A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my job on campus, doing homework between calls, when my own phone vibrated. As I read the news alert that had flashed onto my screen, in the style of every clichĂ© ever, my heart sank to my knees and then some. As Iâ€™ve started doing whenever I receive an alert, I immediately switched over to my Twitter app.
The alert I had received was about a shooting at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, in which two men had opened fire on a â€śMuhammad Art Exhibit & Contest,â€ť and shot one security guard in the leg, before being shot and killed themselves by area police. The social media universeâ€™s reaction to the shooting was swift and brutal, with right-wing conservatives hailing Geller and clamoring for the expulsion and/or execution of all American Muslims with their own 140 character bullets. They called the shootersâ€™ failure to wreak havoc and cause any lasting physical harm to the contest attendees a blow to Islamists, and a victory for free-speech activists everywhere (just check out the #garlandshooting on Twitter, which is spewing hatred even now, more than a month after the attacksâ€“or donâ€™t, if youâ€™d rather not be sick to your stomach).
As both a university student and writer, I recognize the values of the freedom of speech. After all, freedom of speech is what allows my political science class to have so many lively discussions, is what allows us to write ReadCONTRA, and what has allowed not only my problematic fave Northwestern but several other schools around the country to pass resolutions calling for divestment from corporations perpetuating the occupation of Palestineâ€”similar to those that helped contribute to the end of apartheid South Africaâ€”earlier this year. But I also recognize the limits of free speech.
Because itâ€™s true: Freedom of speech is not as universal as we claim it is. It should go without saying that just because you have the right to say whatever you want, it doesnâ€™t mean that you should. The First Amendment does only protect your right to say stupid, racist, or otherwise inflammatory comments; it does not protect you from the repercussions of your stupid, racist, or otherwise inflammatory commentsâ€“â€śsatiricalâ€ť or not.
In that vein, itâ€™s worth noting that Gellerâ€™s event cannot possibly be mistaken for just satire; after all, even Donald Trump denounced the contest, which had originally been organized by Gellerâ€™s American Freedom Defense Initiativeâ€“a group the Southern Poverty Law Center currently classifies as a hate groupâ€“as a response to an anti-Islamophobia event held at the same location earlier this year. There are, however, a number of equally offensive drawings and publications that do hide under the cloak of humor.
But as I wrote earlier this year in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and in response to the premiere of American Sniper, just before the execution-style triple murder of Deah Barakat and Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha, thereâ€™s a difference between just â€śpoking funâ€ť or being satirical, and being flat-out offensive and hateful. â€śSatireâ€ť that demeans the marginalized isnâ€™t satireâ€“itâ€™s targeted, intimidating, and dehumanizing hate speech, and we not only support but readily applaud it. So why donâ€™t we as readily say the KKK is just playing dress-up?
Because that would be ridiculous and outrageously dumb. Especially in light of events like the recent senseless terrorist attack in Charleston.
We canâ€™t cherry-pick what kind of hatred we allow with freedom of speech, and we canâ€™t hate in the name of humor. People like Pamela Geller will always claim that hate-filled actions speak louder than her mere speech. But when her hateful words incite those violent actions, itâ€™s clear that the two have equal power. Itâ€™s a chicken-and-egg scenario. So hate on â€śpolitical correctnessâ€ť all you want, but recognize that pointsâ€”however true they may beâ€”lose validity with insensitivity.
As for Gellerâ€™s event, I, too, am alarmed by the violent reaction it elicited, and as decent, rational people, it should be automatically assumed that Muslims condemn the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and any and all of the other attacks that have occurred in the name of a warped and twisted version of a beautiful religion that has been hijacked by terrorists. Nobody asks Christians to condemn the KKK, slavery, colonization, or the Crusades, because itâ€™s already assumed that those are just terrible things that no person could stand by. So Iâ€™m also not going to waste my time and Iâ€™m going to assume that the same benefit of the doubt is being extended to me.
But Iâ€™m tired. I am 18 feeling 80. I am tired, and bitter, and terrified by the hatred of Pamela Geller and her contemporaries, who have made it their mission to make me feel unwelcome in my own country. I sometimes wonder, when these people say things like â€śI do not believe in the idea of a moderate Islam,â€ť that â€śMuslims are engaged in stealth cultural jihad by wearing their headscarves at Disneylandâ€ťâ€“do they know who their words are actually hurting? When they call for the profiling of Muslims at airports, when they urge surveillance of mosques, when they demand the end of immigration of Muslims to countries that have non-Muslim majoritiesâ€“do they know they are targeting my family? When they say â€śthe war is hereâ€ťâ€“do they realize they are waging war on teenagers like me, who spent all of high school writing speeches for a contest promoting and defending the same Constitution that gives Geller the right to hate me and whose closest friends come from programs organized by the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary?
No. Because as with both those who hate blindly as well as any shooter, what predator feels the need to get to know its prey?
So hey, Ms. Geller? The First Amendment protects freedom of speech. But it also protects my right to practice my peaceful religion in this country I was born in.
(Title image via).