The Risk of Offending: It’s Necessary

If you’ve been standing on the sidelines wondering when to get into the game, now would be a good time. I mean, if you thought a few deviations from business as usual would play themselves out and no longer be relevant, the assassinations in Paris on January 7, 2015 might have changed your mind.

I’ve had my share of being told to stop mocking religion. I’ve been told to shut up quite a few times. I’ve been told by liberals, “we’re not all like that”. Liberals come short of yelling “Allahu Obama” before they come after me when I criticize them. I refuse to get bogged down in the tit for tat spats that play out in social media. I’ll go two or three volleys in the comments but if a solution hasn’t presented itself by then, it’s best to let it be. It’s why I choose the art of the essay. It gives me my breathing room, my time for research, more time to edit and think on a subject before speaking and, admittedly, even sometimes that isn’t enough. To err is human.

Religion and Politics. What great targets. I think it was comedian Chris Rock who said that one man will describe the great sex he’s had with his wife with his buddies but ask him who he’ll vote for and, well, hey, that’s going too far. The same applies to religion. There’s this old cliché that nothing destroys polite conversation like a good injection of politics or religion. But these are the two very subjects that have the most effect on how a society is raised and what it is allowed to do or not do. It also justifies or prohibits certain actions or behaviors. And this is why I spend so much time on both of these taboo subjects.

On February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave a Valentine’s Day kiss of death to author, Salman Rushdie. In 1988, Mr. Rushdie had his novel, the Satanic Verses, published. Within, some mockery was given to Islam and for that, the Ayatollah issued a fatwa against Mr. Rushdie. For years Mr. Rushdie lived in protective custody. And although he has yet to be injured for his writing, others have. In 1991 both his Japanese and Italian translators were stabbed. Others associated with the book were shot at and/or threatened. As recently as 2006, it was reported that the fatwa remained in place because only the one issuing it could rescind it. And the Khomeini died only a few months after issuing it. So, in effect, it still remains that Mr. Rushdie and everyone associated with The Satanic Verses remains a target.

In 2013, the United States Internal Revenue Service was found to be targeting conservative groups more than others who were seeking tax-exempt status. Choices were made based on the groups’ mission statements, certain words in their name, their writings and sayings on what their intentions were, etc. And although a high number of liberal groups were also targeted based on naming and statements, it appears the more conservative leaning groups took the brunt of the scrutiny. The only way to avoid this, I suppose, is to get out of the game of speaking up for what you believe in, stay out of the fight on how you think society should be organized and run. The only way to avoid it is to take the middle of the channel and never rock the boat. Be boring and die quietly with your hand in a half eaten bag of chips while the game plays on the ole’ telly.

On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a series of cartoons, one of which, had a picture of Muhammad with a bomb nestled in his turban. This led to some upset feelings and riots ensued, protests, attacks on Christians and churchs all of which pretty much reinforced the stereotypes Muslims were trying to extinguish. When they said, “we’re not like that”, well, the reaction of many said they were. The most striking upset was that other journals and news agencies chose not to reprint those cartoons for fear of being attacked themselves. Instead of what could have been civilizations punch back, all that was offered was a whimper. The only publication initially brave enough to republish the cartoon was Free Inquiry. And because of it, Borders and Waldenbooks bookstores chose to not carry it! The enemy was winning. That has since faded, the cartoons appear to be freely printed by other magazines and journals but the initial withdrawal into mumma’s comforting womb was nauseating. The free press indeed.

Sony Pictures was scheduled to release their latest film, The Interview, on Christmas Day 2014. The film depicts the assassination of North Korean Leader, Kim Jong Un. It’s a satire, a comedy. For Christ sake, it’s a Seth Rogen film. And the announcement of this back in the summer of June 2014 led sad panda Kim Jong Un to issue threats of retaliation. Well, in December 2014, Sony Pictures found their computer networks hacked with sensitive data released to the public. It appears, to date, that North Korea was behind the hack. Afterwards, further threats were made to Sony by an anonymous hacking group calling themselves the “Guardians of Peace”. They claimed there would be attacks at movie theaters showing the film. They called for blood if The Interview was ever shown. And what happened? Sony caved. They chose not to show the film. It wasn’t entirely their choice. Movie theater chains announced they’d not show the movie and kind of forced Sony to pull it. If no one was going to show it, what was the point? Yet Sony found alternative outlets by releasing it anyhow through YouTube and Google Play and some limited theaters. But wow, look at what a country half a world away did to Hollywood. Life imitated art as Hollywood hadn’t reacted this paranoid since that Japanese submarine off the coast of California in Steven Spielberg’s’, 1941. And just as the turmoil over The Interview was fading into the background…

On January 7, 2015, in Paris, the offices of satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were attacked by three gunmen yelling “Allahu Akbar” and avenging their prophet. Twelve died and the gunmen got away. As I write this, only one turned himself in which caused me to consider how odd it was he could kill fellow human beings but couldn’t go out in a blaze of glory for Allah to receive his seventy-two-virgins. Goes to show the complete lack of consistency and logic in it. Anyhow, the “sin” of the victims was their magazine which lampooned religion and politics and whatever met their fancy. The offices of Charlie Hebdo had been attacked before, being firebombed in 2011. But that didn’t stop the staff from continuing in the name of a free press. Yet on January 7, 2015, three gunmen caused, to date, the largest disruption of that free press by forcing themselves into the offices and shooting several staff and guests. To the magazine staff’s credit, those who escaped the gunfire, those who lived, have declared they intend on carrying on and the next issue will go out as planned.

And again, like the cartoons in the Jyllands-Poste, several news, journals and magazines coward and chose not to show the offending cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. I am more hopeful this time as there are less cowards. It is possible that since the 2005 incident with the Jyllands-Posten, we have the rise of social media to thank for spreading the images far and wide. I am most impressed that whereas large corporate news agencies wouldn’t take the risk, there were small time bloggers and individuals with no help at all should something strike, posting the Charlie Hebdo images. And the mass, worldwide demonstrations in support of the staff of Charlie Hebdo is absolutely riveting. The phrase Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie) is everywhere. And I am convinced that while there are those out there who want to stifle free speech and a free press, those of us wanting an open society will be the victors.

So if you’ve been standing on the sidelines wondering when to get into the game, now would be a good time. Now is not the time to shut up. Now is not the time to be calm and quiet and let it pass. Doing so contributes to the fall of free speech and the free press. Appeasing the aggressor turns you into their puppet. If we all participate in sharing our honest opinions, ideas, research, stories and cartoons, we’ll engage in what Ayaan Hirsi ali calls, “Spreading the Risk”. If there’s so many of us, the target becomes so movable and vast, one quick to violence may subdue to the immensity of their problem.

And I’m not asking you to participate in any of the controversies I’ve listed above. No, I’m asking you to make new ones. I’m asking you to be the mouse that roared. And remember mockery is not always a form of flattery and shouldn’t be. Maybe, just maybe, it’s meant to take the object off its pedestal and show you it’s not really that great. It’s too bad three gunmen in Paris didn’t see that about Charlie Hebdo.

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