Sharia Law: I read it on the internet…, part 3

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I have quite a number of friends who like or repost stories with shouting headlines and containing claims apparently designed to feed fears.  What amounts to fear-mongering propaganda is wrapped in the trappings of legitimate “conservative” news sources.  Unfortunately, most of it, while at some level based in a true story, is so badly blown out of proportion and hyperbolic that it is a dishonest representation.

Now, these purveyors of hysterics and half-truths may or may not be intentionally distorting the reality.  But I suspect there could be a bit of an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality and an idea that their twisted versions of a story represent a greater truth or reality.  I think every journalist does pick and choose what facts are relevant and how they present a story does reveal their personal bias.  However, to me,  there is a level of this that is unintentional or within reason and a level that is inexcusable.

Woman Has Opinion; Sparks Controversy

One of these specters repeatedly raised is that of Sharia law and the suggestion it will be imposed on Americans.  A particular story about a sign advertising bacon in a Vermont town caught my eye today after a friend commented.  Here is the screenshot of my news feed:

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As one could imagine, the response in comments was one of the outrage of thousands of freedom (and bacon) loving Americans who don’t want religion imposed on them.  I realize there is reason to be aware of religious extremism, but what is the reason for this particular furor and do the actual facts support such a dramatic response?  According to the conservativetribune.com story this is the issue:

“Should a restaurant that serves bacon be allowed to display signs and/or advertisements that mention bacon? The U.S. Constitution says that it should, but Muslims in Vermont apparently disagree.”

From that opening paragraph one could assume there is a direct threat to freedom of speech posed by a group of people.  The article goes on to discuss a solitary example of a business owner who took down a sign because “an outraged Muslim woman” complained about it.  There are no further examples given and no evidence that this woman speaks for a plurality of Muslims.

The complaint of one woman does not seem to match the “Muslims in Vermont” description above it and that is quite an over-statement.  What’s the problem?  Well, if one woman can speak for “Muslims in Vermont,” then I suppose Westboro Baptist speaks for Christians in Kansas, right?

Concern for Safety or Fear of Violence?

Anyhow, there’s an article on the Washington Post website that takes a more detailed look and provides the full text of the woman’s complaint.  She describes herself as “a vegan and a member of a Muslim household” then goes on to say the sign is both insensitive to those who don’t eat pork and this:

“Second, it clutters an already dangerous crosswalk. This signage for a business’ food distracts from the purpose of that area: for pedestrians to safely cross and for drivers to safely enter the circle. What is the additive safety factor of this sign being there? I fail to see what benefit it affords people in that intersection and why the city put it up. The only appropriate signage would be standardized official road signs pertaining to the crosswalk and circle.”

I would guess that is why the restaurant owner mentions safety in his response.  However that apparently isn’t as obvious to everyone as it seems to me and leads to this speculation in the conservativetribune.com article about the owners response:

“Notice how he mentioned “safety” concerns. This made it sound as if he feared the Muslims in Winooski would have taken violent action had he not removed the sign”

I cannot fathom how one could make that leap based in the known facts.  It doesn’t “make it sound” as if he feared violence from Muslims to me.  No, it makes it sound as if the restaurant owner read the woman’s letter and was responding to the excerpt of her letter I posted above.  The concern for safety she mentioned was having a business sign creating a distraction.

Right to Free Speech and Threats Thereof

So basically we have a woman with an opinion and a business owner willing to accommodate her preferences.  It hardly seems like a crisis of Constitutional freedom when a woman exercises that her right to express a controversial opinion.  But it does seem a case of journalistic malpractice to make one woman into a representative of Muslims or categorize her as an “acolyte of Shariah law” because she expressed a concern. 

The real threat to liberty is those who abuse it.  I am more concerned over reckless surmises and the feeding of irrational fears than I am of one woman exercising her freedom of speech.  Her opinion, while I disagreed with it, was reasonably explained and it is her right to express it.  The response was a distortion at best, slanderous at worse and one of many similar stories.

Unfortunately I cannot respond to every internet hoax or propaganda piece and even if I did the chances of my words reaching through the mess and changing minds already made up seems slim.  Still I do try to make a difference.

I am [not] Charlie

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I believe in freedom of speech.  Truth can offend and for a right cause we should be bold in speech regardless of consequences. But I do not believe that deliberately causing offense is anything great or special. Insulting another man’s mother is legal and perhaps even a brave thing to do.  However, legal and brave doesn’t make something righteous, honorable, peaceable, justified or moral.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  (Romans 12:17-18)

Our society may celebrate the insults of cartoonists or comedians and our freedom of speech. Yet our respective cultures shelter many popular ideas from critical thought.  Sure, one can poke fun at religion in the west and be quite popular, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own untouchables.

The biggest threat to freedom of speech is likely not radical religious men with Kalashnikov rifles. What happened in Paris does not frighten me personally and doesn’t negatively influence what I say or do. I don’t fear being literally murdered for what I say here.  Still, there are many truthful things I hesitate to say for fear of risking my popularity or public standing. Unchallenged popular opinion is probably more dangerous to intellectual discourse than anything else.

Free expression of thought is challenged in many ways besides threats of physical violence. There are far subtler ways to kill dissent like popular taboos. Then there are those who effectively bully others into silence with their loud protests and demands for political correctness. Killing the messenger can be accomplished without guns and bullets. Ridicule can be used very effectively to bully those with unpopular opinions into silence.

People collectively wield far more power to enforce intolerance and ignorance by shaming divergent thinking than a small number of radicals. Threats of character assassination and popular criticism or public ridicule are just as effective a means for curtailing free speech as death threats. The pen and protest can be used to suppress ideas just like a terrorist’s gun.

“The pen is mightier than the sword”

What we create with our pen does give us power and it is a power for both good and evil. Speech is a weapon. Speech can be used aggressively and destructively to hurt people. We can use our communication as a tool to build bridges between people and to defend the weak or we can use it to carelessly destroy the things other people care about.  Our freedoms should be used responsibly.

I write to provoke thought, but not to be a provocateur.  I question if the staff of Charlie Hebdo should be treated as martyrs for free speech for their intentionally offending and disrespectful artwork. The true protectors of freedom were two men who died outside defending the right of the cartoonists. I would rather say “je suis Ahmed” or “je suis Franck” rather than honor insult artists.

There are many hypersensitivity and unreasonable people around the world and I know I cannot please them all. My goal is to not unnecessarily offend, to leave vengeance for insults to God and be Jesus. Je suis Jésus.