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Exploring offensive symbolic expression

September 10, 2010

There’s a Christian pastor in Florida named Terry Jones, who claimed he was going to burn some Korans tomorrow, as a protest against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which is actually a civic center a couple blocks away from Ground Zero.)  He’s calling it; “Burn the Koran day”.  Despite being a complete nobody, he got international attention, with protests all over the Islamic world, and even a response from the President of the United States.

That’s more attention than some hateful loser with fifty followers deserves, but OK, he’s news.  So let’s talk about symbolic acts; I’ll start.

The first confusion is whether the government should “let” him burn Korans, or “let” Imam Rauf build the Cordoba Center in Manhattan.  Clear that up right now: if they’re his Korans, he has the right in this country to burn them, as a form of free speech.  Freedom of speech is really about freedom of thought, and there is no more fundamental freedom.  Maybe that’s why it’s the First Amendment.

Ditto for the Cordoba Center in Manhattan: there are other religious institutions in that area, plus a strip club, a porn shop, and some good restaurants.  It’s a busy, multicultural place.  The minute we say; “Our religion but not yours” we’re just that much less American. Freedom of ideas – and by extension, of religion – is one of the things that defines our nation.  So assuming fire laws and zoning regulations are equitably enforced, the government isn’t going to intervene in either case.

So the big question is; “Should he?”  And there have been some test cases recently that let us explore the symbolic space of offense and protest. 

The first is PZ Myers’ “Crackergate”, in which he defiled a consecrated communion wafer, a page from “The God Delusion”, and a page from the Koran.  His point was that ideas aren’t sacred, and as you might expect it got thousands of responses from Catholics (many threatening violence), including Catholic League president Bill Donahue.  Atheists didn’t seem upset that he damaged Dawkins’ book, and only a couple of Muslims responded to his damaging a page from the Koran. And if that was all you knew about it, you might think; “Gee, why would he poke Catholics in the eye like that?”

Actually, it was a symbolic protest against a very non-symbolic threat against a very real college student, who walked out of church with a consecrated wafer.  You might think the priest would visit him and explain the importance of the Host, and he’d either repent or not, and that would be the end of it, but noooo… Bill Donahue got involved and tried to get the kid kicked out of college.  The young man faced constant harassment from other Catholics and even some threats.  Crackergate was Myers’ way of saying; “Hey Donahue, pick on somebody your own size!”.  That’s one case.

Another was Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a novel that offended some Islamist Muslims.  A price was actually put on Rushdie’s head, copies of his book were burned, and to this day he could be killed for writing the novel; a very concrete response to the expression of unwelcome symbolic ideas.

(I tried reading The Satanic Verses, but didn’t care for it.  Mostly I read non-fiction, and occasionally short, action-packed novels.  But mostly I prefer comics.)

Which leads to the Danish Newspaper that published 12 cartoons of Muhammad.  It lead to riots, death threats, some people were actually killed, and a lot of property damage.  And why?  Because Muslims are forbidden to make images of Muhammad – and by extension we non-Muslims apparently are as well.  A violent response to a symbolic act.

But the Muhammad cartoons were a symbolic response to another violent act, the murder of film director Theo Van Gogh following a book and film that were critical of Islam.  The paper was concerned that calls for “self-censorship” had no built-in boundaries, and would quickly calcify into a convention that one could not criticize religion, or more specifically Islam, for fear of violence.

There are many – too many – examples I could give where symbolic acts “triggered” violence but let’s remember what a trigger is.  Triggers do not push bullets out of guns; there already has to be stored violence to be released by the trigger; if it is not already waiting, the trigger can do nothing.

I still believe the most profound question is; “Can we all just get along?”  In historical times our failure resulted in endless slaughter, but our methods have “improved” to where we can’t afford NOT to get along anymore. 

I can’t believe that some kind of mutual agreement to tiptoe around and not offend each other is even practical in the short term, let alone a long-term solution.  Progress happens when the bad ideas of the past begin to look ridiculous, and that’s never easy or inoffensive.  Trying to respect the un-respectable postpones that moment almost indefinitely.

So the answer to “Should he?” is yes, he should, if he is so sure that’s the best expression of his ideas.  He should find a symbolic way of illustrating his ideas.  Use words, use dance, paint a picture (or a draw a cartoon), but find a way to express your ideas without killing anyone.  And of course others are free to try and convince him not to do it, too.  If he goes ahead and someone responds violently, we will have to prosecute that violence in some appropriate way.  But only offensive speech even needs protection, which suggests that it is precisely offensive speech that is intended by that principle.  The response is a risk we must be Constitutionally prepared to take, or live in constant fear.

Here’s my long-term prescription: we must resolve to stop killing one another over symbols.  We will always have our hands full responding to actual acts of real violence or oppression; we don’t need to be blowing each other up over ideas.  And if the objection is made that some cultures lag behind us in that conviction, we won’t help them catch up by becoming terrorists ourselves.  Our best strategy is to demonstrate our convictions; stick by them, live them, and never back down from showing the world what freedom looks like. 

Tomorrow is still “Burn A Koran Day”, and I have a response to pastor Jones.  I’ll post it tomorrow.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. iota
    September 11, 2010 at 11:21 | #1

    This is the best, most rational, most accurate analysis of this boring affair that I have seen.  Good work.

  2. September 13, 2010 at 23:43 | #2

    I agree with iota. Terrific, thoughtful essay on the subject. The increasingly lethal weapons we produce do make it especially important that we get along. The alternative is that we run the risk of destroying ourselves over some petty dispute.

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