City of Brass

City of Brass

Free Speech, Consensus, and Bigotry

This is a guest post by Muslim comics writer and essayist G. Willow Wilson.

One of my literary heroes, Neil Gaiman, is an ardent supporter of free speech. In this entry of his blog, he discusses an issue that has set the comics industry on fire in recent months: the question of whether fictional depictions of child pornography are protected speech. (Child pornography involving live children is not; about that I think we can all vigorously concur.) Gaiman concludes that we must protect all speech, no matter how vile, because the law cannot draw a line between art and smut.


The debate brought me back to the infamous Danish cartoon scandal of 2005. Like many thinking Muslims, I was forced by the controversy to fight a war on two fronts: against religious violence on one hand, and against hate speech on the other. I condemned the threats of death and violence made by my angry coreligionists, but I also condemned the cartoons.

Among my fellow comics creators, my position was considered reactionary. Why couldn’t I recognize that the man behind the Muhammad cartoons was An Artist, excercising the noblest of ideals, Freedom Of Speech? Was not art inherently worthy? Why did I insist on holding An Artist morally responsible for the ideas his art promoted?


The answer was–is–quite simple: because an artist is morally responsible for the ideas his art promotes. Free speech does not mean all speech is just or good. When an artist promotes (or worse, invents) ugly stereotypes, he or she is responsible for helping create cultural consensus about the people, ideas or activities s/he stereotypes. And consensus is dangerous.

I recently looked over a gallery of cartoons that appeared in World War II-era Germany. And I found this. (H/T The German Propaganda Archive) He looked oddly familiar. Hadn’t I seen him somewhere before? Ah yes: here. Man, they could be brothers. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the ‘artist’ of the first cartoon was responsible for perpetuating Nazi consensus against the Jews. He may not have fired a single bullet or locked a single gas chamber, but he helped ease the minds and lend confidence to the hearts of those who did. Yet western leftists lined up in solidarity with the ‘artist’ of the second cartoon, which perpetuates a near-identical consensus against Muslims. Right down to the hooked nose, maniacal gaze, and scruffy facial hair. Someone–probably many someones–looked at that cartoon, looked at an Iraqi civilian with his legs blown off, and didn’t care.


When you defend hate speech, you defend hatred. Whether you like it or not, whether you deal with it or not, whether you admit it or not. I refuse to defend hate speech. I refuse to call it art. There is only one reason I do not call for it to be censored: if we start censoring hate speech, we give the government a precedent to censor anything. Gaiman is right–the law cannot draw fine lines.

So the hate-cartoonists and (fictional!) child-pornographers are free to continue Being Artists. The fashionable are free to worship them, rationalize them, and split hairs for them. And I am free to be a curmudgeon, who continues to insist that art is not merely a right–it is a moral responsibility.

  • Scott

    You need to break it down. If Fred Phelps preaches to his follower “Kill all gays!” and his followers kill a gay person, he is morally and legally responsible. If I draw a picture humiliating Phelps and his followers go crazy I am in no way responsible and am in fact adding something.
    I’m exposing the violent reactionary nature of his followers for all enlightened people to consider.

Previous Posts

nationwide hate rallies planned at mosques Oct 9-10, Homeland Security conf call
This weekend, there is a planned, armed protest "in every country, at every mosque" by a group called the "Global Rally for Humanity". So far, the protests are falling short of global, but they do have 21 mosques, community centers and ...

posted 1:40:08pm Oct. 06, 2015 | read full post »

why don't they condemn?
Ever since 9-11, and well before it, this is the litany of accusation that ordinary Muslim Americans have had to endure: Muslims do not condemn - there is no million Muslim march against terrorism. Islam is an inherently violent ...

posted 1:47:45pm Oct. 02, 2015 | read full post »

a Republican, Muslim Mayor of St Louis?
Umar Lee is many things - a native ...

posted 1:09:57am Sep. 30, 2015 | read full post »

Abrahamic Convergence - inspiration, forgiveness, and tragedy
This week is a truly portentous one for Muslims, Jews, and Catholics. In one week, we have Yom Kippur, the Day of Arafat and Eid ul Adha, and Pope Francis' first visit to the United States. I like the term "Abrahamic Convergence" for this sort ...

posted 3:08:38pm Sep. 24, 2015 | read full post »

Anticipating Ashara: Reflections on Grief and the Remembrance of Imam Husain SA
This is a guest post by Durriya Badani. "Ek Husain na gam si va, koi gam na dikhave." ("May you know no other grief than the grief of Husain.") An exquisitely simple, yet deeply profound prayer for mumineen by Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin ...

posted 4:48:04pm Sep. 10, 2015 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.