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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Freedom from Speech

A whole lot's been said about the concept of 'Freedom Of Speech' over the years, by people far smarter than myself with far more brain-cycles invested.

In a way it's not unlike the concept of 'religion' -- a whole lot of people have a whole lot invested to the point where it defines their ideals and perceptions of the world.

Sometimes to self-destructive ends.

See 'Freedom' of any sort is a tricky thing 'cause it seems that often in our expression of our needs to be 'free' we find ourselves stepping on the needs of others.

And, unfortunately, it seems that 'watching where you step' is the least of a lot of people's worries these days.

I bring all this up because I've found myself thinking about 'Freedom of Speech' a lot lately. Not only about how this idea is impacting the world around me but also where I stand on the concept.

You see, I've always been a huge proponent that we should be free to say whatever we wish whenever we want -- no matter what little tidbit we have on our minds, we should be free to it shout from the rooftops at our leisure.

With one proviso: As long as we're willing to accept the consequences.

And think that's really getting toward the heart of what's been bugging me about this whole 'Free Speech' argument lately.

To me it seems like a whole mess of people have it in their heads that because it's called 'Free Speech' and because it is 'their right' that they should somehow be released from the ramifications of their actions.

That we should be able to say whatever we want to whomever we want and if you don't like it... well, suck it up 'cause 'it's my right'.

I recently saw a video that I thought I would take differently -- it disturbed me on a number of levels but not in the way I thought it would. I'm still figuring it out... but I think a lot of it comes down to these thoughts of mine that I've been having.

Warning: The video below has lots of yelling, swearing, angry people - some violence and some nudity.

In the video, Swedish artist Lars Vilks shows a video of Muhammad as a gay man (complete with man-on-man tongue-kissing and more) - to a room full of Muslim men, woman and children.

And yet, when this situation was described to me that part was left out. It was given to me with the context of a bunch of angry Muslims beating the crap out of a poor, simple artist.

And that's true. Well, at least the 'beating' part.

What they forgot to mention was that, to a room full of previously quiet people he blared an obnoxiously loud, aggressive piece of film that was utterly designed to provoke outrage in Muslim people.

Simply put: I wasn't given the whole story. I got one person's spin on what I was 'supposed' to see.

But I didn't see that.

Heck, even now, after doing my own research into it I'm sure I don't have the full story -- were the Muslim people there with their children knowing he would be playing something like this? Was it a bait and switch? What happened before Mr. Vilks started to play the film?

There are a lot of unanswered questions.

But to sit there and paint it as one innocent man beaten for no reason... I'm sorry I can't say that I agree. This video may have been designed to inspire thought and discussion, but the artists use of it... well, it felt like an attack to me.

As Thumper once learned a long time ago - and as so many grandma's are wont to say:

"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".

And I think it's a sentiment that's gone into hiding as of late as so many agendas try to push themselves to the forefront. EDIT: To clarify, this is not necessarily the idea that we should 'shut up' but more to the extent that we should be 'mindful' of each other.

See, while some have gone on to declare a 'Everyone draw Muhammad Day' to protest the anger at Muslims not being cool about their Prophet being depicted (even though, historically, Muhammad's been depicted by their own artists for hundreds of years), others have done a lot worse, beating on and/or hurting the first 'Muslims' they see.

While some have gone on to attack (or kill) those who would dare to 'deface' their Prophet, others have quietly written that this all getting out of hand.

It's like we're on the edge of a divide that's only growing, pulling in moderates from both sides as each side pushes things farther -- with bat-shit crazy antics like the recent 'South Park' threats turning hundreds of thousands of people into hating 'Muslims' when, in actual fact, most moderate Muslims were just as shocked and appalled by the threat as anyone.

And I feel like its a situation that's being created needlessly; That there's this push-and-push-back mentality that's growing for no other reason than to be confrontational or to force one's will against the other.

It's like there's this culture clash where both sides are saying 'this is how we believe the world should be' and a whole lot of people who normally wouldn't give a shit are being pulled into the crossfire as each side escalates their actions.

No we shouldn't have to curb the way we talk or think for extremists -- and certainly those who lost their shit over the original Muhammad cartoon (which, in my opinion was in bad taste) were extremists -- but now we're getting into a situation where some of us who disagree with the extremists are becoming belligerent and rude for no other reason than to spark anger and outrage.

Yes, some call it 'sparking debate'... sure, call it what you want. But it's obvious that a growing number of people don't want to debate this right now. It's still a sensitive topic.

I guess what I'm saying is that, really, it comes down to Respect.

And you don't have to 'understand' something to respect it.

Muslims - not all, but enough - have shown they're not cool right now with their Prophet being depicted in pictures; Certainly not as a terrorist (which is what that original cartoon was) and definitely not as a gay man.

Is that 'right'?

That's not our call, it's their culture.

I personally don't agree with some of the ideas and actions that are prevalent on Islam's treatment of women -- but it's not up to me to solve their problems. When women have had enough of this treatment (and there is a growing movement) they will free themselves. Does that mean I don't care about them? Absolutely not. Does that mean that I'm not outraged over 'honour killings' or gay men and women being beaten to death? No.

If someone asks for help, that's a whole other story.

However, for right now we've been told that it's a wound and that it's still sore -- yet many are out there still punching at it.

If that's what you want to do, that's fine. Say what you want. But know that you're doing so AFTER a whole whack of people have asked you not to.

Be honest with yourself, acknowledge and accept WHY you're doing these things.

Are you REALLY doing it to 'educate' and 'protect'? Are you trying to impose your will on a 'lesser' way of life or thought? Or are you venting an intense anger over a situation that feels both oppressive and beyond your control?

I mean, think of it this way for a moment:

It's like if I came up to you and started yelling in your face for no reason (subliminal message of the day: not all Muslims are extremists).

You ask me to stop but I just laugh at you because 'it's my right'. (It's not, but sure, why not, let's roll with it for a second.)

I've got that freedom to speak, sure.

But now I'm just being an asshole.

And where does that get anyone?

I think we need to take a moment and just breathe here - let the pulse rates drop a tad and just try to look at things from each other's perspective. There's a line of communication that's not being made.

And hey, if that connection can't be made right now then I think we should all just do our best to default to being the same decent human beings we (okay, most of us) usually are.

'Cause just because you can say something, doesn't mean you should.



Peter said...

I completely disagree with the idea that people should lay off just because a community (be it the Muslim community, Christian or whatever) is a little hot under the collar about a certain issue, but then again I'm rabidly pro freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is a huge part of a civil society, and the minute you start restricting it, for whatever reason, is the minute things start to fall apart.

There are only two justifiable reasons for curtailing an individuals freedom of speech. If the speech will directly lead to violence and the loss of life (ie. Shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater), or if it's a direct incitement to violence against specific individuals (the "Fighting Words" doctrine).

Does depicting the prophet Muhammad as a gay man constitute hate speech? Is it a direct incitement to violence? In my mind absolutely not (the question of whether it's in extremely poor taste or not I'll leave for another time).

My favorite example of what should be allowed to protect freedom of speech is the US Supreme Court Case the NSPA vs. The Village of Skokie Illinois. Back in the 70s Skokie, Illinois was a primarily Jewish suburb of Chicago, when the Nationl Socialist Party of America (ie. the American Nazis) decided to hold a rally there, complete with full on Nazi regalia. The village objected, the ACLU ultimately intervened on behalf of the Nazis, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court where the Nazis won.

If holding a Nazi rally in a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors is protected by free speech, then so is showing a film that depicts the prophet Muhammad as being gay. Outrage isn't cause for physical violence, and using the threat of physical violence to determine what is allowed in the public discourse is the worst form of disrespect there is.

Peter said...

Don't get me wrong though, it was still in pretty bad taste.

Elize Morgan said...

That's the issue with being liberal, darling. You want to protect freedom of speech? Then you protect it for the things you don't want to hear, for the things you don't agree with and for things you out and out think are terrible.

Why? Because it's better to have it inside than outside.

Hate speech is a problem because it orchestrates hate against another person/persons. We have laws that cover threats against personal safety.

Freedom of speech, well. It sucks to defend someone doing something you disagree with, but hey.

The issue with art (which is, as you noted, what Vilks is) is that the industry of art, not television, not film, but art, is often to be incendiary. And, to be quite honest, I'm not sure I disagree with Vilks' action in this case. He was presenting a case on the topic of free speech. Considering his home was then bombed for his actions, I'm pretty sure he was prepared for the consequences.

Elize Morgan said...

That said? Would I have done what Vilks did? No. Is it nice to do it? No, definitely it's not.

But further to Peter's point - is that case absolutely terrible? Yes. It's terrible.

But if we ban free speech then it's people doing it in their basements. And it's not a discussion that can, theoretically, change people's opinions, and make things (in my ever naive world) better.

Then it's rhetoric.

Brandon Laraby said...

For the record, I'm not saying anything here about banning Free Speech.

And I'm not even really telling people to 'shut up' - I'm saying that we, all of us, as decent Human beings, should temper our Rights with common respect for one another.

The intention behind my 'Thumper' bit is sort of to reference the bygone time when people would just naturally, out of respect or whatever, would hold their tongue.

See, even back then, in less 'civilized' times people were perfectly willing to self-censor themselves as a courtesy to others.

Yes, maybe it's me being wistful but I think a touch of the 'heart' behind those intentions, if not necessarily the actions themselves, could use a comeback.

Especially in situations where we can't bring ourselves to see eye-to-eye. Where we're moments away from doing utterly stupid things.

And if we're choosing not to do so, to go off and do and say what we wish -- which, like I've said, I'm all for -- then we should at least be honest with ourselves about what we're really saying and why we're choosing to say it in the way we are.

Not just hide behind the 'art' label.

'Cause, really, this shit is getting ridiculous.

(And yes, I'm sure by now Mr. Vilk knew what he was getting himself into... I still think it was shitty move to pull however).

Peter said...

The problem is, in this specific case, Vilks wouldn't be holding his tongue to maintain a civil society, he'd be holding his tongue to avoid being beat or having his house blown up. I hate to use a hoary old conservative cliche, but if we don't stand up for free speech, if we allow ourselves to be censored over something as silly as mocking a religious figure, then the terrorists win.

Brandon Laraby said...

And sure, that's fine.

Truth be told, if he was holding his tongue to maintain a civil society he wouldn't have pulled that stunt in the first place.

'Cause really, if this is art - not the tape itself but the showing said tape to a roomful of Muslims - then I have to say:

What was his message?

That's why I think he's hiding behind the label. 'Cause as far as I can figure he went in there soley to stir up shit and prove that 'well I can say what I want when I want'.

And that's his prerogative.

But don't call it 'art'.

He could've just shown the video online, he could've done any number of other things. But he chose to do this.

What I wonder is how many of those people in that crowd were maybe on the fence. Maybe not even remotely interested in the fight until Mr. Vilk steps in and starts rubbing them and their kids noses in 'gay porn' featuring their holy Prophet?

I wonder how many hearts and minds were won or how many 'debates' were started because of this action?

Is he free to do so, sure.

But what did anyone gain?

Were they right to freak out and beat the crap out of Mr. Vilks. No.

But I tell you if I had shown up to a film screening, maybe brought my kid to it to get a surprise like that, 'Art' or not, I'd be pretty pissed.

And I'm sure I'm not alone here.

Brandon Laraby said...

Yes, I get that you can't have only the 'good parts' of Free Speech, but that doesn't mean I can't be pissed about the Vilks and Fred Phelps of the world.

The people who stir up shit for no reason, who choose to use their Free Speech to harm and incite anger in others.

I'm the first guy to poke fun at the religion I left behind but at the same time where does 'poking fun' and 'honest criticism' give way to inciting hatred and violence?

ie. If you know something or someone is going to act in a specific way and you taunt it anyway... are you partaking in 'free speech'? Or are eliciting a reaction?

Another concern I have in particular here is: Was that video camera there and rolling KNOWING that it would incite a riot of Muslim people? knowing that it would create an image of angry, yelling, pissed of Muslims to help perpetuate the narrative we have in our heads?

Maybe that was the 'art' he was hoping to capture?

I dunno, but I really wish people on both sides of the fence would treat each other with a bit of respect and decency.

Maybe then we could actually get down to having an enlightened intelligent discussion.

Elize Morgan said...

You realize, Brandon, that it wasn't his movie right? He didn't make the film.

On 11 May 2010, Muslim protesters assaulted Vilks while he was giving a lecture about free speech at Uppsala University. The attacks started when a film about Islam and homosexuality that had been banned from YouTube was shown. The film in question was Iranian artist Sooreh Hera's Allah ho gaybar. Vilks' glasses were broken but he did not suffer any serious injuries, and was escorted to safety by security, while a few of the protesters were detained by police. Despite previous death threats, this was the first time violence against Vilks occurred. from here.

Vilks was invited to do a class on freedom of speech, and he chose a video from a controversial Iranian artist, who chose that topic to discuss the issues of Gay rights in Iran. Where this is common, by the way.

He was using it to make a point at a class he was invited to teach. If, as an academic, I'm invited to teach a class on freedom of speech, I'd probably use something incendiary as well. So keep in mind: those people that protested knew where they were. Vilks was invited to speak. And then he was firebombed for showing something he didn't make.

Would the world be better if we were all a little "nicer". Yes, it would be. But both parties have to come to the table with an open mind.

Brandon Laraby said...

Yes, I've been reading more on this since my posting - and yes, like I said, I knew I didn't have the full story.

My argument was never about whether he made the video or not, it was that he chose to show THAT video.

There are a ton of other ways to illustrate his point about Free Speech that don't have to infuriate people. He chose to take the road that would be both visually and aurally assaulting while carrying a vulgar message (to his audience).

He gets full marks for Free Speech.

Booyah to him.

But for Cultural Sensitivity, Human Decency and/or simply 'not being an asshole' he fails. Hardcore.

He selected THAT video to play to a class full of Muslims, had Police on standby (you can see them in the video) and did what he was wont to do.

That said, the Muslims who attended do not get off either, that they would choose to attend this lecture knowing who he is -- knowing his history for inciting them AND still bringing their kids to the mix... yes, I call bullshit there.

Adding that little detail into the mix makes me think that those who showed up were looking for a fight.

And he gave them one.

The more I read and come to understand about this situation the more it pisses me off.

And no, I'm not just shouting down Mr. Vilks here -- you're right, Elize, both sides have to come to the table.

It's not about people being 'nicer' to each other though - it's about finding common ground. Gaining perspective on both sides so that this stupid aggravating BS on both sides can cease.

I don't think there are many who want to do that, they'd rather fight and flame each other. And that pisses me off because it seems so completely pointless and unnecessary.

Peter said...

I'm with ya man. I don't understand why we can't just agree to disagree.

But where I lose all sympathy for people is as soon as they resort to violence to limit someone else's right to say what they want. Yell, scream, debate, but resort to physical violence, regardless of the provocation, and that's just plain criminal behavior.

Elize Morgan said...

Up Pluralism.

That's all I'm sayin'.