Essays

Words and Pictures: A Controversy

One of the author’s yard sale finds (image via the author)

Molly Norris has been told by the FBI that she needs to change her name and go into hiding because of a cartoon she drew making fun of Comedy Central for censoring South Park. I don’t know what to do about it, but I’m not going to respond by making a cartoon ridiculing Muslims. Maybe I’ll ridicule terrorists and their sponsors, but they just don’t listen to me. Back in May, Hrag wrote about Molly Norris and the stir it caused. I see I clicked Like, and its a good article, but I remember being bothered by Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, and not wanting to participate in it.

A picture of a thing is not the thing itself, and the name of a thing is not the thing itself. We all know that, I guess, unless we took a philosophy class that made us question this bit of common sense. Nevertheless, words can hurt, and pictures can also hurt. A long time ago, Lenny Bruce tried to make a point that words shouldn’t have that kind of power, and that a certain racial epithet could be robbed of its power to offend black people, or to be used as a weapon by racists, by repeating it over and over, and using it in satirical comedy. Richard Pryor continued this project in the seventies, but he stopped, because the word does have power to degrade people. I know black people who won’t listen to rap because this word occurs so often, and it hasn’t lost its power to hurt and demean.

Once I got so angry with a manager where I worked, I called her “the c-word.” I don’t know why I wasn’t fired, but I felt bad about it and apologized later. I think I apologized (I’m sorry). I now apologize to the female gender. I understand why I could have been fired, and maybe if the manager in question had filed a sexual harassment complaint to the General Manager I would have been fired, but I guess she didn’t (thank you).

There are some white men who feel that the restrictions on them that prevent them from using certain racist or sexist epithets are unreasonable restrictions on their liberty, but I’m not one of them.

The monotheistic traditions many of us were brought up in prohibit the visual representation of G-d (I wasn’t brought up to refrain from writing “God,” and I don’t know if anyone is offended by my doing so, but I respect those who omit the vowel). In the writings, the holy books, of the monotheistic traditions the deity is represented in words, and the deity speaks, or his/her representative speaks in words, and words are used to prohibit pictorial representation of the same deity. You can talk to Me, or talk about Me, but don’t take my picture. The words were given authority, probably by writers, over pictures.

In Christianity, though, its more complicated, because Christians believe that Jesus is God and, therefore, looks like God. As the Christian cult grew into a major movement and became a state religion pictorial representations of Jesus became common, and even had a certain power. I see shrines with statues representing a person said to be the Mother of God in my neighborhood. I might not be killed by my Catholic neighbors if I defiled a statue or picture of her, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I got beaten up. But why would I want to?

When I first saw Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Godard’s Hail Mary (1985) everyone entering the theater had to be patted down by cops because right wing Catholics had made bomb threats. Still, the publlicity helped at the box office. Chris Ofilli offended the Catholic mayor of New York with his depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary, and Andre Serrano pissed off a lot of Christians with his “Piss Christ” (1987). In our culture, it is possible to get rich by offending religious sensibilities (Christopher Hitchens, for instance, took to writing bestsellers ridiculing the worship of God after he found that no one would buy his books supporting the Gulf War, and he wasn’t about to admit he was wrong about that).

The other big monotheistic religion derived from Abraham forbids, I’m told, the depiction of the Prophet. I don’t know why, or if its true for all of Islam, but maybe its because Mohammed or his followers didn’t want people worshipping his image. I know that making a picture of Mohammed makes many Muslims uncomfortable, makes many Muslims angry, and makes a small minority murderous. I have no desire to offend the Muslims I work with, or live near, or buy milk and bread from, just because I want to prove I can draw anything I want. I want to be a good neighbor in my multicultural neighborhood.

In The Republic, Plato described an ideal society from which poets (and artists) would be banned, or, at least restricted. Plato was most concerned with the way gods were depicted by the poets, particularly by Homer. His argument about art and poetry being a mere distorted imitation of a shadow of reality is meant to show that philosophers have knowledge of absolutes and would be good managers of the ideal society. Artists, however, need to be managed, and Homer would have to get with the program or get out of town. Its another case where words claim authority over images. To us Plato’s utopia is a vision of a totalitarian state, such as one controlled by priests or imams or fundamentalists and ideologues of any kind.

“Molly Norris has been told by the FBI that she needs to change her name and go into hiding… ” Are the FBI up to their old dirty tricks again? What do you do when the authorities tell you something like that? This story about the Mohammed cartoons reappears right after other stories that dominated the NEWS — threats of Qur’an burning, the Park51 controversy, Newt Gingrich’s warning that America is in danger of being ruled by Sharia law, and his endorsement of Dinesh D’Souza’s pernicious nonsense that Obama’s thinking was shaped by Kenyan anti-colonialism. All this when we learn that there are now more poor people in America than ever before, unemployment is higher than ever, Wall Street is still in control of policy, and the 1% who own 99% of the wealth are bitching about getting an extension on their tax cuts. And now all the Grand Old Party who led us into financial collapse and perpetual war can offer is racist provocation and Halloween stories about imams taking over the country and prohibiting you from drawing satirical cartoons.

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