Friday, September 10, 2010

Was I wrong on "Draw Mohammed Day"?

The Koran burning in Florida on its own is just an ugly incident, but one thing that's really been frustrating me recently is hearing people compare it to the mosque in New York. You often hear that both are legal but people should have the decency not to do either.

Why the Koran burning is legal but offensive is obvious. The pastor intends to be offensive, so there's not much discussion there. To consider the Cordoba Center offensive, though, you have to assume that Muslims are the same as terrorists. It's the only way to take offense at all, which means that you have to be either an idiot or a bigot to put them on the same playing field. Or, as Jon Stewart has recently put it, you're saying that burning a Koran and reading one are equally offensive. It's precisely this sort of understanding of what's "offensive" that leads people to burn Korans in the first place.

All this made me wonder - was I wrong in supporting "Draw Mohammed Day" several months ago (for the record, Evan was less supportive of it)? I don't think so. Even considering the offensiveness of the Florida pastor, I think I'm still confident in the decision, and the decision to post the winners of Draw Mohammed Day on this blog. In the end, I think there's a difference between satire and intimidation, and I think intentions and context are important. When you see a cartoon mocking the backwardness of al Qaeda or Ahmadinejad, for example, that's very different from a broader mockery of Muslims. You also have to consider what is being responded to. Choosing to draw cartoons specifically, in the aftermath of the threats to South Park, seems very different from choosing to burn Korans, in the aftermath of the Cordoba Mosque controversy. One is clearly directed at people who kill in response to cartoons, because of their fundamentalism. The other is clearly directed at the simple act of building a mosque, and the medium is a more general FU to Muslims. It's not targeted to terrorists or radicals in any discernible way.

You don't arrest a court jester or a satirist for treason. Why? Intent and context.

It does seem like a slippery defense - I'm OK but the Florida pastor isn't because I didn't intend to be offensive to Muslims generally. Does that work? Or was I wrong? My gut tells me it's fine, but I'm interested in others' thoughts.

59 comments:

  1. I support both actually. People need to get used to stuff that should be well either laughable (book burning) or innocuous (a house of worship/community center).

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  2. Which probably puts me in an extremely small minority I guess.

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  3. You support both or you think both are legal?

    If the guy building the mosque and the Florida pastor came up to you said "look Xenophon, I know I have the right to do this but do you think it's something I should do?" would you say "yes - great idea - go for it" to both of them?

    btw - looks like it's canceled for now.

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  4. Yes, yes I would. Liberty isn't worth much otherwise.

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  5. What the French debate: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11210513

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  6. "Yes, yes I would. Liberty isn't worth much otherwise."

    Liberty isn't worth much unless you tell people you approve of them doing dumb stuff?

    It seems to me the point of liberty is twofold:

    1. To make it possible for us to do dumb stuff on the off chance that it isn't dumb and we're actually right that it's worthwhile to do.
    and,
    2. To ensure that we have the freedom to let people know that what we think they're doing is dumb if we think that.

    Tolerance and approval are two different things, in other words - and a liberty that makes me feel constrained to approve of everything I see isn't very liberating.

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  7. Of course I think it is dumb ... (laughable is the word I used from the start) ... but I am not going to tell someone that they shouldn't do something because I think it is dumb. Particularly in this case, since the entire edifice of religious belief is not something I would buy into.

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  8. Or let's put it this way, religious people do all sorts of things that offend me to the core of my morality (the Catholic Church's stance on homosexuality, condoms, abortion, etc.). But I do not go out of my way to tell them what to think or that I find their beliefs offensive. This is a rather miniscule issue in comparison that the media has dutifully blown way out of proportion.

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  9. I think what really matters here is the intent and/or purpose behind the event. The mosque "issue" is about property rights. Draw Mohammed Day was about respect for freedom of speech. The Koran burning idea was about hatred for Islam. I believe the first two things are good, and the last is not. Sure, I've made some moral judgments on what is "good" and what is "bad" and not everyone appears to agree, but that's their problem and not mine.

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  10. I think Daniel's right to backtrack a bit (though he hasn't fully seen the light) on this.

    To David- certainly the Koran burning is about hatred of Islam, but is it therefore any less about free speech than the draw Mohammed Day? Look at it this way-- if I were to write a blog post on F&OST about how I hated you, would that not fall under free speech issues simply because it was a matter of hatred?

    To Daniel- I'm wondering why you think the Draw Mohammed Day was simply directed at certain fundamentalists or terrorists/regime leaders. Surely some Muslims are fine with depictions of the Prophet, but it's not exactly a reaction of the violent or repressive fringe to be offended by this gesture. As I see it, whether or not the act was driven by outright hatred of Islam, the Draw Mohammed spectacle had the intention of offending more Muslims than those who were any sort of threat to freedom or the security of free citizens. I don't see how one could reasonably argue otherwise.

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  11. Evan -
    Well I don't think anyone on here is caught up in the free speech question the way you're describing it. I think what David was saying was that the purpose of the Draw Mohammed Day event was to mock fundamentalist Muslims who threatened violence in response to speech. There is no question that both of these incidents - the burnings and the cartoon drawings - are perfectly consistent with the first amendment.

    The Cartoon Day was about advocating for free speech. It was freely speaking in favor of free speech, in other words. The Koran burning is about expressing the view that Islam is evil. It is freely speaking in hatred of Islam. I think that's all David was saying.

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  12. And - I'll be frank - the Cartoon Day was about expressing the view that the failure to recognize free speech is evil. I didn't mean to sugar coat it or treat it asymmetrically here.

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  13. urely some Muslims are fine with depictions of the Prophet, but it's not exactly a reaction of the violent or repressive fringe to be offended by this gesture. As I see it, whether or not the act was driven by outright hatred of Islam, the Draw Mohammed spectacle had the intention of offending more Muslims than those who were any sort of threat to freedom or the security of free citizens. I don't see how one could reasonably argue otherwise.

    Right, and that's precisely why I'm thinking about this.

    One could say, in that sense, that the Draw Mohammed Day had collateral damage. I am still somewhat OK with it and don't think it's comparbale, though, because the Koran burning seemed to me to have no collateral by virtue of the fact that it was targeting all Muslims (well, or at least targeting Muslims that want to build mosques in America).

    After thinking on it, I think the answer to the question "is Draw Mohammed Day in the same boat as Burn a Koran day" is "no". The question turns on "should I have not supported it because the collateral damage was too great?". I'm pretty sure the answer to that is "no" too - that it was fine to support it, that some people always find satire offensive and even if they were offended by the drawings an objective Muslim would know the drawings weren't targeting Muslims in general.

    If we worry about the collateral damage of all satire, we wouldn't have satire anymore. The question turns on whether the damage is collateral or intended, I think. Does that sound right?

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  14. As I argued in the previous post (linked above), I don't see how the Draw Mohammed spectacle was at all a matter of free expression. It was a matter of writers getting pissed at their network for cutting something. They were always free to draw whatever they wanted. "Free expression" was a sham reason for the drawing event.

    And I'm still not seeing how the pool of targets for the Draw Mohammed spectacle was any more restricted than that of the Burn a Koran spectacle. The two acts- drawing the prophet and burning a holy book- seem pretty obviously equally offensive to Muslims generally. And now you're making the weird argument that 1) deciding whether to support Draw Mohammed Day turns on the level of collateral damage right after 2) saying that Burn a Koran Day had "no collateral"!!! Doesn't that mean that the Burn a Koran Day is more justifiable under your standards than the Draw Mohammed thing? Your logic is getting all twisted up.

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  15. "It was a matter of writers getting pissed at their network for cutting something. They were always free to draw whatever they wanted. "Free expression" was a sham reason for the drawing event."

    Are you saying that Draw Mohammed Day was directed at the network? See, I didn't see it that way (and let's be clear - a random cartoonist mentioned the idea, not the South Park team). I was always under the impression it was intended to mock fundamentalist Muslims, specifically those who kill or advocate killing people for saying offensive things. That was my understanding.

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  16. Evan,

    The reason they were pulled was due to a bunch of barbarians claiming that they would kill people if said depictions were aired. It wasn't even an issue of them being "offended" (Oh, whoas me, I'm offended! Pay attention to me!) in other words.

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  17. "And now you're making the weird argument that 1) deciding whether to support Draw Mohammed Day turns on the level of collateral damage right after 2) saying that Burn a Koran Day had "no collateral"!!! Doesn't that mean that the Burn a Koran Day is more justifiable under your standards than the Draw Mohammed thing? Your logic is getting all twisted up."

    Not twisted, but perhaps in need of clarification. My point is -

    1. Draw Mohammed Day has collateral damage because it targets Muslims who advocate killing people for saying offensive things, but may admittedly offend other Muslims who don't advocate kiling people for saying offensive things. These offended Muslims would be collateral damage, because they are clearly not the target of the satire (despite the fact that they may take offense at the satire). So there is clear collateral damage in this case.

    2. There is no collateral damage in Burn a Koran Day because the intended target is all Muslims. The WSJ reports that "He [Jones] said his opposition to the Quran is that he believes it doesn't contain what he says are the truths in the Bible." He's on record as saying Islam is evil. So there is no collateral damage because EVERYONE IS A TARGET.



    It would be like going to Afghanistan and accidentally killing civilians in a fire-fight vs. gunning down civilians on purpose. The collateral damage does need to be considered but you have to acknowledge a difference, Evan.

    If my collateral damage involved people's deaths perhaps I would retract. Since it involves only maybe offending some people, I'm inclined not to retract my support.

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  18. Not that the event was directed at the network, but that it came out of a writer-network situation rather than any sort of free expression issue. Everyone's speech was perfectly free, and there was never any threat to it- before, during, or after anything having to do with the South Park episode.

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  19. Evan - I consider death threats (particularly after actual murders for similar cases) in response to speech to be as coercive as state action. It's nice there is no domestic police state behind those death threats (can't say the same about other parts of the world... just ask Rushdie), but it's still coercive.

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  20. If somebody said "I will kill you if you don't buy this" you wouldn't call that a free market simply because the government isn't making you buy it.

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  21. dkuehn,

    Any Christian worth his or her salt believes that Islam is evil and that Mohammed was a false prophet. All religions work this way, though people no not express it quite so.

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  22. On the issue of collateral damage, I certainly realize the difference you were drawing for the Burn a Koran Day, and think that should be taken into account. My concern was that your argument was becoming a bit convoluted. The clarification was good, though. My only dissent would be that the two blasphemies don't strike me as all that different as faced by Muslims around the world, whether or not different parties acknowledge different abstract targets for their expressions on a more symbolic level.

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  23. Well false prophet is one thing - any non-Muslim presumably believes he's a false prophet.

    As for "evil" - I think I probably need a more precise definition of the word before I weigh in on that one.

    The point is, Jones was targeting a much broader community of Muslims than the Draw Mohammed Day people were - and I think unjustifiably.

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  24. Everyone's speech was perfectly free, and there was never any threat to it- before, during, or after anything having to do with the South Park episode."

    This is of course not the case.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2010/apr/22/south-park-censored-fatwa-muhammad

    http://www.examiner.com/pop-culture-in-denver/south-park-creators-receive-death-threats-from-radical-muslim-group

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-april-22-2010/south-park-death-threats

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  25. Evan -

    Well they're going to have to deal with the fact that non-co-religionists will blaspheme. I suppose that's my point. Do we grovel in front of the Eastern Orthodox Church because we have unsanctioned images of Jesus in Sunday School classes? They have very detailed rules about iconography.

    Do Catholics grovel before Protestants for showing Jesus on the cross?

    I think you're focusing far too much on the form and not on the substance. The intent makes a massive difference here.

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  26. dkuehn,

    Anyone who keeps someone out of the Christian kingdom of heaven is evil. These are the sort of natural implications of religious belief, and is partly why it is so divisive.

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  27. If the blasphemy itself is what concerns you it seems to me there's no special reason to highlight the drawings. Americans presumably blaspheme WAY worse than that all the time.

    The reason why we consider this is because it is a MESSAGE. But you're ignoring the content of the message and focusing instead on the form.

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  28. haha - reminds me of a Hitchens thing actually. Some fundie apparently said that it was appropriate that Hitchens got cancer of the esophogus because it was his voice that he used to spread blasphemy.

    Hitchens responded "I can assure the pastor that I have used far more of my organs than just my throat for the purposes of blasphemy"

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  29. What's great about the Daily Show piece is just how much it makes fun of all religious belief. :)

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  30. "My only dissent would be that the two blasphemies don't strike me as all that different as faced by Muslims around the world..."

    And that and $1.00 will get you a diet drink.

    I wonder no one wonders whether atheists are concerned about the "collateral damage" associated with the speech and actions of the religious with regards to them. Oh, that's right, we don't threaten to kill people and blow shit up.

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  31. Well they're going to have to deal with the fact that non-co-religionists will blaspheme. I suppose that's my point.

    Well, right, but you can say this while also saying that the two incidents (koran burning and prophet depiction) are analogous.

    In any case, though, I think you're reading too much into my mention of "blasphemy". It was just a way to identify what these two events were within a Muslim context, and not a reason given against them. You can replace the word with "incident" or "event", if either would be less leading of a word.

    Xenophon, I'll look at your links when I get a chance. Prior to looking at them, though... corporate censoring and even violent threats don't strike me as restricting "free expression" as I think it's usually been discussed in this case... in an American context, in relation to government restrictions. But I'll look at the links at some point.

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  32. "Well, right, but you can say this while also saying that the two incidents (koran burning and prophet depiction) are analogous."

    Oh I could care less about burning a Koran. What I care about is the message he's sending by doing it. That's really my whole point. Superficially, the drawings and the burnings may be comparable. As far as the message goes, they are worlds apart. Superficially, the burning and the drawing are closer. Substantively, the drawings and the mosque are closer. I think we need to worry about substance, perhaps have an eye out for who takes offense - but my whole point is that taking offense should be low on our list of concerns.

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  33. Evan,

    The basic role of the state is to protect the individual against private violence; if threats of private violence intimidate a speaker then it is an issue of free expression.

    Let's reverse it though ... let's say the KKK (an organization with a lot of religious content to it) was upset about and issued death threats regarding a speaker who was set to give a talk on why individuals should be at liberty to marry anyone they wished (including interracial marriage). Would you be making the same remarks now?

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  34. ...of course, Xenophon, but I'm assuming the state is doing all in its power to prevent these threats of violence from happening. That is, it's not as if the "Draw Mohammed" thing evolved from a perceived lack of government diligence in protecting free speech against terrorist threats.

    So, while it's "about" free expression in the sense that it freely expresses stuff, it's not about free expression in the sense that anyone's expression had been restricted by the state or was not protected in good faith by the state.

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  35. ...unless you're aware of some Al Qaeda/D.C. conspiracy theory that I'm not.

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  36. Tell it to Theo van Gogh, Evan.

    No - when these threats are made it is a violation of liberty. I agree - we're lucky to live in a country that does address these threats. But it doesn't make the threat go away.

    If you threatens someone's life you can be charged with assault. This is a crime.

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  37. It would be like saying rape awareness events aren't "about rape" because the government prosecutes rape.

    Sorry - that just doesn't fly with me, Evan.

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  38. "...of course, Xenophon, but I'm assuming the state is doing all in its power to prevent these threats of violence from happening."

    As far as I know, the group in question who made the Van Gogh comment remains in business. You may or may not remember what happened to Van Gogh: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3974179.stm

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  39. Oh, come on. I'm not saying it's not about free expression more generally. But look at the poster you put up in your original post on this event... they clearly reference the first amendment. I think I'm quite justified in interpreting the intended reference to "free expression/speech" in a narrow way.

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  40. ...and are we talking about the Draw Mohammed Day, or about other cartoons? Again, the more broadly we cast our net, the more broadly we can articulate the purpose of these events. But I'm not sure that justification of any particular case comes down to such broad views. The justification needs to be suitably particular as well.

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  41. Sorry - didn't realize so much hinged on that one clause in that one sentence.

    Come on - are you really going to suggest that anyone that's commented here so far and framed this as a free speech issue here so far is really confused about what the first amendment does and does not do.

    Besides, I'm not even sure how much of an oversight this really is. The people that murder in response to this stuff are the people that do want to make it illegal to say this sort of stuff. Caliphate, sharia, blah blah blah. It isn't that problematic to construe standing up to them as defending the first amendment.

    Not the best language, sure - you I and everyone that comments on this blog on a regular basis can agree on that - but I hope you're not basing your reaction to the whole day on that one sentence.

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  42. I was operating off the fair assumption that Draw Mohammed Day was a reaction to the South Park fiasco and the string of previous cartoon incidents that almost everyone commenting on it associated the South Park fiasco with. If I recall, the guy that threatened the South Park guys referenced the other incidents, did he not? Even if he didn't, that's what I and (I thought) everybody else thought Draw Mohammed Day was reacting to. In what way is that casting too wide a net?

    What exactly did you think it was all about?

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  43. Come on - are you really going to suggest that anyone that's commented here so far and framed this as a free speech issue here so far is really confused about what the first amendment does and does not do.

    Not at all. But I think that the concept of "free expression" is enough wrapped up in this law that to step outside of it in discussing the matter requires much more explanation of what "free expression" is and requires in order to be compelling. The benefit of the law on free expression is that it is (relatively) more clear. But liberal ideologies are diverse and vague enough to not really warrant the sort of quick conclusions that are being drawn about free expression here, especially for someone like me (who is likely more illiberal than the other commenters here).

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  44. "But I think that the concept of "free expression" is enough wrapped up in this law that to step outside of it in discussing the matter requires much more explanation of what "free expression" is and requires in order to be compelling."

    OK, how about this for specificity: free expression is being able to say that you don't like women getting stoned for adultery without getting or fear of getting stabbed.

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  45. One of the benefits of how blatant Islamic fundamentalists are (I thought) was that we were all on the same page on exactly what the problem was, and it didn't need much elaboration.

    If you've got a beef with Christian fundamentalists you have to be a little more specific and line up some defenses, because they don't issue fatwas, form death squads, threaten to commit, or actually commit murder. That might require more elaboration, as you say.

    But in this case - are you serious? You've got to be kidding me.

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  46. OK, how about this for specificity: free expression is being able to say that you don't like women getting stoned for adultery without getting or fear of getting stabbed.

    That's cool. Now are you talking about the Florida pastor here or the comedy writers? And are we expecting everyone to draw an obvious connection between pictures of the Prophet, or Koran burning, and this expression of opposition to oppression?

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  47. ...I mean, don't you see that a statement of opposition to stoning women for adultery is worlds different than the symbolic actions being taken by the pastor and the writers? They may stem from similar intentions, sure. But the water is a lot more murky when expression becomes so abstract, and bases its impression so much upon strongly held religious and social taboos.

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  48. I'm not following - you think the burning and the drawing spring from similar intentions?

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  49. I'm saying they may both spring from opposition to certain aspects of certain Islamic traditions. The problem, though, is that drawing a person or burning a book are quite removed from clearly saying "I oppose stoning female victims of abuse". They both depend upon raising flags of disgust or offense (because they are blasphemous actions for the people targeted and for some non-targeted people) rather than clear statements against unjust punishments in certain Islamic regimes.

    My guess is that the drawing and burning spring from similar intentions insofar as each seeks to identify serious problems within the lived traditions of the Islamic faith. Surely they aren't always identifying the same problems, but I think there is substantial overlap. And this should be seen as a valuable acknowledgment on my part... I'm saying I don't think they're doing this simply with the intention of pissing people off (although the extent to which they inevitably do, I find problematic in a way that I wouldn't find some of your Orthodox/Catholic/Protestant analogies problematic).

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  50. I have to disagree with you. The cartoons were targeted to a very specific fundamentalist objection and threat - the specificity of the opponent in that case was both implicit and explicit. That was my whole point in my discussion of the collateral damage.

    The Koran burning is vague and general (much like burning of the American flag).

    "I think there is substantial overlap"

    If by this you mean Pastor Jones probably didn't approve of the killing of van Gogh I suppose you're right, but who cares? bin Laden and I have overlap insofar as we both think American troops shouldn't be in Saudi Arabia proping up the royal family there. Exactly what do you think you can derive from that overlap?

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  51. ...if free expression is well-defined as you mentioned above, why didn't the South Park writers simply start a campaign for being able to freely oppose the stoning of Iranian women? What makes images of the Prophet a suitable direction for discourse? Could the South Park writers have hosted a "Burn a Koran Day" with the same intention and toward the same end, so long as they clarified their intentions and ends as such?

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  52. That, I suppose, is the real question: what would have been different if comedy writers and cartoonists called on people to burn Korans rather than draw Mohammed (though for the same reasons as were provided for the original draw Mohammed day)?

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  53. And vice versa, maybe: would the Florida situation be any different if he decided to extend the Mohammed cartoon holiday for celebrating 9/11/10?

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  54. Oh - I just mentioned stoning as one example because we had talked about van Gogh. That was one of the things he highlighted. I didn't mean that to be the definition of "free expression" in this case... I was just shocked you thought free expression needed additional clarification to avoid being confused with hte 1st amendment.

    In this case, I would imagine the free expression at hand is "I want to be able to mock fundamentalists who don't like their prophets picture being drawn without getting death threats".

    I think if the South Park writers had done "burn a Koran day" it probably would not have been as targeted as a cartoon - which makes sense because of the situation with the Danish cartoonists.

    But there's also just bad vibes associated with any sort of burning of anything - particularly book burning.

    If they had done "let's all eat pork, drink beer, and look at the hair and ankles of women we're not married to" Day I would have argued that their message might get confused, but I would not have considered it offensive.

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  55. And vice versa, maybe: would the Florida situation be any different if he decided to extend the Mohammed cartoon holiday for celebrating 9/11/10?

    Probably still would piss me off.

    You seem to be missing the point, and still focusing on the superficial Evan. I don't really care about the physical integrity of the Koran. Book-burning is a squeemish endeavor, I think - and burning anything is a little more violent - but I really don't care about how the Koran is treated.

    What I care about is the MESSAGE. And it doesn't matter how its done - I would object to the book burning and the cartoon drawing as surely as I would object to Pastor Jones simply getting up and saying "I think Muslims are bad and taking over our country and they shouldn't build a mosque there". And I would support the creators of South Park even if all they did was stand up and say "I don't want my life threatened because I offended you, and you guys are a bunch of backwards idiots for threatening people's lives with these sorts of things".

    It's the message Evan - that's the whole problem here.

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  56. The dinner table must have been fun with you guys around. :)

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  57. No matter how he chose to express himself, I'm simply saying Jones is a dumbass and an embarassment.

    And no matter how they chose to express it, I'm simply saying that the South Park creators are talented satirists and they shouldn't fear for their lives for that work, and they SHOULD be pissed at people who feel otherwise.

    Think up all the hypotheticals you want - if those are the messages being sent, I will always oppose Jones and support the South Park gang.

    It's good we had this exchange - I was seriously wondering whether I was wrong last night and today. Thinking it through has solidified that I wasn't. I'm right on this one.

    The only margin available for disagreement is whether offending people's sensitivities is something to be overly concerned about. Since no one has to watch, I'm inclined to say "no" - but that is a legitimate thing to continue talking about.

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  58. Think up all the hypotheticals you want - if those are the messages being sent, I will always oppose Jones and support the South Park gang.

    Although, as I alluded to earlier, I may very well make stylistic commentary on the message if they get sent in certain ways (ie - "book burning has pretty bad connotations regardless of what you're burning, guys", or "eat pork, drink beer, and look at other women sounds cooler than it's going to end up being, guys")

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  59. The dinner table must have been fun with you guys around. :)

    Actually, scraps of raw meat were thrown in our room and we were forced to fight over it... then social services came... then it was all fuzzy for a while...

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