Hate speech and media “savages”

The view of the incident from a “neutral” witness

The view of the incident from the ad’s defenders (Note: if you are viewing this from inside Facebook’s iPad app, you get a video about the Annual Muslim Day Parade–very strange. Here’s the link to the correct video if this happens to you)

Savage: From Old French sauvage, salvage (“wild, savage, untamed”), from Late Latin salvaticus, alteration of Latin silvaticus (“wild”; literally, “of the woods”), from silva (“forest”, “grove”).

By now you’ve probably heard about the NYC subway ad sponsored by the hypocritically named, American Freedom Defense Initiative, which reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat jihad.”* Aside from the neocolonial rhetoric of the poster’s language (notice that civilized people get the status of “man,” whereas “savages” are not even humans), it should be obvious that the way to defend freedom is not to insult other people with hate speech. The blogger behind the ad campaign, Pamela Geller, called one protestor who opposed the poster a “savage anti-Semite” and “Islamic supremacist.”

The vitriol was directed at writer and pundit Mona Eltahawy, who recently defaced the controversial subway ad as an act of civil disobedience. In a level-headed analysis of the incident, dana boyd believes that since Eltahawy was damaging property, the incident did not constitute civil disobedience. I disagree. Civil disobedience happens when you violate a law that is immoral. In this case, free speech is certainly a moral prerogative, but hate speech is not. While I would not ultimately ban Geller’s speech act, the MTA (which runs NYC’s metros) does have a responsibility to respect the public good. To its credit, the MTA opposed running the ad, but were forced to by a court ruling. As a steward of public space, I would not permit the ad to run. If they want to post it on a blog somewhere, by all means they can be as offensive as they want in their little reality bubble.

Here’s the thing, why is legal advertising not vandalism of public space? The legal protection of advertising obscures the fact that those with financing have greater speech rights than those who can’t afford to have their views represented. Moreover, when its advertising revenue that pays for our “free” media system, those media organizations that should be beholden to the public good are not. The public is not there client. The public’s concerns are important to the extant that media organizations don’t violate social norms that can spurn boycotts and outrage. Beyond that, advertisers have far too much power to position their views in the public sphere.

I believe Eltahawy’s response was appropriate on other grounds. One way to approach the ethics of speech acts is to clarify the distinction between communication as property and communication as a disturbance. Geller views her speech as a kind of truth that once it’s codified in writing or visual media it no longer belongs to the ethers of discussion and debate. It is a tautological statement claiming fact. But like national monuments in city plazas, public displays become “boundary objects” that function within ecosystems of cultures and social practices. As a globalized city, NYC is not the kind of place where such media exist in a vacuum. It immediately enters into the city’s raw feedback system. In ecological terms, the poster becomes a “disturbance” that reverberates through the system of ideas.

It’s disingenuous of Geller to call this ad an act of defense. It is a provocation, in the same way the cartoon of Mohammed depicting his head as a bomb in a Danish newspaper in 2005 was designed to spark outrage. The rationale of the Danish paper at the time was to defend the “Western” principle of free speech against the perceived threat of Islamists in Europe. But in an environment of ethical communication practices, people can’t launch blaspheme grenades and hope to walk away without getting hit by shrapnel. If people are so afraid of an impending invasion of intolerance, why fight fire with fire? Try water for once. Instead of drone strikes, drop water balloons. It confuses the so-called enemy.

Both the creation of the ad and the response are media stunts. As result, I’m afraid that Pamela Geller is getting far too much attention from this. The downside is that politics are reduced to theater, where media events matter more than dialog. However, given the open nature of the internet, such media stunts are far more likely to generate discussion than in the old days when we relied on just a few filters to understand the world. Imagine if the incident was completely mediated through the eyes of the New York Post (who broke the story and ran the Eltahawy video). Thankfully the incident has resulted in greater debate than the initial speech act (the poster) intended, allowing us to sort out who the real savages are.

Postscript: To add to the drama, Pamela Hall, who is seen defending the poster in the video (and shot the second one), is intending to sue Eltahawy.

* Here is their mission statement: “The AMERICAN FREEDOM DEFENSE INITIATIVE (AFDI) is a human rights organization dedicated to human rights, the rule of law, the dignity of the human person, free speech, the free conscience, and equality of rights for all. There is no incitement to violence in our work.” OK, you be the judge.

  • This part is critical: “The legal protection of advertising obscures the fact that those with financing have greater speech rights than those who can’t afford to have their views represented.”

    The simple-minded treatment of “speech” obscures that fact that two different rights will often bump into one another. In this case, it’s the right to “free speech” — the ability to express yourself without fear of coercive reprisal — running up against “property rights,” which protect the Pamela Gellar ads in this case because she paid for the rights to the ad space, which also constitutes protection from vandalism. We can generally assume that in this society, property rights wins.

    Why? Because property rights are so powerful in Western capitalism, they override practically all other rights, when it comes down to it. Want to lose your right to survival and protection of the law? Just trespass on someone’s property, and they suddenly have the right to kill you. Want to lose your right to free speech? Just speak out in such a way that it threatens someone else’s personal property.

  • Antonio

    Jesse, I appreciate your comment and for hashing out a bit further this issue of property rights and speech. It’s something that people need to think about more deeply. Where I grew up there was lots of gang graffiti that the city was always painting over. I could never understand why they didn’t paint over ads.