Vanity thought #1350. PENalizing a trophy

While discussing Garland shootings I feel I must also mention recent American PEN award (PEN is the biggest writers association) for courage given to the editors of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Every major news outlet did, after all, so it must be important.

The main story is very simple – Charlie Hebdo staff paid the ultimate price for freedom of speech, those who took their torch from their hands didn’t deviate from the course, and so Charlie Hebdo label has become synonymous with courage in journalism. Millions of people marched across the world in support of Charlie Hebdo, and many protested against it, too, but not in the West, so why would American writers, of all places, refuse to recognize this award, boycott the award gala, and issue a public statement about it?

This kind of thing is exactly what I meant the other day when I said that regarding Charlie Hebdo people only agree on that they shouldn’t have been killed but beyond that there’s no unified reaction. Over two hundred writers, some apparently big names in the literary world, expressed their opposition to rewarding Charlie Hebdo and that came as a bit of a shock to libertarians everywhere. They did not see that coming.

Here you can read their open letter. Note that it’s Greenwald’s site, who is the journalist who broke out Edward Snowden story. He is also gay with all that follows, in case devotees would want to count him among our allies. Sometimes we can have strange bedfellows, pardon the pun.

The reactions to it that I’ve read so far kind of misread the argument, took only a part of it and diverted it onto a familiar track – Muslims should not be given a special position and special protection, and also free speech, end of story. This debate is boring and unproductive and it misses a chance to think outside the box here.

The PEN dissenters do not assault freedom of speech, they are all for it, what they say, however, is that respecting freedom of speech and validating hate speech are not the same, and therefore Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t be rewarded for what they did to Muslims. They wanted clarity on what Charlie Hebdo is being glorified for – for their courage or for their attacks on Islam.

They also say that in Europe Muslims are a disenfranchised minority that can’t really stand up for itself and attacking them therefore is just mean, it’s bullying. Perhaps western audiences are led to believe that Muslims run the show there and sharia law has taken over Europe but that’s not how Muslims there see themselves. They do not have economical, political, or cultural clout, they are poor and unemployed, they live in practically ghettos, and therefore they deserve protection from the media instead of making them a target.

That’s an interesting take on the situation and it goes to the root of the role the media should play in a society, according to western ideas. Media was supposed to be the tool for little men standing up to big men and it should level the field. Media is supposed to keep powers that be in check, not go after ordinary, voiceless people. PEN dissenters said that attacking Muslims is big men punching little men down and therefore it shouldn’t rewarded.

This reminds me of an article I read in the wake of Charlie Hebdo shootings by a British satirist who was at a loss of words. Should Muslims be a legitimate object of satire? The traditional definition is that satire should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted but in case of European Muslims it does exactly the opposite. And if it does so, should it be still called satire? Or is it plain bullying?

Note that all these arguments come from western platform itself, the one that values freedom of speech above all, but then it runs into a dead end because this freedom runs counteractive to what it was supposed to achieve in the first place – protection for the minorities. This baby Frankenstein has all grown up and is ready to consume its creators now.

What started as a legitimate struggle for justice and fairness, the only remaining virtue in Kali Yuga, got corrupted and subjugated and looks nothing but fair. It started with protecting everyone’s rights against unjust oppression but ended with forcing minority to abandon its beliefs. Muslims have to be exactly like westerners now and they have no right to practice their religion in peace anymore, they are forced to contend with perpetual insults and abuse.

When the struggle for fairness fails it no longer works as protecting dharma and therefore it won’t bring auspicious karma. In the last couple of hundred years since Enlightenment this struggle for justice has brought visible dividends in the form of material progress – following dharma always pays – but if honesty and truthfulness are no longer there then good karma will stop coming and Kali will completely take over. Honesty is the last pillar of dharma, after all.

Another interesting observation about satire directed at Muslims is that it doesn’t elicit laughs. When someone draws a greedy politician then everyone knows that greed is bad and if it’s also funny people will appreciate it. When westerners attack Muslim prophet they do it on basis of values not shared by Muslims themselves. Westerners can still laugh, of course, but it goes straight past the intended target. Corrupt politicians understand what corruption is and they understand satire against it, probably even agree with it, especially in principle, but Muslims do not share in “everyone is equal, no one is above others, and so everyone could be subjected to ridicule” idea. Not when it comes to their prophet who is beyond reproach.

Westerners have their own taboos in the same category, too. Imagine someone comes up to you says “let’s make jokes your mother’s sexual appetite”. We don’t do that, so “let’s not, why would you even think it would be funny or appropriate? Are you nuts?”

Satirizing Muslims, therefore, is not as straightforward as satirizing politicians, or even Christians. Christians used to rule the world and set the tone for public discussion, they set the morals, they still preach the morals, so catching them on deviating from their own preaching is acceptable. They would understand that, even if jokes about altar boys are getting a bit long in the tooth now. “Yes, we did that and we shouldn’t have, so it’s a fair game” – that’s their typical attitude, but it doesn’t work on Muslims.

Muslims never said “our prophet is only a human, with all kinds of human faults, and so he should be treated like one of us”. If they did and then put Muhammad on a pedestal then criticism could be warranted, otherwise it is not.

That’s why they consider it a hate speech while westerners insist it’s satire – two groups have vastly different backgrounds and vastly different values. Both are right in their own way, as westerners do not mean to hate neither Muhammad nor Muslims in general, but it still perceived as abusive and insulting.

The world is a very complicated place, very diverse, so instead of taking sides and assigning blame it would serve us well to see how everyone simply acts according to his own conditioning. No one is guilty of anything, it’s just modes of nature having fun with us all. Well, we could say that we all are guilty of turning away from Kṛṣṇa but that’s about it, after that the material nature takes over, we just sit and watch.


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