Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Virtue of the Insufferable Asshole

A former executive director of the Colorado ACLU, Cathy Hazouri, was fond of saying, "No matter what your political background, if something we've done this week hasn't pissed you off, then we're not doing our job." Why would someone choose to fund a non-profit designed to upset their personal notions of right and wrong? Because it's the ACLU, and people should take for granted that the purpose of such free-expression organizations is to show you all the times in your life you are wrong.

There seems to be similar misgivings among some writers and would-be progressives about supporting Charlie Hebdo and the 12 cartoonists and editors murdered by three Salafist extremists on January 7. Some insist on the likelihood of "imperialists" somehow being responsible for an action that may cause all Western Europeans to hate Muslims indiscriminately. (It seems plenty of Salafists have the full capability of doing that without the help of Western intelligence agencies, thank you very much.) Others recognize that Charlie Hebdo suffered a terrible and bloody injustice, but feel that the magazine was bound to incur some lethal wrath by always pushing and pushing the issue of the contradictions of devout Islam, a problem akin to poking a stick in a tiger's eye. Some are joining the ranks of undergraduate college students and instructors who have immersed themselves in "civility" for so long, they are leery of reading anyone from Twain to Hemingway to Vonnegut, finding it "offensive." One friend who is a firm supporter of civil rights made the legitimate point that, after the kerfuffle involving Seth Rogen's film for Sony, The Interview, he does not want to go so far in supporting freedom of speech that it means supporting people who are just plain assholes.

There are plenty of reasons to suggest that The Interview might not be protected speech because it advocates the killing of a living world leader. But we should not shy away from support of Charlie Hebdo because of fear of assholes. What art movements from Dada to punk rock should have taught us is that the world needs insufferable assholes to move art and literature forward. We can always filter out the tactical assholes who are merely creepy to others as artistic movements get assimilated after they have existed for a few years. But we should remember that Dada, punk, and like movements arose with the conscious intention of the founders being strategic assholes - making the people hate you, because you poked sticks in their eyes.

We should never underestimate the ability of the comfortably numb to turn their backs on injustices in front of them. In fact, this is one reason that the Black Lives Matter movement decided in late 2014 to consciously adopt an "in your face" attitude to protests: blockade Black Friday sales and the Mall of the Americas, show up at sporting events and music concerts, and make damned sure that no citizen could pretend that they could surround themselves with a protest-free entertainment bubble. Guess what? You have no right to avoid being subjected to free speech! Are the protesters assholes? Of course! They are assholes for a reason.

It is admittedly disturbing and discomforting to be confronted with the artwork or propaganda of insufferable assholes. But that's the point - afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Those who have learned the lessons of false "civility" in recent undergraduate academic experiences might ask, "How is a spoof of someone's dearly held spiritual principles any different than hate speech that mocks someone's race or sex?"

We are skating on thin ice here, but I would suggest that an angry tome that addresses someone's genetically inherited characteristics is hate speech. A parody that mocks someone's learned cultural experiences, including even their devout religious practices, is protected speech and a necessary shock to the system.

My support of Charlie Hebdo's decision to mock Islamic beliefs does not come from some inbred Islamophobia, but from a firm belief that the degree of devoutness a person displays is a measure of their degree of wickedness. A spirituality that reflects the divine will always be lighter than air and extremely flexible and malleable. It will treat no doctrinal framework as a given. This is why I keep yammering about making a T-shirt that says, "It is always better to change your doctrine than to circle the wagons." If your doctrine leaves you inflexible, you are succumbing to wickedness. Devoutness to any sort of cause, spiritual or secular, is equally evil.

People don't willingly subject themselves to art, literature, or political ideas that offend them because they want to live inside their comfortable and safe assumptions.  This is why Black Lives Matter wanted to take the issue of police brutality to people's homes. This is why the Dadaists and punks wanted to be as rude, lewd, and crude as possible within their temporal confines of middle America and Western Europe. They were all assholes. They were virtuous insufferable assholes trying to move the football forward. And if you are deeply offended, make a point of seeking out and shaking the hand of an insufferable asshole (hold on to your wallet). You just might have learned something.

And what might Islamic activists learn from such mockery of Muhammad? Well, Christians learned something during the Reformation years that never quite sunk in to many Islamic sects. Let's think of this as the Let's Make A Deal three doors problem. Most devout neophytes are familiar with the very rare Doors # 1 and # 2. One can be a glorious victor in a spiritual struggle, or a sainted martyr. But Door #3 is the most common occurrence of all, as manifested in the Christian preterite or "left-behind" minions. You don't get transcendence, you don't even get to be a martyr, you get to lose and be forgotten and have your entire life left as meaningless. Many in the Western world accept this but still hope for salvation. Salafists are sure they have been crushed by Western prejudice for 200 years, even though Islamic falling-behind was largely self-inflicted, the fault of the corrupt Ottoman Empire 200 years ago. Many modern Salafists get enraged, and feel they have the right to eliminate any who might tell them their entire lives have been without meaning. Guess what? This is our lot, all of us who have chosen Door #3, Shut up and be the fly squashed against the fence. Sometimes it takes an asshole to tell you that. And as Christopher Hitchens once said, we can all sit down and talk about mutual respect once the mockery has begun, but you do not get to bring a gun to the table to attempt to enforce that respect through violence. Respect and protect your local asshole.

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