Okay, here’s something that occurred to me. It may not be a great analogy, but maybe it’ll get better as I keep typing and think it through further.
There’s a scene in the film Good Will Hunting, where Will’s talking to Robin Williams’ psychologist character about how his abusive father used to get drunk and beat him. From IMDB:
Will: He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the kitchen table and say, “Choose.”
Sean: Well, I gotta go with the belt there.
Will: I used to go with the wrench.
Will: ‘Cause fuck him, that’s why.
I thought of this when I was listening to an old interview with Stewart Lee recently, and they started talking about those cartoons which appeared in a Dutch newspaper, depicting and mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammed, and which so outraged certain religious extremists that they started issuing death threats and blowing up buildings.
There’s been all kinds of commentary and discussion about those in the months and years that followed the zenith of all the fuss, about whether the papers were being childish and deliberately provocative to print these offensive things, or whether uncompromised free speech should win out. In general, I’m against censorship, but I’m also in favour of not being a gratuitous dick, and think we should be nice to each other, and not go out of our way to be antagonistic just because we can, and all that hippie crap.
But if someone starts planting bombs and murdering people, in response to someone drawing a picture of a man, then I think it’s a profoundly correct and appropriate response to say “Fuck them,” and keep using your freedom of speech however you damn well please.
Last year, a student in the US received hate mail and death threats after disrespecting a small piece of bread. In response to the outrage that such a banal activity provoked from some directions, PZ Myers publicly and ostentatiously desecrated a Catholic communion wafer himself. I defended him here at the time.
‘Cause fuck them, that’s why.
In the movie, Will was telling his father: You want me to be scared of you; you’re trying to bully me into making the choice that defines me as a coward; you want me to hope that what I’m doing will appease you; you want me to voluntarily disempower myself and submit to the force of your might. Well, fuck you. I refuse to be backed into a corner, where I’m making my own decisions out of fear.
I have friends of various religious denominations. We discuss this difference of opinion sometimes, but not that often, and when we do it never really reaches the level of an argument. It’s rarely even a debate. We just chat. There are things that I could say, which I have every right to say, which would antagonise and possibly offend them, but which might form a legitimate part of the discussion, or provide honest criticism of their point of view. I don’t tend to say these things, because I respect these people and their preferred boundaries. I don’t feel that their sensibilities really deserve to be swiped at; I’d probably just upset someone I care about. I’ve no doubt they often indulge me in a similar way, and I appreciate it.
These are intelligent, tolerant people, whose reaction to seeing obscenities cast against the values they hold dear would be unlikely to rise much above annoyance. Giving ground to my friends like this isn’t appeasement; it doesn’t legitimise some overblown response that I’m fearfully trying to avoid. I’m just trying to be nice.
But when people are being so irrational or unfair, or acting with such a distorted perspective on how it’s reasonable to behave, that other people are being murdered over a picture of a man, then it seems utterly wrong-headed to just shut up and sit quietly and abide by their rules and hope they don’t hurt us any more. We don’t have to take this shit. We are going to keep drawing pictures, and disrespecting small pieces of bread, and whatever the hell else we have a right to do, whatever those maniacs have to say about it.
‘Cause fuck them, that’s why.