Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Media HugBox: A Collegiate Demonstration

Several weeks ago, curiosity brought me to read the most recent weekly paper of my former employer, The Watchdog. Inside, I found an article by one Ghina Mubin which argued that while what the murderers of Charlie Hebdo did was deplorable, a portion of the blame lay squarely on the shoulders of the content creators of the French publication. The heart of the Op/Ed--if one could say it had a center somewhere in the meandering path of assertions--read as follows:

"What the Charlie Hebdo magazine did was extremely inappropriate. France should not have been OK with publishing the images. Muslims see the prophet as a living example of how they should live. Frankly, even drawing the prophet isn’t OK. By portraying him in a negative way people could get a different image of who the prophet is,  and be even more confused on what the religion contains, Islamophobia is prevalent in the modern day world. When the cartoon was published, Charlie Hebdo encouraged ignorance and bigotry towards Islam. Shooting people is completely wrong and the shooters should be apprehended, but we must fix the causes and address the motives of these criminals.  We should learn from tragedies like this.
It’s not a surprise that the cartoon was published in France. France has been popular in the media for their secular campaigns such as trying to ban women from wearing the veil. This totally violates the right to practice whatever beliefs they hold. Lately, people have been using this tragedy to justify this propagandic “freedom of speech.” This is the same propaganda the Nazis used during World War II to make the citizens believe they were doing right. Freedom of speech and hate are two different topics; mixing the two together creates tension. The gray area in between is where people start to argue. To me, this sounds more like “freedom to hate”  or “freedom to be prejudiced” which sounds like a trigger to more violence, hate crimes and conflict. If France doesn’t acknowledge the “right to practice your religion,” then how can they be responsible to determine “freedom of speech” versus hate."

Behold, your tax-dollars at work, incubating the future of our great nation.

Initially, I was actually less appalled by the author's conclusions than by the almost satirically poor structure of the argument (if only slightly), and the reflection of this on the paper as a whole. As a point of reference and comparison, I remember that the very first piece I wrote as a member of The Watchdog staff was heavily vetted and fact-checked before being published, and the Editor in Chief had strongly suggested that I changed a word so as to soften the impact on Bellevue College's "diverse student body." I forget which word was the offending one, but the paper went so far as to add a disclaimer to the bottom of my article when I declined to make the change, redundantly distancing itself from what were mostly just statements of fact. This is a step noticeably missing in Ms. Mubin's train of mostly fact-free opinions.  Her journalistic failings, however great or maybe because of their grandiosity, were shorter in stature than its' entertainment value was tall, and so I did the only ethical and moral thing: I shared it for the enjoyment of my friends and acquaintances.

Additional comments edited out (This was the complete and total extent of my communication with Tockey on the subject; my views are my own, and do not reflect his, so please don't fire him)
Among the entertained acquaintances was Brian Tockey, whose name is not redacted because he is a writer and editor for the star publication of this post. He is also among a small number of contributors for whom I have tremendous respect, both for his intelligence and his writing abilities. Although I am proudly no longer a student at Bellevue College, the suggestion stuck with me for a few days. Ultimately--motivated equally by boredom and by the sheer will to exercise my right to join the conversation in the paper that I was paying for with my taxes--I decided to write a response. The paper states in its' print version that it will publish all letters to the editor, and under such a promise of inclusion, how could I resist, especially after personal send-off letters like these?

So here is the Letter to the Editor, in full:

"Unlike the Fatwa against author Salmon Rushdie in 1989, or the murder of Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has received an avalanche of publicity and outcry from the public at large. The majority of this outcry has been leveled at the violence carried out by Muslims against the secular publication, and a wonderfully large portion of that anger coming from the Islamic community itself. But there is another outcry aimed against the satirical editorial; the cartoons, this group says, incite the violence.
Among the latter group, I’m unsurprised to see The Watchdog staff in their editorial from January 27th. They are a professional group of media students, after all, and the media has placed itself mostly in the company of the censors, refusing—in this age of visual journalism—to show exactly which cartoons were causing this crises, all the while publically pondering if they had “gone too far this time.” Exactly like the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon riots and murders from a decade ago, and exactly like the Salmon Rushdie affair. 
I am pleasantly surprised to see that Ghina Mubin personally opposes shooting people (a view not shared by Mohammed, who himself had many poets like Abu Afak and others who mocked him killed). But the issue at hand is not the moral quandaries of murder, nor is this letter addressed to Ms. Mubin. It has rather to do with the subject of freedom of speech, which Ghina correctly points out sometimes includes “freedom to hate.” How else could a tolerant, liberal school like Bellevue College permit, let alone support, an ideology that preaches that homosexuals are transgressors and abominations? Or that unbelievers are to be fought until they willingly submit to a peaceful, second-class citizenship? I am no theologian, but I have read the Quran. For myself, the explicit calls to hatred, condemnation, and violence towards unbelievers should be a far greater outrage against our finely tuned moral sensitivities than any cartoon imaginable. 
The experience of being hated, for gays, Muslims, atheists like myself, or anyone else, is a subjective one. Two years ago, for example, BC’s own Yoshiko Harden talked to students about how calling a black person “articulate” was actually a racial micro-aggression, regardless of the intent of the speaker or the most obvious meaning of the sentence. In a world where a simple compliment can be racist, a cartoon can be “Islamophobic,” and—one can’t ignore the corollary—a religious text can be homophobic and sexist, freedom of speech and freedom of religion both necessarily imply a freedom to hate. And why shouldn’t it? I happen to hate rapists and murderers myself, and reserve the right to say so. 
As Ghina’s failure to research reminds us, Nazi-style censorship—not free speech—is the first step towards tyranny. To the Watchdog staff, I wish to remind you that freedom of speech and of the press is the platform on which you stand. Tread carefully when undermining yourself."
"Why," you may ask, "are you publishing this on your own blog? Why not wait for the paper to post it like a normal person? They do promise to publish all letters to the editor, after all." True, and if their promise (unfortunately only verifiable in person or print, not digitally) were kept, than this post would not exist, or at least not in this lengthened form. But--and I'm sure you will be shocked and surprised by this--they appear to be dragging their feet on actually following through. And to clarify what feet-dragging looks like here, I submitted the above on February 12. One cycle passing would be understandable enough. Space fills up in an Op/Ed section; I know, I used to organize and edit them. Two,  however, shows either incompetence or put-on forgetfulness, perhaps motivated by political disagreement, but more likely motivated by fear. Who knows for sure. But the most important character trait for a news story or an Op/Ed is timing. Writing a mediocre piece at the cusp of the subject's relevance is far better than writing a masterpiece well after it has died down. The Watchdog staff's failure to grasp this would be just as condemning as their understanding, so I won't bother speculating. I'm not waiting anymore in any case.

One final observation: in the extraordinary lag-time between my submission of the letter and its non-publication, another headline related to violence and Islam came, this time in the reverse form from the usual. Three Muslims were shot to death by an atheist man in Chapel Hill, NC. Here, if there ever was one, is the perfect "man-bites-dog" story the media so craves. How did The Watchdog choose to cover it? See if you can guess the direction they take before you read it. In case you need a hint, here's a star quote:

"Movies such as “American Sniper” are promoting this type of bigotry and hate towards Muslims."

Indeed. Anyone who watched the film knows it's basically pro-atheist propaganda too.


*Update: Within several hours of posting this, Aaron did get back to me with the intent to publish my letter. I informed him that I had already published it elsewhere (here), and would completely understand if The Watchdog chooses not to publish it.

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