Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Coulter, Levant, and Free Speech. . . .

I generally shy away from saying anything about people like Ann Coulter because I think as a general rule she is simply beneath contempt. I am not even sure if she actually believes half the things she says or whether it is simply part of her overall self-promotion strategy designed to increase sales of her books and ultimately pad her bank account. And anyone who pondered on national television why Canada still wasn't a good American ally like when we followed them into Vietnam (!??!) is obviously so ignorant of fairly straightforward geo-political facts that I would doubt their suitability to be a spokesperson for almost anything. 

Now, I am generally a fairly staunch advocate for freedom of speech. I think people should, if they really want, be able to publish cartoons of almost anything. But what I am always surprised about is that people like Ms Coulter or Mr. Levant are surprised when people get angry and even unruly when they decide to say things obviously designed to provoke a response. If you go to into Harlem, for example, and start yelling the 'N' word you are going to provoke a dangerous response. And to hide behind some arbitrary rule of respectability and 'law and order' when you are so obviously being intentionally provocative is simple-minded and hypocritical. There is a great deal one can say about almost any controversial subject in a respectful or at least rational way that is not designed to provoke an angry and violent response. But if one uses the 'free speech' principle to intentionally provoke an angry and hot-headed response, then don't feign an air of appalled disbelief. Ann Coulter famously said that Muslims should not be allowed to ride on commercial airplanes and that they could 'take a flying carpet' if they wanted to have access to air travel. Two days ago, when asked about this by a Muslim woman in London, who pointed out that their were no such things as flying carpets, Ms. Coulter suggested that she could "ride a camel" as an alternate form of transportation. Now, Ms Coulter can try to pass this off as a witticism, but given the thousand plus years of racism, violence and oppression that Muslim culture has endured by Westerners such as Ms. Coulter, such a remark is obviously designed to provoke an angry and even violent response. You will notice that Ms. Coulter is aware enough of such processes that she doesn't walk around the States suggesting that African Americans eat more 'fried chicken and watermelon.' Because such statements are universally recognized as racist and such remarks would be dangerous and disrespectful in the extreme, Ms. Coulter would not say such things. But prejudice against Muslims and Homosexuals is still, to a degree, tolerated in the American political discourse, so she feels free to say some of the things she says in order to intentionally attract attention.

Well, I say to Ms. Coulter and Mr. Levant, if you are going to stoke the flame, don't complain about the fire. It reminds me of the American military which, when it invades a country, complains indignantly when people fight back. Well folks, when people are pushed, they fight back. And when you build on centuries racism and prejudice with intentionally provocative and racist statements about people's ethnicity, people will react. 

And this brings me to my final point. Making prejudiced statement against a group which has been (in recent history) the victim of violence and oppression, is uniquely provocative. Ezra Levant is fond of saying that people are free to make provocative statements against, say Christianity or main-stream 'white' culture, but he sadly laments that he gets criticized when he publishes cartoons that are perceived as racist against Muslim culture. But the comparison is specious. There is a long history of racism and prejudice against Islam from Western nations and everyday in this country people of color, Muslims, and Homosexuals feel the pressure of prejudice. Mr Levant and Ms. Coulter must understand very little about the nature of power not to understand the difference between remarks made by the powerful against those who lack power, and remarks made by those who regularly experience victimization. 

Perhaps people like Levant and Coulter should be allowed, within certain limits, to say what they want. But let's not have any false surprise and indignity when people fight back. 

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