NPR’s Ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, signed off last week — making way for a new ombudswoman — and he headed for the exit after penning what I view as an essay so misguided and ill-considered that it demands some argument.
In a piece titled “Last Thoughts,” Schumacher-Matos defended NPR’s decision not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Those are the hugely controversial illustrations lampooning the Muslim prophet Muhammad, blamed by extremists for their decision to go on a deadly rampage in Paris.
It’s fair enough to agree with NPR’s decision. I actually disagree with it on a variety of levels (more on that in a moment), but it’s a reasonable conclusion to reach, and a view shared by many editors and publishers in the US and Europe.
So where did Schumacher-Matos’ essay go wildly off the rails?
Journalism in defense of the established order
Schumacher-Matos argues that news organizations must somehow balance free speech and expression and their mission to inform their audiences with a very different “social and constitutional demand.” In his view, part of our job as reporters is to accept “control of hate speech in the interests of social cohesion, without which the very idea of a nation is impossible.”
In other words, watch what you say, don’t stir the pot too strenuously or the wheels might just come off the whole enterprise of society. And the government, based on the views and convictions of religious leaders, should be allowed to serve as the arbiter, determining which speech is protected and what parts are “hate.”
Schumacher-Matos then offers dire examples of places where people live in powder kegs. The implication? That journalists and artists could be the ones to irresponsibly light the fuse and blow that social cohesion all to hell. “Look at the sectarian bloodbath that is the Middle East. Or look at the tensions in China, Myanmar, Ukraine, Nigeria, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Nothing guarantees that different peoples can live together, or that nations will remain as we know them.”
I can’t help but think that all of those places would be helped by more free speech and more art and more biting humor, not less. Their regimes, whether propped up by religious cant or jingoistic populism, desperately need a Charlie Hebdo courageous enough to mock and heap scorn and ask the kind of questions that make you blink.
Is the Daily Show hate speech? How about Bill Maher?
But Schumacher-Matos goes in the opposite direction. He drills down and argues for remarkably sweeping powers of government-backed religious censorship. It’s an astonishing argument for anyone associated with NPR to make. “I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution, but I know—hope?—that most Americans would.”
Why exactly would most Americans agree with such a broad curtailment of liberty and expression — so broad that it actually labels art and satire as hate? Schumacher-Matos doesn’t say. Instead, he writes this: “It is one thing to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world; it is quite another to make fun, in often nasty ways, of their prophets and gods.”
But again, why? Why is it different to lampoon a pope (considered a divine representative of God by many Roman Catholics) compared with sarcasm directed at a God? Schumacher-Matos doesn’t say. Why can you mock a rabbi but not a prophet? What if the rabbi’s followers think he’s the Chosen One? And once you accept this whole dizzying premise, where would anyone draw the line? And who should have the power to make the call?
Let’s take Schumacher-Matos at his word and think for a moment about the cultural products that would almost certainly be counted as hate speech using his standards. “The Book of Mormon” now on Broadway? Hate speech. “The God Delusion,” a bestseller written by Richard Dawkins, one of our era’s leading public intellectuals? Hate speech.
Almost any broadcast by Bill Maher that touches on God? Hate speech. At least half the episodes of “Family Guy” ever broadcast? Hate speech. “Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie? Hate speech.
One of the fundamental writs of Christian doctrine is that one should never, ever take the Lord’s name in vain. It literally doesn’t get any more basic. I mean it’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Should we view the mocking or profane use of “God” or “Jesus Christ” as hate speech?
Throwing out a 200 year tradition of expression
If Schumacher-Matos’ argument fails to pass this superficial test of common sense, he also fails to grapple with one of the fundamental reasons that free speech was given the highest possible protection in America. The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution weren’t atheists or anti-religious. But they were specifically and deliberately working to limit the power of religious dogma, which had frozen and stifled open discourse in Europe for centuries.
They were working to turn the page on an era where religious leader around the world regularly used the power of government to burn books, destroy printing presses, imprison and execute writers and scientists and philosophers who expressed critical opinions about faith. In Britain, Protestants and Catholics had just spent decades setting each other on fire over words spoken and published.
The solution, as our Founders understood, wasn’t silence or cribbed arguments about hate speech and social disorder. The solution certainly wasn’t censorship. The answer was to make it clear that free people possess the liberty to express ideas, even unpopular ideas, and ones that challenge the most fervently-held religious beliefs.
Why the cartoons should have been published
Again, it’s fine for newspapers or public radio networks to decide voluntarily to suppress certain information or ideas or images, though in this case I happen to disagree passionately. Many of the images which have sparked outrage among some Muslims (not all) and some politically correct pundits are beautiful and culturally interesting and wonderfully provocative. Click here to view them.
They fit into the long tradition of activist cartooning, which includes amazing artists from across the political and cultural spectrum, who’ve worked in Europe and the US for centuries.
Consider Thomas Nast, one of the great illustrators in our American tradition. In the 1800s, he often created starkly religious images that were hugely controversial. Should Nast’s drawings have been banned because they offended people’s sensibilities? How about R. Crumb’s cartoon sketch showing the Prophet Muhammed’s buttocks? Is that hate speech? What about Banksy’s “Consumer Christ?” Is he a hater, too?
In short, I wish NPR had published these images and discussed them openly and helped audiences see them and think about them (and yes, even be angry about them) in a more complex way. Instead, Schumacher-Matos embraced the idea that silence and censorship and shallowly-considered ideas about “social cohesion” will lead us to a higher ground.
He’s wrong. It’s simply not reasonable to suggest that sarcasm, satire, agitprop, and political cartooning are to blame for violence and brutality in the world. On the contrary. From Voltaire to Twain to Charlie Hebdo to the Daily Show, it is the voices that mock and lampoon and poke fun that often open the way to the greatest reforms and liberations of the mind.