Yes, the “Savage” Ads Are Offensive: Welcome to a Free Society
Salman Rushdie knows first-hand what it’s like to stir up controversy in the Muslim world. In 1989, the year following the publication of his critically acclaimed novel, The Satanic Verses, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death due to the book’s supposedly blasphemous nature. Lest Rushdie mistakenly believe that the Islamic Republic has let bygones be bygones, the bounty on Rushdie’s head has, as of two weeks ago, been raised to $3.3 million. So when Rushdie stopped by the Daily Show last week to promote his new memoir, Joseph Anton, which recounts his life under the shadow of Khomeini’s death warrant, it seemed like a pertinent question for host Jon Stewart to ask in light of the protests, riots, and even deaths occurring throughout the Muslim world over the anti-Islam “Innocence of Muslims” movie trailer posted to YouTube:
Does your heart go out to him, or do you feel like, oh, this guy was trying to be provocative and you were not trying to be provocative. What is the difference in your mind?
Rushdie offered a wonderful response with which I couldn’t agree more:
Look, we have to defend his right to free speech. You have to. Because, you know, the First Amendment is one of the most valuable things we have. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say he’s a jerk, because even jerks have the right to free speech, but they’re still jerks.
Change all of those third-person pronouns above to their feminine forms, and Rushdie could just as well have been talking about anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, whose latest campaign involves running ads throughout the New York City subway system which exclaim:
At the risk of seeming gratuitously contrarian, I have to admit that I don’t really see what all of the hubbub is about surrounding Geller’s ads. First, we live in the United States, a free society in which the rights enshrined in the First Amendment are held as sacrosanct, and rightly so. This being the case, we Americans are going to inevitably come across statements and images that many of us find offensive. Just last week, I was fortunate enough to find myself driving behind a “pro-life” box truck with images of aborted fetuses plastered all over it. I didn’t care for this at all, but that’s the price one pays to live in a country with liberal interpretations of protected speech. The same can be said of Geller’s ads. Sure the message may be abhorrent, but look around – there’s plenty of speech floating around just waiting to offend your sensibilities (see, e.g., the internet).
Second, Geller’s ads are exactly what we should expect from her by now. This is the same woman who found her fame in 2010 protesting and maligning the Park51 Islamic community center, or as Geller eloquently termed it, the “911 Mega Mosque at Ground Zero.” This is also the same woman who called President Obama the “love child” of Malcolm X and a “Mohammedan” who “will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords.” So she’s clearly a bit off-kilter. Why, again, should I care about some cockamamie Ayn Rand-inspired subway poster? That’s right, I shouldn’t. And neither should you. (According to NPR’s affiliate in New York City, most subway commuters are doing exactly this, “rushing by without paying much attention.”)
If only Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy and other like-minded, sticker-wielding vandals could have followed suit. Instead, she defaced an ad with pink spray paint and was summarily arrested and charged with criminal mischief, making graffiti, and possessing a graffiti instrument – all before the watchful eye of a New York Post cameraman. Eltahawy was hardly the first to vandalize the ads, but certainly the most conspicuous. Because of this, Eltahawy may have inadvertently brought even more attention to an ad campaign that should have been limited to New Yorkers bored enough to read subway advertising. Even more disconcerting – to me, at least – is that this self-professed liberal ran roughshod over a core element of liberal society without batting an eye. Indeed, she attempted to justify her behavior in terms of the very Constitutional amendment she disregarded.
It’s a fair question to ask: If the ads in question are so repugnant, why not cover them up with stickers and paint? It’s an even easier question to answer: Because free speech is so important to maintaining a free, open, and just society that we must fight the impulse to suppress speech, especially that which we find disagreeable. This, of course, means that some among us will use their free speech in a way that is not only uncomfortable (see, e.g., fetus-truck anecdote above) but incredibly painful to others. Just ask the families of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan who want nothing more than to bury their loved ones with dignity and respect, only to have their funerals accosted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church.
But there is no right to not be offended; nor should there be. We Americans should be thankful that we live in a country in which Pamela Geller and her ilk can say vile and sordid things about Muslims, just as Muslims (and others, like me, who believe Geller’s posters are truly a waste of paper and ink) should be thankful that they have the right to counter Geller’s vitriol with yet more speech. Eltahawy and others’ attempts to deface or destroy Geller’s ads have no place in a free society and should be denounced just as vociferously as the ads themselves.