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City of Brass

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.

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