I wrote on a similar theme two days after the attack on Paris, when the AQAP released a statement that they were responsible for the bloodshed and that it had, in fact, been done in the name of the prophet. One might have thought that that would have been enough to silence the two days of apologist critics of atheism who called us “racists” for blaming the attack on Islamic ideology and not on extenuating political or cultural circumstances.
However, the back-pedaling merely propelled us further down the rabbit hole, from charges of racism being launched that those of us who were keen enough to label the attacks for what they were to the same cheap tactic being lobbied at the cartoons themselves.
So, gentle readers, we are having the discussion again. I can’t imagine that it has come to this: that the understanding of free speech has been marginalized so much that words are being literally redefined in order to assuage the victimized pains of those who are looking to find any excuse to be offended, to exaggerate that offense into a war on their culture, and those who are willing to defend that masochism.
My position and the position of many is simple: the lampooning of ideas or specific persons should always be read in context against that specific idea or person — and the subjective nature of interpretation, while a civil liberty, should only be respected as truth to a point. Those familiar with me and my work know that I am as staunch an opponent to racism as they come — and, being a student of art, I am keenly aware of the difference between a minstrel play and The Satanic Verses. We cannot be beholden to those who claim that their offense on a topic is a ruling authority which allows them to re-name it however they like: if we did, there would be far fewer cartoons printed.
As for the specific characteristics of the prophet Muhammad being drawn in some of these cartoons — of course they are radically grotesque. They are meant to show a radically grotesque person. The addition of features that are stereotypically “offensive” (I’ve never found a big nose to be an aesthetic insult) hold a cartoonish resonance of communicating any number of things, but they are designed to draw contempt to Muhammad, if contempt in indeed designed. The use of sinister faces, dumb expressions, and wild features — when viewed in context — is the attempt to create whatever the artist wishes in relation to the subject, and to say that it is a caricature of a race as a whole (in reference to those of Arab descent) is, typically, a wild extrapolation. A cartoon that shows Muhammad in a negative light can be most readily assumed to be a comment on two things: Muhammad and Islam–much like some of the grotesque cartoons I have seen of Christopher Hitchens, which have shown him in any number of compromising positions, are meant to criticize his person, his politics, or his philosophies. Never once have I looked at one and been aghast at the thought that they were jingoistically having a go at his Britishness.
We have seen racism before, especially in a country like the United States. It is high time we approach sincere evils like racism when they rear their ugly heads, and save our indignant posturing for the fights that matter. The scrutiny of an idea is not racist. The scrutiny of a 1,500-year-old, schizophrenic merchant who idolized himself is not racist. When race unnecessarily becomes a sincere part of this already-too-important discussion, I’ll be waving the flag on the barricade with everyone else. Until that time, can we please attempt a level of aesthetic responsibility?