On Wednesday, Nihad Awad, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, released a statement on “Draw Muhammad Day” that begins, “I will be the first to defend anyone’s right to express their opinion, no matter how offensive it may be to me. Our nation has prospered because Americans value and respect diversity. But freedom of expression does not create an obligation to offend or to show disrespect to the religious beliefs or revered figures of others.”



Note the subtle shift: you’re free to be offensive if you want, grumble mutter blargh, but you’re not obligated to be that way, pointed stare, hint hint. Well, no shit. No one is saying they are obligated to offend other people’s religious beliefs or revered figures. They choose to do so, which is part of the whole freedom of expression thing. What was the problem again?

Ah, that’s right. You’re free to be outspoken on issues that I’m not personally invested in. Well, as Noam Chomsky so memorably put it long ago, Stalin and Hitler were in favor of free speech for ideas they liked. The whole reason for constitutionally protected speech is that almost everyone is tempted to want to carve out an exception when it comes to their sensitivities, and since everyone is grievously offended by something different, it wouldn’t be long before there was nothing safe to publicly talk about, except maybe the weather. No, wait, that might lead to volatile disagreements over climate change. Better scratch that too.

You can do it your own way
If it’s done just how I say

— Metallica

But no one is really saying it should be illegal to insult Muhammed, Jesus or Bacchus, they’re just trying their hardest to pressure people into choosing not to do so. I’ve been both bemused and amused at reading so many of the typical liberal responses to Draw Muhammed Day, some of which make me think that they’d secretly be glad to see a fatwa declared against Reason magazine. It’s nothing new; these are the exact same whining complaints about civility and mean ol’ jerks directed at the “New Atheists” (and the only thing new about them is the willingness to not be cowed by public disapproval of atheists who have the gall to not act ashamed of themselves). I particularly appreciate the patronizing efforts of so many liberals to appoint themselves enlightened spokespeople for all the moderate, tolerant Muslims of the world and inform the Prophet-sketchers that they are needlessly infuriating more than a billion people (whereas I suspect a great number of them are just like the tepid believers of any religion: too indifferent and concerned with worldly pursuits to really care one way or the other).

Speaking of obligations, you would think it would be so basic as to need no explication, but people who do not belong to your particular clubhouse are not obligated to demur and show respect to the things you stand for, either. If this isn’t obvious to you, then you’re probably not all that tolerant and moderate to begin with. See, as a somewhat reasonable person whose first instinct is to assume that other people are also somewhat reasonable, and not impulsive savages who are prone to violent outbursts at the slightest provocation, I want to assume that these moderate Muslims we speak of are capable of looking dispassionately at the situation and seeing that drawing stick figures en masse is an appropriately light-hearted, mocking response to fanatics physically attacking people, issuing death threats, and burning down houses, aimed at showing solidarity and a refusal to be intimidated, and ultimately incapable of affecting their faith in the slightest way unless they choose to let it. I emphasize “response” because this is not a case of someone deciding to gratuitously pick some group at random and do something deliberately offensive for the simple fun of being a dick. Contrary to what Mom always told you as she forcibly separated you from the sibling you were fighting with, sometimes it does matter who started it.

Going along to get along is a perfectly fine thing to do in many situations. Of course, in others, it’s more important to speak the truth regardless of the consequences and stand for principles no matter how it inconveniences people, and as Isaiah Berlin taught us, sometimes virtues can end up in conflict with each other. The gulf between them wouldn’t seem so vast, though, if people could keep one other thing in mind: being offended really isn’t such a horrible thing. Honestly. Take a deep breath, relax your death grip on your narcissistic self-importance, and remember that if your beliefs and sensitivities have any depth to them at all, they’re not going to be seriously threatened by someone making rude and/or ignorant remarks about them. Sometimes, in fact, offense can be a good way to be jolted into introspection that you might not have been inclined to pursue otherwise. I read writers every day that I don’t necessarily agree with because I still recognize that they’re capable of provoking me into thought that I wouldn’t find in an echo chamber.