk Muhammad.  The chalk itself does nothing but offend people.  That's a neutral to negative consequence.  And then there's the reaction to the chalk, the Muslim complaints.  That's also neutral to negative.  And then there's the reaction to the Muslim reaction, the realization that free speech is under attack.  That's positive.  But it took us a bit of a chain reaction to get there.

At least AHA! is being totally transparent about their intentions.

My point is it's not completely outlandish to judge AHA! for the action by itself, without regard to the chain of responses.  Most of the credit for the responses should go to the responders themselves.  The Muslims deserve responsibility for their attacks on free speech.  People who are inspired to fight for free speech deserve credit for fighting.  I deserve credit for this essay.  Mr. O doesn't get any credit, oooooh no.

You can't make every publicity stunt perfect.  But if we recognize the flaws, we can determine what direction would be an improvement.  It would be an improvement if the action itself had some intrinsic benefit.  For example, if Mohammad were drawn on fliers or signs, they would clearly serve the purpose of advertising the group (or better yet, an event celebrating free speech).  Also, if anyone defaces a sign, that's some serious rule-breaking right there.  Signs cost money.

I suppose the chalked Muhammads implicitly serve the purpose of advertising the group, and to that extent, they're totally cool.


Larry Hamelin said...

I don't think free speech per se is the best way to look at the Muhammad chalking. I see it in less in "meta" terms and closer to the great desecration: a statement that Muslims' taking offense at depictions of Muhammad is itself ridiculous.

They're not saying something deservedly offensive just to prove we have the right to say offensive things. They're saying something that gives offense because they don't think it ought to give offense.

There are certainly times when just that someone takes offense at a statement is reason enough for a sensible, caring person to avoid that statement. But there are cases where just that someone takes offense isn't enough.

Drilling down deeper and talking about the underlying principles that generally distinguish the tow cases is left as an exercise for the reader. ;)

Remember, though: just because two situations are similar doesn't imply that they are equivalent: you have to look at the differences as well as the similarities.

Larry Hamelin said...

In other words, the chalking is itself a substantive criticism of Islam — criticizing that they use being offended to shield themselves from substantive criticism — rather than merely asserting the power to be critical, without making a substantive criticism.