On Censorship, Sympathy and South Park

Last night, Comedy Central decided that the threats from radical Muslims were too dangerous and decided to censor South Park‘s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. There’s many interesting aspects to this story but the one that stands out to me is the thin line between responsible and inflammatory speech. I will defend the right to make art about anything to the very end. Being an artist who deals with sensitive topics such as war and religion, I am aware of the consequences of people taking offense to what you do and say with their creative output.

On the other hand, I also understand the offense people take when people mock something they hold very dear. Though I rant and rave and poke fun of religion myself, I don’t harbor any illusion that it’s not offensive to some. In fact, I would say that my biggest problem with organized religion, be it Christian, Muslim, or whatever, is not the tenants of their belief itself but rather the fact that some adherents are not content to practice their faith without attempting to drag non-believers into the fold. Proselytizing is always ugly to me, mostly because no two people are going to view spirituality the same way, despite their claims.

When you have people who are determined to tell others how to live rather than focus on their own existence then it’s a problem.

And that’s exactly why this is a story, because there are some who would rather react violently when someone doesn’t share their religious faith. This is by no means restricted to Islam, though I’m sure many will point to this as just another example of how Islam is a “violent” religion. It’s a question of tolerance. Threatening Matt Stone and Trey Parker with death over their satirical cartoon of Muhammad is no different than shooting an abortion doctor because you disagree with the definition of life. It’s extremism that causes reactions like this, not religion per se. One could certainly argue that religion fosters a sense of intolerance, but that’s another topic.

Intolerance is at the heart of religious extremism and terrorism. By not tolerating a cartoon representation to the point of acting violently is meant to instill fear. Comedy Central’s decision only further entrenches that fear and, in doing so, hands a victory to extremists. Note that the reaction from South Park‘s creators will likely be to keep pushing the buttons that they know will provoke a reaction. These guys aren’t stupid and they know a publicity coup when they see one. Perhaps the original episode was in bad taste, but if so, then it’s only because extremism gave them the ammunition. By reacting exactly how Matt and Trey knew they would, extremists only set up a self-serving loop of offense: as South Park continues to needle, radicals will have even more “excuse” to be, well, radical.

We artists should be sympathetic to the possibility that people will take offense to what we do, no matter if we meant it or not. You can’t please all the people all the time, but you can sure piss a portion of them off pretty good. On the other hand, the faithful must understand that non-believers don’t subscribe to the pillars of faith that they hold sacred. For that reason, perceptions of hypocrisy and disingenuous behavior are quite likely to be met with scorn, whether the followers are offended or not. That is, ultimately, art’s job. There is a place for both devotion and derision and both sides must be sympathetic to the other. Censorship because of extremism teaches exactly the wrong lessons about how to be tolerant of contradicting views, because it isn’t tolerance at all. It’s oppression.


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