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Mocking Religion Is Not ‘Hate Speech’

Whenever free expression is attacked these days, we hear some iteration of the “they had it coming” defense.


It is inevitable that we’re going to be subjected to some new iteration of the “they had it coming” defense whenever there’s an attack on free expression. So it’s really not surprising that after the incident at the draw Muhammad art exhibit in Garland, Texas, some in the media would be more concerned about the provocative nature of the speech that supposedly precipitated the violence than the violence itself.

We’ve already seen numbers of part-time free expressionists – the “but” crowd – which conflates the defense of free speech, and the ability of all people to practice it peacefully, with endorsing the supposedly incendiary speech they claim is too ugly to deserve recognition. This kind of coddling is reserved for one faith; and only one requires dispensation from criticism or mockery. Because Jews rarely burn down the Barnes & Noble for carrying Mein Kampf, those who believe in Xenu rarely shoot documentarians and Mormons do no fire bomb Broadway plays – and if they did, no decent person would rationalize their actions.

But beyond all of that there is something else worth remembering: ridiculing or criticizing religion – ‘Islamophobia,’ for instance – is not necessarily hate speech.  Of course, all speech, even hate speech should be defended, but there’s a significant distinction to make between attacking ideas and attacking people.

So, for instance, when Glenn Greenwald publishes anti-Semitic cartoons in a misguided act of equivalency (proving not the point he thinks he is, but that he is free to mock any religion without fearing for his life – except for one) he is furthering ugly stereotypes about an ethnicity, not satirizing or challenging the beliefs of an illiberal philosophy.

An art contest depicting Mohammad in an unflattering light might be crass, but it is within the bounds of satire that’s been practiced in Western Civilization for hundreds of years. How many T-shirts do we see mocking Jesus? How many bumper stickers do we see ridiculing Christianity? How many people do we see who are openly contemptuous about the faith of others? How often does “art” involve blasphemous depictions of belief or religious iconography? How many times is Jesus the butt-end of jokes in movies or television?

And how many times have liberals referred to art that was aimed at Christianity as “hate speech?” I can’t find a single instance.

The relative worth of satire and criticism is a valuable debate, but the defense of political speech, as a principle, whether purposefully confrontational or not, is especially deserved. There are people in this country now who want to stop free expression with bullets. That’s a remarkable development. For people like CNN host Alisyn Camerota, the idea that someone might be attacking Islam is a far bigger story than the actual attack. Within this victim-blaming Mcclatchy piece titled, “After Texas shooting: If free speech is provocative, should there be limits?,” you will find a professor named John Szmer at the University of North Carolina, who believes that provocative speech should be banned:

“Fighting words is the idea that you are saying something that is so offensive that it will lead to an immediate breach of the peace,” Szmer explained. “In other words, you are saying something and you should expect a violent reaction by other people.”

The exhibit of cartoons in Texas might have crossed the line, Szmer said.

“I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect what they were doing would incite a violent reaction,” he said.

Translation: Just blow some stuff up or kill a few Americans and we’ll ban the speech infuriated you.

Rather than put the event into context, the mass media mostly focused on the “anti-Muslim” activity of those who provoked the gunmen. So we learned much about the rabble-rousing Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders, for instance, but nothing about the far more offensive actions of Keith Ellison and André Carson, who asked Barack Obama administration<spanto ban the Dutch politician from entering the United States because of his “controversial” views. What the media focused on today was as predictable as the ideological disposition of the gunmen. That’s a big problem for the future of free speech.