THE POWER OF THE PEN: LET’S USE IT TO DIGNIFY, NOT HUMILIATE
By George Wolfe
The public response to the terrorist attack on the journalists in France illustrates the power of the pen and the futility of violence. While terrorists may be able to kill people, they can’t kill ideas. Ideas, both good and bad, live on in the collective human consciousness.
Ironically, it is repression that gives them new life. As a result of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo January 7, well over 5 million copies of a recent edition of the paper depicting a cartoon image of the prophet Mohammad have been sold, and people around the world have seen the image on the internet.
Those of us living in the United States and in European countries hold as precious the right of freedom of speech, and like academic freedom, it should vehemently be defended. But the question remains: should Charlie Hebdo have published the cartoon images of Mohammed knowing that many Muslims around the world would take offense?
It will help if we consider this question in the context of another artistic controversy.
In 1987, artist and photographer Andres Serrano created a controversial artwork entitled Piss Christ. Serrano photographed a crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine. When exhibited in New York City at the Stux Gallery, the work was initially well received. But two years later it became the center of a scandal.
Conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms were outraged that Serrano had received a total of $20,000 in taxpayer money for the creation of Piss Christ through the National Endowment of the Arts. Other U.S. politicians argued that such government funding violated the separation of church and state.
In a subsequent exhibit in Victoria, Australia, Piss Christ was vandalized and gallery officials received death threats. As recently as 2011, Christian protesters vandalized a print of Piss Christ while on display in Avignon, France at the contemporary art museum known as Collection Lambert.
Andres Serrano, however, did not create Piss Christ with the intent of offending Christians, nor was it a cartoon caricature. And there were prominent Christians who defended the work’s thought provoking artistic message, such as Sister Wendy Beckett, a Roman Catholic Nun.
In a television interview with Bill Moyers, Sister Beckett saw the artwork as making a statement about contemporary society and the way it has come to reject the values Christ represents. The cultural values and the context in which Serrano was working in 1987 were much different than exist in our multicultural milieu of today.
Since 9/11, there has emerged a clash between the secular values of Western culture and the Islamic world. There is clearly a need to build cooperative and collaborative relationships with Muslims living in the United States and Europe. Given the tension that has existed over the past 14 years, it is counterproductive to intentionally print images that will knowingly insult our Muslims neighbors.
Yes, free speech must be vehemently upheld and defended, but in the present historical context, restraint and respect for a religious tradition and its beliefs is by far a more noble position to honor.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus at Ball State University and former Director and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.